The spinster returns?

Not long ago on Twitter, where my handle is @wordspinster, I made a joke about the recent announcement that Facebook has now become FACEBOOK. ‘Should I rebrand as WORDSPINSTER’, I tweeted, ‘or is that just silly?’

But some people who saw this tweet either hadn’t followed the FACEBOOK story or else they didn’t make the connection. They thought I might be planning to extend the use of my Twitter handle to other domains—this blog, for instance—and they didn’t think that was a great idea, because of the negative associations of the word ‘spinster’.

Choosing @wordspinster as my handle was another joke, and to get it you need to know a bit of English linguistic and social history. The ‘-ster’ in ‘spinster’ comes from the Old English feminine agentive suffix ‘-estre’, which could be added to verb-stems to form occupational titles. The last names ‘Brewster’ and ‘Baxter’, for instance, were once terms denoting women whose job was brewing or baking. ‘Spinster’ meant a woman whose occupation was spinning yarn.

Spinning, in fact, was the prototypical female occupation: though there is some uncertainty about, in one historian’s words, ‘the relative importance of age, marital status, and husband’s occupation in determining which women spun’, by the early 17th century ‘spinster’ had become the legal term that designated unmarried women in general (a status it would retain until the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005). About a hundred years later, written evidence shows that ‘spinster’ had started to be used in the way it is mainly used today: as a pejorative label akin to ‘old maid‘, applied to women who were no longer young, but who had not succeeded in finding husbands.

My Twitter-name ‘wordspinster’ was meant to riff on the modern pejorative meaning of ‘spinster’ (since I myself am no longer young, and there’s no chance I’ll ever have a husband), while also alluding to the original occupational meaning (since you could say my job involves ‘spinning words’). It was, in addition, a nod to those feminists—most notably Mary Daly—who had promoted ‘spinster’ as a positive term.bspinster (Daly’s definition, recorded in her Wickedary, was ‘a woman whose occupation is to Spin, to participate in the whirling movement of creation; one who has chosen her Self, who defines her Self by choice neither in relation to children nor to men; one who is Self-identified; a whirling dervish, Spiraling in New Time/Space’.) I’m not sure who I thought would appreciate this joke—which seems even more obscure now I’ve written this lengthy explanation of it—but hell, it’s only Twitter, and it gave me a certain satisfaction.

Anyway, by one of those strange coincidences that sometimes happen on social media, while I was sorting out the confusion my tweet had caused, the writer Becky Kleanthous tweeted a link to a piece she’d written which also raised the issue of ‘spinster’ and its negative associations. It was prompted by the reaction to something the actor Emma Watson, who will turn 30 next year, had said in an interview with Vogue: 

It took me a long time, but I’m very happy [being single]. I call it being self-partnered.

For this Watson was pilloried on social media. Some critics re-stated the common-sense belief that no woman really wants to be single: a female celebrity who says she’s happy that way is either lying to conceal her shame, or hoping to attract attention by saying something ‘controversial’. Others focused on the term ‘self-partnered’, which was criticised for being pretentious, narcissistic and, as one man commented (in a bravura display of missing the point), ‘utterly offputting to potential suitors’.

I’ll admit to finding ‘self-partnered’ a rather peculiar expression myself—a bit like Gwyneth Paltrow’s description of splitting up with that bloke from Coldplay as ‘conscious uncoupling’. But it’s not hard to see why Watson might have chosen it. Reminiscent of Mary Daly’s ‘one who has chosen her Self’, ‘self-partnered’ presents the single woman not as a failure or a freak, but as someone who chooses, and values, her independence. Which led Becky Kleanthous to float an idea: instead of resorting to new-agey neologisms, ‘what’, she asked, ‘if single women embraced the pejorative label “spinster”?’

This is not a new suggestion. Since the 19th century there have been periodic calls for women to reclaim both the word and the status it names. In 2015, when Kate Bolick published a well-received book entitled Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own, there was a spate of think-pieces asserting that the shame was over and the spinster’s time had come. But evidently it wasn’t and it hadn’t. The word is still being avoided, unless a speaker is being ironic (Emma Watson could not have told Vogue, unironically, ‘I’m very happy being single. I call it being a spinster’), and it still elicits strongly negative reactions. In 2005, when ‘spinster’ ceased to be the official legal term for unmarried women, even the radical lesbian feminist Julie Bindel declared that she was glad to see it go. ‘The word’, she wrote, ‘is not reclaimable’. But what is it that makes ‘spinster’ so resistant to rehabilitation? If ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ are considered reclaimable (by some feminists, at least), why should ‘spinster’ be a harder nut to crack?

