Common words, uncommon meanings: Evidence for widespread gender differences in word meaning


Communication relies on a shared understanding of word meaning; however, recent evidence suggests that individual variation in meaning exists even for common nouns. Understanding where and how this variation arises is therefore integral to circumnavigating misunderstandings and facilitating more efficient communication. This study investigated the degree to which men and women ascribe different meanings to the same words. Experiment 1 used a constrained word association task where participants generated three adjectives for each of 42 words. These data were used in Experiment 2, where a separate sample judged the association strength between word pairs. Both experiments investigated the role of gender in word meaning variation and found evidence for gender-specific meaning for a substantial fraction of the 42 words (Experiment 1: 12 or 29%; Experiment 2: 13 or 31%). Experiment 2 also investigated whether conceptual diversity can be explained by gender. Using Gaussian mixture modelling, we found evidence for 62 clusters (indicating concepts), with over 30% of words mapping onto multiple concepts. Evidence for gender-specific concepts was found for nearly half (46%) of the words with multiple clusters. Moreover, gender differences in meaning were not restricted to gender-stereotypical words but included apparently neutral words as well. Altogether, the results demonstrate how male and female speakers of the same language may have slightly different conceptual representations, even of common English nouns.

In M Goldwater and F Anggoro and B Hayes and D Ong (Eds.) Proceedings of the 45th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society: Manuscript under review