Flaw

This word was brought to my attention recently with a number of people, especially on Twitter, objecting to its use in an advertising campaign by Mattel for its Goth Barbie dolls.

Of course, this made me wonder what was really meant by the word, and how people understood it. I conducted a small survey on it, and then checked in three different dictionaries to see how their definitions compared with what people had to say. I was intrigued by one aspect of the results that I hadn’t anticipated, as you will see.

Canvassing

When I asked people for their thoughts on the word, this was how I phrased it:

Without reference to a dictionary, what does the word “flaw” mean?     

What does it bring to mind?

I received plenty of responses. The first thing that I noticed was the gender divide. You may raise your eyebrows at that, but there was a difference in the way women responded and the answers I received from men. Here are the results:

What does flaw mean? What does it bring to mind?

Response (none of these words are my own, they were all from the respondents themselves) Number of responses Number of respondents:

 

Women              Men

Imperfection          30     27                      3
Defect           9                               9
Error           6      1                       5
Deficiency           7                               7
Failing           4      1                       3
Fault           3                               3
Damaged/ in need of repair           2      2
Not up to standard           4      4
Diamonds           4      3                       1
Dog breeding           1      1
Geology/ rock formations           1      1
Normally used to describe women           6      6

Total number of responses: 77.       Total women: 46            Total men: 31

You might say that the sample size is too small to be conclusive, but I still find it intriguing that there should be a discrepancy in the way the word is viewed, not just by different people, but primarily between men and women.

Far and away the most popular response was “imperfection”, with 30 responses, followed, but not closely, by “defect” with 9. I hadn’t started out with the intention to look at how women and men use language differently, but the numbers were so obvious that I couldn’t help but notice them.

The majority of the women said “imperfection”, using exactly that word. Only three men chose “imperfection” as their response. “Defect” was an entirely male response. You might think that “defect” means the same thing, and “deficiency” or “fault” are not far away, but I am still intrigued that there seems to be a difference in the vocabulary generally preferred by men and that generally preferred by women. This was not a gender divide I had expected!

Of course, not all women responded in the same way, as you can see. One woman said “imperfection OR failing, not quite synonymous!” Another told me; “I find it a misogynistic term used proportionally more on women than men.” Only women answered that it was normally used to describe women. One woman told me that she disliked it and avoided using it for that reason. Only men, on the other hand, said “deficiency”. It did make me wonder if, in fact, men and women are speaking different languages, and why this might be. But I wouldn’t presume to speak about the psychology behind the vocabulary choices – I’ll leave that to others.

I must say that the response that surprised me the most was “dog breeding” – I had considered that some people might think of diamonds, but that was one I hadn’t anticipated at all!

A small number of people said that the word made them think of diamonds, some qualifying it with “flaws in the stones”. One person responded saying: “I think of geology, rock formations, beautiful sometimes unique landscapes.” This was also a one-off response – no one else mentioned landscapes, although you might say that diamonds fit in with the general theme of geology and rock formations.

Dictionary Definitions

Now let’s take a look at what the dictionaries have to say.

The Oxford English Dictionary states:

a mark, blemish, or other imperfection which mars a substance or object; a fault or weakness in a person’s character; a mistake or shortcoming in a plan or theory.

I was interested to see that here, an object has an imperfection, a person a fault and a plan a mistake or shortcoming. Why not an imperfection in a theory, I wondered.

I looked at two other definitions. I was struck by “an imperfection or weakness and especially one that detracts from the whole or hinders effectiveness” in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, and “a mistake or fault in something that makes it useless or less effective” in Macmillan Dictionary. The “less effective” connotation had not been mentioned by any of my respondents and was not referred to in the Oxford English Dictionary, although you might believe that it was implicit.

History

Flaw comes from Middle English, where we find the forms flay, flawe. It was used to mean “flake (of snow), splinter, spark”. Very diverse meanings, perhaps! But if you think in terms of all of these meanings referring to very small components of something, you can see how they might be related. It came into Middle English from Old Norse, which had the form flaga, used in the sense of flag, stone slab or flake. There was a cognate form in Old English; floh, meaning “fragment” – a snowflake could be seen as a “fragment of snow”, if you like!

Both of those forms came from Proto-Germanic *flago, meaning “layer of soil”. Quite a leap in meaning, but again, if we look carefully at the sense of the word, we can see how it might have happened; a layer of soil is make up of tiny pieces, fragments. The Proto-Germanic word, in turn, taces its roots back to Proto-Indo-European, and the form *plak-, signifying “broad, flat, spread out”, also related to *plat-, with similar meanings. This would make flaw a cognate of flat in modern English!

2 thoughts on “Flaw

  1. I find it interesting that men thought of the word ‘defect’ and women ‘imperfection’. Defect is a much harsher word than imperfection. I wonder if they think that women’s skin is defective on all the foundation/skin cream adverts? It shows how women internalise these messages too.

    “a fault or weakness in a person’s character” from the Oxford Dictionary is quite different to how it is used to describe women. As in the above example of adverts it is often used to describe imperfections in how a woman looks. Is how she looks part of her character now? I would certainly take issue with that.

    It is certainly a nasty word to use to describe a person’s looks or character.

    Very interesting, thanks.

  2. This is so fascinating (and what Scallops says, too). I’d love to see more on this.

    I don’t know if this will have shaped how the word is used (because I haven’t checked translations), but when I think about ‘flaw’ I think about the Latin ‘macula non est in te’ which is obviously gendered (because it’s referring to the Virgin). So there’s a long religious history of talking about women using a term that conflates physical appearance and a moral quality (I’d reckon ‘macula’ translates as ‘flaw’). I can’t figure out whether that’s relevant or not! But it might be one of the things that shapes how people think about the concept of being flawed, in terms of gender.

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