Yesterday, most of the comments on The communicative properties of footwear dealt with the gender associations of the word cute. This linguistic stereotype is often used as the basis of comic-strip humor, frequently in the context of shopping, as in this Foxtrot strip from a few years ago:
And (with a twist) in this Preteena from 6/24/2009:
But in fact, the word cute really is used much more often by women than by men, in modern American culture.
In a study based on a sample taken in 2004 (and described in "What men and women blog about", 7/8/2007), cute was the tenth most feminine word (as quantified by information gain), after hubby, husband, adorable, skirt, boyfriend, mommy, yummy, kisses, and gosh. But male bloggers in that sample still used cute with a frequency of 83 per million words — it's just that the female bloggers used it with a frequency of 232 per million words — about 2.8 times more often.
In a large corpus of American English telephone conversations, the apparent femininity of cute was somewhat greater, at least as measured by the ratio of female use to male use — it was used 974 times in 15,685 female conversational sides, and only 214 times in 12,589 male conversational sides, for a ratio (corrected to account for the different numbers of conversational participants) of about 3.65. In comparison, the corrected ratio for shopping was only 3.01, and pink was only 2.12. (These transcribed conversations were mostly collected in 2003, but a significant minority were collected in 1990-91.)
In fact, cute was the most female-associated adjective among several candidates that I tried:
(The raw ratios of counts are multiplied by 12589/15685 in the column labelled "corrected ratio", in order to get the ratio of rates per conversation. The average number of words per conversational side was nearly the same for the sexes, with men being about 6% talkier, so to get per-word ratios, another small correction would be needed, which would raise the corrected ratio for cute to about 3.87.)
The gender divergence was greater for several nouns, with husband being more than 15 times commoner in the women's speech, and wife about 5 times commoner in men's speech:
[Update -- Kenny Easwaran asks
[W]as there any interesting difference in use of these words based on the gender of the other conversational participant? It seems plausible that "cute" may be used more often with a female conversational partner than with a male one.
|female interlocutor||male interlocutor|
||762 in 10784
(7.06 per 100)
|212 in 4901
(4.33 per 100)
|male speaker||103 in 4901
(2.10 per 100)
|111 in 7688
(1.44 per 100)
In other words, when a female speaker had a female conversational partner, there 762 instances of cute in 10,784 conversations, for a rate of 7.06 cutes per 100 conversations. And so on…
So indeed, both women and men tended to use "cute" somewhat more often when talking with a woman than when talking with with a man.]