June 27, 2014

Men like scimitars and women like wisteria: our vocabularies are awesomely sexist



“I do wish he’d stop talking about his scimitar”

It’s fun to pretend that we live in a post-gender world, where we only judge each other based on inner light and comedic timing—but it’s more fun by far when science reminds us that we don’t. Recent data analysis from the Center for Reading Research reveals the words with the greatest gap in recognition between genders (i.e., the words that men are much more likely to understand than women, and vice-versa), and apparently we live in a terrible alternate universe where someone has invented the Humvee, but it’s still the Middle Ages.

Center Director Mark Brysbaert came to this realization while working with data from Ghent University’s online vocabulary test, Business Insider reports. In this test, subjects see words flash quickly on the screen—some real, some fake—and have to press “f” or “j” on their keyboard to indicate whether or not they recognize the word. It seems harmless enough, until one re-watches The Silence of the Lambs and remembers that our diction is a window into our deepest shames.

“Claymore,” “scimitar,” “dreadnought”: the list of words on the men’s side reads like Freudian free association gone horribly wrong. We clearly need more gender-neutral children’s toys, because we uber-men love our big cars, bloody weapons, and techo-gadgets, and—in the process of growing up—just learned how to call them by smarter names. Here’s the top twelve man-words below, with the percentage of men who knew them on the left, and the women on the right:

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)

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. I’d love to disagree with this image, but it’s true: I just have no idea what “taffeta” is. And my lady-friend Siri  tells me that I have not, in fact, been cleaning my toilet with a “bottlebrush.” Here’s the word breakdown for the ladies:

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)

Does this data reflect true problems of gender in society today? Probably yes, it does. But mostly it’s really funny, and perhaps shows us that men just play more video games. I’ll say that I love these words. They go beyond my wildest imaginings—“bogey” for men, “frock” for women?—of what I thought they would be. I also love people. Because even though we continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes like it’s our job, it’s clear that we’re doing it with great style—and vocabulary. Once again, we’re the most beautiful satire of ourselves.