Case Study - Issues of Gender

Case Study - Issues of Gender

This unit:

  • Looks at words for roles performed by women.
  • Shows the possibilities and limitations of corpora in exploring gender roles.
  • Uses the Historical Thesaurus of English to examine the development of vocabulary in this area.

Language, and especially vocabulary, is constantly subject to change. Often such changes will reflect material and intellectual developments in the society in which the language is spoken. In material culture, for example, the growth of computer technology has added large numbers of words to the everyday vocabulary of modern English. In the social sphere, the ways in which we use language to distinguish between male and female roles has changed considerably in response to changing work and life patterns. Such changes are especially interesting because we can track their progress in literature, the media and our own usage. In this particular case, the trend is for the language to lose terms which emphasise gender differences.


4.1 Women at work

Traditionally, English has used a range of suffixes to indicate that a woman is performing a particular role. The commonest of these is -ess (actress); others include -ette (suffragette) and -ix (gladiatrix). Compound words using -woman and -lady are also used for female participants, as are phrases such as lady novelist. -man is also used in this way, but there are no suffixes in modern English exclusively designating a male participant. The modern solution, of course, is to substitute -person.

Words of this kind can be found under various sections in the Historical Thesaurus using the affix search:

  1. Go to the Historical Thesaurus 
  2. Click on Search Menu
  3. Select Search: affix
  4. Select suffix option
  5. Select category: Performance arts
  6. Select suffix: ess

From the list of words here we can learn something about the potential pitfalls of corpus searching. Computers are excellent at picking out particular forms but less good at distinguishing examples of the same form with different functions unless the words have been tagged to achieve this. You may therefore have to trawl through lists to find the relevant examples. In this case, not all the words you will be shown refer to female persons in the theatre, since other types of words also have this form (dress, business). However, the majority designate women in various roles. Note that many of the words are first recorded in the 19th century when more women were employed in the theatre.

To see the range of words meaning 'actress', including some other suffixes, use the synonym search:

  1. Click on Search Menu
  2. Select Synonym Search
  3. Enter word: actress
  4. Choose Heading: Performance Arts
  5. Choose Performance: Actor (.actress)
  6. Click View Synonym



a) Repeat the searches above, changing the category heading to Literature.

b) Use the synonym search to find other words that you know refer to female practitioners, such as poetess, chairwoman, or neutral terms, such as spokesperson. You could also try words that are not used much, if at all, nowadays such as doctoress, teacheress, undergraduette. Note the dates when they were used. They will generally reflect the time when women became involved in such activities, but their participation was regarded as unusual and worthy of comment.


4.2 Searches using corpora

We can use the corpora introduced in Unit 2 as another way of examining how men and women are described. The TIME corpus, which contains 100 million words from the American magazine Time from 1923 to 2006, is useful in giving us an idea of frequency of use, albeit in a limited genre.

  1. Go to
  2. In the Display section, choose Chart to see words by period
  3. Enter actress as the Word(s) to search
  4. Leave all the other sections as they are, and click Search
    • Note the decades when the word was popular and when it began to decline in use.
  5. Choose List to see examples of the word in context and the total number of occurrences
  6. Repeat the process for actor, authoress, poetess, chairwoman or some of the other words mentioned above.

To get further information about the use of such words, you can repeat these searches using the two large general corpora:

BYU-BNC is a version of the British National Corpus (BNC). It is a stable corpus of 100 million words of British English, collected in the 1980s and early 1990s. It will show you which genres the words occur in.

The Corpus of American English (CAE) is a changing corpus, currently amounting to 360+ million words of American English, collected between the 1990s and the present day. It is regularly updated. It displays both genre and period, though the period covered is too short to do more than suggest linguistic change.

