Word Matters Podcast

On Secretly Gendered Language

Word Matters, Episode 78

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Most of the time, there's nothing about an adjective that makes it refer only to any gender. And yet, there are some words that get subconsciously used by English speakers in very specific ways. Let's take a look at some of the surprising habits the language might not even know it has.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, adjectives that have strong gender tendencies. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Like people, words have habits. Some verbs tend to take certain objects. Some adverbs are especially suited for exaggeration. Most of these habits are pretty transparent, but today we're going to look at some adjectives with gendered tendencies that are both surprising and not so surprising.

Ammon Shea: Most of us, if we've studied any kind of foreign language, are familiar with the concept of gendered nouns or gendered parts of speech. Gendered nouns are having, say, adjectives that have to agree with the gender of the noun, especially with romance languages, whether it's Spanish or French or what have you. And also, we all of us have this general feeling that that's something that exists in foreign languages and not in English, and that English is, for the most part, an ungendered language. We've dropped issues like that. In a strict sense, that is, I think, largely true. The word lexicographer does not have ending that indicates whether it's a man or a woman or anything. You would qualify either a female lexicographer, a male lexicographer, or whatever designation you need to give to it. This certainly extends to adjectives. However, we all have a kind of feeling that there are certain adjectives that we use more often, say, with men than with women or vice versa. Would you guys agree with that?

Emily Brewster: Yes, definitely.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: I do want to say though, that you can say editrix if you want to identify specifically as a woman who is an editor.

Ammon Shea: Excellent point, and I'm sure that editress would've come up. And yeah, the I-X ending is one that has largely passed along, but it definitely was around for hundreds and hundreds of years. Great point.

Peter Sokolowski: Aviatrix. But we also have words like actress and things that we regard as archaic now, like poetess, and actress itself seems to be slowly disappearing.

Ammon Shea: On the way out. Same thing with authoress, was around for a while and just become author. So there are different words that are in a sense declined differently for that, but with adjectives, I think we generally have the feeling that an adjective just applies ....

Peter Sokolowski: Right, because what you're really talking about is not the gender referred to by the noun, but grammatical gender, which is a different thing, because these nouns, even actress in English, there is no grammatical gender of a noun in English.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: Right. However, there is with adjectives, we do assign it a non-grammatical gender in many cases. For instance, the word brutish, B-R-U-T-I-S-H, is almost always used of men, just as the word winsome, meaning "generally pleasing and engaging, often because of a childlike charm and innocence," is in the vast majority of cases used of women or girls. And a lot of times there's an awkward feeling, I think, with adjectives like this, in that generally when they are gendered in this sense they're used often in a sexist way. Frumpy, for instance, is used much more often of women than it is of men. And Peter, you had mentioned one of course, that is now much more gendered in this manner than it used to be, which is handsome.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, the word handsome, that in Shakespeare's time meant elegant or well proportioned, and over time you can see it was used by Samuel Johnson himself to refer to a woman. So "a handsome woman" was used in Sense and Sensibility many times, used by Jane Austen in Emma as well, used in Arthur Conan Doyle, "a very handsome woman." Mark Twain used it. Edith Wharton uses it in The Age of Innocence. And one of my favorite corpora, a place to watch language change, is the Time Magazine corpus, because you can watch in this popular magazine that's carefully edited how a word evolves through about a hundred years of publication. And it's interesting that it was widely used before World War II to mean attractive, and then very distinctly you can see that it is used less and less frequently of women, but also in those cases, when it is used of women, it's used of usually matronly or older women. In other words, the word itself sort of morphed lexically to mean pleasant to the eye, but not in a sexually attractive way, but in a sort of wholesome way.

Emily Brewster: There is a corpus called the N101020 corpus on Sketch Engine, and I did, in preparing for a conversation today, I looked at modifiers of the word woman and modifiers of the word man, and it was surprising. The corpus divides them so that you can see which are most frequently used to describe one or the other. The words that were used far more frequently for describing a woman were attractive, pretty, beautiful, rural. I don't know why rural is in there. That one was surprising. Not surprising were pregnant and postmenopausal. And words far more frequently used to describe man than woman were great, big, good, rich, honest, wise, right, evil, and wicked.