To answer that question, we need to look more closely at what kind of pejorative label ‘spinster’ is. And one way of doing that is to compare it with its supposed male equivalent, ‘bachelor’. The basic definition of both terms is ‘an unmarried person’: in theory the only difference between them is that ‘spinster’ refers to a female person whereas ‘bachelor’ names a male one. But if you look at the way they’re used in practice, it’s obvious their meanings are not the same.

One person who has investigated the differences is the corpus linguist Paul Baker. When he examined the use of ‘bachelor’ in the British National Corpus (BNC), he found that although it can have negative overtones (suggesting that a man is socially isolated, or hinting that he is secretly gay), more commonly the bachelor is a happy heterosexual, attractive to women and envied by other men. Calling a man a ‘bachelor’, regardless of his age, need not imply that he will never marry, and certainly not that he is celibate. The BNC contains many examples like these:

I believe he was a real bachelor with a ravishing mistress tucked away

Certainly in his bachelor days Johnnie Spencer was the catch of the county

Calling a woman a ‘spinster’, by contrast, does generally imply that her single status is permanent, unchosen and probably resented. In the BNC, Baker finds, spinsters are recurrently described as ‘unattractive, plain, sex-starved or sexually frustrated’. He also observes that whereas the carefree ‘eligible’ bachelor is a familiar figure, the ‘happy young spinster’ is not. aspinsterIt’s not that unmarried women can’t be happy, young and ‘eligible’, but if they are, we avoid the label ‘spinster’. No one would throw a ‘spinster party’ for a bride-to-be, or commission a reality TV show called ‘The Spinster’. For the not-yet-married-but-still-desirable woman we prefer to use words derived from the more positive male term, like ‘bachelorette‘ and the (now archaic but once popular) ‘bachelor girl’. Both terms, incidentally, were first recorded in the 1890s: ‘spinster’-avoidance isn’t new.

This evidence about its usage (and avoidance) suggests a reason why ‘spinster’ might be harder to reclaim than ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’. As Julie Bindel remarked in 2005, the word ‘will never sound sassy or cool’. I think that goes to the heart of the problem: ‘spinster’ is associated with two things which are negatively evaluated in both mainstream and most contemporary feminist culture. One is sexual inactivity; the other is ageing. A bitch can be celebrated for her sassiness, and a slut (not unlike the bachelor) for her sexual adventurousness, but what can anyone find to celebrate about an older women who doesn’t have sex?

There’s a more general point to be made here about the project of reclaiming negative terms. Word meanings don’t change in a social vacuum: they change when there’s a shift in our cultural narratives, the stories we use words to tell. What’s behind our negative reactions to ‘spinster’, and the consequent failure of attempts to rehabilitate it, is the negativity of the prevailing cultural narratives about both female ageing and women without men.

As Clare Anderson points out in a recent book on this subject, ageing in women is almost invariably represented as an inexorable process of decline. This is the dominant narrative in literature on women’s health, in the fashion and lifestyle advice doled out by women’s magazines, and in the discourse of the beauty industry, which typically locates the onset of decline in a woman’s late 20s (after which it’s downhill all the way).

In the interviews she conducted with women and men about their personal experiences of getting older, Anderson found that although middle-aged and older women were critical of the ‘ageing as decline’ narrative, they still tended to reproduce its presuppositions when they talked about themselves, whereas the men she interviewed did not. In their late 40s and 50s, these men felt they were in their prime: they said they were happier, more confident and more at ease with their bodies than they had been when they were younger. Women of the same age reported more or less the opposite. As much as many of them disliked the prevailing discourse, their language suggested they had internalised it.

This ageist and sexist narrative doesn’t just affect women over 40. ageIt’s also the basis for what Emma Watson experienced–the public dissection of her feelings about (still) being single at 29. The modern beauty and advice industries have made a speciality of telling women what they’re supposed to feel in their 20s, 30s, 40s, etc: Anderson and others call this ‘decadism’. If the end of a woman’s 20s marks the beginning of her long decline, then she can be expected to feel anxiety about being single: she knows the clock is ticking and her time is running out. And if, like Watson, she says that isn’t how she feels, people either don’t believe her or else they think there must be something wrong with her.

The same rules do not apply to male celebrities, or indeed to men in general. Not only is it assumed that a 30-year old man still has plenty of time to find the right one and settle down, it won’t be held against him if he never does. He will remain an ‘eligible bachelor’ for at least another 25 years. His female counterpart, on the other hand, had better get her skates on, before the once-eligible bachelorette turns into a frustrated and embittered old spinster.

Feminist attempts to reclaim ‘spinster’ have channelled the spirit of the old slogan ‘a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle’: they have celebrated the joys of independence and the freedom to please yourself. But what the response to Emma Watson’s ‘self-partnered’ comment illustrates is that for many people, a woman without a man is more like a fish out of water. Until that story changes, along with the story that men get better with age while women peak early and then decline, I don’t think many single women will embrace the label ‘spinster’. It will remain either an insult or—like my Twitter handle—an old crone’s joke.

