Gendering Everything

(Posted by Claire Light)

A couple of years ago, the trendy pathology of choice was synesthesia: where some people’s brains cross wires and give them input from two senses at once. For example, a synesthete might hear music and simultaneously see a play of colors across his field of vision that corresponds to the sounds. The most common form of synesthesia is seeing colors in letters. That is, you read a text on a page and the letters don’t appear as black, or whatever color they’ve been given, but rather each has its own intrinsic color, which each letter always has. By the way, each synesthete will have a different set of colors to correspond to the letters. No two are alike.

Reading about the colored letters reminded me of something I had put away as a child, but which still operates for me, at a low level. I gender letters and numbers. That is to say: 1, 4, 6, 7 and 9 are male; 2, 3, 5, and 8 are female. Zero is neuter. Letters all have their genders, too, and the “operative” letters in a word tend to gender the word. “Letter” is male, because every letter in “Letter” is male. “Operative” is also male, although “a” and “v” are female. On the other hand, “gender” is a completely gender neutral word, although every letter in it is male, except for “n”. “N” is a very neutral female, and “e”, and “r” are very feminine males, “e” especially, which is brighter than the other letters.

And it’s not just male and female, as you might have already guessed. There are degrees of gender, usually expressed as a level of masculinity or femininity, although its not exactly that. It’s not so much a Kinsey scale of gendered characters and digits as it is a sort of personality. The alpha males are”d”, “u”, “y”, 9. Girly girls are “a”, “s”, 3, 8. When letters and numbers appear in combinations, the gender of each one is lost a little in the roar — much as a butch guy standing in a corner is butch, but when he’s joined by a girl and another guy, that corner is no longer so butch. Are you edging away from me yet?

Things get weirder. Months are gendered, too, but not gendered as words, if that makes any sense. The months have the gender, not the letters in their words. January, February, April, May, June, and September are female. Which puts us today on the first of a male month, 1 being of average masculinity, but July being the most butch month out of the year. It’s probably not entirely coincidentally the month of American and French independence days. I just counted and the months are equally divided, the digits are 4 female to 5 male, and the letters are 12 female to 14 male. After a quick mental survey of, well, pretty much everything else in life, I don’t think that any other systems are gendered for me in this way. But I’ll be happy to check if you think of something.

I don’t impose genders on numbers, letters and words. They’re just there. They’ve always just been there, since I learned the characters. I’ve never thought about it, and never had to. I remember the first time I told someone about this: when I was six. It was a classmate of mine in first grade, another little girl. I told her that letters and numbers were boys and girls and she agreed. We both got excited. Then we compared notes and found that we thought different letters and numbers were boys and girls and just couldn’t agree.

This was all by way of introducing myself. Hi. What does it all mean? Did I just give away really embarrassing information about myself that only I can’t see? Does anyone else do this? It’s not exactly like synesthesia, applying two senses to one stimulus, but it is applying meaning where mere perception would do. Or is it personifying objects unnecessarily?

27 Comments on “Gendering Everything”

  1. That leaves ‘Claire’ rather masculine:

    C – ?
    l – male
    a – female
    i – male
    r – male
    e – male

  2. You aren’t alone in this. Letters and numbers have always been male and female for me. How can they not be?

    I also consider letters and numbers “close” and “far away,” as if I have to reach for them in the back of a cabinet. They go in order, so M and N are the tipping-points of the alphabet, while 5 and 6 keep the line of numbers in balance.

  3. mark:
    c = female
    l = male
    a = female, and almost as bright as “e”
    i = male
    r = is actually strange, now that you point it out. it has a distinct personality, and isn’t neuter, but does seem more female sometimes and more male others. call “r” a tranny.
    e = feminine male

    the operating letters are the first letter and the “brightest” letters in the word — usually vowels or consonants with lotsa personality, like “s” and “t” and “p”. capitals also make a letter operate more. so “Claire” is definitely female, although “claire” would be less so, probably more neuter.

    that’s so cool, with the close and far away thing. i have the same tipping point thing with “m” and “n” but not with 5 and 6 because i could never figure out whether a count to ten should be 0 – 9 or 1 – 10, so there’s no balance to the digits.

