Barbie and Gender Bias Language in Tech

barbie3Mattel recently faced a barrage of criticism after a blogger excoriated them for the story and language of the book Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer. The book, in Barbie’s “I Can Be…” series and published in 2010, has now been discontinued. But it continues to provide an interesting look at how, while some comments and word choices may seem benign individually, when combined to represent the language of a culture, it can be seen more clearly as a subtle yet endemic problem.

Putting aside the narrative—Barbie essentially breaks her sister Skipper’s computer, then has some male friends fix it while she enjoys the credit—it is disappointing that the language used was not more carefully vetted by Mattel. Blogger and IT professional Karen Lopez provided an excellent “refactoring” of the text of the book:

In the page shown above, when Skipper asks if she can play the video game Barbie is working on, Barbie says:

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.”

This not only demeans the designer’s vital role in game creation, but makes Barbie sound less than competent. Lopez rewrites the line:

“Not yet,” explains Barbie. “I need to finish the design, then work with Steven and Brian to turn it into a game.”

The meaning of both versions is largely the same, but the belittling terms “only,” “need” and “help” have been removed or replaced. And rather than “laughing” at Skipper’s assumption that her game might actually be functional, she instead “explains” that design is one part of many in the process of game creation.

If you’ve read through the original Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer, whether on Pamela Ribon’s site or elsewhere, Casey Fiesler‘s “remix” of the book (reposted here on Slate) is a refreshing follow-up read. (Computing PhD candidate Fiesler is on the legal committee for the Organization for Transformative Works, making her remix of particular interest in regard to modern issues of copyright law. To quote from her blog, “One of my favorite things about remix: If you don’t like the narrative, change it!”)

Barbie has issued an apology on Facebook, the book’s author has commented on the controversy, and Mattel has removed the book from online distribution venues. Regardless, the internet has continued to have fun creating alternate versions of it. You can even make your own!

revised Barbie pageWhile Barbie has been no stranger to feminist debate over her long life (remember “math is hard“?) many people have been surprised at the quality and entertainment value of some other recent Barbie-related media, such as the 2009 DVD Musketeer in Pink (Barbie is D’Artagnan!) and the not-awful short video seriesBarbie Life in the Dreamhouse,” now in its fifth season.


Fun Idioms from NBC’s Constantine

Constantine TV bannerThe title character of NBC’s new show Constantine is meant to be a Liverpool-raised Londoner living in Atlanta, Georgia. Accordingly, the show uses a lot of British (and sometimes Southern American) idiomatic expressions. Here are some of my recent favorites.

The duck’s nuts“—cf. “the dog’s bollocks,” the bee’s knees” and “the cat’s pajamas.”
Gaz: “Back then we all thought John was the duck’s nuts.”

Taking the piss“—once largely unknown in the US, the expression “are you taking the piss?” usually means “are you kidding me?” This usage is gaining stateside traction.
Gaz: “I’m coming with you.”
John: “Are you taking the piss?
Gaz: “It’s my responsibility.”
John: “Forget it. You’re the last person I want by my side in this—or anything.”

Bitta” —a person who is a bit of this, a bit of that—a “bitta” everything.
John: “You’re showing flashes of precognition, retrocognition, clairtangence—you’re a real Bitta.”

Rocket surgery“—a combination of  “rocket science” and “brain surgery.” “It’s not rocket surgery” means “it’s not difficult.”

Pear-shaped“—”Everything went all pear-shaped” in British parlance means “everything went horribly wrong.”

Leave it out“—an equivalent to “I don’t want to hear it.”
Gaz: “I’m clean now, John, and it’s going to stay that way; I swear.”
John: “Oh, leave it out, Gaz; I don’t have the time.”

Read my recaps of the show at The Supernatural Fox Sisters.


Unpack Your Anti-Intersective Adjectives

I mentioned in a previous post that I would elaborate on the linguistic concepts of non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives, so here we go.

Intersective adjective: The adjective intersects with other uses of the same descriptor. A green car and a green frog are intersective in that they are both green, and green means the same thing in both cases: both the car and the frog are within the same subset: that of things that are green.

Frog Car

Frog Car photo by Darin McGrew / Creative Commons

Relative intersective adjective: These differ from regular intersective adjectives in that they are—you guessed it—relative. A big car and a big frog are both described as big, but big is a relative term—the big frog is only big in relation to other frogs, not in relation to a car. They can’t be considered as being members of the same subset, “things that are big,” without qualification.