Both corpora offer the facility to do wildcard searches, that is they enable you to look for such things as a range of words with a similar beginning or ending. Thus typing in *person or she* will collect compound words with this ending or beginning.



c) Go to

  1. In the Display section, choose List
  2. Enter person* as the Word(s) to search
  3. Leave all the other sections as they are, and click Search
    • Explore some of the uses of these words
  4. Note the total number of occurrences and look at some examples of the word in context
  5. Repeat the searches and compare the relative frequency of spokesman, spokeswoman and spokesperson
  6. Compare American English using the CAE



Once you have collected evidence such as this, it is up to you how you interpret it: the computer can only present you with the facts. The above analyses show that actress was very common in the 1930's but declined in frequency from the 1980's. The word actor shows a corresponding increase. Actress is primarily used in journalism, both newspaper and magazine. Poetess and authoress also show a decline, and were primarily used in fiction. Some of the *person words are restricted to either British or American English. The crude totals for spokesman, spokeswoman and spokesperson give some indication of current trends. If all these pieces of evidence are taken together, it is possible to suggest a movement away from gender-specific terms, reflecting changes in society. There is likewise a movement away from terms using -man as a generic masculine covering both male and female.


d) For a change of scene, have a look at the word bidie-in in the SCOTS corpus. Bide in Scots and some older forms of English means 'live, stay with'. From this and the contexts, you can probably work out what the word means.

  1. Go to
  2. Click on Quick Search
  3. Type bidie-in into the Selection box

Scroll down the page to see frequency information and the key word displayed in a concordance. If you click on bidie-in, you will be taken to the point in the text or conversation where the word occurs. Choose a conversation to read where the use of the word is being discussed. You can also click on the audio symbol to listen to it. If you use the Advanced Search, the map facility will show you geographical information about the birthplace or residence of the people who use this word in the corpus documents. Clicking on the information symbol at the foot of the page will give you information about the participants,such as their age and occupation.


4.3 Stereotyping

The press is often accused of stereotyping people by slotting them into categories such as 'mother' or 'widow'. Both men and women tend to be defined by their marital status, number of children, age, and (especially in the case of women) appearance. Thus an expression like 'widow Mary Bloggs' assigns Mary Bloggs to a class of people with particular characteristics which the reader is expected to supply.

You can check this assertion by looking at the Chart display in any of the big corpora. Following the instructions in the previous section, type in search terms that are associated with press descriptions of people and see whether the terms appear in the Newspaper results column. Alternatively, you can use the List search, choosing the Newspaper section. Possible search terms are bachelor, spinster, mother, father, aged, blonde. Mother of * will yield expressions like 'mother of two', while *year old will yield 'twenty-five year old', etc. Bachelor especially occurs repeatedly as a classifying term in the British press, regardless of the relevance of this piece of information to the story. (Interestingly, there seem to be more mothers of two than fathers of two!) Clicking on the abbreviation in the left-hand column of the context screen will give you the exact source of the quotation.


Follow-up activity

Use some of the procedures outlined above to examine other features of words with gender connotations or other such words. For example, you could extend your examination of spinster and bachelor by going back to the corpora and looking at the adjectives that collocate with each word. Do they fall into any sort of pattern which suggests the characteristics stereotypically attributed to these groups of people? You will have to scroll through the text looking for relevant examples.

Other words you might try include husband, wife, married, unmarried, girlfriend, boyfriend, lover, other half, significant other - you can think of others yourself. You could also look at partner, a word which has developed a new meaning in recent years, and pick out examples referring to social rather than business partnerships. Depending on the information in each corpus, you can compare number of occurrences, peak periods of occurrence, and differences between British and American English. You can also compare genre - the way British newspapers use bachelor, especially as a classifying term, is quite different from its use in fiction, for example. Various wild-card searches, which are explained on the corpus websites, offer further possibilities for exploration.

If you have access to the Oxford English Dictionary, you can trace the development of your chosen words more precisely. You could also return to the Historical Thesaurus site and use the Synonym Search to look at other words available for such concepts - those for spinster are especially revealing. (Select Society, Unmarried woman (.elderly).)