Out of humour

I say I say I say, have you heard the one about a new study showing that men are funnier than women? Probably, because every media outlet in the universe has picked it up and rehashed it, from the BBC and Science Daily to Malaysia News and Reddit. Which is no surprise, because it’s a gift to the media, a perfect example of ‘soundbite science’. But if you read this blog regularly you will also have heard the one about why it pays to take a closer look at these sex-difference stories. And guess what, I’m going to tell that one again.

I’ll start by summarising the research itself, as described by one of the researchers, Gil Greengross, in Psychology Today. What he and his colleagues did was a meta-analysis: rather than carrying out their own experiment, they combined the statistical findings of 28 previous studies and calculated the overall size of the effect they were interested in, which was the effect of gender on funniness—or as they called it, ‘humor ability’.

In the studies they selected, one set of experimental subjects had been given some cartoons and asked to come up with amusing captions; another set of subjects then rated the funniness of each caption on a numerical scale. Crucially, the raters didn’t know if the caption they were reading had been written by a man or a woman. If they’d known, their judgments could have been influenced by the stereotype of women as less funny than men. The studies had been designed to investigate whether there was any basis for that stereotype. Would women still be judged less funny by people who had no way of knowing they were women?

The short answer turned out to be ‘yes’. As the Psychology Today piece explains,

In statistical technical terms, the effect size was 0.32, or roughly one-third of the standard deviation. In plain English, this means that 63 percent of men score above the mean humor ability of women. This is considered a small to medium difference.

Evidently aware that such findings often attract criticism, and are frequently misinterpreted, Greengross goes on to assure us that yes, they did look for possible confounding factors (e.g., if there were cultural differences which calculations based on aggregated data were masking, or if there were more male than female raters, which might skew the ratings in men’s favour because men prefer the humour of other men); and no, they weren’t saying that all men are funnier than all women. Some women are very funny, and the most successful female comedians are funnier than 99% of men. Their claim was only that men on average are funnier than women on average.

Greengross then turns to the question of why that might be the case, and tells a story I have discussed on this blog before, in fact more than once, because it features in some accounts of the evolution of human language. It’s about sexual selection, the concept developed by Darwin to explain evolved traits like the peacock’s tail, which can’t have been selected because it made the bird better adapted to its environment (it’s hard to fly away from predators trailing that monster); rather it was favoured because it was attractive to potential mates, ensuring that big-tailed peacocks passed their genes to more offspring.

Peacocks are animals that ‘lek’, display themselves at mating time so that peahens can judge their fitness. The idea is that being funny serves a similar purpose for humans: it’s a form of display put on by men so women can assess how good they’ll be as mates. ‘Humor’, Greengross notes, ‘is strongly correlated with intelligence’. He also reminds us that women advertising on dating sites often mention humour as an important quality in men, whereas men are less interested in whether a woman is funny.  The principle that ‘males do the courting and females do the choosing’ explains why ‘humor ability’ has been selected for in male humans, but not in females, whose reproductive success is not enhanced by it.

This explanation presupposes that ‘humor ability’ has a significant genetic component; but couldn’t being funny be a learned skill which is more common or better developed in men because they get more opportunity or encouragement to practise it? The researchers, it transpires, did consider that possibility, but they dismissed it on the grounds that

There is minimal evidence to support the view that our society suppresses women from producing and exhibiting humor.

Mate, stop it, my sides are going to split—because this has to be a joke, right? You do realise that there’s a long tradition of discourse, both expert and popular, which ‘suppresses women from producing humor’ by telling them that they’re no good at it, it’s unfeminine, and men don’t find it attractive; and you do understand that YOUR OWN STUDY SITS SQUARELY IN THAT TRADITION? Oh, and while we’re on the subject, it presumably hasn’t escaped your notice that saying ‘men have more humor ability than women’ followed by ‘humor is highly correlated with intelligence’ will lead a lot of people to deduce the proposition ‘men are more intelligent than women’—which you wouldn’t be suggesting in all seriousness, would you?

So far I haven’t questioned the central claim made for this meta-analysis: that it confirms the robustness of the effect it investigated (i.e., sex affects funniness and men are funnier than women). Here are a few reasons why I think that claim needs to be at least qualified, and possibly rejected.

First, the studies used in the meta-analysis were chosen because they investigated the same question using a similar experimental design, which elicited evidence of people’s ‘humor ability’ by asking them to write funny captions for cartoon images. Presumably this task was used because it’s something you can get people to do in a lab, and because a written caption does not reveal the writer’s sex (whereas a recording of them telling a joke or a funny story would). But how good a proxy is captioning cartoons for the general ability to be funny?