Non-intersective adjective: This is where it gets a little weirder. Non-intersective adjectives are descriptors that may or may not describe their noun. The most frequently cited examples are words such as alleged, probable, suspected and possible. In the sentence, “A possible motive for her alleged crime is jealousy,” there may or may not be a motive, and there may or may not be a crime. Note that unlike most intersective adjectives, most non-intersective adjectives have corresponding adverb or noun forms: allegedly, probably; suspect (n), possibility.

Anti-intersective adjective: Anti-intersective, or privative, adjectives are descriptors that negate the noun—the described noun cannot be a member of its own set. The best examples of  anti-intersective adjectives are fake and counterfeit. A fake gun is never a member of the subset “things that are guns.” A counterfeit Rembrandt cannot be a member of the subset “Rembrandts.”

Non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives usually come early in adjective sequence. Using Radiohead lyrics as an example, “a fake Chinese rubber plant” is a Chinese rubber plant that is fake. If you instead said, “a Chinese fake rubber plant,” you’d be talking about a rubber plant that is fake and made in China. If you said, “a Chinese rubber fake plant,” you’d be describing a fake plant made out of Chinese rubber. The song title, “Fake Plastic Trees,” is a lyrical play on words that would be redundant in normal (non-lyrical) usage: although a rubber plant is a real plant, a plastic tree is a fake tree. In the title “Fake Plastic Trees,” both fake and plastic could qualify as anti-intersective adjectives: plastic trees are not part of the set “things that are trees,” nor are fake trees. In regular usage, although you might say “fake rubber tree/plant,” you would probably say either “fake tree” or “plastic tree,” but not fake plastic tree.”


John Oliver Calls Dingo; Truthiness Will Out

On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver recently came up with a neologism that I feel ranks with such terms as Stephen Colbert’s 2005 coinage of “truthiness.” On the subject of net neutrality, the blatant conflict of interest inherent in former cable industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler being appointed to the position of Federal Communications Commission chairman was described by Oliver as “the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.”


Not a fox, but a dingo. Photo courtesy of Matthias Siegel via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Oliver and Wheeler have traded barbs with each other since the original show aired in June 2014, thereby spreading the terminology further across the the internet. (Also note that when asked about the show at an FCC open meeting, Wheeler said that he had needed to look up “dingo,” as he hadn’t known what one was. From this statement we can infer that he was also ignorant of the popular cultural references associated with dingoes and babies.)

Several weeks later, on a show about predatory lending, Oliver slimmed the joke down to the catchy idiom, “I call dingo!” in reference to the even crazier conflicts of interest between the Texas legislature and the payday loan industry. This is a construction and usage similar to that of calling shenanigans: “shenanigans” as a noun, meaning “dishonest maneuvering,” or, more innocuously, “practical jokes” or “mischief,” goes back a few centuries, but the popularity of the accusatory construction “to call shenanigans,” meaning “to cry foul,” seems to be traceable to a 1998 episode of South Park (although Kyle declares, not calls, shenanigans):

Kyle: I’m declaring shenanigans on you! This game is rigged!
Carnie: Shenanigans?
Barbrady: [arriving] What’s all the hoo-ha?
Kyle: Officer Barbrady, I wanna declare shenanigans on this carnival operator.
Barbrady: Why?
Kyle: This game is fixed! The balls are bigger than Jennifer Love Hewitt’s mouth!
Barbrady: If that is true, then your declaration of shenanigans is just.

Neologisms are often born of necessity, and that’s what I love about these three  constructions: they all pretty much mean “bullshit” (either as a noun or an interjection), but with more specific (and timely/topical) shades of meaning, as well as having the additional benefit of being non-expletives.

Truthiness, while infrequently having been used as a synonym for “truthfulness” in centuries past, was redefined and popularized by Stephen Colbert: “Truthiness is, ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”

(Tangentially, the original dingo story, that of the murder conviction (now overturned) of Lindy Chamberlain, mother of an infant girl taken by dingoes in central Australia in 1980, could be considered a case of truthiness over truth—it is widely believed that Chamberlain and her husband were accused and convicted of murder, despite all evidence to the contrary, in large part due to a belief that Chamberlain did not appear to behave in a way that one would consider “normal” for a grieving mother. In other words, regardless of the coroner’s report, the physical evidence, witness testimony, etc., the “gut feeling” people seemed to have at the time was that Chamberlain wasn’t hysterical enough, and therefore must be guilty of infanticide.)

Now I’m sure some of the “word police,” the “wordinistas” over at Webster’s, are gonna say, “Hey, that’s not a word.” Well, anybody who knows me knows I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist — constantly telling us what is or isn’t true, or what did or didn’t happen.
——Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report (premiere episode), 2005

“Truthiness” served such a pointed and immediate need in America’s vocabulary that it was Merriam-Webster’s 2006 Word of the Year:

1. truthiness (noun)
1 : “truth that comes from the gut, not books” (Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” October 2005)
2 : “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true” (American Dialect Society, January 2006)

(Interestingly, while this definition comes from the Word of the Year link above, the word truthiness itself does not yet show up in a word query on

I call shenanigans! is most comparable in meaning to “I call bullshit!” The “I call” [bullshit/shenanigans/dingo] preface to the respective object words is a semantic pleonasm, meaning that the nouns used alone (as interjections) are understood to mean the same thing as their full idiomatic phrases—calling “dingo!” means the same thing as “calling dingo.” (Or, to be more clear, “dingo!” is synonymous with “I call dingo.”)

Dingo! or I call dingo! borrows its syntax from earlier phrases (cf. “Shotgun!“), but its meaning is distinct and precise; it refers specifically to conflicts of interest—a particular sort of political shenanigans. Besides the current usefulness of having a pithier way to say “conflict of interest,” it is a particularly nice bit of coinage in that it sounds like “Bingo!”—another called-out declaratory interjection. With the extraordinary amount of conflicts of interest in American governance today, I can envision “dingo!” becoming a meaningful and widely used term. Good on yer, John O!

The Sequence of Cumulative Adjectives

Cumulative (aka attributive) adjectives, unlike coordinate (aka correlative) adjectives, do not require commas between them when placed before their object in a sentence. While coordinate adjectives are sequentially interchangeable, there is a standard order to cumulative adjectives that most native English speakers understand intuitively without necessarily realizing it:

  1. Articles, possessives, and demonstrativesthe, her, those
  2. Time indicators: last, primary, next
  3. Words indicating amount, or counting words: twelve, few, extra
  4. Evaluating words: tiresome, pretty, difficult
  5. Words describing size: enormous, high, small
  6. Words describing shape: square, flat, oblong
  7. Words describing a condition: clean, cold, melted
  8. Age indicators: old, ancient, young
  9. Colors: green, pink, black
  10. Nationality or geographical region: American, Scandinavian
  11. Religion: Christian, Islamic, Hindu
  12. Material or composition: brick-and-mortar, silk, clay
  13. Words that are usually nouns used as adjectives: steak knife, junk drawer

See this Oxford University Press quiz for examples following this pattern. Example #7 is properly reordered to A strange small square metal box. (1+4+5+6+12+noun.) A recent article at Slate discusses the semantic development of the conventional sequence of cumulative adjectives in English (although their list is not as long nor specific as the one above).

Witch-burner & Bible-botherer James I of England

Witch-burner/Bible-botherer James I of England & Ireland/James IV of Scotland. After Paul van Somer, c. 1630.

One of the useful aspects of this sequence is the ability to change meaning, feeling or emphasis by putting cumulative adjectives in non-standard order, often for purposes of poetic allusion. Consider this line from the King James Bible:
[…] after the fire a still small voice.
Still (meaning ‘unmoving’) = #7, a condition; small = #5, size. The conventional order is reversed. See various other translations of the same verse: a voice, a soft whisper; the sound of a low whisper; a quiet, whispering voice; a sound of a gentle blowing. One can imagine King James VI and I’s scholars choosing this translation for poetic, rather than doctrinal, reasons.

(There are also such things as non-intersective and anti-intersective adjectives, which slot in between numbers 1 & 2 above, and which will be covered in a future post.)

h/t Vici Casana, M.A. of UC Berkeley Extension & We had a deal, Kyle@MeFi.


Negation as Implicature

the Night Vale Harbor and Waterfront Recreation Area never really existed, and was in no way a multimillion-dollar failure of municipal planning.

All Things Linguistic examines the use of negation in the storytelling of the fantastic and fantastical podcast Welcome to Night ValeWhere even “Not” isn’t as it seems.

Night Vale often uses negation as an implicature, similarly to use by government agencies of the Glomar response: “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the faceless old woman who lives in your home.” Listen to Radiolab‘s podcast episode on a Cold War use of the Glomar response here.

Older than you think—Not! Adding “not” at the very end of a sentence as a form of negation is not a new construction. An early OED citation is from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which she writes:

She would make a sweet, strange, troublesome, adorable wife to some man or other, but he would never have chosen her himself. Did she feel as he did? He hoped she did—not.

