Inflection

April 2, 2021 life, patriarchy

Oliver Wendall Holmes said that the substance of the law is hidden in the interstices of procedure. Had he survived much longer into a time when gender studies were part of the curriculum, he might have said that sexism is hidden in the interstices of language usage.

Inflection is a grammar term for distinctions made to some root word. In most modern Indo-European languages noun and adjective inflections in declensions are classified as masculine and feminine. Although the application is not totally consistent, it’s usually possible to pick up whether something being referred to is also a man or a woman.

English, to a greater extent than most of its precursors has shed these distinctions. Many are disappearing constructs from Latin/French terms such as aviatrix (aviator), waitress (waiter) and the like. The only common adjective preserving a gendered distinction is “blond/blonde.”

English, however, is ever resourceful and has a rich usage vocabulary that is gendered. That is, descriptions of similar behavior vary as to the gender of the subject, similarly to the irregularly conjugated verbs1

Below is a table of words and phrases used to describe behavior. I was appalled to find this many of the contrasts to be so unexpected. I could excuse myself on account of coming to adolescence around the time that Mad Men was set. In me these are deep-seated cognitive biases that belie my self-image as a guy who “got” feminism from the late Sixties.

We are all prisoners of usage.

dominant subordinate
accede surrender
adaptable flighty
adversity travails
ambitious scheming
anxious frightened
arbitrary capricious
assertive pushy
averse sissy
awesome notable
awful horrid
bastard bitch
blue depressed
boffin witch
bold spunky
bow curtsey
brave long-suffering
bright brainy
brilliant sparkling
buff mannish
buttoned-down tighly wound
buzzed drunk
candid indiscrete
carefree abandoned
careful cautious
careless reckless
cautious indecisive
charming flirtacious
cheerful perky
childish girlish
choked up sobbing
chunky rolly-poly little fat faced girl
civil nice
clerk secretary
clever conceited
cold frigid
comforting smoothering
commanding bossy
concerned worried
confused incoherent
corrupt whoring
courageous spunky
cowardly shrinking
crafty scheming
crass coarse
crazy mad
critical catty
cruel mean
dashing fast
demanding tight-ass
dependable dutiful
dirty filthy
disagreeable replusive
discerning snobby
distinuished senior
dodge shirk
dominate influence
embarrassed ashamed
energetic frantic
enthusiastic bubbly
escape flee
exacting impossible to please
excel good at
exceptional out-of-the-ordinary
excited hysterical
exhuberant wanton
exposed vulnerable
family man single mom
fastidious fussy
fat piggy
forceful strident
forthright forward
free careless
good-looking pretty
great above-average
grouchy crabby
guarded secretive
gung ho aflutter
handsome cute
harsh unloving
helpful interfering
hesitant fearful
hot-headed uncontrolled
idiotic dumb
imaginative unrealistic
immature girlish
impressive unusual
inattentive oblivious
incandesent bubbly
incompetent hopeless
independent professional unemployed
independent standoffish
indolent lazy
industrious plodding
inebriated drunk
inexact slovenly
innovative screwy
inquisitive snoopy
inspired copycat
introspective self-centered
inventive scheming
invite present
irascible bitchy
irritable on the rag
jock woman athlete
lacking incomplete
leader enabler
lean skinny
leery suspicious
left behind abandoned
lethargic slothful
libertine whore
lively spirited
loud shrill
love-lorn desperate
lucky blessed
making out putting out
marches to a different drummer loopy
mature old
meticulous picky
micromanaging overconrolling
misfortunate got what’s coming
morose moody
nervous agitated
nimble evasive
normal ordinary
open inviting
optimistic prayerful
out-of-line uppity
outstanding controversial
overweight fat
patronizing infantilizing
persistent nagging
personable anxious to please
pessimistic gloomy
petulant pouty
playing the field sleeping around
pleasing ingratiating
polite sweet
popular loose
powerful influential
praise exalt
precise persnickedy
precocious premature
proud vain
quarterback coordinator
quick premature
reckless wanton
refined dainty
refreshed radiant
regular likeable
relaxed loose
reluctant afraid
respectful deferential
reticent secretive
retiring shy
romantic seductive
rumpled dumpy
rustic crass
sad devastated
self-absorbed egotistical
self-effacing wallflower
self-sufficient empowered
sensitive touchy
serious frowny
shady past has a reputation
short diminuative
shout screetch
solid gravid
sowing oats promiscuity
spontaneous impulsive
steady plodding
steady staid
stern withholding
stout fireplug
straight arrow controlling
strong mannish
subpar below average
take down emasculate
tearful crying
tedious boring
thorough fussbudgety
tolerant permissive
triumph survive
unassuming mousy
undergraduate coed
unemotional frigid
unguarded unchaste
upbeat bubbly
upright uptight
vigorous energetic
volatile unstable
well-groomed made-over
well-rounded unspecialized

  1. I’m a sparkling conversationalist. You do tend to go on a bit. She’s a crashing bore.↩︎