I would say, not very good. Most everyday humour is produced spontaneously in the course of interaction, typically with people you know, like and have things in common with, and whose reactions guide your performance from moment to moment. The lab cartoon-captioning task reproduces none of these features. It requires subjects to be funny on command (not spontaneously), in isolation (not in a social group) and in writing (not speech), for an absent audience of strangers whose reactions they can only guess at. To me that makes it a dubious basis on which to generalise about ‘humor ability’. At best, the analysis shows that in lab conditions men write funnier cartoon captions than women—not that they’re funnier across the board.

Second, the finding that men are funnier than women is based on averaging the numerical scores given to subjects’ captions by the judges. But what do these numbers correspond to? Clearly, judges’ ratings must reflect their subjective response to a caption, but how, if at all, does that response relate to the caption-writer’s abilities? The problem is that there’s a lot of variation, individual as well as cultural, in what people find funny. If a judge rates one caption as a 2 and another as a 4, is that because of some objective quality of the two captions—the second is simply funnier than the first–or does it just reflect the judge’s preference for certain kinds of jokes over others? In short, can we have any confidence that these numbers are a useful measure of ‘humor ability’?

I’m sceptical, to be honest. I’m not convinced there’s such a thing as ‘humor ability’, and if there is, as I’ve already said, I have trouble seeing the very specific skill of writing funny cartoon captions as a fair test of it. It’s a test most of us would probably fail: back in 2011, in a Psychology Today piece criticising one of these studies, Ben Hayden noted that the commonest score awarded to captions, regardless of the writer’s sex, had been 1, which meant ‘not funny at all’. ‘That indicates’, he comments, that ‘the experimental subjects were not well-matched to the test—they were just swinging wildly’. They were like the proverbial roomful of typing monkeys, only in the field of cartoon-captioning rather than Shakespearean drama.

Third, even if we do trust the numbers, what the meta-analysis reports is only, as Greengross acknowledges, a ‘small to medium difference’. The effect-sizes reported in meta-analytic studies are generally described using a scale that goes from very small/slight to very large, so this effect isn’t even at the mid-point: to put it in context, it’s smaller than the reported effect of sex on spelling accuracy, and much smaller than the reported effect of sex on the distance someone can throw an object. As sex-differences go, it’s not a biggie. (Yet another ‘men are funnier’ study discussed in Psychology Today in 2011 found a difference so slight that even one of the authors described it as ‘just on the edge of detectability’–and he meant, by using statistical methods, not just observation.) Even liberally sprinkled with the words ‘on average’, the statement ‘men are funnier than women’ gives a misleading impression, because what ‘funnier’ means to most people is ‘noticeably funnier’: it implies a difference large enough to be significant in the ordinary rather than the purely statistical sense.

There are, then, a number of reasons to query the presentation of this meta-analysis as  clear confirmation that ‘men are funnier than women’. But my biggest problem with it isn’t the design of the studies analysed, the conclusions drawn by the researchers, or the exaggeration of their significance by the media: it’s the fact that this kind of research is seen as worth doing in the first place.

Think about it: in what other case would anyone design a study to investigate whether there’s a basis for some entrenched negative stereotype of a social group? ‘Is it true that poor people are lazier than rich ones?’ Nope. ‘Are Jews/Scots/Yorkshiremen really meaner than other people with money?’ Nope to the nth power. It would be utterly offensive: no one would fund it and the ethics committee would never approve it. Sex-differences, though, are always potential research fodder. And when the frame, as in this case, is evolutionary psychology, they will always turn out to be explained by the supposed—though in reality often misrepresented–activities of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, and beyond that, by the irreducible difference between the sperm and the egg.

Actually, let me go back a step: it’s not true that all sex-differences are potential research fodder. As Caroline Criado Perez shows in her book Invisible Women, in many areas where women are consequentially different from men, whether it’s the way their bodies respond to drugs or their patterns of travel on public transport, there’s a huge data gap because the differences have not been investigated systematically. Research that would have a positive effect on women’s lives does not get done; yet there’s always room for one more study explaining that women are rubbish at something—maths, map reading, being funny–because biology. (Or alternatively, that women are better than men at something trivial or menial, like nappy-changing or keeping track of people’s birthdays.)

I hope what I’ve just said explains why I think it’s important to challenge claims like ‘men are (on average) funnier than women’. In fact, as I’ve said before, I think the way we talk about who is or isn’t funny matters in its own right: the proposition that ‘Xs have no sense of humour’ has a long history of being used to dehumanise the group in question, and ‘Xs aren’t as funny as Ys’ can also, as noted earlier, be code for ‘they’re not as intelligent’. But even when the difference under discussion really is trivial (for instance, a study once found that female shoppers spend more time browsing than their male counterparts—like their prehistoric ancestors they are natural foragers, whereas men are mighty hunters), it must be seen as part of a larger enterprise, in which the point of cataloguing sex-differences is ultimately to affirm that the sexes are not just different, they are different in ways that make equality a pipe-dream. The meta-message being communicated is ‘women, know your limits’.