(More words and usages that are older than you think at this listicle at the Guardian UK.)

h/t Lexica @Metafilter

Gender Terminology, Old and New

Knowing the etymology and social history of words can be helpful in determining and remembering preferred forms. To that end, here is a very basic primer on some gender-related terminology:

Mona Kennedy

Princess Kennedy as Mona. Photo and edit: Chad Kirkland. Illustration: Paul Frame. From

Transgender: An adjective, as in transgender person. Not transgenders, as if a noun, nor transgendered, as if a verb—the -ed suffix comes with the implication that it is something that has happened or been done to someone, rather than a natural state, and is therefore not used. The difference is similar to that of  person of color (n. + pp. acting as adj.) vs. colored (adj.)/coloreds (pl. n.), although those two terms have different meanings (people of color is inclusive of colored people, but not the reverse).

Cisgender: The opposite of transgender, cisgender people’s gender identities and the physical sexual characteristics they were born with are the same.  The prefixes trans- and cis- are from Latin, and are used in the field of chemistry to describe molecular structure. The Latin trans means “across,” and cis means “on this side of”; as opposites they mean “on the same side” and “on the other side.” Cisgender woman or cis woman (a person who both identifies as, and was born with the sexual characteristics of, a female) is a term used in contrast to transgender woman or trans woman (a person who identifies as female but was born with the sexual characteristics of a male). In general usage (that is, when not specifically discussing gender issues), cis women and trans women are properly referred to as simply women. (Note that while transgender is spelled as one word, trans man and trans woman are not.)

Agender: Distinct from bigender or androgynous (meaning “both male and female”: bi- = “two”, andro- = “man”, -gynous = “having female parts”), agender (a- = “without”) is synonymous with genderless, or neutrois. Agender people sometimes use different pronouns, such as xe, thon, and hir, or may prefer the use of they as a singular pronoun. Some pronoun forms, such as he-she or shim, are usually considered derogatory and best avoided. The correct choice is always determined by the preference of the individual in question.

Trans*: The asterisk here is meant as a sort of wildcard, making trans* an umbrella term for the spectrum of non-conforming gender identities and expression: transgender, transsexual,  agender, gender-fluid, non-binary, etc.—more colloquially, genderqueer people. Its popular use has been recently increasing in discourse on gender issues. It is basically an inclusive abbreviation.

Intersex: Mentioned here as it is important to not conflate the term intersex with those above. Intersex people have hormonal, genetic, or anatomical variations that cause physical sexual ambiguity. The term is biological rather than related to sexual orientation or gender expression, and is therefore not synonymous with transgender or pansexual.

Words to avoid:

Transsexual (or Transexual): A term used in the fields of medicine and psychology in the mid-twentieth century, before it was widely understood that sexual orientation and gender identity are distinct. it is not useful as an umbrella term synonymous with transgender—not all transgender people are transsexual. It also doesn’t fit well with our more clearly defined and understood common terminology for sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, etc.). This ambiguity, along with the availability of more precise and correct terminology, makes transsexual largely obsolete.

Transvestite: the Latin vestire means “clothe,” so transvestite translates directly to “cross-dresser,” the preferred term. Transvestism can be a form of gender expression, but is not related to sexual orientation, and is not used to refer to transgender people—our traditional understanding of transvestite frequently, if not usually, has referred to cisgender, heterosexual men. The term cross-dresser means the same thing, but is clearer and not as easily confused with other sex- and gender-related terms.

Tranny, Trannie, Shemale, etc. We San Franciscans may have always thought of “tranny” as simply a word for a person who dresses in drag (as in the name of long-running local club Trannyshack), but “tranny” (and other words like it) are more often used as derogative terms for transgender people in the wider world. For this reason, the terms have fallen out of favor.

Cal’s Gender Equity Resource Center has a useful glossary of terms. Also see GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide.

Pleonastic Tautological Redundancies

See what I did there? Here are some common, yet often overlooked, examples of grammatical tautologies.

ATM machine sign

Sign at McBaker Market, San Francisco

heir apparent
end result
general public
doctorate degree
undergraduate student
root cause
old adage
major breakthrough
close proximity
final outcome

There are lots of tautological proper nouns, like the Los Angeles Angels (The the angels angels: Spanish) or Lake Tahoe (Lake the Lake: Washo). But they just are what they are.

Pleonasm can be syntactic or semantic.
Semantic pleonasm occurs when the grammar of a language allows for a word or words to be be left out of a sentence without changing the meaning. “That” is a commonly semantically pleonastic word in English:
I thought that you had read it” can be replaced by “I thought you had read it.”
Syntactic pleonasm is what we more commonly call a redundancy, such as this one taken from a popular book:
What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.