Is ‘lovely’ a girly word?

Q: Sixty-six years ago, my high-school Latin teacher interrupted a lesson to digress about the word “lovely.” He said it’s used only by women in describing another woman. My late wife used it a few times, always to express admiration for a woman. Was my Latin teacher right?

A: Is “lovely” a girly word, one largely avoided by guys? Over the last century many people have said as much, including respected linguists. The two of us have a feeling that this may be true, but intuition isn’t evidence.

The “lovely” we’re talking doesn’t merely mean beautiful. The adjective is also used figuratively to express approval or admiration, as in “a lovely idea,” or “a lovely thing to say,” or “he’s ugly as sin but he’s a lovely old man.” And it’s used sarcastically too, as in “lovely weather we’re having” when there’s a hurricane on the way.

Differences between men’s and women’s speech have long fascinated researchers in the field. But until recently there hasn’t been much hard data analyzing the actual speech of men and women and measuring the frequency with which they use particular adjectives. What evidence there is about “lovely” isn’t definitive.

In the early 1920s, the philologist J. M. Steadman began asking students at Emory University to collect lists of words they avoided using for one reason or another. They were given ten weeks to collect their lists, which Steadman compiled over the years and later analyzed in a series of articles.

Among the taboo words was “lovely,” which appeared on a list of 194 words that the college students—both men and women—considered affected. But more significantly, “lovely” scored high on a list of 44 words regarded by both sexes as effeminate, alongside “charming,” “adorable,” “cute,” “sweet,” “darling,” and “divine.”

As Steadman comments, “The most curious thing about the attitude towards effeminate words is that this classification (which was not suggested to the students) was made independently by both the men and the women, while no student classified any taboo words as masculine.” (From the journal American Speech: “A Study of Verbal Taboos,” April 1935, and “Affected and Effeminate Words,” February 1938.)

The view of “lovely” as an effeminate word gained ground in the 1970s, when the linguist Robin Lakoff included it in a set of adjectives that, when used figuratively to show approval or admiration, seemed “to be largely confined to women’s speech.” (Others in the “women only” column were “adorable,” “charming,” “sweet,” and “divine.”)

Lakoff says the similar figurative use of “great,” “terrific,” “cool,” and “neat” was “neutral as to sex”—that is, found equally in the speech of men and women. (From “Language and Woman’s Place,” a paper published in the journal Language and Society, April 1973; her book of the same title followed in 1975.)

She adds that some categories of men—academics, ministers, “hippies,” and upper-class Englishmen—can get away with using “the words listed in the ‘women’s’ column,” but only among themselves. Her evidence, she notes, was based largely on her own observations.

Lakoff’s findings prompted a flurry of similar work through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, with some linguists supporting her conclusions and some disputing them.

However, none of the scholarly research done in the 20th century was based on measurable data taken from recorded speech and showing how real men and women actually talk. That kind of evidence has become available only in the last 15 years or so, thanks to digitized collections of transcribed speech.

Yet even these new research tools haven’t settled the question. Some scholars analyze such data and conclude that men and women use adjectives differently; others disagree or say the results are ambiguous or the methodology is faulty.

For instance, two linguists in the “ambiguous” camp published a paper in 2018 challenging the notion of “lovely” as a woman’s word. They found that men used it slightly more than women in the large database they analyzed, which was compiled from speech recorded at the University of Michigan. But though they found a quantitative difference, they didn’t see it as important.

The two linguists, Shala Barczewska and Agata Andreasen, said that the difference in the use of “lovely” was minor, and that neither sex used it much. Their conclusion: “Although the difference is not statistically significant, and limited to one particular genre, it does suggest that Lakoff’s intuitions may have been off and more work should be done into the notion of ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ adjectives.”

(From “Good or Marvelous? Pretty, Cute or Lovely? Male and Female Adjective Use in MICASE,” published in December 2018 in Suvremena Lingvistika, a Croatian journal devoted to language and gender. Barczewska and Andreasen analyzed the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English, a database of 1.85 million words recorded in 1997-2002 in college classrooms, lectures, seminars, office hours, meetings, student presentations, and so on.)

In Lakoff’s defense, she did say back in 1973 that male academics were more likely to use “lovely”-type words than men in other occupations. And Barczewska and Andreasen themselves acknowledge that the database they used was limited to “the context of university life.”

A larger database than the Michigan collection, and one not confined to a college setting, is the speech section of the British National Corpus. It’s huge—about 10 million words transcribed from thousands of interviews and conversations in the 1990s in a wide variety of contexts, both public and private.

As the linguist Paul Baker has written, in the spoken BNC database the frequency of “lovely” per million words “is 433.97 for females and 134.35 for males, so we could conclude that females say lovely about three times as much as males—quite a large difference.” (From his book Using Corpora to Analyze Gender, 2014.)

But those numbers are misleading. For the most part, Baker notes, the men in the BNC were recorded at the workplace and the women at home. That would influence the atmosphere, the subjects discussed, and the vocabulary used. As Baker says, “When males and females are compared in similar settings, the amount of difference reduces.”

Closer scrutiny of the BNC data reveals a less stereotypical picture. “The majority of males and females in the corpus did not say lovely,” Baker writes, and “the word is not distributed equally across the speakers.” He notes that one woman, who contributed 1,974 words of speech, used “lovely” 27 times. “In fact, over half of the female utterances of lovely were made by just 36 speakers (or 2.6% of the female speakers in the BNC).”

In short, he says, “This is a relatively rare word for both males and females, with a few atypical females using it a lot.” He concludes that “a focus on just the differences does not reveal the full picture—we also need to take into account the fact that any group of speakers that are compared (including men vs men or women vs women) will produce differences.”

So as of now, scholars are divided as to whether (and how, and why) gender affects language. Work in the field continues, but keep in mind that people’s speech changes with the times—probably faster than speech databases can keep up. The English spoken 25 or 30 years ago, when some of that speech was recorded, isn’t the English spoken today.

Our guess is that as time goes by, differences in the way people use words like “lovely”—if gender differences indeed exist—will get narrower and narrower.

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Is ‘lovely’ a girly word?