Whenever we hear this message we should remember that the whole history of feminism is a story of women refusing to accept the limits imposed by their societies—limits which have always been represented as ‘natural’ rather than man-made. Once, scientists maintained that if women were admitted to universities, the intellectual stress would cause their ovaries to shrivel. Now we recognise that as just self-serving male chauvinist nonsense. The claims made by many scientists today are destined to end up in the same dustbin. Let’s use our intelligence and our ‘humor ability’ to speed them on their way.

We need to talk about rape

Content note: this post does what its title suggests

When is a rape not a rape? The answer, apparently, is ‘most of the time’.  Of more than 58,000 rapes reported to the police in England and Wales last year, only 1758 resulted in anyone being charged with rape, let alone convicted. Of course there are legitimate reasons why some cases aren’t pursued. Some rapists are never caught; some complainants are too traumatised to participate in the long and gruelling process of bringing a perpetrator to justice. (And yes, a small percentage of reports—as with any crime—may turn out on investigation to be untrue.) But the number of reported rapes that disappear into the void—that get ‘no-crimed’, reclassified, put on the back burner, or abruptly dropped without charge—suggests a deeper and more systemic problem. As EVAW, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, said last month, the chance that a rapist will be convicted is now so small, rape is ‘effectively being decriminalised’.

Language can also make rape disappear. When I called this post ‘we need to talk about rape’, what I meant was that we need to talk about the word ‘rape’: how it’s used, when it’s avoided, and how that both reflects and contributes to a culture of impunity and injustice.

Earlier this year, when the victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird expressed concern about the low rate of rape convictions, one critic accused the QC and former Solicitor-General of failing to grasp a fundamental principle of the justice system. ‘The jury’ he mansplained,

is there to ensure that what gains a rape conviction is what the general society agrees is indeed rape. That’s actually the point.

Though I do not draw the same conclusion this writer does–that the system is working as it should–he is surely right to say that the treatment of rape in the justice system is affected by ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’. From a feminist perspective that’s exactly the problem: what is generally agreed to be rape overlaps only partially with what women experience and report as rape, or even with what the law defines as rape. There’s a mismatch between the legal definition (which in England and Wales, as in many other modern jurisdictions, centres on the absence of consent, or of a ‘reasonable belief’ in consent) and the common-sense understanding people carry in their heads.

One place where you can see this mismatch is in language, which is both an expression of our cultural common sense and a means through which it is reproduced. That’s why I think it’s instructive to examine the way words like ‘rape’ are used–or, just as importantly, not used–in public discourse. Here I’m going to concentrate mainly on the language of the media, whose reporting both reflects and shapes public opinion. How do the media talk about rape? What tacit assumptions underlie their linguistic choices?

I’ll start with a case that made headlines at the end of August, when Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of the victims of the now-deceased child abuser and trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, made a public statement in which she described three coerced sexual encounters with Prince Andrew. (For the record, he denies this.) The first two took place when she was 17, and in Florida, where she made a sworn statement of these facts in 2011, a 17-year old is below the legal age of consent. It is also illegal, not just in Florida but in most jurisdictions, to make use of the sexual services of a person under the age of 18. Furthermore, Giuffre’s statement made clear that even if she had possessed the legal capacity to consent, she was not, and did not act like, a willing participant.

If ‘rape’ means sex without consent, then what Giuffre alleged in her statement was rape (or in legal terms, possibly, depending on the details, sexual assault). But as a number of people noted on Twitter, the word ‘rape’ did not appear in any of the news reports, which in most cases used the formula ‘forced to have sex’. Though ‘forced’ obviously implies coercion, those who tweeted about it saw ‘forced to have sex’ as a euphemism, deliberately avoiding the strongest term the English language makes available for describing non-consensual sex. And many evidently suspected that the reason for that avoidance was Andrew’s status as a member of the royal family.

My own explanation is different. While I’m sure the media were keen to avoid suggesting that the Queen’s son might be a rapist, the fact is that they also avoid the term ‘rape’ (or ‘alleged rape’) in many ‘ordinary’ cases. This avoidance, as we’ll see, reflects various assumptions about what rape is and what it isn’t. In this case, I think the basis for those assumptions was not the status of the people involved but the context in which their encounters took place.

‘Forced to have sex’ is an agent-deleted passive: once you make it active, you see that the grammatical subject and semantic agent of the verb ‘force’ is not Prince Andrew but Jeffrey Epstein. The underlying structure, in other words, is ‘A forced B to have sex with C’. And in this scenario, where one man (let’s call him a pimp) makes a contract with another (a punter–though in this case not a paying punter: girls were ‘loaned’ to Epstein’s associates without charge), we do not generally call either man’s actions ‘rape’. We only think of it as rape when the two roles, forcing someone to have sex and actually having sex with them, are played by the same individual.

