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.Email this Post