While looking at names of American Presidents I noticed that English men’s names almost always stress the first syllable. Barack Obama is unusual in that he’s only the second President (after Ulysses Grant) whose name does not have a stress on the first syllable. I then looked at all the Vice Presidents, and it’s the same – every one of them has a first-syllable stressed name.

Looking at first ladies’ names the story is different. Taking the search away from Presidents and just looking at first names in general, what I found was that there’s an overall trend that while women’s names may be stressed on either the first or second syllables with about equal frequency, men’s names are almost universally stressed on the first.

This is not the case in every language, or even in just in western languages. Take a name like “Louis”. Pronounced in French, the word is stressed on the second syllable, but the same name in English is stressed on the first, and there are countless examples of this if you compare English names to French, Spanish, Italian, etc. It may be a trend with Germanic languages. German men’s names tend to stress the first syllable as well.

My question is – why? Where does this trend come from? Has it always been this way? Is there some reason why only men’s names have this common trend and not women’s?

  • Of the 81 multi-syllable boys names among the top 100 names (according to the Social Security Administration), only Jose (#57) and Eugene (#83) have the stress on other than the first syllable.
    – bib
    Jan 11, 2014 at 16:21
  • Any stats on girls names? Any stats on other languages?
    – Mitch
    Jan 11, 2014 at 16:47
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    In BrE, Barack, Ulysses, Jose and Eugene are all stressed on the first syllable (Ulysses has its secondary stress on the last). Of the list I found, only Josiah, Emmanuel and Dakota have the stress on the second syllable, and those are arguably of foreign origin anyway. Should the question have an [american-english] tag?
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 11, 2014 at 17:38
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    Jose I wouldn't count because it's really a Spanish name that's borrowed in English. I'd suspect that most people with that name are Hispanic. Actually, the same applies to "Barack" - it's not really an English name, though I've met one other person with that name, but with a very different ethnic background from Obama's. (Ethnically Jewish, though several generations American). Jan 11, 2014 at 17:46
  • German nouns strongly tend to stress the first syllable (excepting nouns with prefixes). Are German names any more likely to? I wouldn't think so, but I don't really know. I believe the same thing was true of Old English nouns. Maybe that's where this trend comes from … in Middle English, maybe women's names were more likely to be foreign, and so not have first-syllable stress. Jan 11, 2014 at 17:50

1 Answer 1


I think it simply follows from the natural stress patterns of the English language. See here. Two syllable nouns generally have the stress on the first syllable. Many 3 syllable nouns also do. Words that depart from the natural stress patterns tend to be words borrowed from other languages, and there is a tendency for them to eventually get coerced into the native pattern if they are in the language long enough.

There might be something of interest to explore if female names are more likely to depart from that pattern--there may be a greater tendency to want to use foreign names or foreign pronunciations with female names, having to do with cultural notions of masculinity and feminimity (e.g. good Saxon words considered to sound manly, vs fancy French words).

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    There may be something to unstressed first syllables sounding more "poetic". For example, most of Shakespeare (and contemporaries) is written in iambic meter, which stresses the 2nd syllable. Jan 11, 2014 at 20:48
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    Your link is completely wrong about where the stress goes for a number of the examples it gives. For example conTAINer, exAMPle, CAPital and not (as it says) CONtainer, EXample, caPItal. Jan 12, 2014 at 2:55
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    @PeterShor I know there are differences between UK English and US English in this respect - e.g. UK "GARage" vs. US "garAGE". But I agree that I think those examples are wrong either way. It looks like a case of someone trying to enforce hard-and-fast rules on the language where in reality every such rule seems to have many exceptions in English. Jan 12, 2014 at 16:41
  • @PeterShor Sorry, I should I have vetted that article more carefully. (That CONtainer example is even under a rule having to do with words ending in 'y'!) However I stand by my claims for most 2 syllable nouns being stressed on the first, syllable, and a majority of 3 syllable nouns. When I have time I'll try to find a better source.
    – EricS
    Jan 12, 2014 at 19:01
  • @Darrel Hoffman Funny I was thinking about that very example. There is definitely a modern trend to want to pronounce foreign words with the foreign pronunciation (even going so far as to un-digest words which had become commonly anglicized. For example I've observed many people pronouncing anise with a french inflection). I think this impulse is stronger (or started earlier) in American English than in British English (hence the anglicized British pronunciation of "garage", and the American pronunciation keeping the French stress).
    – EricS
    Jan 12, 2014 at 19:06

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