This time I venture into the cultural war-zone of gender and vocabulary. I have recently seen two things that have led me to this topic. First, I happened to come across an old BBC clip featuring a German stand up comic who tells us that English suffers language deprivation as our nouns do not have a 'gender' and consequently our articles (the and a) do not change according to the gender of the noun. German, as most of you surely know, enjoys not two but three genders - the famous der, die, das of our teenage classroom years. In case you have forgotten, der is for masculine nouns, die for female ones and das for neuter nouns. Sometimes it is logical so we have der Mann, die Frau and das Auto. But ... and here the fun starts. A big sausage is feminine (die Wurst) but a small sausage is neuter (das Würstchen). Where we wonder are the masculine sausages?
So how do we learn these words - a true minefield for the foreign learner. And how do Germans learn them? With their mothers' milk it would seem. They just 'feel' the difference somewhere deep in their teutonic breasts between der Computer (masculine); die Software (feminine) and das Bier (neuter).
Personally I cannot think that the absence of gender in such cases is a deprivation - after all how much easier it is to say 'the' for everything. But according to a new study there are English words which are more male and those which are more female. Or rather there are words which are more likely to be recognised by men and those more likely to be recognised by women. Gender counts.
Mark Brysbaert, director of the Center for Reading Research at Ghent University, asked half a million people to take part in an online vocabulary test. They were shown a number of words – some of which were made up, and others which belong to the English language. Go on - have a go!
Among other things The results showed that there were 24 words where the recognition gap between men and women was as high as 40% with men tending to recognise words referring to science, weapons and transport, while women recognised words related to flowers, fashion and hair. Not exactly politically correct in today's world of gender equality.
Here are these key words - try them yourself and see what happens. I am embarrassed to say that I (as a female) knew all the 'female' words but was unsure on 4 of the 'male' words (actually this should be 5 as I thought Claymore was a brand of whisky).
1. codec - a device or program that compresses/decompresses data
2. solenoid - a cylindrical coil of wire acting as an electromagnet
3. golem - a clay figure brought to life by magic
4. mach - the ratio of the speed of a body to the speed of sound
5. humvee - a type of 4x4 all-terrain vehicle
6. claymore - a sword formerly used by Scottish Highlanders
7. scimitar - a short sword with a curved blade
8. kevlar - a very strong synthetic fibre, used in bullet-proof vests
9. paladin - a knight renowned for heroism and chivalry
10. bolshevism - the strategy developed by the Bolsheviks in Russia between 1903 and 1917 with a view to seizing state power
11. biped - an animal that uses two legs for walking
12. dreadnought - a type of 20th century battleship
1. taffeta - a fine silk or similar fabric with a crisp texture
2. tresses - long locks of a woman's hair (often golden!)
3. bottlebrush - a cylindrical brush for cleaning inside bottles (especially babies' bottles)
4. flouncy - an adjective to describe material in a skirt or blouse that is gathered and pleated
5. mascarpone - a soft Italian cream cheese
6. decoupage - decorating an object with paper cut-outs
7. progesterone - a female hormone important in pregnancy
8. wisteria - a climbing shrub with hanging clusters of flowers, typically lilac in colour
9. taupe - a brownish grey colour
10. flouncing - moving in an impatient or angry way
11. peony - a garden flower - usually in pinks and mauves.
12. bodice - the part of a woman's dress (not including the sleeves) which is above the waist and covers the breasts
Interesting isn't it? Clearly we English-speakers cannot disentangle words and gender either! If anyone has an unusual score, I'd love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org