If you want to extend your searches further, a large number of newspapers is available through


4.4 Forms of address

Changes are also taking place in the ways in which we address people or refer to them by title. Traditionally, men were addressed as Mr and women as Mrs or Miss, depending on their marital status. In the modern world, this latter distinction is increasingly seen as offensive or irrelevant; adult women are referred to by the neutral Ms or simply by name. To check this assertion:

  1. Go to
  2. In the Display section, choose Chart
  3. Enter Ms as the Word(s) to search
  4. Leave all the other sections as they are, and click Search
    • Note the decade in which this word came to prominence and the genre in which it is most used.
  5. Repeat the searches using and and compare the results. (Since the number of words in the corpora varies, it is relative proportions rather than absolute numbers which are of interest.)



We can see this change in progress if we look at the ways in which Mrs Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 and the first woman to hold that office, is referred to. Not all the occurrences yielded by your searches will refer to this particular person, but the majority do.

e.) Go to

  1. In the Display section, choose Chart
  2. Enter Mrs Thatcher as the Word(s) to search
  3. Leave all the other sections as they are, and click Search
  4. Repeat the search using Margaret Thatcher, Maggie Thatcher, Maggie, Ms Thatcher. Note the relative popularity of the different forms of address.

Neil Kinnock was leader of the opposition Labour Party in Britain from 1983-1992. Repeat the above search using Neil Kinnock, Mr Kinnock. The comparative frequency of these terms differs from the frequency of the Thatcher terms. There are various ways in which this might be interpreted. One possibility is that her status as a married woman was considered an essential part of her persona. Another is that writers needed to stress the fact that she was Prime Minister but also a woman. Think about this and also about why writers might use the informal form Maggie, or whether there is anything surprising about the statistics for Ms Thatcher.

f) Think about how terms of address are used among people you know. If you are female, which title do you prefer and why? If you are male, do you deduce anything from someone's use of Ms? How do you address people such as a teacher or your friends' parents? How do they address you?


4.5 Historical perspective

The Historical Thesaurus files can be used to gain insight into how terminology has developed in particular areas. Basic concepts, such as man and woman, may develop large numbers of synonyms as different aspects of meaning are pinpointed. Colloquial and slang uses are often particularly interesting. These are marked as sl (slang), cq (colloquial), and sometimes ct (contemptuous). For Old English words, { represents the letter æ, pronounced much like modern /a/, and } the letter þ, pronounced /th/.

  1. Go to
  2. Click on Search Menu
  3. Select Browse
  4. Enter word: man
  5. Choose Heading: Mankind
  6. Choose Man: man
  7. Click View Synonyms
  8. Repeat using Woman as your search word and Woman: woman at point 6.



There are large numbers of words in both sections, from the earliest words in Old English to terms introduced in the twentieth century - this seems to be an area where variety of expression is prized. A common theme in the man terms is the idea of a warrior, going right back to the Old English wæpnedman, which literally means 'weaponed man'. There are also lots of informal terms such as chap and bloke. One of the oldest words for woman is wif, developing into modern English wife, thus indicating a woman's basic role. There are also informal terms for women using metaphors of animals and clothing, and many others of a less than flattering nature.



Explore some other sections in HT which are likely to reveal attitudes to gender.

  1. Go to
  2. Click on Search Menu
  3. Select Synonym search
  4. Enter word: femininity
  5. Choose Heading: Mankind
  6. Choose Woman (.womanly qualities)
  7. Click View Synonyms
  8. Go back to the previous screen and at point 6 choose (.women collectively)
    • Note the particular qualities that are attributed to women by these words.

Repeat the searches using girl-friend, boy-friend, old man, old woman, husband, wife. Look for any ways in which the words for each pair differ. Think about whether you would use any of these words yourself, and about any other words for these concepts which you know, but which are not on the list. These may be very recent words which have not yet reached dictionaries. You could check whether they are in widespread use by doing corpus searches.


Reading (a small selection from the possibilities)

Cameron, Deborah (1995). Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.
Coates, Jennifer (2004). Women, men and Language. Harlow: Longman.
Jule, Allyson (2008). A beginner's guide to language and gender. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
Mills, Sara (1995). Feminist Stylistics. London: Routledge.
Simpson, Paul (1993). Language, Ideology and Point of View. London: Routledge, Chapter 6.
Tannen, Deborah (1994). Gender and Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wales, Katie (1996). Personal Pronouns in present-day English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.