Jacques and Diane

July 8, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

A little data ’bout Jacques and Diane
Two French kids taking the college entrance exam.
Over in France it’s known as
le bac
Diane often gets
très bien, not so much Jacques.


The baccalauréat exam taken by French students at the end of high school serves as qualification for university admissions and scholarships and for certain jobs. Those who pass at the highest level get très bien. The other levels are bièn, assez bièn, pass, and not pass. For some reason, the government publishes the results for each prénom. This year, 89 students named Jacques took the exam.  Of these, 75 passed, but only 11 of them at the très bien level.

Here are the results for the names with the highest percent of très bien. (Only names with 100 or more are included. Sixty-seven percent of those named Pavel, Louis-Raphael, and Hans got très bien, but there were only three of each.)

(Click on an image for a slightly larger view.)

And here are the names with the lowest proportion of très biens. 

All the high-scoring names are female. At the bottom, the gender distribution is more even. What you can’t see from this is that these results are remarkably similar to those of previous years. French sociologist Baptiste Coulmont has posted interactive name-cloud graphs for the data each year (here) – no doubt the graph for this year will be up soon. Below is a non-interactive screenshot of the 2015 results. The x-axis is the percent of très biens, the y-axis the number of students with each name (names with fewer than 200 candidats were excluded). You can find Diane and many of her high-scoring peers from 2016 on the right; Bryan, Tiffany, and the other slower students are on the left.

(For a slightly larger view, click on the image. Better yet, go to Coulmont's Website)

The year-to-year consistency is striking. In 2016, Diane was fourth highest in percent of très biens. Last year, she was #2, and in the years before that, #13, #2, and #9. Alice, Josephine, and Clotilde, were also in the top ten last year. At the other end, Jordan, Dylan, Bryan, Anissa, Anthony, and Steven all scored in the lowest ranks this year and last. And to state the obvious,  the 584 (of 601) Dylans who scored below très bien this year cannot be the same Dylans as the 956 (of 982) who did so last year.

Social class has much to do with it. The children of the wealthy get educational advantages. They also get different names. Coulmont identifies some upscale names too infrequent to appear in his graphs but which typically  have high rates of très bien – Guillemette, Quitterie, Anne-Claire, Sibylle, Marguerite, Domitille. I confess that I am not familiar with the class subtleties of French names. I didn’t even know that Quitterie and Domitille were, in fact, names. And then there were those names familiar to my American ear –Kevin, Cindy, Sandra, Alison, Kelly, in addition to those already mentioned. Why are all the Anglo-name kids sitting in the low end of the scale?

One explanation is that these names are chosen by parents who watch American soap operas on French TV, parents not likely to be found in Bottin Mondain (roughly parallel to the Social Register). Possibly. But that doesn’t explain Kevin, a name that has not appeared on any soap. Maybe Anglo names just have a middlebrow appeal in the same way that French imports like Michelle and Nicole came to enjoy great popularity in the US.

If only we had a breakdown by name of SAT scores, would it show any consistent patterns?.

5 comments:

trrish said...

You had me at "A little data ’bout Jacques and Diane" :-)

Max said...

I also believe they are not allowed to publish statistics by race or ethnicity, and first names is a way of circumventing this. "Yassin" and "Fatima", for instance, are probably maghrébin, whereas "Clotilde" and most of the other names at the top are white.

Jay Livingston said...

Max, I think that the candidat must give permission to allow son prénom to be used even in these otherwise anonymous aggregate statistics. Anonymity disappears as the n gets smaller. If you know a 2016 candidat named Newton or Max-Tobias, Scheherezade, Samaa, or Lisette, I can assure you that they got bièn as they were the only one with that name.

Jay Livingston said...

Trrish, thanks for the comment. Did you note that coming in at #10 in percent of très bien were the girls named Sixtine. Hold on to her as long as you can.

Baptiste said...

Hi !
Thanks for this post !
You ask << Why are all the Anglo-name kids sitting in the low end of the scale? >> Those names were preferred by blue collar workers and lower skilled service workers for their children, beginning in the sixties/seventies. It is a European phenomenon : in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany... American sounding names have been chosen by « les classes populaires ». It is a change : before this era, fashion first names tended to climb down the social ladder (first chosen by upper class bourgeois/aristocratic parisian families... and some decades later by provincial peasants). Nowadays the working class exhibits a high level of cultural autonomy.

(Data on Belgium : Elchardus M., Siongers J., 2011, « First Names as Collective Identifiers: An Empirical Analysis of the Social Meanings of First Names », Cultural Sociology, 5, 3, p. 403‑422. )