Ammon Shea: Wow.

Emily Brewster: I know. I thought that was very interesting. Certainly I don't think speakers of the language are saying that only a man can be right, evil, or wicked or only a woman can be attractive. But what we are saying is that these are the habits, the company that the words keep.

Peter Sokolowski: That they keep, yeah.

Ammon Shea: What I find most engaging about this kind of topic is, as editors, when we see the shadings taken on by a word that you only really notice when you're looking at a large group of citations which all use that word, and unpredictable or unusual things come up. And my favorite example of this is the word affable, in which looking at 50 citations that we had for affable, I was surprised to see that 49 of them were referring distinctly to men and the 50th was referring to a woman who the author thought was a man. I have to say that as a man, I have not ever myself particularly thought of my fellow men as particularly more affable than women. Affable, we define it as "being pleasant and at ease in talking to others," certainly don't apply that to myself, or "characterized by ease and friendliness." Again, I don't qualify myself as affable, and most of the men I know I don't particularly feel are affable. Certainly not more affable than the women I know. So why is it that we've somehow had this unspoken agreement to refer to men more often as affable?

Peter Sokolowski: You mean as a culture.

Ammon Shea: More often as affable, right.

Peter Sokolowski: As a culture, we've sort of decided collectively that this word really applies only in one direction.

Ammon Shea: And Emily, you found one.

Emily Brewster: I did. I was looking at the styling of the word absentminded. It needs to be shown in both its hyphenated and closed forms. But what I noticed when I was looking at the examples of _absentminded _is that I don't think it was 49 out of 50, I don't remember the exact count, but it was far more frequently applied to men than to women, which just struck me and was surprising, because I count myself as significantly absentminded much of the time. And certainly it just doesn't seem like it is experientially linked to men more than women, but it appears that in published edited texts, it is a word that is far more often used to describe men than women.

Ammon Shea: One of the things I think is always possible here is that we all know that words change their meaning, and adjectives do this just as much as any other kind of word. We have these great examples. Obnoxious, everybody thinks of obnoxious as meaning offensive, and it does have that meaning of course. But what it initially meant was "dangerous to." Obnoxious to somebody was proposing a danger to them. And similarly affable, before it had this strict meaning of just approachable and easy to speak with, you would say especially somebody is affable in reference to their dealing with somebody of a lower social class or status. Something tied to that in terms of how it more often was used of men, but it still doesn't really explain it to me. I'm stuck on thinking of men as more affable than women, which I don't. I like the idea that there are some just unexplained parts of the English language that things have just collectively shifted this way and we don't know. I kind of enjoy that mystery.

Emily Brewster: You know, when I was thinking about absentminded in this regard, I was thinking about how absentminded is somewhat gentle way of describing a person who is forgetful. And you can contrast it with, say, ditsy, which is basically synonymous but not charitable in the least, and ditsy is applied to women. And so absentminded betrays a sexism that is reflected in the language of sexism that is present in us as people. Absentminded is a gentle word that gives you a pass. Whoever is described as absentminded is harmless. They're not really to be blamed. Their mind is somewhere else, on something perhaps also very important.

You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back with more on adjectives that tend to play favorites. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for The Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: We're still talking about the company that particular words keep, for better or worse.

Ammon Shea: I like this idea of having the unexplained mystery in the English language. I do have to say in all honesty that if there is some kind of inequity between how we describe women and how we describe men with a certain word, I think it's pretty safe to say that sexism is at the root of it, not some unexplained mystery. I think there's a very easy explanation there, and it's just that we've taken our record of the language mostly from men as opposed to women, and this reflects that.

Emily Brewster: That's right, although nobody is immune from sexism entirely, unless you work against it.

Ammon Shea: If you look at the historical record of synonyms, for instance, one of the most glaring cases of this is the number of words for a woman of loose morals far exceeds that for the number of words for men of loose mortals. But also, the number of words for a man whose wife has cheated on him is astonishing, a huge number of these. There's cuckold, wittol, a man who knows his wife is cheating on him and doesn't mind. I mean, it just goes on and on and on. Hornute, all these words having to do with horns. There is one for a woman whose husband is cheating on her, and so the ratio is like 20 to one in favor of men whose wives are cheating on them. And I don't think this reflects how the words actually exist in the world.

Emily Brewster: Well, do we end up with fewer words for something that is less remarkable?

Ammon Shea: Don't know.

Emily Brewster: If it's historically common or historically assumed that this is an acceptable thing among the speakers of a language, they just don't have that many words for it.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that really surprised me about this, though, was this gendered use of adjectives extends to lexicographers in a peculiar way, which is that there are a surprising number of definitions, not just in our dictionary but in most dictionaries, that go back to the 19th century. There are a surprising number of words which seem to be defined as "untidy women." First of all, I don't think of women as more untidy than men any more than I think of women as less affable than men. That seems like it's kind of an odd choice of words.

But if you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, there are 10 different words currently in the OED, dab, daggle-tail, dog, dollop, drab, drassock, dratchell, mopsy, streel, and trail. All these words are defined in some way as an untidy woman. There are no words that are defined as an untidy man in the OED. There are three words in the OED right now that are defined as an untidy person, and I got to say, I love these words because they are warb, mudlark, and chucky pig. I just couldn't let today go by without saying the word chucky pig out loud at least a couple of times.

Emily Brewster: I like warb.

Ammon Shea: Warb has got a certain brutish charm to it, doesn't it? And mudlark, how could you not love a mudlark? But certainly chucky pig is really going to steal my heart.

Peter Sokolowski: But we're talking about the company that words keep, the sort of associations that are made, and really the deeply embedded sexism that has to do with the fact that the printing press was used by men and recorded the writing of men. That was what was used as the sort of guidance for men who were lexicographers. This is the whole history of the genre. The history of recording language is recording the language of the privileged who could print their words.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: And the publishing houses run by men-

Peter Sokolowski: All the way through.

Emily Brewster: ... and specifically white wealthy men.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course. And especially in Europe, we're talking about, and especially in English-speaking Britain and America, which is what we know about. And it's almost as if it's like this huge, hidden context that once you see it, you can't unsee it. It's always there. And we are proud of the sort of descriptive mission of taking evidence from published sources, but if you go back to certainly the beginnings, to Noah Webster's time, nearly all of those published sources were publishing the writings of men.

Ammon Shea: Tidy men, tidy, affable men. What I love about "untidy" is that a number of dictionaries in the 19th and certainly the early 20th century really seemed to have embraced this. I was looking through Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary. I only got through the first half of the alphabet, but Joseph Wright had 18 different words which were defined as "an untidy woman." He had another 18 words which were defined as "an untidy person." In a lot of those cases, they would say in the citations, "This is usually about women." Again, not a single word for an untidy man. And my assumption here was that "untidy" was somehow synonymous with "immoral" or "sexually permissive" or something like that. However, none of these dictionaries seem to define "untidy" that way. So is there a kind of missed use of "untidy" in the 19th century that we've just overlooked, or is this just a garden variety sexism in definitions at play? We have a bunch of definitions in Webster's Third from 1961. We only have like five or six for "untidy woman," and in all cases we say that they are dialectical British use.

Emily Brewster: Blame it on the Brits, yes.

Ammon Shea: Always safe.

Emily Brewster: But I wonder also if it says something about who is expected to keep a place tidy? Tidiness, is tidiness the purview of the woman in a household? And so if she's untidy, well then.

Ammon Shea: It goes like failure of womanhood.

Emily Brewster: Right. Meanwhile, I've got a whole family of warbs.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. Well, this is chez chucky pig over at my place.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org, and for The Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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