Continuing the recent theme exploring gender differences in language (see here and here) we find some extremely interesting trends this week. The frequency with which we reference the “male” half of the species and the “female” half of the species is fascinating.
Any guesses as to which half of the species gets the more frequent reference?
As always, Google’s ngram viewer is a wonderful tool, but a bit of an introduction is in order if you aren’t familiar with it. Read here.
So, did you guess “male,” or did you think that “female” would be spoken of more frequently? It turns out (in recent history anyway) they are referenced almost exactly equally.
In previous weeks there was some confusion about the use of the word “man” and “men” because those terms can be used to reference the entire human race, including both men and women. Thus it was difficult to distinguish how often people were speaking of men, as in males, and how often people were speaking of humanity as a whole.
Of course, when “women” are referenced more frequently than “men” it is clear that the better half of the species is actually the subject of greater discussion.
But this is not the case when the words are “male” and “female.” Since about 1920 the frequency of usage of one of the two almost exactly matches the frequency of use of the other. When they rise, they rise together. When they plateau, they plateau together. The correlation is remarkable, really.
Two other fascinating observations. For most of history we were more likely to talk about the “female” half of the human race than we were to talk about the “male” half of the race. So when there is no ambiguity (as with the word “man”) then clearly females are the subject of more spilled ink than males are. Until the last century or so, at any rate.
Second fascinating observation. For most of history our interest in talking about either gender was relatively stable. There were slight increases (1835 ish) and slight decreases, but on the whole it didn’t change much with time. Until… you guessed it… about 1960. After 1960 our interest in talking about both sexes roughly doubled over the span of only a couple of decades.
Not surprisingly, that’s around the same time that our interest in all things orgasmic seemed to steadily increase. The sudden emphasis on our sexual titillation surely played a significant role in our understanding of ourselves as humans and, to the point for this conversation, our understanding of what it means to be “male” and “female.” Hence the excessive chatter.