  4. I don’t know what it is, but it’s fascinating! Numbers have never been gendered for me, but they have always had definite personalities. I always felt like 7 was insufferably smug, lording it over shy 6 in particular. 5 is very friendly and outgoing, and 3 is a little bit mischievious.

    I’ve also always pictured the months of the year as arranged along a cosine wave (if I remember my math correctly), if January is the high point on the y-axis–it’s a lazy slide downhill from April and May into summer, and a dreary trudge uphill into the autumn and winter.

  5. Hey, Claire. Check out the MT interface; you put your entire article “below the fold” and it’s not appearing on the main page.

    Count me as thinking that this is… well, different. What I wonder about is how granular your meanings are — for me, the identity of each individual letter is never strong to begin with, and vanishes immediately into the word when it’s written. The only time I’d notice a particular character is if it’s a highly decorative font or a nonstandard letter; a good example of this is the use of the long s in 18th-century manuscripts.

    My closest experience to this is due to bad eyesight and hearing — I frequently misunderstand a sign or what someone is saying, and I fill in the blanks with something extremely funny. Clearly it’s original with me, but my internal perception is that I’m just repeating what I hear — so it’s hard to take credit for being creative at such times.

  6. That’s hysterical.

    Can synesthetes trace their color schemes back to particular experiences? I wonder because my letters and numbers are slightly colored, but the colors correspond exactly to the magnetic alphabet set I played with as a toddler. The letters A-G also have secondary colors, from my mother having colored all my sheet music when I was learning violin. (For example, the letter “A” is red; “A-major” is dark blue.) Are synesthesia colors environmentally determined, or are they completely random?

  7. The Japanese have three different counting systems, depending on the shape of the objects. One system is for objects that are longer than they are wide (ie, phallic), one for objects that are less that way, and a third for collectives, like packs of cigarettes. Many of the numbers are the same in all three systems, but some–like 6–change radically from system to system.

    I do not know what this means.

    Of lesser strangeness to me is the convention that cats are female and dogs male. There’s a Simpsons reference to this (help me out, people). My dad always called my various childhood cats by female pronouns, even the males, no matter how vociferously I corrected him. And lots of people greet a frisky dog of unknown gender with “Hey-boy! Atsa a good boy!”

  8. Actually, the Japanese have different counters (i.e. a suffix after the number) for damn near EVERYTHING:
    -Long, narrow objects
    -Flat objects (like CDs or sheets of paper)
    -People (multiple counters depending on politeness, too)
    -Pairs of chopsticks
    -Small animals
    -Small objects

    Etc. Etc. Etc. For what it’s worth, there IS a completely neutral numbering system for if you just don’t know, though.

    Also, that whole gendered numbers/letters thing is pretty cool. Reminds me of a friend of mine who has this thing where he views Nissin’s Top Ramen as being, like, the People’s Ramen, and Maruchan as being some sort of evil overlord ramen. I don’t quite understand it myself, and I’m not entirely convinced HE does. : )

  9. jeff: i thought the post was too long to take up so much space on the page. but next time, i’ll let a paragraph show, to reel people in.

    jackie: it’s been a couple of years since i did the synesthesia research, but from what i remember, the coloring of letters comes from a variety of sources, both environmental and random. the clue that this is something other than eccentricity or imagination is that the color of the letter, once fixed, remains fixed. but go look at the link i provided above. there’s lots of fascinating stuff on the web about synesthesia.

    scott and greg: chinese also does this, but apparently in a different way. to render a noun plural, the noun (say, “paper”) must take a number (“5”) and a number word (“piece”). so you get something like “5 pieces of paper” only it’s “5 piece paper”. different categories of nouns will take different number words. i asked my linguist dad why and he said that every language has a way of categorizing nouns: indo-european languages tend to do it with declensions. i pointed out that english doesn’t have declensions, but i never got a straight answer about how english categorizes nouns.

    my (very butch, male) cat already has a complex. even though he’s bigger than your average raccoon, everyone calls him a “she” right off the bat. he tries to push me around. i think it’s reverse sexism.

    i do not understand the ramen thing at all.

