Words for girls and words for boys

Fridge word magnets. I’m sure William Carlos Williams might not have written quite the same poem about eating all the plums from the icebox if he’d only had a given set of words to rearrange, rather than choosing his own.

Like a lot of us, I was appalled a few months ago when I saw “Boys Talk” and “Girls Talk” magnets marketed in blue and pink packets. Leaving aside the irony of pretending to assist literacy while simultaneously being incapable of using a possessive apostrophe, I saw them again yesterday and realised they are still on sale. I thought the outcry had shamed Fridgemagic into stopping the line. Perhaps they have: I can’t find them on their own site, but they are still easily available from Amazon.

I’ve done a bit of analysis here: gendered word table. The facts: boys get 53 words, girls get 56. They share four: bubbles, sweets, chocolate and magic.

Boys get all transport and vehicle words, and active verbs like running, climbing and swinging. They get football and rugby (girls don’t do sport – apart from ballet. Which of course boys never do). In the long list of nouns that are purely personal adornment and clothes, the only one boys get is ‘boots’. Not make-up, lipstick, tiara or jewels. No, boots. Because you can go outside in boots to do your treehouse climbing (also both exclusively male words).

Girls get sedentary words easily confined to indoors. They are allowed to skip and dance, but not to race or swim. They can talk of love to their friends at a party, and bring their dolls and teddies. Apparently they can’t go into a forest with sticks, mud or dirt. They can keep their necklaces and beads in their handbag. Which may or may not be fluffy.

Boys can be scary. Girls can be secret. Boys get spiders, snails and caterpillars. Girls get butterflies and bunnies (apparently we must even infantalise the word ‘rabbit’ in case their brains implode).

Boys can’t have friends. Girls can’t have cars. Boys are ghosts while girls are angels.

Looking at these magnets, I’ve been through all the usual grieving stages of disbelief, anger, laughter and swearing. But remember this: somewhere, in a parallel universe a long long time ago, there was a meeting where a load of presumably quite bright people sat around and agreed all this. And thought it was ok.

Yes, I have fun with words, and take the piss out of people, and generally laugh at the world. But nobody tells me – or my daughter or son – which words we are allowed to use.

PS There is a wonderful Harry Enfield sketch about women knowing their limits. It’s two and a half minutes of genius.