Women give more shit

The following is a guest blog post by Daniel Zuchowski.

* * *

Shit (or shite) is one of the most frequently used vulgarisms, outnumbered only by fuck and bloody. But, as we know, it can also take the meaning of stuff and thus become almost entirely devoid of its obscene connotations (e.g. Take that shit to the garage, please.). And we can push it even further that way, of course. Under specific conditions, and usually preceded by a definite article, its degree of pejoration does not only equal zero – it is then used to express admiration or praise (e.g. I’m telling you, this shit is the shit!).

Inspired by the studies conducted by Prof. Tony McEnery (1999) as well as Prof. Tony McEnery and Dr. Richard Xiao (2004) in which they researched the use and general distribution pattern of fuck in British English, I decided to dive into shit to see how, if at all, its use is governed by sociolinguistic variables such as gender, age and social class.

The corpus used for this little study was the spoken component of the BNC (British National Corpus), which consists of over 10 million words collected in different contexts (from formal business or government meetings to radio shows and unscripted informal conversations). In there, I found 781 instances of shit and its morphological variants (shit, shite, shat, shitted, shits, shitting, shitty, shittiest, shitter, shittily; see Table 1).

Table 1: Morphological variants of shit.

No. Description Example
1 Noun or verb – base form shit/shite
2 Past participle shit/shat/shitted
3 3rd person singular verb or plural noun shits
4 Present participle shitting
5 Adjective shitty/shittiest (no comparative form found)
6 Noun shitter
7 Adverb shittily

The context-governed section of the BNC enables to investigate language in four domains: educational/informative, business, public/institutional and leisure. McEnery and Xiao (2004) discovered that business people throw fuck around significantly more often than any other group. In my shitty study, the situation is similar (see Table 2) – shit is 8.5 times as frequent in business as it is in leisure, and nearly 11 times as common as in the public/institutional context. What’s interesting, however, the educational/informative domain is right behind business here, which was not the case with fuck.

Draw some conclusions? We could perhaps agree that business is a domain of common arguments and disputes, which makes it a fertile ground for stronger language. Educational/informative context may be a tiny bit too sensitive for fuck, but it could perhaps get away with shit (Has a teacher ever been fired for saying shit in a classroom?). At the same time, shit still seems to be too rude for the other two domains where it needs to take the form of crap to fill the gap there.

Table 2: Domains of context-governed speech

Domain Shit per million words
Educational/Informative 8.57
Business 10.91
Public/Institutional 0
Leisure 1.28

As noted by a number of scholars (e.g. Ferguson and Heath (1981), Singleton (2000), Yule (1996)), female speakers tend to use more prestigious language forms than male speakers of the same general social background do. Forty years ago, in her book Language and Woman’s Place, Robin Lakoff attempted to explain this phenomenon and posited that if a girl “talks rough”, like a boy, she will be ostracised, scolded or made fun of. In that way the society, she suggested, keeps her in line, in her place. Lakoff also provided examples which were to be clearly recognised as a typical female and male talk:

Female: Oh dear, you’ve put the peanut butter in the refrigerator again.

Male: Shit, you’ve put the peanut butter in the refrigerator again.

Fifteen years later, Prof. David Singleton said this distinction between men and women was no longer that clear:

In Great Britain and Ireland at any rate many women now say shit no less readily than they drink pint. Whether this means that women have entirely caught up with men in the “four-letter word” stakes is not clear, but there is little doubt that – to say the very least of the matter – the gap is closing.

Prof. Singleton used to reside in Trinity College Dublin, so I’m sure he saw and heard lots, but my look at the corpus suggests that the gap between women’s and men’s bad language has not only narrowed – it has turned inside-out (see Table 3).

Table 3: Gender of speaker

Form Type Shit per million words
shit/shite Male 64.93
Female 82.03
shit/shat/shitted Male 1.01
Female 1.52
shits Male 1.02
Female 0.92
shitting Male 0.81
Female 3.67
shitty/shittiest Male 2.03
Female 2.45
shitter Male 0.41
Female 0
shittily Male 0.2
Female 0
All forms Male 70.41
Female 90.59

McEnery and Xiao showed that men demonstrate expectedly high propensity to say fuck, whereas women much lower. Therefore, I don’t think concluding here that women might have simply adopted shit in place of fuck as that less harmful swear word in order to avoid the punishment which Lakoff talked about would be too implausible.