  10. Claire, if it’s rude to post long essays entirely above the fold, then boy oh boy did I break the rules today. I’m following John’s style, and I don’t think he’s used a “continue reading” break elsewhere. So I’d say, go ahead and fill up all the virtual front page space you like.

  11. I always see numbers in positions. 1-12 obviously correspond to the clock. After that, all semblence of logic vanishes. The trail to infinity is this long, hilly, eventually mountainous path. Higher numbers don’t necessarily sit higher. 10,000 sits well below 6.

    I once tried to see if I’d subconsciously noodled out some mathematical formula. By high school algebra, I realized I was to right-brained to even comprehend what such a formula would be.

    Letters, though, never did anything for me. No placement or gender beyond the alphabet. Well, I do sort of see vowels and odd letters like C, Q, and Y as feminine. And Z would be androgynous. But only because you just made me think about it.

    I wonder if there are tests for how we view letters and numbers that reveal our personalities.

  12. Re: long posts —

    This isn’t LiveJournal. If your post runs long, who cares? That said, if putting stuff behind a cut makes you happy, I wholeheartedly recommend it.

  13. There’s a children’s book called The Secret Language where one of the characters talks about numbers being boys or girls.

  14. A is a closeted gay man
    B is comfortable with his masculinity
    C is a shy teenage girl
    D is slightly overbearing but friendly, like your Republican neighbor who throws the great barbecue
    E is a masculine guy, but intellectual. A coffee house type
    F is an old maid
    G is a cheerful, friendly man
    H is a fat man
    I is the woman in your office who acts like she’s the boss just because she has a six months seniority on you.
    J is a drunken frat boy who tries to start a conversation on the subway
    K is a forty year old ex hippie
    L is the First Lady (more Laura Bush and Jackie Kennedy than Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton)
    M is a shrew
    N is a nerdy man
    O is a fat man who’s slightly dim
    P is a tall thin woman who’s either a librarian or a third grade teacher
    Q is a fat man who is a philosopher or lawyer.
    R is a soccer mom
    S is completely gender neutral and devoid of personality.
    T is the manliest man, the guy women love and men want to be. Steadfast, true, a good leader, but humble. Does not take compliments well.
    U is a old man, a retired accountant who tries to keep active.
    V is a seductress.
    W is a widow who’ll never love again
    X is a flamboyant gay man
    Y is the sort of woman who can’t really relax and nags her husband and kids
    Z is a tortured artist in the mold of Picasso, Pollock and Hemingway.

  15. Claire:

    i pointed out that english doesn’t have declensions, but i never got a straight answer about how english categorizes nouns.

    This is a very fine (and perhaps completely semantic) point, but technically English does have declensions for nouns. There are just approximately six hundred thousand of them. :-P Most of the time nouns don’t have different masculine/feminine forms, but most do have different singular/plural forms (rug/rugs, story/stories, etc.). Some don’t change when they pluralize (deer/deer). In some sense, the personal pronouns do declense (real word?) across number and gender: he/him/they/them, she/her/they/them, etc.

    So, the declensions are there, they just make a whole lot less sense in English as compared to other languages. :-)

  16. Wow, this brings back memories…I was sharing with some other kids at an early age the fact that I dream in movie colour and movie action (even though I had not even seen much TV at that point – let alone movies, just been reading books mostly). I was so disappointed to learn that their dreams consisted of black & white not-very-much-action orientated moments.

    I am still pondering: what does this mean? And were they telling me the truth?

    I still fight to see an objective reality. My brain is wired to form closure rather sooner than I would like; I like to try gaining data before making a judgement, in general. Saves headaches from later on. On the other hand, I always see faces and events when I look at a fire, for example.

  17. Greg, I agree on every letter except S.

    S is a violent man with no conception of the feelings of others, perhaps due to abuse as a child.

    Incidentally, is K a male hippie or a female hippie?

