Sunday, 25 April 2010

The gender of machinery

    It was the trainspotter that started it. Early morning on the platform at Didcot Parkway waiting for a train heading west I'd wandered the length of the platform, looked at the power station and just for the sake of some exercise retraced my steps past the waiting room and continued towards the London end.
    An EWS freight locomotive was heading north round the curve with a container train, its exhaust note oddly flatulent for a weekend morning. Mitsui OSK lines, with the cute alligator logo. I distinctly heard the middle-aged trainspotter say to his mate: "She's giving it some!". That's right, they were looking at the locomotive.
    Never having been one for attributing personalities to my  machines I've always found it ever-so-slightly creepy. Mainly because in the circles I move in the people who do it are often those who should perhaps get out more. When you park your bike or car up and the otherwise similar one next to it is polished to within an inch of its life in contrast to your own machine's squashed bugs, minor oil leaks and enthusiastically used tyres, you just know that you're about to be accosted by a character in a WWII-style leather flying jacket who's only too anxious to tell you what a right little goer his girlfriend motor is. It's always the sports car owners (present company excepted, naturally!), recognising an owner of what they consider a lesser example of the marque and wishing to assert their superiority. Faced with that, "it" becomes the automotive pronoun of choice.
    I guess there must be machines that deserve a gender. Boats, for example. But why are machines always "she"? Where are... No, don't answer that.
    To me a machine is always a thing. A clever assemblage of components designed to do something. I may will it to perform its task, for example I once willed a Volkswagen Polo with all my heart to make it to the other side of a flood (Note to self: NEVER drive under a flooded railway bridge again!), but in doing so I am not assigning personality and least of all gender. Why is it that some people feel the need to do that?


  1. Apparently Lloyds stopped gendering ships back in 82. I heard the news at the time with a faint feeling of something having lessened in The Romance Of The Sea, but I learned to live with it. Your trainspotter does sound creepy. I guess his nautical equivalent might be the sort of chap who not only knows sea shanties, but is prepared to sing 'em.

    And what about people who give names to their cars? Eh? What about them? Apart from Genevieve, of course.

  2. Guilty as charged! A few posts ago, I assigned a female gender designation to my now defunct, seventeen year old microwave oven. I don't know, there are just some things, that I like to think of in the feminine gender. If you study foreign languages you will find they assign gender to many words.

    Melissa XX

  3. My own observation is that males tend to refer to their vehicles in the female gender, while females on the other hand will refer to them in the male gender.

    Some items, on the other hand, like firearms, seem to always be refferred to in the male gender, regardless of the gender of the person using them.

    My own practice I've noticed is to only refer to finicky, touchy, annoying, uncooperative items in the female gender. Well, I call them a "bitch," anyway :-)

  4. Hehe, this sports car owner is guilty as charged on many of those counts...

    The 'MG owners *think* they own the best cars, Triumph owners *know* they do' is one that comes to mind.

    And the Spitfire is she. The V50 I have never really considered - I guess it just doesn't have the character of the Spit so I've never thought about it.


  5. @Dru: as someone who's spent more time that is healthy on the inland waterways I'd identify the floating equivalent of the flying-jacketed car owner as the man with the Dawncraft on a trailer behind his Ford Mondeo, who wears a boating outfit that stops just short of the full-on admiral. Or the narrowboating family who dress in what they imagine the operators of an 1850s coal tar barge might wear. Only without the parasites.

    @Melissa: I guess the reason I don't assign personality to my appliances is my engineering training. My microwave doesn't have a brain, it has a cavity magnetron.

    @Jamie: My friend G, whose crusty Nissan I was fettling a few weeks ago, definitely refers to her car as female. Perhaps cars on your side of the pond have a bit more testosterone.

    @Stace: Just promise me this: never wear driving gloves!

  6. And what about people who give names to their cars? Eh? What about them? Apart from Genevieve, of course

    Not guilty :) But if I had to think of a car with a name, it'd have to be

  7. Ha! -I remember walking along the stretch of the Shropshire Union canal that takes you to Llangollen via the Pontcysyllte Viaduct. It was a Bank Holiday. The narrowboats were nose-to-tail, and every one of 'em (my memory tells me)had a chap with a peaked cap that carried more scrambled egg than a crew mess breakfast tray, imperiously barking orders and guiding his craft at a stately 2 knots, while the wifie was down in the galley plotting divorce...

  8. When I realise my dream of constructing a vessel from a discarded bathtub powered by a Seagull outboard, I will buy such an outfit myself and cruise through Henley on a summer bank holiday.

  9. fun indeed! Make it a long-shaft Seagull for extra fun- I took a tiny tender out with one of those once, and it was lively as several leprechauns dancing a jig- and the moment the tiller was swung away from the centre-line, it did its damnedest to perform a barrel roll...

  10. That on the hull profile of a bathtub would be "interesting". I'm reminded of a racing kayak, the least stable thing I've ever sat on. Weil's disease, my favourite!