We've just passed another Burns Night, an annual event in which the poetry of the Scot Robert Burns is celebrated, and with it I'm reminded of one of his oft-quoted poems, presented here in the original Scots and in modern English translation:

 

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion:
What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us,
An' ev'n devotion!
Oh, would some Power give us the gift
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!

 

What called this poem to mind for me was something you may have noticed if you've visited the world of online dating: the disparities between the ways males and females present themselves, and the disparities between the ways that they seem to want to appear to each other.

In case you haven't been looking, this is now an area of active academic interest. Poke around on Google Scholar and you'll see that a number of researchers in linguistics, psychology, and the social sciences look at online profiles on dating and hookup apps to see what may be gleaned, in papers with titles such as "The language of self-presentation on a location-based mobile dating app" and "Investigating the market metaphor in online dating." What interests me about the language of this enterprise is not outright deception (which in fact is rife), but the quite different choices that usage and custom present to those who would put their best foot forward online.

It strikes me regularly that women do not have a gendered equivalent of the generic male descriptor guy, and this is probably a disadvantage. A man can never go wrong by describing himself as a guy. It's a neutral or positive term, it's not associated with ageism or sexism, and it's a component of many common phrases that are also neutral or positive: nice guy, good guy, lucky guy, go-to guy, stand-up guy, lovable guy. When guy is pluralized it loses its gender specificity and everyone can participate in the generally positive vibe of the word: Hey guys! What are you guys up to? A female can be one of the guys, but she can't be a guy.

It follows that men, in their online profiles, regularly characterize themselves as a guy; a laid-back guy, a chill guy, a well-rounded guy, a VGL (that is, very good-looking) guy. But what is a woman to do if she wants to convey this sort of affable, good-natured characterization about herself? She can't say gal, even though in some contexts that word might be viewed as the feminine equivalent. Gal gets flagged with a usage label (e.g., "sometimes offensive") in some dictionaries. Random House Unabridged has this to say: "Just as many mature men, even young men, resent being referred to as boys, many adult women today are offended if referred to as girls, or the less formal gals."

The solution that many women take is to simply omit a noun descriptor in their profiles and let the metadata do the talking. Women who would include a noun to describe themselves run up against the boundaries of the semantic space of the various terms that English has to characterize members of the female sex. Perhaps the least problematic choice is woman. I say least problematic, but not unproblematic, because the company that the word woman keeps in English is vastly different from the company kept by man, owing to differences imposed by biology, society, and culture.

Verbs that most typically occur beside woman and rarely beside man include support, protect, empower, and rape. Adjectives that keep company with woman but rarely with man include beautiful, religious, vulnerable, and pregnant. Which is not to say that when you use the word woman you invite all of this baggage along with it, but you also cannot avoid the baggage entirely. So perhaps it makes more sense to leave all the baggage outside the door when you craft a concise, online song of yourself.

For younger women (ages 18 – 29), one study showed that girl was the effective counterpart of guy. But girl, for obvious reasons, is an odd fit for a female past the age of majority and it may suggest dependency, immaturity or vulnerability that women would rightly want to keep out of their profiles. A few women use the label lady to describe themselves, and you have to assume that they do so knowingly, for it is a term far more baggage-laden than woman: its presence in a profile telegraphs several things: older (or with a distinctly pre-feminist attitude), experienced, and perhaps having expectations of chivalry from a partner, since it is the usual counterpart of gentleman. Most other words that English has for characterizing women are not words that women have chosen for themselves, but words that men have chosen for them, so it's understandable the words from this category (babe, doll, bitch, etc.) are infrequent in online profiles.

So much for nouns. What about adjectives? These are usually more plentiful than nouns in online self-characterizations, and rather like the nouns, they show considerable disparity between men and women. This may well be because men and women look for different things generally in a mate, and also because men and women value self-disclosure differently, as one study found. Aside from the fact that qualities described are overwhelmingly positive, as you would expect, the overlap is not huge between the ways that men and women describe themselves.

As suggested by the examples with guy above, men seem to be at pains to present themselves as relaxed, affable, and friendly. Some other adjectives I see with appreciable frequency in male profiles are optimistic, cheerful, sincere, affectionate, unconventional, kind, honest. That last adjective, honest, is also frequent in women's profiles, but that's where the overlap ends. In women's profiles I find right-brained, normal, awesome, down-to-earth, spiritual, logical, educated, secure, outgoing, caring.

My impression is that both genders are at pains to avoid presenting themselves in conformity to stereotype. Men do not want to come across as predatory, women do not want to come across as vulnerable or weak. So perhaps the "Power" that Robert Burns seeks for all of us is not the one we need: it's not a problem of seeing ourselves as others see us, it's a matter of trying to get others to see us as we ourselves see us.


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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.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday February 6th, 8:48 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
Thanks for your post, Orin. It got me thinking. I would doubt that "predatory" and "weak" would be descriptors favored by either gender. In your on-line-dating travels how often did you come across "Weakling seeks predator" or "Predator seeks weakling"? And pity the misunderstood predators. Gender aside, a person hardly wants to be stereotyped as "fortune-hunting" when all they're looking for is dinner.
Thursday February 6th, 4:37 PM
Comment by: Pamela L.
I don't know why gal doesn't work. I don't know where RandomHouse gets it's information. TIC: Of course there's always broad...which some (older) women accepted with pride!
Friday February 7th, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Ellen M.
I'm a Chicago-native Boomer.
As you alluded, "guys" is often used as a universal, unisex collective noun in speech and casual writing. "Youse guys" is the Chicago equivalent to Southern "all y'all." I still use both terms that way, which has sparked some interesting conversations on Twitter.

And you are correct, one woman is never a guy!
"Lady" was the respectful single term of address if you didn't know her name (as in "Hey, kid, give da lady yer seat," as I was fainting on the El). "Kid" was the universal address for children.

If a female-only collective noun was needed, it was, depending on age, "girls" "gals" "ladies" or "broads" (as Pamela suggests, but only among the truly self-confident!), but all have become verboten under current PC speech codes. Nevertheless, I still use them, although never in formal writing, where "woman" and "women" are still allowed. And don't get me started on bs like "womxn"!
Sunday February 9th, 8:41 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I appreciate the comments, all. I get the sense that another way to characterize the disparity is as follows: anyone can refer to a man as a "guy" with impunity. But everyone must choose more carefully when deciding what label to apply to a woman, especially in characterizing her role or status in a relationship. I notice, especially among men much younger than myself (I'm also a "boomer"), a tendency to refer to women by the technical and somewhat sterile term "female".
Sunday February 9th, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Charles H.
To all of the babes and studs in the crowd, I’m just me.
Tuesday February 18th, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Victoria W. (Princeton, NJ)
I'm always amused when people refer to someone's "boyfriend," age 70.
Tuesday February 18th, 5:36 PM
Comment by: Gabrielle T. (Sydney Australia)
My pet beef is 'partner' when referring to spouse, or lover, or even co-efficient is preferable.
Tuesday February 18th, 7:36 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Gabrielle--I've always like "paramour," it inevitably stops the conversation.

Charles--I'm sorry to see the demise of babes, chicks, birds ('60s Brit slang), dolls (the missing feminine form for guys), if less so for the amazing array of slang terms listed in Urban Dictionary.
To stud, I'd add dude (very '80s) and more recently chad, even Tom, Dick or Harry, so handy for lyricists.

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