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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Men invent, women consent

This article about the Oxford English Corpus contains some information about usage patterns that's not surprising (link from Bookninja):
"Straight-laced" is used 66% of the time even though it should be written "strait-laced", according to lexicographers working for Oxford Dictionaries, who record the way English is spoken and written by monitoring books, television, radio and newspapers and, increasingly, websites and blogs.
...
Other examples of common mistakes include "slight of hand" instead of "sleight", "phased by" when it should be "fazed by", "butt naked" instead of the correct "buck naked" and "vocal chords" for "vocal cords."

I'm fascinated by this data, though:
The Corpus also records how some words are used almost exclusively to apply to men and others to women.

Only men seem to hijack, crouch, kidnap, rob, grin, shoot, dig, stagger, leap, invent or brandish.

Women, meanwhile, tend to be the only ones to consent, faint, sob, cohabit, undress, clutch, scorn or gossip.

The OEC's explanation of how they produce data sets like these is amazing. As an example, they compare the most common adverbs, nouns, and adjectives associated with eccentric and quirky and find that
Whereas eccentric is associated with being elderly, rich, or reclusive, quirky is most strongly associated with being humorous or youthful: collocates include playful, cute, whimsical, funny, and adorable. Unlike eccentric, quirky is not typically used of people, but rather of their behaviour and characteristics (humour, smile, etc.). Quirky is also associated with art and creativity: songs, lyrics, films, and novels may be quirky, but very rarely eccentric.

Collocation patterns rarely indicate absolute 'rules': it would not be an error to use eccentric of a young person, or quirky with reference to an old person. But collocation does indicate the implicit connotations and attitudes that go along with the language we use, and which influence our choice of one word rather than another: it feels more natural to describe a rich old uncle as eccentric and to describe his young niece as quirky, rather than the other way round.

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