Designating Covid as feminine in French 'encouraged people to take it less seriously'

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
Designating Covid as feminine in French 'encouraged people to take it less seriously'
In French Covid is feminine but coronavirus is masculine. Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Making 'Covid' a feminine noun in French may have encouraged people to take the virus less seriously and take fewer precautions, according to a study at a Paris-based business school.


In the first half of 2020 - as the global pandemic raged, most of the population were under strict lockdown and scientists scrambled frantically for a cure or vaccine for the newly-discovered virus - the French language guardians at the Academie française were wrestling with a dilemma; should Covid-19 be masculine or feminine.

Eventually it was decided that it should be feminine - la Covid-19 - because it was une maladie (an illness, feminine). Whereas le coronavirus was designated masculine because it is un virus.

Reporting on this exciting development from France, the presenter of US satirical news show The Late Show joked "perhaps that's why Donald Trump doesn't take it seriously".

But that joke could have been closer to the truth than Stephen Colbert knew when he made his joke - as a study from the Paris-based business school HEC shows.


The study, conducted by Alican Mecit of SKEMA Business School and LJ Shrum and Tina M Lowrey of HEC Paris, concludes that in fact the gender of language does make a difference, and designating Covid as feminine led to people taking the danger of the illness less seriously, and taking fewer precautions against it. 

They explain: "In a series of experiments with French and Spanish speakers, we show that grammatical gender affects virus-related judgements consistent with gender stereotypes: feminine (v masculine) marked terms for the virus lead individuals to assign lower stereotypical masculine characteristics to the virus, which in turn reduces their danger perceptions.

"The effect generalises to precautionary consumer behaviour intentions (avoiding restaurants, movies, public transportation, etc) as well as to other diseases and is moderated by individual differences in chronic gender stereotyping. These effects occur even though the grammatical gender assignment is semantically arbitrary."

The study, conducted in May 2020, when France and much of the rest of the world was still under strict lockdown, asked participants to rate the perceived danger of Covid (feminine) and coronavirus (masculine) - asking native speakers of both French and Spanish.

In order to control for the difference between the words Covid and coronavirus, they also asked English-speakers, because the English language attaches no gender to objects.

The results found a small but consistent difference between the masculine and feminine words, with respondent more less likely to rate the feminine Covid as dangerous and less likely to take active precautions against the virus, as when asked about the masculine coronavirus.

All French nouns are assigned a gender and the perceived wisdom is that grammatical masculine/feminine designations have no connection with sex or gender.

Masculine or feminine: How to get the gender of French nouns (mostly) right

So the concept of une barbe (a beard) or une bite (a slang term for penis) and un sein (a breast) and un vagin (a vagina) don't seem weird to native speakers of French.


However, historical gender bias does permeate the French language, with words such as power designated masculine (le pouvoir) while weakness is feminine (la faiblesse). Meanwhile efforts are ongoing to feminise job titles such as 'president' or 'prime minister', which from a strictly grammatical point of view should be masculine, even if the role is held by a woman.

The HEC's research seems to follow in this trend by suggesting a 'weakening' of the threat posed by Covid due to its feminine gender.

The research follows a previous study in the US which found that hurricanes and storms that have a female name are more deadly than those that have a male name - despite named being assigned to storms randomly based on the alphabet. 

The study authors conclude: "Two new words are introduced into the lexicon, the words describe similar things but take different grammatical gender marks, and for one of the words (COVID-19), speakers often use the grammatical gender incorrectly. We show that a seemingly irrelevant grammatical cue affects perceptions of danger and intentions to take precautionary measures.

"Thus, even though the motivation of Academie Française for urging proper grammar usage is surely well-intentioned, it may have had unfortunate unintended consequences."


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

Tony 2024/02/17 02:58
Why can't France just admit they made a horrible mistake long ago by insisting that all nouns must have a gender. It would be so much easier if they just dropped that convention now. Because what purpose does it really serve?

See Also