It is also typically assumed that sexual encounters of this type must be consensual by definition, because that’s what punters pay for, and because women who sell or are sold for sex have neither the right nor any reason to refuse (prostitutes who make rape complaints tend to get particularly short shrift from the police.) Repulsive though feminists may find them, these assumptions are widely accepted, and they explain why the word ‘rape’ is rarely considered applicable to this kind of situation.

But it should not be thought that this is the only context in which the media prefer formulas that do not contain the ‘R-word’; the same avoidance can be observed in almost all contexts. Jane Gilmore, the Australian feminist behind the ‘Fixed It’ project, where she takes a red pen to sexist headlines and publishes a screenshot of her amended version with the caption ‘here you go [name of media outlet], I fixed it for you’, is particularly exercised by the persistent use of the word ‘sex’ rather than ‘rape’ in reports on rape cases, even though the media could meet their legal obligation not to prejudice criminal proceedings simply by adding the modifier ‘alleged’. cropped-fixedit_ex-cop-rape-400x468.jpgAs Gilmore says, this is not how they approach the reporting of other crimes which no one has yet been convicted of. If someone is accused of stealing a car, the media feel no need to describe them as merely ‘driving’ the car until a jury has convicted them of theft. Even if their defence is ‘I was driving it with the owner’s permission’, words like ‘theft’ or ‘steal’ won’t be completely off-limits. ‘Rape’, however, is a different matter.

I came to similar conclusions while researching an article for the TES on the language used in media reports on child sexual abuse. The reports I read, especially on cases involving adolescent girls, showed a marked reluctance to use either the word ‘rape’ or other words implying criminality, like ‘assault’ or ‘abuse’. For instance, teachers who had been charged with abusing a position of trust were most commonly said to have ‘had sex with’ the teenage pupils they solicited; sometimes they were said to have had a ‘relationship’ or an ‘affair’. The language, in other words, was drawn from the register we would normally use to talk about sex or romance between consenting adults—even when the teacher was a serial offender preying on pupils as young as 13, and even in reports published after he had been convicted.

Why are reports on cases involving children so cautious about words like ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’? I did wonder if it might be because the actual charge in most of these cases isn’t rape (offences against minors have other names, like ‘sexual activity with a child’). But on reflection I concluded that the charge was not the issue: the avoidance had more to do with two other factors.

One of these factors is a reluctance to use words which imply violence in cases where the perpetrator used emotional and psychological manipulation rather than force or threats. This is how many child abusers operate. In a talk I heard recently about the case of Larry Nassar, the US gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of girls over a period of two decades, the journalist Lindsey Smith (who, with her colleague Kate Wells, covered the case for Michigan public radio, and went on to tell some of the survivors’ stories in the award-winning podcast Believed) explained that the main reason Nassar got away with it for so long was his ability to win the trust both of his victims and of their parents and coaches. Teachers who exploit their pupils also rely on trust; perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that the ‘abuse of a position of trust’ cases were the ones where formulas like ‘had sex/a relationship/an affair with’ were most consistently favoured. By using this language, though, the media just repeat the gaslighting which enables this form of abuse to flourish.

The second factor is a tendency to deny or gloss over the power imbalance between adult men and adolescent girls. The language of ‘relationships’ and ‘affairs’ implicitly affirms what Jeffrey Epstein argued explicitly–that teenage girls should not be thought of as vulnerable children. They may be technically underage, but in reality they are sexually and socially mature adults: they neither need nor want protection from the sexual attentions of older men.

Sometimes the denial of girls’ vulnerability is taken to the next level, by representing them as more powerful, calculating and in control than the men who have exploited them. This victim-blaming story is quite often told in court. At one trial in 2015, the judge said, of a 44-year old teacher who had just been convicted of abusing a position of trust by having sex with a 16-year old pupil, that he had been ‘groomed’ by an ‘intelligent and manipulative girl’. Another adolescent victim was described as a vindictive ‘bunny boiler’.

This portrayal of adult men as the real victims, ensnared and manipulated by predatory teenage girls, is a good example of what the philosopher Kate Manne calls ‘himpathy’, our socialised tendency to feel a man’s pain more easily and keenly than we would feel a woman’s, and to give him, wherever possible, the benefit of the doubt. That tendency provides another motive for not naming men’s actions as rape: since everyone agrees that rape is a particularly heinous crime, we must be ultra-cautious about making such a damaging accusation. We see this concern about ruining men’s lives in everything from the reluctance of judges to punish young men with promising futures to the demand that defendants in rape cases should be granted the same anonymity as their victims. Though the world is full of men who have been accused of rape and have not lost everything (think of Roman Polanski and Donald Trump), this may be yet another reason why  people so often shy away from the R-word.