Table 4: Age of speaker

Form Type Shit per million words
shit/shite 0–14 294.86
15–24 455.72
25–34 88.19
35–44 29.99
45–59 22.16
60+ 9.74
shit/shat/shitted 0–14 2.61
15–24 11.92
25–34 0
35–44 1.88
45–59 0
60+ 0
shits 0–14 2.61
15–24 6.78
25–34 1.8
35–44 0
45–59 0
60+ 0
shitting 0–14 13.05
15–24 13.55
25–34 0
35–44 0
45–59 0
60+ 1.77
shitty/shittiest 0–14 10.44
15–24 13.55
25–34 1.8
35–44 0.94
45–59 0
60+ 0
shitter 0–14 0.23
15–24 0
25–34 0
35–44 0
45–59 0
60+ 0
shittily 0–14 2.61
15–24 0
25–34 0
35–44 0
45–59 0
60+ 0
All forms 0–14 326.41
15–24 501.52
25–34 91.79
35–44 32.81
45–59 22.16
60+ 11.51

Young people swear as expected (see Table 4): teenagers and young adults (15–24) throw shit in every two thousand words, whereas kids (0–14) make another thousand words shitless. In the other age groups, shit is relatively infrequent and it descends as we age, with the oldest group saying shit only once in every 87 thousand words.

Table 5: Speaker social class

Form Type Shit per million words
shit/shite top or middle management, administrative or professional 67.77
junior management, supervisory or clerical 153.15
skilled manual 138.39
semi-skilled or unskilled 227.41
shit/shat/shitted top or middle management, administrative or professional 0
junior management, supervisory or clerical 6.43
skilled manual 2.8
semi-skilled or unskilled 2.23
shits top or middle management, administrative or professional 3.7
junior management, supervisory or clerical 1.29
skilled manual 0
semi-skilled or unskilled 4.46
shitting top or middle management, administrative or professional 1.23
junior management, supervisory or clerical 5.15
skilled manual 6.99
semi-skilled or unskilled 6.69
shitty/shittiest top or middle management, administrative or professional 10.44
junior management, supervisory or clerical 3.86
skilled manual 8.39
semi-skilled or unskilled 6.69
shitter top or middle management, administrative or professional 0
junior management, supervisory or clerical 1.29
skilled manual 0
semi-skilled or unskilled 0
shittily top or middle management, administrative or professional 1.23
junior management, supervisory or clerical 0
skilled manual 0
semi-skilled or unskilled 0
All forms top or middle management, administrative or professional 84.37
junior management, supervisory or clerical 171.17
skilled manual 156.57
semi-skilled or unskilled 247.48

McEnery and Xiao showed that our intuition may not be the best means to account for language phenomena. They found out that speakers from the top social class say fuck four times as often as the junior management, supervisory or clerical speakers. But skilled manual speakers use the F word more frequently than those two groups put together, and in the vocabulary of the lowest class, semi-skilled or unskilled, fuck is even more prevalent.

In this study (see Table 5), the top social class was found to use shit the least, followed by skilled manual speakers and then the junior management crowd. The semi-skilled or unskilled folks use shit most.

Table 6: Different uses of shit.

Description Example Total Rank
General expletive (Oh) Shit! 332 1
Idiomatic “set phrase” Give a shit 130 2
“Pronominal” form Like shit 72 3
Modifying negative adjective Smelling shitty animals / All the shit films 67 4
Personal insult You shit! 49 5
Literal usage Someone shat on the floor 41 6
Reference to defined entity You know all this shit 35 7
Unclassifiable due to insufficient context No, yes, shit <unclear>? 25 8
Cursing expletive Shit me! 24 9
Emphatic intensifier Shit scared 4 10
Command Eat shit! 2 11

The category scheme that I applied here is based on the scheme developed for the Lancaster Corpus of Abuse (LCA) by Prof. McEnery in 1999, but some important changes were introduced in order to reflect the nature of shit.

