Certainly we can accept that the words 'vacuous' and 'airheaded' – both of which, for example, are almost synonymous with boring – are traditionally directed solely at women, but the same would not, I think, be said about the actual word 'boring'. As such, it is clearly the Miltonic 'meaning, not the name' which must be addressed. 'Vacuous' and 'airheaded', you will have noticed, are both words associated with spatial conceptions of lack and emptiness, a coincidence which is more than merely coincidental. A brief consideration of words cognitively associated with being personally 'boring' - which I will here differentiate from an object's being boring, thereby discounting such words as 'commonplace' - reveals a multitude of semi-synonyms: dull, stuffy, uninteresting, drab, zero, vapid, wearisome, spiritless, airheaded, blank, emptied, shallow, superficial, vacant, void, thick-headed, stolid. Now, the etymological root of 'boring' is through the Old-English 'borian', related to the German 'bohren', and ties the word's meaning to the literal concept of boring into an object. Anyone who has experienced true, visceral conversational tedium will understand the aptness of linguistically associating 'being bored' with 'being bored into'. It is thus unsurprising that of the words most immediately cognitively linked with 'boring' a number rely on metaphors of spatial lack. In the table below I will ally concepts of superficiality to those of emptiness, and similarly those of stodgy opacity to metaphors of fullness, a methodological choice which may be debatable but seems to me fundamentally uncontroversial. Next to each word I have put an F (Feminine), M (Masculine) or N (Neutral) to indicate how I would place each word with regards to its gender status. Often the distinction is marginal, and frequently it is both subjective and related to a particular usage with which I am familiar (say, if my father frequently applies a particular word to a particular gender then this is obviously likely to have influenced my choice). Below, then, is something like an analysis of gendered words for 'boring' set against their cognitive association with the concept of fullness.
Metaphors of Lack/Emptiness Non-Spatial Metaphors Metaphors of Fullness
Zero (N) Uninteresting (N) Dull (M)
Vapid (F) Wearisome (N) Stuffy (M)
Boring (N) Monotonous (N) Thick-headed (M)
Spiritless (N) Tedious (N) Stolid (M)
Air-headed (F) Banal (N)
Blank (F) Dreary (M)
Shallow (N) Prosaic (N)
Vacant (F) Plain (F)
Void (N) Drab (F)
I am aware that as a method of analysis this may be considered somewhere between questionable and useless, but let's briefly assume that the tabular method has some validity. There were 4 female gendered adjectives allied to metaphors of emptiness, 2 which relied on another semantic paradigm, and 0 which were based on a metaphor of fullness. Amongst gender neutral adjectives 6 allied with metaphors of emptiness, 7 relied on other semantic paradigms and 0 related to metaphors of fullness. Of masculine gendered adjectives, 0 related to a metaphor of emptiness, 1 related to another semantic paradigm and 4 were based on a metaphor of fullness. Let us for now leave aside methodological concerns and address the clear correlation suggested here between masculine gendered words for boring/fullness and feminine gendered words for boring/emptiness. A critical commonplace, especially frequently drawn out when considering Shakespeare's puns, is the association between masculine 'things' and feminine 'no-things' in relation to reproductive organs. Lacanian psychoanalysis would push us towards an appreciation of language as gendered by the concept of 'lack': a historical-cultural association of female genitalia and wombs with emptiness and nothingness ('There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit'), whilst, inversely, the male genitalia is linguistically tied to substance and 'thingness'. If the conceptual alliance of female words for boring to metaphors of emptiness is accepted, then this might shed light on how the word 'boring' is itself used. Of course, the word is applied in a wide variety of contexts but I would like to suggest that, even for an apparently ungendered word, there is a specific set of cognitive circumstances under which it can become a conventional patriarchal, hegemonic put-down.
In a brilliantly bitter, frequently misunderstood and even more frequently misquoted essay, Christopher Hitchens once suggested an evolutionary link between women being more attractive than men and women not being funny: broadly, Hitchens apparently suggests, men have evolved to be funny in order to compensate for their grossly unattractive bodies and, it is implied, genitals. There is an infinitely greater stock of irony in most of Hitchens's later journalism than is conventionally supposed, especially by his feminist detractors - and I may as well make clear at this point that these are not views to which I personally ascribe - but for now let us take this article at its problematical face-value. If patriarchal detractors like Hitchens have often suggested that the limited personality resources of women are in some sense connected to an innate female attractiveness of body and a feminine predilection for cosmetic, superficial improvements then there would, presumably, be a series of gendered words for boring which were associated with this evolutionary trait. The gendering of such words as 'vapid' and 'airheaded' – both of which might culturally be associated with the 'blonde bimbo' archetype, think how many of the 'feminine' words linked to 'boring' also share cognitive associations with 'stupid' – plays on this interplay between attractiveness and dullness in the patriarchal vocabulary. Thus, although 'boring' is not a necessarily gendered word, I would suggest that in the context of calling women boring it is a linguistic spectre frequently invoked with many troubling implications: women are boring/unfunny because attractive; linguistic modes associated with the non-being of female genitalia provide the appropriate register for expressing this fact; and gendered vocabularies are a necessary tool of cultural-social hegemony.
One of the more infuriating tropes of internet feminism has been the recent(ish) spate of articles entitled 'What we're really saying when we...' which aspire to uncover the vast patriarchal conspiracy through the half-arsed analysis of a single word. Connected to this phenomenon has been another particularly troubling and tedious element of the feminist programme on Facebook and other social media platforms: the genuine profusion of individuals - individuals who could not be published in any forum which might check a writer's credentials – who, without any particular insight or erudition, spew their inarticulate gender rage across the internet amidst a flurry of half-baked irony and general idiocy. It was, then, with a particular concern about entering into this overwhelmingly low-brow debate that I wrote this article, and I all too well appreciate that I have no particular qualification for contributing to this kind of pseudo-linguistic, semi-feminist discourse. If I am speaking nonsense, I would love someone to explain why – I eagerly await any comments and criticism.