Ever met a dapper little man or a vivacious lady? Tim Bowen takes a look at this gender-specific word of the week.

Dapper (defined in the Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners as ‘a man who is dapper is small and wears attractive clothes that give him a tidy appearance’) is an interesting word because it is one of the small group of adjectives that are normally only applied to men. These include hunky (strong and attractive), suave (over-confident and polite) and slobbish (lazy and slovenly). Adjectives normally only used to refer to women, on the other hand, include shapely (attractive in shape), svelte (graceful and thin) and vivacious (lively and attractive). Handsome and pretty are often given as examples of gender-specific adjectives but examples of them being applied to either sex can easily be found.

An internet search for ‘a dapper little man’ revealed about a thousand examples, whereas there was only one reference to ‘a dapper little woman’. The original meaning of dapper had nothing to do with having a smart appearance, however. It is related to a number of words all of which carry the meaning of ‘heavy’, ‘thick’ and even ‘courageous’. Somewhere along the line this meaning was lost and the idea of neat and tidy took over.