vivacious

Last week I reported to ADS-L about this find in the NYT Magazine, 7/5/09 (Mark Leibovitch, “On the Coast of Crazy”, about Gavin Newsom, currently San Francisco’s mayor, but seeking to become the next governor of California), p. 29:

He is vivacious and something of a political thrill-seeker …

My eye was caught by vivacious, which sounded a bit odd to me used of a man. Not unacceptable, just a bit odd.

NOAD2 agrees with me:

(esp. of a woman) attractively lively and animated

(the same definition appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English). AHD4 and OED2 (which has cites from c1645 through 1900) have no usage note. Of course, dictionaries don’t always comment on connotative associations of words, even when the lexicographers are aware of them.

Raw Google webhits have “she is vivacious” slightly ahead of “he is vivacious”, but only slightly.  And the relevant OED cites are pretty well balanced (though the cites are not at all recent).

Other ADS-Lers reported an association between vivacious and femininity; in fact, Jon Lighter recalled having been told in the late ’70s that the adjective vivacious was sexist. And then Ben Zimmer linked to the Oxford English Corpus analysis, which gets at the distinction between this word and near-synonyms (like livelyanimatedsprightlyspirited) by looking at the collocates of the 680 occurrences of vivacious in the OEC. The summary:

Typically, only certain types of noun are modified by the adjective vivacious. It seems that women and especially young women are vivacious, men and boys are not (nor animals, apparently). Furthermore, the use of the word vivacious conveys something more generally about a woman’s attractiveness, hence the frequent collocation with other adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘young’, and ‘blonde’.

This is overstated (though the first sentence is hedged with “typically”), as you can see from the Google hits for “he is vivacious” and from some occurrences of “vivacious man”, e.g.:

Death of a vivacious man of letters [Tina Brown in Salon, on the death of Roy Jenkins]

Steiner comes to life as a vivacious man who developed his spiritual philosophy through a synthesis of a variety of personal influences … [Reader review of The Life and Times of Rudolf Steiner on amazon.com]

Heath Ledger was big news to me; a young, vivacious man who was an active part of the popular culture of my generation went much too soon. (link)

There are more, even sticking to recent cites (more on this below). And some hits for “vivacious boy”. Granted, “vivacious woman” and “vivacious girl” greatly outnumber their male counterparts (by roughly an order of magnitude), but vivacious used of men is certainly out there.

Nevertheless, there is undeniably a strong (though not unbreakable) association between vivacious and femininity. The question is how long this association has been around. The relevant OED2 cites, all from 1900 and before, are roughly evenly balanced between references to women and references to men, and an eye-balling of the Google hits for “vivacious man” suggests that the expression was much more common before the early 20th century than it is now. So it’s possible that the adjective started picking up its association with femininity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Checking this out would require some very careful corpus searching. If this speculation turns out to be verified, then the question is how the association arose.

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