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Mr. and Ms. Right

Young people today who find their lives incomplete have probably not had the experience of editing their heart’s desire down to 100 characters or so (including spaces) because online forums for those seeking fulfillment through romance are now free and have no space limitations. Formerly, lonely hearts had to give serious attention to saying it all in a few words. You can still find old-school ads in small-town newspapers for those in the pre-Internet generation who hold out hope, and such ads are touching in their own way, like these two from a Pennsylvania paper last week:

Full Gospel Man, retired, kind, slim who likes walks, drives, dining out. Seeks woman with same values.

67-year-old white woman looking for 67-70 years white man for company and fun times, likes occasional drinking and dancing.

The modern comfort seeker, however, goes to Craigslist or one of the many dating websites to lay out their dreams in greater, sometimes tortured, detail. I did an impartial though probably not strictly scientific survey of ads on Craigslist from a dozen US cities, in the M4W and the W4M categories, to look at the language of personal ads from a statistical perspective. In both cases, I ignored ads where the object was simply a hook-up and captured ads where the placer was seeking a long-term relationship, or LTR in the parlance of this genre. The survey turned up some interesting results.

To begin, those who don’t like unfortunate stereotypes being confirmed should probably stop reading now: the total word count of the dozen ads placed by women seeking men was almost a third greater than that of ads placed by men seeking women. You can interpret this as you like: women are more articulate, or women talk a lot. The lexicon of ads placed by men was 533 different words; by women, 711 different words. The total length of the ads overall was about 1550 words for men’s ads, 2370 for women’s.

As you might expect, the words occurring with the greatest frequency were common to ads placed by men and women: have, look, looking, want. Once the really high-frequency words taper off, however, differences start to emerge. There are 14 instances of love in the ads placed by women (total number of ads: 12) but only four uses of love by men. Men mention age six times; women mention it twice. Women bring up tall five times (only one man uses the adjective), and they all want a man taller than they are. Curiously, women use the word game ten times and men don’t use it at all. The senses vary; there is the negative sense (drama games, I don’t play games), the usual sports sense (I like going to sports games), and two uses that are somewhat novel, by women who claim to be in game.

Both men and women want it to be real: each group of ads uses real  5 times either as a predicate adjective, or preceding the word “man” or “woman.” Examples:

I’m real. Are you?
I’m looking for someone real.
I’m a regular guy seriously looking for a real woman.
I’m a thick African-American woman who is looking for a real man.

Presumably, the desire here is for real in senses 2, 3, and 4 in the Macmillan Dictionary, and not sense 1: “existing in the physical world, not just in someone’s imagination or in stories.” When you’re online, however, you don’t know what you’re dealing with, so perhaps all senses of real  are intended.

The ad-placer above who describes herself as thick is not alone in doing so. Three other women use the term. Presumably they are not using it in the sense that normally applies to people (sense 7, “stupid”), but somewhat euphemistically, in a way that is often used of body parts but isn’t typically used of people in their entirety: “having a long distance between opposite sides.”

It’s interesting that acronyms persist in personal ads, despite there being no need to compress language because of space limitations. Acronyms seem to be used as a convenience mainly, for frequently-mentioned qualities both owned and sought-after: in addition to LTR, noted above, DDF (drug-and-disease free) and HWP (height-weight proportional) both turn up frequently. GSOH (good sense of humor) is an acronym that is virtually unknown in the US but it appears in more than 100 personal ads in the London Craigslist. Is humor more of a deal-breaker for Brits than for others in love matters?

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Orin Hargraves

1 Comment

  • In my psych class I did similar research, and in our local ads that people were seeking someone who’d tolerate their already established relationships with their kids, pet, or other patterns, sports or the outdoors. Little varience across M4M, M4W, W4W, W4M, which I thought was more interesting than the next catagories.

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