Himpathy can influence attitudes to rape in other, less obvious ways. Earlier this month, the Court of Protection delivered a judgment in the case of a cognitively impaired man who wanted to have sexual relationships, but who had no understanding of consent. In the past he had behaved ‘inappropriately’ towards women, and his carers, worried that he might be arrested for reasons he was unable to comprehend, had put measures in place to prevent this. The judge, however, ruled that those measures infringed his fundamental rights. He was entitled, as she put it, ‘to make the same mistakes which all human beings can, and do, make in the course of a lifetime’.

As the lawyer Ann Olivarius commented on Twitter, the judge seemed wholly indifferent to the consequences of her ruling for the women this man’s carers believed he would victimise. In fact, she actively minimised the threat he posed to women by reframing it in bland, euphemistic language. Talking about ‘mistakes which all human beings can and do make in the course of a lifetime’ suggests that the issue is something commonplace and relatively minor–like the possibility the man might cause offence or embarrassment by making clumsy and unwelcome advances. In reality his carers feared he would commit a serious sexual offence. Few people would describe raping someone as a ‘mistake’, and certainly not as the kind of mistake that ‘all human beings can and do make’ (especially if we think women count as human beings). Of course, the judge could hardly have said, in so many words, ‘this man should have the same freedom to rape women as all other men’. But if you can get past the silences and the euphemisms, is that not, in essence, what her ruling does say?

This year, schools in England and Wales will be required to teach their pupils what the law says about sexual consent. Young people will learn that you have to be 16 to give consent, and that sex without consent is illegal. But outside the classroom the same young people will encounter large quantities of discourse in which non-consensual sexual acts, including acts involving minors, are described in terms that either normalise them (‘sex’, ‘relationship’, ‘affair’) or trivialise them (‘behave inappropriately’, ‘make mistakes’). Which of these conflicting messages do we think they will retain?

We need to talk about rape—by which I mean, talk about it as rape. EHcdN-TVUAAaSgZThe legal definition may have changed, but ‘what the general society agrees is indeed rape’ is still, in many ways, closer to the view Susan Estrich critiqued in her 1987 book Real Rape, according to which rape was only ‘real’ if it involved a savage attack by a stranger on a woman of blameless reputation. (The reporting of this kind of case is the one context in which we don’t see any avoidance of the R-word.) If we want to change the current consensus, we need (among other things) to stop using, or tolerating, language that makes the reality of rape disappear.

 

Postscript

Since I originally wrote this post, two high-profile news stories have underlined its point about the way language is used to downgrade the seriousness of sexual violence against women and children, and to cloak the reality of violence in vagueness and euphemism. They’ve also demonstrated that this isn’t just an English language problem.

In Spain there have been street protests following the decision of a court in Barcelona that six men who gang-raped a 14-year old girl in Manresa in 2016 could only be found guilty of the lesser charge of ‘abusing’ her, because they did not use ‘violence or intimidation’. They didn’t have to, because drink and drugs had rendered their victim incapable of resistance. Although the Spanish penal code does not recognise ‘rape’ as a specific offence (the more serious crime is ‘sexual assault’), ‘rape’ was the word protesters used in denouncing the ruling and calling for the law to be changed to frame the offence in terms of (non-)consent. ‘No es abuso, es violación’–‘It’s not abuse, it’s rape’–they chanted.

In France, the actor Adèle Haenel gave an interview in which she recounted her experience, between the ages of 12 and 15, of being abused by the director Christophe Ruggia. I have chosen the word ‘abused’ because Haenel was a child at the time. The details she has given do not suggest rape (i.e. penetration), but they do indicate a sustained pattern of abusive behaviour–forced touching/kissing and constant unwanted sexual attention–by a much older man towards a minor girl he had power over. But media reports, as usual, preferred other words, like ‘sexual harassment’ (as used in reports on #MeToo cases involving adults in the entertainment industry), and in the case of Screen Daily, the old-fashioned, euphemistic ‘molest’ and ‘molestation’.

What we see in these cases is a pattern whereby the language used, by the courts and/or the media, systematically downgrades the seriousness of whatever behaviour has been complained of. Gang-rape becomes ‘abuse’; child abuse becomes ‘harassment’ or ‘molestation’ (and as we saw at the height of #MeToo, harassment becomes ‘inappropriate behaviour’). The repetition of these formulas establishes them as the ‘official’ reality.

