Seen any simpering men lately?

Posted by on January 18, 2012

The Macmillan Dictionary got a mention in The Guardian yesterday, when Jane Martinson pondered the use of the word simper. A fellow journalist (male) had tweeted about a lawyer (female) ‘simpering’ at a witness (male) in the ongoing Leveson Inquiry. (The inquiry was set up in the wake of revelations that News International journalists had obtained stories by hacking into the phones of celebrities, politicians, and crime victims.) ‘Can anyone remember,’ she wondered,  ‘the last time a man was accused of “simpering”?’

She’s right. Corpus evidence suggests that simper is used three or four times as often about girls and women as about boys or men. Not only that, where the word is used about men, there’s sometimes an implication that they are not ‘real’ men (that’s why they simper): we hear from an American writer about ‘Simpering Frenchman Jacques Chirac’ (apologies to our French readers), and there are several cases of gay men described as simpering too. This happens a lot: the only people who flounce in and out of rooms are women (overwhelmingly), and gay men (occasionally) – but never heterosexual men. (I’m just reporting what the data tells us, so don’t shoot the messenger.)

As always, the co-text is instructive: simper appears with adverbs like flirtatiously, seductively, or sweetly, while other verbs found in the vicinity include fawn, pout, blush, and giggle – all words associated (whether we like it or not) with women. This example from the corpus gives a good flavour of how simper is typically used:

She preferred male company … and had no time for giggling, simpering girls who cared for nothing but gossip and the price of hair ribbon.

As Jane Martinson pointed out, the example given in the Macmillan entry has a female subject (She spoke in a simpering tone), and this takes us back to an issue we discussed last year, during Gender English month: should dictionary editors ignore the evidence and show a man in the example (as a way of combating gender stereotypes), or do we record what we find? No easy answers here, though we have to balance our gender-neutral instincts with a description of usage that’s true to the data.

Much has been written about words that blatantly insult women: slut, harpy, bitch and the like. But simper belongs to a more interesting category – words which belittle women, but which do it just subtly enough that (some) men think they can get away with it. Something similar is happening with feisty, another ‘suspect’ word mentioned by Martinson. Again, the data backs her up: feisty is overwhelmingly used about women, and the nouns it frequently modifies include heroine, redhead, tomboy (=honorary male), lady, gal, and even filly. On the surface, it conveys admiration – but this is qualified by the implication that ‘She did well – considering she’s only a woman’.

There is much more to be said on this subject. A man who is quiet and reserved, for example, tends to be described as taciturn – a word rarely applied to women – or even ‘the strong silent type’: both positive descriptions. A woman of the same type is just quiet, and probably also shy or even mousy. Or even simpering … Well, maybe we’ll come back to this another day. Oh, and thanks to Jane Martinson, too, for adding another word (twarrumph) to our growing collection of Twitter-inspired vocabulary.

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Comments (6)
  • You’re right, Michael: there’s much more to be said on this subject! I am often struck by how clearly corpus data shows that people think and talk in completely different ways about the sexes. This is reflected in the use of thousands of words. Take, as a small example, the salience scores (descending) of nouns that are subject of the verb “weep”:

    widow
    mother
    sister
    woman
    father

    It might be interesting (though it would be quite a chore) to look at usage over time to see if feminism, or other factors, have mitigated the male/female split with any words that are typically associated with one sex. This is an area that’s a very long way from seeing equality of the sexes and I don’t think we can now even imagine a world in which a lot of words did not have very strong male or female markers.

    Posted by Orin Hargraves on 19th January, 2012
  • A very interesting post!We have discussed it with my students together with my new reading lessons on Aleph by Paulo Coelho.Thank you!

    Posted by Alla on 24th January, 2012
  • How often do you you hear anyone described as either ‘taciturn’ or ‘the strong, silent type’ these days’? Or ‘mousy’? ‘Quiet’ and ‘shy’ are much, much more likely to be applied to people of both sexes.

    But some words are used more of one sex than the other. ‘Blustering’ or ‘pompous’, for example, are more likely to be used of men than women (the first, perhaps, justly; the second not).

    There are important and interesting questions in all that but I don’t think that articles like this will either ask or answer them.

    Posted by squiggle on 30th March, 2012
  • Thank you, Squiggle. I agree these are interesting questions, and we are interested in hearing further examples. This post was mainly about “simper”, though, and its co-text, where the corpus data is pretty conclusive. I suspect you are right about “the strong silent type” becoming less common, though recent(ish) examples in our corpus include this one: “Jude Law plays the strong silent type but brings no character to his part”. I wouldn’t agree about “taciturn”. It was never a high-frequency word in the first place, and it tends to stay in certain text-types, but there is not much evidence of it dying out -here’s one of 100s of corpus examples from the last 10 years: “Have you ever had to deal with an explosive boss? A maddeningly, uncooperative bureaucrat? A moody, taciturn subordinate? [etc]”

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 1st April, 2012
  • I wonder how frequently these words are used in relation to men and women?
    Coward
    Sexist
    Unfaithful
    Lazy
    Deadbeat
    Asshole
    Bastard
    Gender bias in language is real, but only taken seriously if it affects women.

    Posted by Tester on 13th October, 2012
  • Gender bias in words does exist yes, But so too does gender. There are real differences between us, and yes they get exposed just like with racial stereotypes. Nobody is going to say that stereotypes are based on nothing at all, there is in fact something to them, despite the fact that over all we look at it negatively. The key is to be a more understanding group of people, and appreciate each other more, not try to enforce that by changing the gender of a person in an example of a word… Even removing the words wont work, because ultimately new one would be invented to describe the obvious and real difference between genders.

    Yes we are different, and no it shouldn’t matter, but also no we shouldn’t try to fix it by editing the dictionary, but instead by editing our self’s and those around us. Some people don’t like it when another person corrects them, or speaks up to point out how something said wasn’t very kind. Screw those people, and do it anyway! That is how culture changes, Not by doing nothing, and not by making some unnoticeable dictionary edits.

    Posted by Sara on 18th March, 2013
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