  18. Aparently it is a form of synaesthesia because I have it too. Not only do I see gender in letters or numbers I see them in colours and every day objects like my toothbrush is male whereas my cupboard is female. Numbers and letters and colours also have strong personality for example yellow is very happy but can be extremely self centred, Brown is an intellectual genius but is terribly depressed most of the time because he is looked down upon by his peers, the letter N is very pompous whereas C is very calm and assertive. This can be classified as synaesthesia because in my case a visual stimulus exerts a gender/personality response.
    Anyway here are the gender’s of my letters:
    A- male
    B- female
    C- both male and female although has more masculine traits really
    D- male
    Q- a bit of both mainly female
    U- equally male and female

  19. Interesting item about Pythagorus and his scheme for giving gender to numbers. Could not find out what his take was, but mine follows

  20. I am so glad that I have found out that there are other people that think like this. Until about 5 years ago I never thought that there was anything odd about gendering letters and numbers (and colors). I never really talked about it but just thought that everyone did it. Then I was at my mom’s and she was talking about this thing she heard on pbs radio about people gendering letters and I thought SHE was crazy for not knowing that I did this. I told her that I did and she couldn’t believe it. Then she told my brother the same thing and he does it as well ( his doesn’t seem to be as strong as mine). Then a few weeks ago my preschooler was talking about the letter people at school and said that letter J was a girl at school but everyone knows that J is really a boy. I was shocked. Then my husband said that he knew about it because our son spoke to him about it. It of course has become kind of a joke because everyone in the family thinks it’s weird. I knew that other people had to have this “GIFT” as well.

    A,B,C,D – female
    E,F -male
    G – female
    H,I,J – male
    K – female
    L,M,N – male
    O,P,Q – female
    R – male
    S -female
    T – male
    U – female
    V,W,X,Y,Z – male

    some letters are more girly or manly but they are always the same so are my number
    Words don’t take on a male or female role they are just what the letters in them are. My double digit numbers do take on the role of the first # however.Like all of the 20’s are female because 2 is female. All the 40’s are male because 4 is male.

  21. hehehe…I just did a google search on this to (hopefully) show my SO that I’m not the only one who ‘senses’ gender for letters and numbers. I was a bit taken aback that the genders were not uniform for everyone…
    0 – female (not neutral…)
    1 – female
    2 – male
    3 – male
    4 – female
    5 – male
    6 – male
    7 – male
    8 – female
    9 – female

    a – f
    b – m
    c – f
    d – f
    e – m
    f – m
    g – f
    h – m
    i – m
    j – m
    k – f
    l – m
    m – m
    n – m
    o – f
    p – m
    q – f
    r – m
    s – f
    t – m
    u – f
    v – f
    w – m
    x – m
    y – m
    z – f

  22. Well, this is how I think it is:




  23. I assign genders to letters and single digit numbers too. 4, 7, and 9 are the female numbers, the rest are male. A, G, H, J, K, L, M, and Q are the female letters, the rest are male. One thing I realized when I wrote them down recently is that with both the numbers and letters the “females” comprise approximately 3/10 of the total in each set. Now I’ve been wondering if that’s just a coincidence or if subconsciously that ratio has some meaning for me.

  24. I was actually just looking on the internet to see what this is called. I thought it was a form of OCD but im not to sure anymore

    anyway for me Females are:
    A B C D G L P Q R S U Z
    2 6 7 9 12 14 16 17 19 2- 6- 7- 9-

    and males are (obviously anything else):
    E F H I J K M N O T V W X Y
    1 3 4 5 8 10 11 13 15 18 3- 4- 5- 8- 1–

    its interesting how it can be COMPLETELY different for different people

  25. Robert: Ordinal linguistic personification, unless there’s some other term that leans more toward genders than personalities.

  26. flock of sheep
    gaggle of geese
    herd of cows
    school of fish
    pack of wolves

    Is “5 piece paper” in Chinese really that hard to grasp?

    (disclaimer: I’m not a linguist.)

  27. I have done this since i could remember and just thought I was weird. Im glad im not the only one out there who gender letters and numbers. Although I dont agree on some of your genders, lol :)

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