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Mach and mascarpone: testing how vocabulary is gendered
A survey has shown an ‘awesomely sexist’ discrepancy between the English words understood by different genders
A little old-fashioned … a survey has found men’s and women’s vocabulary is strikingly stereotypical.
Do you know what decoupage is? Tresses, taffeta, and mascarpone? Then you’re statistically more likely to be female. If you’re more confident identifying a golem, a paladin, or a scimitar, then you’re more likely to be a man. That’s according to research from the Center for Reading Research at the University of Ghent, highlighted by MobyLives, which analysed the results of half a million vocabulary surveys, and found that “some words are better known to men than to women and the other way around”. And the words? Well, as MobyLives put it, “our vocabularies are awesomely sexist”.
Here goes, with the numbers in brackets being the percentage of men who knew the word, and women. These are the 12 words with the largest difference in favour of men: codec (88, 48), solenoid (87, 54), golem (89, 56), mach (93, 63), humvee (88, 58), claymore (87, 58), scimitar (86, 58), kevlar (93, 65), paladin (93, 66), bolshevism (85, 60), biped (86, 61), dreadnought (90, 66). These are the 12 words with the largest difference in favour of women: taffeta (48, 87), tresses (61, 93), bottlebrush (58, 89), flouncy (55, 86), mascarpone (60, 90), decoupage (56, 86), progesterone (63, 92), wisteria (61, 89), taupe (66, 93), flouncing (67, 94), peony (70, 96), bodice (71, 96).
“While men indulged in souped-up military wet dreams, women apparently grew up in a Victorian beauty salon, wherein they flitted about in petticoats and worried if future husbands were taking notice of their domestic skills,” writes MobyLives, rather brilliantly.
Well, I know what all the words on the female list mean, apart from bottlebrush (unless it’s a brush for a bottle), but I’m struggling with codec and solenoid on the male list. Codec – something Dan Brown-ish, I’m thinking, and solenoid … something to do with tonsils, or is that adenoid? Just googled them – I’m wrong, and bottlebrush turns out to be a sort of plant.
So what does this all mean? These 24 words, write the researchers, “should suffice to find out whether a person you are interacting with in digital space is male or female”. Well, thank goodness! If you don’t believe someone when they tell you they’re female online, then throw a quick vocabulary test their way, and you’ll soon know the truth.
You can take the test yourself – it lasts about four minutes, and you have to correctly identify whether a word is real, or made up. (I got 71%, described, rather patronisingly, as “a high level for a native speaker”. I said yes to 3% of the made-up words, and I didn’t realise that the words glanderous – “a contagious, usually fatal disease of horses and other equine species”; huarache – “a flat-heeled sandal with an upper of woven leather strips”; and tolan – “a white crystalline derivative of acetylene” were actually real.)
Anyway, I’m rather disturbed to learn that even our vocabularies turn out to be gendered. I’ve cheered myself up, though, with the researchers’ lists of words known in the UK and not the US, and vice versa; can you guess which of these is the UK list? Yob, naff, brolly, korma, bodge and gormless, or goober, boondocks, coonskin and sassafras?
And how about the 20 least-known words in English: “the words of which less than 3% of the participants in our test indicated they were English words. For comparison, the fake words were endorsed by 8.3% of the participants on average. So, these are words not only unknown to everyone but also unlikely to be ‘mistaken’ for a true English word.”
They are wonderfully Jabberwockian: cacomistle and didapper, chaulmoogra and gossypol and genipap … I hadn’t heard of a single one, but I’m going to see if I can drop a couple into conversation at some point today – not in a brummagem way, of course, just casually.
I’ll also be peppering my idle chitchat with claymores and kevlar, in my own small attempt to tackle gender stereotyping. Or maybe MobyLives’s blogger is right, and it simply “shows us that men just play more video games”.
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