Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 3 September 2007

French computer sex

I have a question to which I am confident there is an answer but one for which I don’t want to know the answer: In French who decides what gender something is? Before the 1940s the expression ‘computer’ existed but it referred to someone who performed calculations, not to a machine, so, when the term ‘computer’ was finally assimilated into our daily lives who in France decided if its computers were male or female?

The French for ‘the computer’ is l’ordinateur which, because the French drop off the vowel in le and la when it precedes a noun beginning with a vowel, doesn’t help; is it le ordinateur (male) or la ordinateur (female)?

I could look it up but I like the mystery. I like the idea of some Département de l'attribution du genre aux objets neuters (Department of the Assignation of Gender to Neutral Objects), in a little dusty office off the Rue de le something-or-other inhabited by a secret society of ancient Gauls sitting around trying to determine whether a camcorder is male (which it is) or a DVD is female (actually it’s male too).

I knew a man once who explained that a chair (la chaise) was female because you sat in it – very Freudian – but it didn’t ring true with me then and it doesn’t now.

I’m sure there is an explanation and it’s probably that the people choose, the first person who uses the word has the honour to pick its gender, like the naming of a star or a hurricane. The thing is, I don’t really want to know. The question has always delighted me on its own merits not as a thing to be answered. It stands besides such gems as: How many angels can fit on the tip of a needle? and Why don’t you love me anymore?

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