Getting cute about gender

Posted by on August 08, 2011

A recent study used a Twitter-based corpus to examine the relationship between language and gender. One of the things it looked at was “gender-skewed words” – words used by one gender more than the other. Among the words used predominantly by girls and women were: feel, love, hair, sleep, wait, cute, yummy, totally, aww, ugh, and wanna. (Males hardly feature on the list of most gender-skewed words, offering just google and http.)

That men rarely use cute has been reported before. Jane Mills, in Womanwords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Patriarchal Society, quotes Cheris Kramarae writing in the Quarterly Journal of Speech:

As one male student in my speech class said, ‘If I heard a guy say something was “cute”, I’d wonder about him’. That is, his masculinity would be in question.

Obviously it depends on the context, so let’s take a closer look. Cute comes from acute, which comes from Latin acuere “sharpen”, from acus “needle”. Centuries ago, cute and acute were used to describe people – males and females alike – as sharp, that is, clever or quick-witted. Over time, cute came to be used principally to refer to appearance, while the “sharp” sense receded somewhat and took on negative connotations.

Cute has three senses listed in Macmillan Dictionary, two of them having to do with physical attractiveness. The third, described as mainly American, is “clever in a way that shows a lack of respect or honesty”, as in the example supplied: “Don’t you get cute with me, young man!” In The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler wrote: “The boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with” – in other words, too clever for their own good.

In Ireland, things are a little different. Irish English has a version of this lesser sense of cute that is typically heard in the colloquialism “cute hoor”. Hoor in this case derives from whore but doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with sex; rather, it’s a general term of abuse applied usually to males, often corrupt ones. A cute hoor is someone cunning and devious. It’s commonly heard in political contexts, and has given rise to the noun phrase “cute hoorism”:

This is the kind of political cute hoorism that has the economy where it is today.
(Irish Times, 30 June 2011)

Like many Irish insults, hoor is sometimes used with affection, even respect. It can also indicate strong or unhealthy fondness (“He’s an awful hoor for the horses/drink”). So you could say I’m an awful hoor for the words, and I would not be offended. I might even find it cute.

Comments (9)
  • Aww. . . . I mean . . . dangit. . .

    But wow–”sleep” is gender-skewed? I think I need to take a nap.

    Posted by Ann Marie on 8th August, 2011
  • I found that interesting too, Ann Marie. Other sleep-related words (like tired, bed, and yes, nap) also appear to be skewed this way. For whatever reasons, men seem significantly less inclined to tweet about these things.

    Posted by Stan on 9th August, 2011
  • I wonder if that has to do with women being more often the primary caretakers of their children and also more likely to share information about those kids to their support network: “Child taking a nap, can tweet now” or “Why won’t she go to sleep? Help!” sorts of tweets.

    Posted by Leonore on 10th August, 2011
  • It’s quite likely to be a factor, Leonore. I would say there are many things affecting the relative disproportion of men and women’s sleep-related tweets. Also, from my own experience (small sample size, unsystematic observation), women are much more likely to tweet about their state of tiredness and their sleeping patterns, e.g., not being able to sleep, or having slept well or not.

    Posted by Stan on 10th August, 2011
  • The “sleep” word is interesting Stan – in being used more by women than men. I wonder is there an element of “macho” about Not using it? I say this because it reminds me of my late father who saw needing sleep as a sign of weakness! He survived on very little sleep and if he was caught with his eyes closed late at night when we got home after a night out, he would declare he wasn’t sleeping but resting his eyes….!

    Posted by Helen on 12th August, 2011
  • Helen: I think there probably is an element of machismo in this case. It’s not manly to admit to being tired! Even Homer Simpson said that sleep was “for the weak”…

    Posted by Stan on 13th August, 2011
  • [...] next post, “Getting cute about gender”, looks at the etymology and historical and contemporary senses of cute, a word whose usage is [...]

    Posted by Genderally speaking « Sentence first on 31st August, 2011
  • Earlier today my sister told me she overheard a heated debate in Dublin airport about hurling, in which someone – possibly a Kilkenny hurler – was described as “cute as a fox, the hoor”. Interesting combination of phrases!

    Posted by Stan on 5th September, 2011
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