Express Yourself

Why Society Deems Some Words ‘Unmanly’

A brief investigation into gendered language

In 2007, while browsing the humor section of your local bookshop in search of a low-effort Christmas gift, you might have come across a book called Real Men Don’t Say Splendid: A Lexicon of Unmanliness. If you were curious whether the book’s title was supposed to be ironic, you might have plucked it off the shelf and scanned its first page, which reads:

We all know instinctively that there are some words real men just shouldn’t say, no matter what the circumstances — words that make a man seem a little less manly when he says them. […] Men, for example, should never refer to chit chat before they say bye-bye and skedaddle. They should not speak of tinkle in a bathroom context, nor express amazement with the word Golly.

Saying one of these words on a first date is relationship suicide. Women cringe inside when they hear a guy say these words, and just like that, the guy slips from “the man of my dreams” to “my good friend …”

And then you might have purchased it, rushed home, and set about conducting a quantitative analysis of the words Gorman deemed “unmanly.” Because why not?

There are a lot of hobbies and interests perceived as distinctly feminine — fashion, beauty, interior design — so it’s no surprise that terms like “blouse,” “fragrance,” and “potpourri” all made it into this trite little pamphlet. Gorman is not so much forbidding male readers from using these words as he is advising them against talking earnestly about certain subjects, lest they appear interested in the purview of women and, consequently, have their man cards revoked.

Popular conceptions of “the language of women” are often clouded by this fallacy, and actual academic research on the topic can be misinterpreted because of it. For example, a 2016 study of the vocabulary of Facebook users showed that women were far more likely to use words like “happy” and “wonderful” in their status updates, while men showed a penchant for words like “power” and “fighting.” Some news outlets, including Science Daily, misconstrued the findings as evidence that women’s language was generally warmer and less aggressive than men’s, but in truth, what the paper mostly shows are the conversational topics that women tend to use Facebook to discuss, such as their families and future plans, versus those that men generally use the platform to talk about, like politics and video games. Though it did show that female users were more likely to use intensifying adverbs (for example, “ridiculously” and “sooo”) and to avoid swear words, the study was far more revelatory of how people craft their online presence rather than how they speak in real life. Women mention their friends in social media posts at a higher frequency than men do, but it would be quite a stretch to argue that “friend” is a “woman’s word.” With this in mind, Gorman’s assertion that men shouldn’t use the word “outfit” seems more than a little unreasonable.

“Adorable is a woman’s word. It is not much used by men.”

Hobby-related nouns are not the only terms that Gorman designates as feminine, however. His list also includes several instances of euphemisms or baby talk (boobies, tummy, teeny) and interjections (bye-bye, oops, gosh). But the category with the most entries? Positive descriptors. Many of these, like “peachy,” “dandy,” and “dashing,” are outmoded words that might win the speaker funny looks regardless of their gender, but other choices seem bizarre precisely because of how common they are, including “lovely,” “spectacular,” and (perhaps strangest of all) “tasty.”

“Real Men Don’t Say Splendid:” word frequency by category

The book hardly constitutes empirical research — according to the jacket, the author compiled the lexicon “through banter and by meticulously recording every masculine faux pas overheard on subways or suggested by zealous acquaintances” (the only hint of irony I could detect in the entire text is in the fact that faux pas is actually listed as one of the verboten terms). But Gorman’s claims are far from anomalous.

A 1939 article in TIME magazine professes, “Adorable is a woman’s word. It is not much used by men.” In an English curriculum guide for New Orleans public schools published in 1972, it is stated that “cute” is “identifiable as more likely a girl’s word choice.” Such assessments were made even in antiquity. As Seneca wrote, “Listen to Epicurus; he will tell you that [the Stoic way of life] is actually pleasant. I myself shall never apply an effeminate word to an act so honourable and austere.”

What is it about these words that make them particularly womanly? This question has been a point of interest for sociolinguists since they first began to examine the relationship between gender and language in the 1970s. Robin Lakoff, one of the pioneers in the field, cited a number of adjectives as “confined to women’s speech,” such as “adorable,” “charming,” and “divine,” contrasting them with “neutral” terms like “great,” “cool,” and “neat.” In Lakoff’s estimation, women are entitled to use words from either group, while men must stay in their lane or else risk (as Gorman’s book proves) humiliation. This mirrors broader societal trends, such as those observable in the workforce — women increasingly seek out traditionally male-dominated careers while “few men are rushing to become housewives or secretaries.”

Lakoff suggests that these adjectives have become typical of women’s speech because, by connoting stronger emotions than their unisex counterparts, they are judged as inappropriate for use in serious, objective discourse and therefore can only be used to describe matters that are “essentially frivolous, trivial, or unimportant to the world at large.” In other words, matters not concerning men.

Of course, women often use language to portray niceness, a quality expected of them in virtually every culture, as Greer Litton Fox outlined in her 1977 essay ‘“Nice Girl’: Social Control of Women Through a Value Construct.” Fox argued: “One’s identity as ‘lady’ or as ‘nice girl’ is never finally confirmed. Rather, it is continually in jeopardy, and one is under pressure to demonstrate one’s niceness anew by one’s behavior in each instance of social interaction.”

Using hyperbolic words like “divine” and “fabulous” (which originally referred to something too fantastical to be found outside of a fable or myth) allows the speaker to signal extremely positive emotions when paying a compliment or telling a story, thus heightening the listener’s perception of them as an amicable person. Numerous analyses conducted on corpora of both written and spoken texts indicate that women have a greater linguistic positivity bias than men (that is, they use positive descriptors at a higher frequency). It is only natural that adjectives like “adorable,” “delightful,” and, yes, even “tasty” would be generally associated with women’s speech rather than men’s.

In this way, Real Men Don’t Say Splendid isn’t really about language at all. It’s a men’s guidebook for living. Cut out all candid and enthusiastic expressions of approval, the author cautions, unless you want to dash your chances of ever mating with a member of the opposite sex. (I guess Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society was right when he said language was invented for one purpose: “to woo women.”)

Of course, Gorman doesn’t purport to have made the rules, only to have documented them, and while any pretense about what “real men” should or shouldn’t say is ultimately harmful, that doesn’t make the book’s essential argument — that many people perceive certain words as inherently “unmanly” — any less true.

Granted, a lot has changed since 2007. Gorman would probably struggle to find a publisher for his book had he written it today. But the expectation that men should keep their emotions to themselves hasn’t gone away, nor has our tendency to single out characteristics of women’s speech patterns as nonstandard, even inadmissible (think of other recent linguistic phenomena popularized by women that are often subjected to ridicule, like the vocal fry closely associated with female celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Lena Dunham). Though we may hate to admit it, “women’s words” are still very much a thing, if only because language doesn’t change until attitudes do.

I write about words and run about screaming. Irish, currently doing an MA in English Linguistics and Literature.

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