Monday 26 June 2017

Naughty boys and sexy girls

21st Century = equality, right?  Cathrine Norberg decided to investigate, using the New Model Corpus, a 100 million word corpus of current English drawn from the web, to see if there were any differences in the usage of the words GIRL and BOY.

Norberg started by examining verbs and found that boys are frequently associated with physical activities.  Jump, run and kick for example, were mainly found with BOY. GIRL was principally used with ‘non-movement’ verbs, like sit and wait. Play was strongly linked to BOY, although the thinking verbs, discover and understand were also exclusive to BOY, suggesting they are more curious and mentally active.  

Girls were the objects of verbs far more often than boys. The violent verbs rape, traffick, abduct, assault, attack and steal were all exclusively found with GIRL, whereas the only similar verbs with BOY as the object were beat and drown, suggesting that girls are more frequently represented as victims.  GIRL was much more frequently the object of marry, indicating that the idea of girls being ‘given’ in marriage still persists. GIRL was often used as the object of date, love, and fuck, showing that females are seen as passive objects of male sexuality.

Norberg also analysed adjectives, dividing them into three groups:

      In physical appearance, female identity was closely connected to appearance, often with sexual undertones.  Attractive and sexy are more frequent with GIRL and the use of naked suggests that there is a stronger connection between nakedness and sexuality when it is a girl who is without clothes (‘I spot a naked young boy chasing a cow’ vs. ‘...viewing naked girls was a matter of sexual delight’).  Boys were discussed in terms of their physical size, with big also used in the sense of importance.  Girls were more often described as little but in the sense of sweetness and innocence (‘...that little girl is so cute’). Young was also used more with GIRL, although freshness, in terms of girls’ sexuality, was a more common meaning than age (‘I could...enjoy this young girl’s body for pleasure…’).  Old was used more with BOY, although rarely with reference to age; more commonly it had the sense of belonging to a ‘club’.  Similar to big, old indicates male importance (‘Study finds corporate old boys have positive impact on governance reform.’)

      In personal characteristics, naughty was used for both BOY and GIRL but with a difference, often including sexual aspects for girls (‘Can you make your skirt slit any higher, you naughty girl?’) and only conduct for boys (‘We’ve got a naughty boy in school.’)  Norberg found a set of adjectives used more with GIRL that diverged from the traditional image of girls as agreeable and passive:  words like tough, crazy and popular. However, once again, many of them alluded to sexuality (‘Edith, a very pretty blonde, was the popular girl, who received lots of valentines.’)

      In roles and social identity, Norberg found that boys were associated with activity (delivery boy) whereas girls were associated with sexuality (call girl).  Only GIRL occurred with single and unmarried, indicating that females are more likely to be referred to in terms of their marital status. This also happened with nationality words like Swiss and religious terms like Christian, suggesting that females are seen as ‘others’, becoming Muslim girls, whereas males were just Muslims.

So, our language reveals that we still think in gender specific terms, sometimes to an alarming extent. Definitely not 21st century equality….


Norberg, Cathrine (2016). Naughty boys and sexy girls: The representation of young individuals in a web-based corpus of English. Journal of English Linguistics 44: 291-317.

doi: 10.1177/0075424216665672  


This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle