Women’s distinctive vocabulary

Note: pages in our 18c Leverhulme study section were originally published on the website in 2010. Links have since been checked and updated.

Women’s distinctive vocabulary?

Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Poutasse.

EOED’s reading of a small sample of female-authored texts of the long 18th-century has identified no unambiguously clear instances of typically female vocabulary. As Judith Drake wrote in Essay in Defence of the Female Sex (1696: xxi-xxii), ‘[one] will no more be able to discern a Man’s Style from a Woman’s, than [one] can tell whether this was written with a Goose-Quill or a Gander’s’.

On the other hand, there are certainly some types of vocabulary which are heavily represented both in our reading and in OED’s quotations from some female authors:

  • Individualistic and eccentric vocabulary (see next para)
  • First quotations (i.e. OED’s earliest recorded quotation for a word or sense)
  • Vocabulary relating to domestic and household matters (see next page, Distaff and kitchen)

We have also identified a category of vocabulary, that relating to marriage and the relationship between the sexes, for which OED has missed some examples. These can be found in female- and male-authored texts (see Courtship and marriage).

Individualistic and eccentric vocabulary

Many female authors, from all periods, were quoted in the first edition of OED for usages that immediately leap to the eye as striking or unusual in one respect or another. This can easily be seen by searching for their quotations electronically and scanning the results; see Table 5 on the EOED page on Seward’s letters for an example, or go to OED Online website to compare OED quotations for, say, Aphra Behn, or Mary Wortley-Montagu, or Maria Edgeworth, or Frances Burney, or the Brontë sisters.

Given that OED1 in general cited much less generously from women’s texts than from men’s, however, it may be that the impression these word-lists give of the singularity of female diction is misleading. It seems probable, given the cultural assumptions of the time, that OED chose where possible to illustrate words and senses with quotations from male sources, and that for the core vocabulary such male-authored quotations would always have been freely available. By contrast, when looking out quotations for unusual vocabulary, the lexicographers would presumably have had far fewer quotations to choose between – perhaps only one example of a particular usage over a particular period. In these instances, they would have had to do with the material they had to hand, which would sometimes have meant quoting from a female-authored source because that was the best, or only, example available.

The result, as a general tendency, may be that the OED’s record of a female writer’s use of language misrepresents the unusualness of her diction considered over the whole body of her work. Where male authors are concerned, their unusual vocabulary, as quoted in OED, would be absorbed by the much larger proportion of ‘bread-and-butter’ examples from their work which are also quoted in OED – i.e. examples of usage typical of the language of their time. In general, though, female writers were less likely to be quoted for typical usage, so their individualistic usages form a higher proportion of their OED quotations in total. At this stage, one can only guess whether this holds true for a wide range of OED authors whether male or female (certainly there are exceptions; Elizabeth Inchbald’s 61 quotations, for example, are for words and usages that look almost uniformly unremarkable).1

First quotations

The same considerations apply here as described in the paragraph above. OED has always been particularly concerned to identify the earliest example of a particular word or sense, in order to fulfil its aim of recording every word in the language from the cradle to the grave. So despite the cultural preference for male rather than female quotation sources, if a woman’s text furnished unique evidence in this way, its linguistic value would trump the negative value of the gender of its author. Seward again furnishes a good example of this tendency. Only seven quotations are currently [as of 2009] recorded from her poetry, but four of these are for first cited usages (see Seward’s poetry and OED1), while half of the quotations from her prose are also for first quotations (see Seward’s letters). The same is true, though on a less extreme scale, for many other female writers (notably Austen). For more on first quotations see our discussion in the EOED Seward pages (First quotations).

Go to next page on for women’s vocabulary relating to domestic and household matters, Distaff and kitchen.

Last updated on 9 October 2019


  1. Studies of some sample authors in OED3 indicate that women are being treated differently in the current revision of the dictionary: Virginia Woolf, for example, is now being cited for many more run-of-the-mill usages than in the past. See further Brewer 2009d.