Men, women, and children in the Historical Thesaurus: a case study

By Marc Alexander and Kate Wild, University of Glasgow
Please note: the links in this article require subscriber access to the OED online. An interactive guide to the Historical Thesaurus is also available on open access.

The Historical Thesaurus of the OED tells us as much about speakers of English as it does about the language itself. It is therefore a rich resource for looking at how people have spoken about things, places, people or concepts throughout the 1000 years of language development charted by the OED. This feature compares the basic concepts of man and woman as they have been recorded in the Historical Thesaurus, and then briefly discusses the origin of words in the sections referring to children.

To find these, you can browse the Historical Thesaurus moving down its hierarchy through The external world and The living world, into the section People, and finally into the general category Person, where man and woman appear alongside other categories for people in various stages of life. These categories are for people in general, and so exclude specialist types of persons—so that (for example) fireman isn’t listed here, but is instead located alongside the other words for Extinguishing fire.

Opening the Thesaurus entries for man and woman and then opening the [noun] subcategories underneath them shows the ways in which words are used to refer to both men and woman in general.

Men: gomes, fellas, and cats

Firstly, clicking on the [noun] category under man lists the basic words for that concept—all those meaning simply ‘a male human’. The dates they were first recorded range from the Old English period (including gome and shalk) to the twentieth century (including mugger and son of a bitch). Browsing through the long list reveals a number of changes in meaning throughout the history of the language: harlot, for example, was used between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries to mean ‘a man’ in a sense far removed from the modern one. Clicking through to the OED‘s entry for this word shows its long history and its journey from meaning ‘knave’ to ‘an unchaste woman’ (a similar journey, although shorter, may be traced with bimbo). Back at the Thesaurus list, as the dates approach the present day there are large numbers of jocular and slang expressions—bloke (1861), dude (1918), cat (1949)—arising to complement the older, somewhat more neutral, terms.

Women: burds, smocks, and dames

We can compare the meanings and connotations of these slang terms for males (by looking at the OED definitions and quotations) with female terms (by using the [noun] category for woman). This is an illuminating way of exploring historical sexism expressed in English. Even a brief survey of the mini-definitions given in the Thesaurus browser shows the high number of words with ‘derogatory’ or ‘contemptuous’ in their meaning.

Another productive comparison can be made by looking at the size and makeup of the subcategories within the man and woman sections of the Historical Thesaurus. Only man has words for ordinary, super or virile people (and all bar one of the superman and virile man words were coined after 1832). The male subsection listing the qualities of men mirrors the female subsection listing the fact or state of being a woman, a reflection of the consequences of authors mostly being male throughout the history of English. This habit of women being the ones spoken of rather than speaking can be easily seen by looking at the OED entries for words in this category, with particular reference to the mini-biographies, links to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and the gender of authors responsible for quotations (for example, womanhood 2a or femininity).

Of particular interest are the sections for men collectively and women collectively. These betray a substantial bias in the written record, with men collectively containing a handful of words, all of which are either neutral or positive—such as the sterner, better, rougher, and stronger sex or lords of (the) creation. By contrast, women collectively is four times as large, containing such demeaning terms as tea-body, the skirt, and petticoatery. Quotations for these words also make it clear that these are terms used by men to refer to women (with the exception of some recent jocular uses). One further observation, made just by looking at the Thesaurus category names, is the existence of a subsection of woman called as a means of sexual gratification. This, needless to say, has no male equivalent.

Conversely, the sections effeminate man and man-like woman offer contrasting associations. Thus the quotations and evidence for effeminate man reveal a strong bias, at least in the written record, against such people, while this is much less pronounced in the female categories (although still present; see, for example, viragon and the later evidence for virago). This bias is also evident in their size: effeminate man is a much larger category than man-like woman. (Many further words for homosexuality and homosexuals are found in the sexual orientation section.)

Children: kippers, kids, and God forbids

While these words and subcategories of both man and woman are part of an acknowledged and established evolution of the ideas of masculinity, femininity, and equality across the history of English, there are other areas within the Thesaurus that are not part of such an established movement, and where the data itself gives us some idea of how perspectives have shifted. This can be seen in the words for children, contained in the sections young person, child, and baby or infant.

Looking at the nouns in these sections, we can build up an idea of where people acquire their vocabulary to talk about children. There are plenty of animal terms in use: children are described as young birds (chick, chicken, nestler, poult), mammals (kitling, lambkin, kid), amphibians (toad, tad, tadpole), and fish (kipper, tiddler), all of which are metaphors which emphasize a child’s small size. Plant metaphors only become frequent in the sixteenth century, with terms like budling, bud, primrose, slip, and sapling, but are rarer in other periods. More recently, in the past two centuries, terms have been coined to distinguish between different stages of childhood, giving words like toddler, pre-schooler, and pre-adolescent, and all these terms reflect the modern habit of creating groups of children for the purposes of school years or legal distinctions. Throughout this period, there are also jocular coinages and nicknames, many of which have disappeared from modern English with the usual high turnover of slang, among them bratchet, pint-size, and—even—God forbid.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. In addition to this article, Christian Kay, editor of the Historical Thesaurus has written an Introduction and a guide to Getting started with the Historical Thesaurus.
  2. As well as the Thesaurus, you can trace chronological developments using the OED‘s Timelines. Trace the introduction of words into English by subject, region, and origin, and then select words grouped by date.

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