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A Japanese person was asking how to tell the gender of someone based on their name. Someone else claimed that if it ends in "a", it's usually female, and if it ends in "o", it's usually male. How reliable is this rule? I suspect it's only true of names derived from Italian, but I could be wrong.

Assume that the names are of people of European descent in western countries such as America, Britain or Australia.

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    Look it up! Sometimes you can't tell (Alex might be Alexandra, Sam might be Samantha), so if it's relevant and you need or want to know, ask! – snailcar Mar 20 '13 at 12:56
  • To add to what @snailplane said, a name like Robin could be a female name, or a male name. In the USA, it seems it is used more as a female name. – kiamlaluno Mar 20 '13 at 13:07
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    Not reliable at all. My husband’s name ends with an ‘a’. – EnglishLearner Mar 20 '13 at 13:52
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    It's not reliable in Japanese, either. There are clear male and female names, and there are unisex names. – Kaz Mar 20 '13 at 16:56
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Short answer: you can't. There is no reliable rule that will cover all the various languages and exceptions and parents who name their daughter Maxwell and their son Andrea.

Longer answer:

The bad news is, the -a vs. -o ending rule has so many exceptions that it's useless. Bella is female, but Bela (well, technically Béla) is male; Andrea is male in Italy but female elsewhere; Luca is male in Serbia but female in Hungary; Consuelo is female; etc.

The good news is, there are some tools you can use.

  • Some European countries publish lists of names that can be registered on birth certificates. Most of those lists are gender-specific, as in parents are not allowed to choose a masculine name for their daughter or vice-versa. Thus, if you know what country a person is from, you can look up their lists of registerable names and figure out the person's gender.
  • An image search can sometimes be useful: plug in the given name and check if the pictures that come up are mostly men or mostly women.
  • There are baby-name sites (or books) and gender-guesser websites that will give a gender for given names. Make sure to check a couple of different sites, though, because some of them can be very wrong.

However, the bottom line is that even after all your best efforts and web searches, you simply will not be 100% correct, because Parents Are Crazy. And they're increasingly getting crazier - in the US, even traditional masculine mainstays like Charlie are starting to skew female. So the only foolproof method to determine a person's gender is to ask.

  • Indeed, even in countries which regulate names, the answer is not always definitive. An Icelandic girl named after a character in a famous Icelandic novel was denied her name because it takes a masculine article. It was not resolved until earlier this year. cbc.ca/news/world/story/2013/01/03/iceland-name-fight.html bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-21280101 – choster Mar 20 '13 at 18:05
  • @choster: At least in Iceland, you can usually tell by their surname. – hammar Mar 20 '13 at 23:08
  • @hammar wauw, that's crazy :-). Wouldn't that mean that a lot of people end up with the same name? I mean, there must be a lot of jons that have a father named charles for example? – woony Mar 21 '13 at 12:42
  • @woony: in practice, it doesn't matter how many other people have the same name. What matters is how many people in your social circle have the same name, and that (1) tends to be a lot fewer people, hence fewer duplicates; and (2) there are easy distinguishing methods you can use, as the wikipedia article says, such as using the parent's middle name instead of/in addition to the first name, or adding grandparental patronymics, or whatever. Think of it this way: there are still people with the last name Smith who name their sons John. – Martha Mar 21 '13 at 13:48
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    It is not a new phenomenon that some male names tend to turn female over time (it is hard to think of any example in the opposite direction). Evelyn Waugh was a man and Vivian was once a male name, but now both are popular female baby names in the US. Likewise for Beverly, although that one is so old that it has fallen off the charts for girls too. – ghostarbeiter Mar 15 '16 at 17:47
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There's no infallible way of divining someone's gender from their name. I once knew a woman named "Robert", not "Roberta". Evelyn Waugh, a British novelist, was a man. Bela Lugosi was a male actor. I'm sure others can come up with far more names like this than I can.

There are many "unisex" or "androgynous" names shared by males and females alike in the Western world. Same goes for Chinese and even Japanese names. It's often possible to determine gender from a person's given name, but not always.

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    You missed George Eliot – mcalex Mar 20 '13 at 12:54
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    Was a pseudonym for "Mary Anne (alternatively Mary Ann or Marian) Evans". Her intention was to hide her gender. – user264 Mar 20 '13 at 13:10
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    I suppose this pseudo-rule is mostly true for names in Italian or maybe even Spanish; however, in Italy Andrea is a masculine name (although a few female Andrea may be found) and other names ending in -a are masculine too (see for example Elia and Leonida, which in English would have a final -s), whereas such names as Consuelo, of clear Spanish descent but used in Italy too, are feminine. – Paola Mar 20 '13 at 13:49
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    Note that Béla (and Géza) are exclusively male names in Hungary, so Bela Lugosi is not really in the same category as a woman named Robert. And when Mr. Waugh was named, Evelyn was a masculine name. – Martha Mar 20 '13 at 16:28
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If the name begins with "Mr" it's a male, if it begins with "Ms", "Mrs" or "Miss" it's a female.

  • What if someone is not using Mr. or Ms. when speaking about another person? Eg, "Please talk to Chris in HR." It’s not clear here if Chris is a male or female. – EnglishLearner Mar 20 '13 at 18:14
  • @EnglishLearner, that is why I said "if". In other cases it is not possible to predict the sex of a person from their name. ps Also sometimes a name which is usually a first name can be a surname. Eg. "Quentin" could be "John Quentin" or "Quentin John" – QuentinUK Mar 20 '13 at 18:28
  • sorry my bad. I missed your if. – EnglishLearner Mar 20 '13 at 19:03
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It's tricky. In my opinion, we can't predict gender based on names alone, as the same names can be named for both genders at times. There are so many names that can be named for both genders.

On many occasions, it's not possible to determine gender based on name alone.

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In addition to the answers already posted, there is an extra spanner in the works. Even if names were unambiguously male or female, and had an easy, infallible way to determine which was which, there is still ambiguity.

If their name is the name they were given when they were born, it would only represent the gender that a person seemed to be at the time they were named. With gender being the mental identity of a person, it doesn't have to match their physical sex. Therefore, a person who identifies as female could have a name like "Bruce".

Throw in the possibility of people legally changing their name and/or physical sex, and there is really no way it can be relied on for identifying the physical sex of a person.

This must be true for any language; not just English.

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There are many exceptions. Many names are used by both genders. Here is a list of male names and a list of female names.

The -o and -a rule is generally accurate. From these lists you can see there are few, if any, male names ending in -a, while there are quite a few ending in o, and vice versa for the women. This will not always be the case.

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