Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

There's a word for that

I've always had a fascination for words, ever since I was little.  My becoming a writer was hardly in question from the start.  And when I found out that because of the rather byzantine rules governing teacher certification at the time, I could earn my permanent certification in biology with a master's degree in linguistics, I jumped into it with wild abandon.  (Okay, I know that's kind of strange; and for those of you who are therefore worried about my qualifications to teach science classes, allow me to point out that I also have enough graduate credit hours to equal a master's degree in biology, although I never went through the degree program itself.)

In any case, I've been a logophile for as long as I can remember, and as a result, my kids grew up in a household where incessant wordplay was the order of the day.  Witness the version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" I used to sing to my boys when they were little:
The minuscule arachnid, a spigot he traversed
Precipitation fell, the arachnid was immersed
Solar radiation
Caused evaporation
So the minuscule arachnid recommenced perambulation.
Okay, not only do I love words, I might be a little odd.  My kids developed a good vocabulary probably as much as a defense mechanism as for any other reason.

All of this is just by way of saying that I am always interested in research regarding how words are used.  And just yesterday, I ran across a set of data collected by some Dutch linguists regarding word recognition in several languages (including English) -- and when they looked at gender differences, an interesting pattern emerged.

What they did was to give a test to see if the correct definitions were known for various unfamiliar words, and then sorted them by gender.  It's a huge sample size -- there were over 500,000 respondents to the online quiz.  And they found that which words the respondents got wrong was more interesting than the ones they got right.

From the data, they compiled a list of the twelve words that men got wrong more frequently than women.  They were:
  • taffeta
  • tresses
  • bottlebrush (the plant, not the kitchen implement, which is kind of self-explanatory)
  • flouncy
  • mascarpone
  • decoupage
  • progesterone
  • wisteria
  • taupe
  • flouncing
  • peony
  • bodice
Then, there were the ones women got wrong more frequently than men:
  • codec
  • solenoid
  • golem
  • mach
  • humvee
  • claymore
  • scimitar
  • kevlar
  • paladin
  • bolshevism
  • biped
  • dreadnought
There are a lot of things that are fascinating about these lists.  The female-skewed words are largely about clothes, flowers, and cooking; the male-skewed words about machines and weapons.  (Although I have to say that I have a hard time imagining that anyone wouldn't recognize the definition of "tresses" and "scimitar.")

It's easy to read too much into this, of course; even the two words with the biggest gender-based differences (taffeta and codec) were still correctly identified by 43 and 48% of the male and female respondents, respectively.  (Although I will admit that one of the "male" words -- codec -- is the only one on either list that I wouldn't have been able to make a decent guess at.  It means "a device that compresses data to allow faster transmission," and I honestly don't think I've ever heard it used.)

It does point out, however, that however much progress we have made as a society in creating equal opportunities for the sexes, we still have a significant skew in how we teach and use language, and in the emphasis we place on different sorts of knowledge.

I was also interested in another bit of this study, which is the words that almost no one knew.  Their surveys found that the least-known nouns in the study were the following twenty words.  See how many of these you know:
  • genipap
  • futhorc
  • witenagemot
  • gossypol
  • chaulmoogra
  • brummagem
  • alsike
  • chersonese
  • cacomistle
  • yogh
  • smaragd
  • duvetyn
  • pyknic
  • fylfot
  • yataghan
  • dasyure
  • simoom
  • stibnite
  • kalian
  • didapper
As you might expect, I didn't do so well with these.  There are three I knew because they are biology-related (chaulmoogra, cacomistle, and dasyure); one I got because of my weather-obsession (simoom); one I got because my dad was a rockhound (stibnite); and one I got because of my degree in linguistics (futhorc -- and see, the MA did come in handy!).  The rest I didn't even have a guess about.  (I did look up "genipap" because it sounds like some kind of STD, and it turns out to be "a tropical American tree with edible orange fruit and useful timber.")

I'm not entirely sure what all this tells us, other than what we started with, which is that words are interesting.  At least I think so, and I'm pleased to say that my kids still do, too.  My younger, who is now 23, was home for a visit recently and wanted to know if we'd gotten any movies from the popular DVD-rental company.  He phrased it, "Do we have any Netflixen right now?"

Only someone in my family would think "ox-oxen, Netflix-Netflixen."


  1. Codec is a computer geek term, and derives from "coder-decoder" or "compression-decompression" depending on who you ask. I subscribe to the former. So the definition they give is not a particularly good one. A codec is not, generally, a device. It's usually an algorithm or set of algorithms for encoding and decoding data streams. You've probably heard of things like "mp3", which is a codec.

  2. Your take on the minuscule arachnid is clever, just need to tweak that last line.

  3. I didn't know ANY of those words!
    Pierre Bourdieu is a French sociologist who, among other things, researched the gendered use of language (in his case, middle-class French). Fascinating stuff - one of his findings was more or less that women used a "higher-class" register than men, including differences in pronunciation, tying language use to a social role of "civilizing" the family.