Names “Epicene” and Otherwise

By Maeve Maddox

Until very recently, the only context I knew for the word “epicene” was a T. S. Eliot poem:

Along the garden-wall the bees

With hairy bellies pass between

The staminate and pistilate,

Blest office of the epicene.
—T.S. Eliot’s Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service

I thought the word was just one of Eliot’s intriguing but impractically arcane terms until I came across it in a mainstream context: a Wikipedia article about naming practices:

A unisex name, also known as an epicene name, is a given name that is often given to either a boy or a girl.

Cody, Cory, Jodan, and Morgan are “epicene” names.

Epicene entered English around 1450 as a grammatical term for nouns that can denote either masculine or feminine gender. An example in English would be “horse,” as contrasted with gender-specific “stallion” or “mare.”

The meaning expanded to mean “characteristic of both sexes (1601). It is sometimes used with the meaning of “effeminate.”

It would seem that naming one’s child would be a choice left to parents, but some countries have or had until recently, laws to limit names to an approved list.

France had such a law until 1992 and that country’s current naming laws make it difficult for people to change a given name once they have it. Since banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves at school, French authorities find themselves having to deal with a surge in requests from young people with North African roots to change European names like Nadine and Jacques to names like Zoubida and Abdel. French authorities see these requests as a rejection of French culture.

Germany requires parents to give children a gender-specific name. If the child has two given names, one may be gender-neutral, but the other must be gender-specific. A girl may not be given a boy’s name, and vice versa. The only exception is the name “Maria” which may be used with boys, ex. Rainer Maria Rilke. The name must not be a product name, the name of an object, or any other name perceived as absurd or degrading.

In September 2007 Venezuelan lawmakers were considering a law to limit parents to an approved list of 100 or so government-chosen names. Exceptions would be made for Venezuelan Indians and foreigners. Of particular concern was the banning of names that “generate doubt about the bearer’s gender.”

New Zealand has a law that bans names that “may cause offence or lead to bullying,” but it doesn’t seem to be too stringently enforced. One child got to be eleven years old before a judge stepped in and changed her name. Her parents had named her “Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii” (ABA Journal). The law did prevent another New Zealand couple from naming their baby “4real.”

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4 Responses to “Names “Epicene” and Otherwise”

  • Cine Cynic

    Very interesting, Maeve.

    I didn’t know until this moment that there are people with IM names like “4real”. I didn’t even know that there are names with numeric characters in them, but for the Roman Oliver Barrett IIIs.

  • Maestro

    Fascinating! I like the word epicene (which my spellcheck is rejecting). Hopefully with a rise in more creative names this word will make a comeback.

  • kadisha

    i want to find out what is the meaning of these to words;Pistilate and Staminate.

  • Maeve

    Kadisha,
    Staminate and pistillate are adjective forms of stamen and pistil, which are botanical terms.

    A stamen is the pollen-producing reproductive organ of a flower, usually consisting of a filament and an anther.

    The pistil is the female, ovule-bearing organ of a flower, including the stigma, style, and ovary.

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