As shown in Table 6, shit as a general expletive makes up nearly half of all uses of shit. Second most common is idiomatic use, and then, still relatively common, shit in a “pronominal” form as well as a modifying negative adjective. The other uses of shit are employed less than once in two hundred thousand words, with telling someone to eat shit almost non-existent.

Table 7 below compares how often the different uses of shit pop up in male and female talk. It reveals that significant gaps appear in the top two categories as well as two of the less common ones. Women use shit both as a general expletive and as part of idiomatic set phrases one and a half times more often than men do, and two and a half times more often in the literal meaning of the word. Men, on the other hand, seem to favour shit as a means to point to a defined entity (almost three times as often as women do).

Table 7: Normalised frequency and rank of different uses of shit by male and female speakers.

Description Example Male Female
Shit per million words Rank Shit per million words Rank
General expletive (Oh) Shit! 28.85 1 41 1
Idiomatic “set phrase” Give a shit 10.16 2 14.69 2
“Pronominal” form Like shit 7.31 3 8.56 3
Modifying negative adjective Smelling shitty animals/All the shit films 6.29 4 7.03 4
Reference to defined entity You know all this shit 5.28 5 1.83 9
Personal insult You shit! 4.67 6 3.36 6
Literal usage Someone shat on the floor 2.64 7 6.42 5
Cursing expletive Shit me! 2.64 7 2.14 8
Unclassifiable due to insufficient context No, yes, shit <unclear>? 1.21 8 2.44 7
Emphatic intensifier Shit scared 0.4 9 0.3 10
Command Eat shit! 0.2 10 0.3 10

Having looked at the findings above, it seems pretty clear that men and women swear differently, with fuck spit out more frequently by men, and shit present more often on the tongues of women.

It would now be interesting to grab a bunch of other obscenities and conduct similar, but perhaps more detailed, studies to see if this kind of division hides in other places too. Before that, however, it would do no harm to compare my study of shit with a study conducted on a newer corpus. The BNC was compiled in the 90s and since then the use of shit could have changed. Analysing written language corpora – not only spoken language corpora – could also provide additional insights.

P.S.
As a quick experiment, I counted the use of fuck and shit in the book I wrote last year (38 thousand words), and then compared it with a small corpus (15 thousand words) of my partner’s recent emails and chats, and the results I got seem to be consistent with the study conducted for the purpose of this article: me (male) fuck – 27, shit – 7; her (female): fuck – 6, shit – 9.

9 thoughts on “Women give more shit

  1. John Cowan March 2, 2015 / 12:01 am

    Great data, but the introduction is too God-damned parochial. Two-thirds of all anglophones do not use bloody as a swear, or intensively at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • bob March 6, 2015 / 3:14 pm

      On the other hand, he did say British English. There’s English and then there’s argot. There certainly no such thing as British English.

      Like

      • John Cowan April 3, 2015 / 1:04 am

        The hell you say.

        ***

        Spock: They like you very much, but they are not the hell “your” whales.

        Dr. Gillian Taylor: I suppose they told you that.

        Spock: The hell they did.

        Like

  2. AthenaC March 2, 2015 / 2:28 am

    I love it – as a frequent user of the word “shit,” your academic examination of the word’s usage was fascinating, This is fucking fabulous shit!

    Like

  3. eflnotes March 2, 2015 / 3:53 pm

    neat thanks

    it is interesting to note that the difference between females and males drops when crosstabulating with type of interaction in spoken text (monologue vs dialogue) from a LL (lLog-likelihood) score of about 10 to about 3

    did you also try using the BNC64 (http://corpora.lancs.ac.uk/bnc64/) to look at differences?

    ta
    mura

    Like

  4. MercuryPearson March 5, 2015 / 8:53 am

    From the title I was concerned the article would be misogynistic, but the theme and contents of the article turned that around. I enjoyed this! Kudos to the data and research you did, as well. I found this entertaining and interesting.

    Like

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