Feminine -O Names: The Hidden Trend
English is not a gendered language. We don't divide words into male and female, and no letter at the end of a word points to a sex. That holds true even among classic English baby names: Robert and Margaret, Thomas and Agnes, John and Ann.
Yet the -o and -a endings of other naming traditions have taken root, deeply. Take a look at the historical sex distribution in the U.S. of names ending in -a:
Surprisingly, the rise of androgynous naming hasn't changed this -a vs. -o divide. In fact, the male -o dominance in the United States has only gotten stronger over time. Compare a century ago vs. today:
A major factor in the -o distribution has been the rise of Spanish names, which tend to feature gender-specific endings. (In 1912, the two most common -o names in the U.S. were Leo and Otto. Today, they're Diego and Antonio.) Even beyond Spanish names, though, -o names have remained a tough sell for girls. The names Chloe and Cleo, for instance, offer the exact same set fashionable sounds in different orders. Chloe outpaces the feminine -o name Cleo by a factor of 30 to 1.
But there's more than one way to spell "o."
What about good old Joe? Or Roscoe, or Woodrow? These names end in the -o sound, but not the letter. Back in 1912, that didn't much matter; the whole category was masculine. Today, it's a very different story:
This dramatic change has happened mostly in the past decade. Willow, Shiloh, Meadow and Harlow are now hits for girls. Monroe has flipped from the boys' column to the girls', and Marlowe is poised to overtake the more familiar Marlo. Spelling and sound have diverged.
I think this trend highlights the boundaries of the modern movement toward androgynous names. The male history of -o names gives them a fresh sound for girls, and parents crave freshness. The echoes of masculinity also lend the names an appealing edge. But what most parents want is just the echo: a glimpse of the gender line, without crossing it. The target is the gray zone, rather than a flip from pink to blue. Balancing spelling against sound is one way to stay in that zone.
Postscript: Thanks to an astute reader comment, I realize I've actually undercounted this phenomenon by missing some significant "stealth o endings," including -ot as in Margot. Margot vs. Margo is a great illustration of how, in the past decade, spelling has driven the popularity of the "stealth o" names: