Long ago (in fact, seven years to the day), when the paint on the walls of the Language Lounge was still fresh, we talked about the ways in which sexism is reflected in the lexicon of English, using word maps in the Visual Thesaurus. The occasion was Women's History Month, and now, since that occasion has rolled around again, it's a suitable time to have another look at gender inequality in language.

New resources are available today for research into language use that were not around seven years ago. Two of them are  Google Ngrams, which enable us to look at trends of word usage in books over time, and the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), which does a similar thing, showing us snapshots of changes in American English in all media through time. Corpora of English generally have also grown by leaps and bounds, along with the tools available to query them.

Starting in the 1960s with the influence of feminism, and in the 1970s with political correctness (the two have somewhat overlapping agendas), there has been an effort to replace the use of gender-biased terms and terms that inaccurately apply to one sex with more inclusive terms. This seems to have had an effect. In COHA, for example, the use of "mailman"  peaked in the 1980s:

 

TOT 

1910

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

 mailman

277

1

 

10

20

29

26

39

63

41

48

However, the same corpus does not show a corresponding increase in the gender-neutral term letter carrier that is now favored by the Post Office. A look at stewardess, another term that was nominated for retirement in the early days of feminism, peaked in COHA in the 1970s. Today's preferred term, flight attendant, shows a steady increase to accompany the decline of stewardess.

 

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

 stewardess

45

123

210

84

42

41

 

1950

1960

1970

1980

1990

2000

flight attendant

1

1

4

27

80

113

 

The picture in Google Books shows a similar trend, though with stewardess still outnumbering flight attendant in books, and with a somewhat alarming (and possibly anomalous) uptick in the use of stewardess starting in 1999.

More encouraging news comes from other languages: a recent article on the BBC News website reports that a town in France is trying to rid itself of mademoiselle; the same article surveys the removal of Fraulein from German and the diminution of miss in English.

So far, so good. As we noted in the Lounge seven years ago, however, English — and perhaps all natural languages — contains a glut of words that cast females in a less than flattering light, and most of these words seem to be more synonym-rich than their male counterpart words, if such words exist. It's also the case that some words applying to females who engage in a particular behavior carry largely negative connotations, while the corresponding terms designating males doing the same thing do not carry a stigma. Look, for example, and the respective word maps and definitions for vamp and Lothario. While these entries and others like them in dictionaries might seem to perpetuate unfortunate stereotypes, dictionary publishers would do their users a disservice by removing these words from notice: the job of the dictionary is to define, and provide information about the use of words. Suppressing words or information about their usage only amounts to killing the messenger.

Here's an Ngram (1950–2000) of words in books that don't have a precise male equivalent, and that characterize or define a certain kind of female.

 

The usage of five of the words — coquette, jezebel, sex kitten, shiksa, and vamp — do not show any appreciable trend and are all low frequency in books. Are the reversed frequencies of concubine and  spinster from where they were 60 years ago significant? It's hard to say what accounts for the difference, but also hard to come up with an explanation that suggests progress for women.

Collocations can also tell us a lot about how people think about and use words. We looked recently at the contexts of some contrasting wordsin a 3.2-billion word corpus of English (including all dialects). Here, words that typically modify gender-specific nouns show a strong tendency toward disparate treatment. In all cases shown in the table below, the modifying word either did not appear with the opposite gender word, or occurred with much lower frequency:

eligible bachelor

frustrated spinster

guitar-playing Lothario

scheming vamp

attentive waiter

blonde waitress

gay barman

buxom barmaid

distinguished gentleman

lovely lady

trained masseur

xx-year-old masseuse

henpecked husband

beautiful wife


In the same corpus, we looked at the nouns girl and boy for verbs that typically predicate them.

word

typical predicates

girl

shrink, flash, stroll, shiver, swoon, squeal, fancy, murmur

boy

gang up, scramble, grunt, assault, sniff, whistle, clamber


If you're wondering about shrink, it occurs in various phrasal verbs: shrink from, shrink back, shrink away.

The patterns above confirm what we already know: Anglophone males and females are socialized differently: they are not typically regarded or judged according to the same criteria, nor are their behaviors typified in the same way. There is also a strong suggestion that the beauty mandate — the idea that women are expected to maintain an appearance that is pleasing, especially to men — is still alive and well in English.

Is this sexism or simply a reflection of our reality? Of course, it can be both of these. What explains the persistent inequality in the sexes, as reflected in the printed word? A handy and facile explanation is "blame the patriarchy." Men have dominated so many aspects of culture for millennia, and that domination would certainly include control over the printed word, through writing more than women have written historically, and by being the main gatekeepers of publishing until very recent times. But this explanation further requires an assumption that men somehow have it out for women. Is there evidence of that? You might want to look at lexicographer Jonathon Green's answer to a question on Quora, "Why are expressions for having sex with women often synonymous with killing them?" It seems more likely that the patterns we observe in written language really are just representative of the way people — both men and women — think and behave.

Back when life was just primordial slime, some cells cleverly found a way to outsource the production of haploid gametes, and thus was sexual reproduction born. Along with it, males came into existence, and ipso facto, females. In our species and in every organism that uses sexual reproduction, the things we call females retain the sine qua non job of reproduction, the bearing of young, so it seems an irony that in our world today, and in our chief symbolic system — language — the gender that is essentially a spinoff is so dominant. The trope is repeated at a different scale everywhere you look: in the Biblical story of creation, in languages that use null morphemes for masculine gender and inflected forms for feminine, and in word pairs that make the feminine look derivative, such as man/woman, and male/female (although etymologically the picture is not so straightforward). It may be that the hand the rocks the cradle rules the world, but it happens in a way that flies under the radar of language analysis.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday March 1st 2012, 12:56 AM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
We use more words to denigrate men: mangina, white knight, male virgin, deadbeat Dad.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 6:56 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Wow! Orin! You navigate those treacherous waters with elan!
Thursday March 1st 2012, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Cynthia R.
Much ado about nothing here. Men and women ARE different, and why would we not expect and accept words that accurately depict the differences in typical behavior of the genders. As much as the world tries to neutralize or eliminate the differences between men and women, it will never happen. Why not just enjoy and celebrate the way God chose to create us?
Thursday March 1st 2012, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Cynthia R.
Just had to chuckle when I ran across this quote of the day on Forbes online! Thought you would also appreciate the humor.

"I require three things of a man, he must be handsome, ruthless and stupid." Dorothy Parker
Thursday March 1st 2012, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
Cynthia, do you really expect us to enjoy the act when our partner thinks in terms of beating or killing or stabbing us? I find that more unsettling than celebratory.
Bertie M.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 9:13 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
I agree with Cynthia! Anatomical difference is reality. Male/Female/Mankind, Mother/Father/Parent, Bar Man/Bar Maid/ Bar Tender, King/Queen/Ruler are words that denote gender specific if the context requires and there is a word that is used if gender specific isn't needed.

Because someone is insecure in their identity or worth, must we abandon words that denote gender?
Thursday March 1st 2012, 10:23 AM
Comment by: Kenneth K. (Lady Lake, FL)
Why not better spend time discussing how to write about Grapefruit, lemon, and oranges with better terms like citrus, sectional fruit, etc. Who can deny 'lemons' have received their share of negative press. Possible yellow or sun citrus is better. C'mon, it is what it is, what we are. Why are we offended about gender. Granted there is some confusion in that regarding some, but there seems almost always to be an exception to the rule. Now, degrading terms like, slut, broad, skirt, hunk, meat, bear, d*head, etc. I can understand. Gender terms [positive or negative] serve a purpose: they immediately tell us something. For position or occupation, such as mailman / policeman a change was needed, in that the descriptive action produced error. Thus, letter carrier/police officer is penned; not because it degraded women, but it no longer accurately described the position when a woman was the subject. Each gender has its highs and lows, we should focus on the benefits of our God given position, live in such a way the other gender automatically respects it, and---and-- WHY am I wasting so much time on this?
Thursday March 1st 2012, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Marah (Mount Shasta, CA)
Cynthia, seems Orin is commenting on the way we speak about ourselves as is different from celebrating "the way God chose to create us". Be nice if we use more words to celebrate both sexes.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Marah (Mount Shasta, CA)
Orin, great article. The word actress is interesting in regard to your article. An actor is an actor no matter what sex.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 10:51 AM
Comment by: E. V. Vance (Petaluma, CA)
With regard to the frequency of usage for "concubine," I wonder if the upward trend may have resulted from the increased popularity of books about life in China, beginning for me with Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" in 1989.

With regard to the frequency of usage for "vamp," although it wasn't in books, Chanel launched the color "Rouge Noir" in 1994 and then renamed it "Vamp."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vamp_Nail_Polish

Of course, there were all of those Anne Rice books about vampires, too, starting with the publication of "Interview with the Vampire" in 1976.

None of these instances would necessarily relate to sexism in the lexicon of English, but they could affect the increased usage.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 12:23 PM
Comment by: Cynthia R.
Bertie, Your partner may think in those terms, but I can assure my husband, and at least most men, I know, do not think such thoughts toward women they love and respect.

Let's also, keep in mind that no one has to be defined by opinions rendered, good or bad. by others.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 1:25 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
"...assumption that men somehow have it out for women." I would like to hear an explanation of why use the expression "have it out for" rather than the commonly seen "have it in for". "Have it out WITH," meaning to fight with, is common but this seems to be an uncommon construction.
This is a thought provoking article but I don't think we are going to see any really definitive answers any time soon. Men and women ARE different and I can see no sensibly supportable reason for not using gender based terms like actor - actress or stewardess - steward to indicate the sex of the mentioned individual. "Actress" is a lot less cumbersome than "female actor" and "steward" sounds much more classy than "flight attendant".
Thursday March 1st 2012, 2:58 PM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Ask people whether they would class themselves primarily as male/female or primarily as (gender-neutral) humans. Most of them will state their sex first. They have a sexist view of life, basically because of the biological differences and the fact that they cannot really always understand how the other sex thinks or feels. A great many linguistic differences also boil down to centuries-old social mores.

But the English language has already dispensed with a lot of the gender differences that are still found in other languages and are exacerbated there by "equality, diversity and inclusion" efforts. Living in Germany, I find it incredibly cumbersome to have to write things like "Mitarbeiterinnen und Mitarbeiter" (female co-workers and male co-workers) or the shorter but even uglier construct "MitarbeiterInnen" (capital "I" in the middle to denote a female ending tacked on to a male word but emphasized for "inclusion") instead of just the gender-neutral and very much shorter "co-workers" in English.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 3:01 PM
Comment by: Bosse B.
To Cynthia and Roberta: ".. our partner thinks in terms of beating or killing or stabbing us" you say.

Well, man as I am, I definitely don't THINK in such terms when I'm there. No words! (Though, reportedly some enjoy both to use and hear them.)

Sexuality in general has very little to do with thinking, male OR female. But there definitely is an element of agression in male sexuality, that has to do with dominance, right?

From which follows language use such as mentioned in Orin's (fine) text.
Saturday March 3rd 2012, 8:48 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your comments. How interesting that we now have this news story about Rush Limbaugh, the popular but rather odious radio personality, who has characterized a woman as a "slut" because she advocated for the availability of contraception in a Congressional hearing. Thankfully Mr. Limbaugh is not representative of men generally, but he is a specimen of a man, seizing the narrative (albeit with great encouragement from his media colleagues) about women and sexual reproduction--and resorting to an unfortunate term, "slut," for which English has no male counterpart. Plus ça change!
Saturday March 3rd 2012, 3:50 PM
Comment by: Tom L. (Apalachicola, FL)
The male counterpart of "slut" might be "rake" or "roue", although they don't have as great an evil connotation that "slut" has.
Wednesday March 7th 2012, 4:43 PM
Comment by: Brak87 (Dallas, TX)
Another interesting example, like actress, is the Spanish word "nosotras," meaning "we women." There is no male equivalent, as "nosotros" means "we," and can include both men and women. Now if only there was an English equivalent for nosotras :).
Thursday April 5th 2012, 9:34 PM
Comment by: Cheryl S. (Cambridge, MA)
Words are powerful. We all know this or we wouldn't be reading this article or paying for visual thesaurus.

Thinking of humankind as "mankind" means that we make males normative and females derivative. Calling people "workmen" suggests that work is done by men. Suggesting with our words that men who have lots of sex with women are dashing and manly men, but women who have lots of sex with men are trashy and unwomanly hardly seems balanced or fair to me.

We are what we think, and much of what we think is affected by the language we use. The goal should be parity and precision in the words used to describe both genders.
Thursday July 26th 2012, 1:57 PM
Comment by: William R. (Philadelphia, PA)
Although words are powerful, perception is what separates the men from the boys or in this case women. Everything in life is controversial, because their will always be someone that disagrees. Words have many meanings, and to promote a unilateral context from ones perception eliminates the freedom from others' perception, and that is more important than gender relativeness and political correctness. The smallest minority is the individual, and their right is their right, like your's is yours. Words can kill you or help you, but you must decide that...
Thursday July 26th 2012, 4:35 PM
Comment by: Barbara S. (Arlington, VA)
This reminds me of the classic dog and cat argument: A cat lover will often say that they like dogs, but a many dog lovers will say that they hate cats. I don't think women have the need to create perjorative terms specifically describing men. We use the same or similar terms for anyone who is jerky in behavior. Men take it too personally that women are the way they are. Women have wombs, Men have wounds. Just my opinion.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.