But the Spanish case shows how powerful it can be to challenge this linguistic downgrading. abuse Even where the word ‘rape’ has been removed from the penal code, it remains meaningful–and potent–in everyday language. The protestors are saying, in effect, ‘your patriarchal law cannot define our experience; its language does not speak for us’. (The cartoon alongside captures this sentiment: it’s captioned ‘sorry, but the only one who can decide if you were raped or not is me’.) Spanish feminists have insisted on talking about rape as rape; they have foregrounded the naming of the crime in chants and hashtags (#NoEsAbusoEsViolacion). Wherever we see the same kind of linguistic avoidance and downgrading, we should follow their example.

The illustrations are reproduced from Jane Gilmore’s ‘Fixed It’ project, from the Denver Post (h/t Twitter correspondents Jarvis Good and EwokNews), and from the Facebook page of Campus Relatoras (h/t Pilar Cuder Domínguez)

Bullshit: the struggle goes on

When it comes to the way she speaks, a woman’s place is in the wrong. It’s a point I’ve made frequently on this blog, and last week brought a reminder of how true it continues to be. On the same day I published a post inspired by criticisms of Greta Thunberg’s ‘strident’ speech to the UN Climate Action summit (‘strident’ being a code-word for women who express their views in an ‘excessively and unpleasantly forceful way’), the Times Education Supplement published a piece complaining that women don’t speak forcefully enough. It started like this:

“I’m sorry, I’m no expert on this but could we possibly…”

Have you ever heard yourself say something like this to your team?

I certainly have and I cringe to think how I must have come across.

Such phrases can make women appear weak or ineffective to colleagues, which in turn may affect whether they are promoted or tapped on the shoulder for forthcoming opportunities. These phrases are also in stark contrast to the way some men big themselves up.

And such linguistic differences have a tangible impact: researchers have found that subjective views of men and women vary enormously, with women far more likely to be described as indecisive, inept and panicky.

This piece is an excellent example of the generic formula I laid out in a 2015 post called ‘How to write a bullshit article about women’s language‘. When I first saw it, I thought: ‘you’ve already dealt with that, let it go’. But then I thought: if the bullshit-merchants have no shame about repeating themselves, their critics shouldn’t either. It’s a bit like the battle to contain infectious diseases: even if you’ve been immunized in the past, you may still need an occasional booster shot. So, here’s a reminder of what makes this article, and others like it, such pernicious nonsense.

Problem 1: do women really talk like that?

‘Have you ever heard yourself say something like this to your team?’ is what my O level Latin teacher used to call ‘a question expecting the answer yes’. But is ‘yes’ the true answer? Do women-in-general really spend their working lives saying things like ‘sorry, I’m no expert, but could we possibly…’?

I ask because the example is clearly invented. It hasn’t been taken from a real-life workplace interaction, it’s been constructed by someone who’s trying to shoehorn the Big Three female deadly sins (apologising, self-deprecation, hedging) into a single utterance. It isn’t, in short, evidence of anything, except our willingness to believe a certain story about the way women habitually talk.

If you’re thinking the evidence will be presented later on, I’m sorry (sic) to have to disappoint you: all we get is an anecdote about a nameless woman-in-a-meeting who allegedly uttered the word ‘sorry’ 32 times in an hour. Even if this is a true story, a single individual is not a representative sample from which to draw general conclusions about half of humanity. And if you feel you recognise yourself or your co-workers in anecdotes like this, remember that your personal intuitions aren’t reliable evidence either—not least because they’ve probably been influenced by reading dozens of pieces just like this one.

Problem 2: do the ways of speaking the writer criticises mean what she claims? 

The people who write these articles take the meaning of the various expressions they castigate women for using to be both obvious and invariant. ‘Sorry’ means you’re putting yourself in the wrong; hedges like ‘could we possibly’ and ‘just’ mean you have no confidence in your own opinion; ‘I’m no expert’ means you’re disclaiming any authority to pronounce on the issue at hand. No wonder, taken together, they make women sound ‘weak and ineffective’!

But this is a massive oversimplification: in reality, the same linguistic form can have several different communicative functions. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, ‘sorry’ and ‘just’ are good examples. ‘Just’ can be used for emphasis, as in Nike’s ‘Just Do It’; the existence of the phrase ‘sorry not sorry’ shows that ordinary speakers understand the potential for ‘sorry’ to be used in thoroughly unapologetic ways (like the snarky way I used it myself earlier on).

The prefatory formula ‘I’m not an expert’ is a similar case. A search for examples on Twitter confirmed that it’s not always used in a genuinely self-deprecating way, to mean ‘ignore me, I don’t know what I’m talking about’. On the contrary, its most common function seems to be (a) suggesting that some previously expressed view is mistaken, and (b) marking the speaker’s own view as obvious common sense. For instance:

I’m no expert in these things but I don’t think people who send death threats tend to write them by hand on monogrammed notepaper

I’m no legal expert but I don’t think Rudy Giuliani is helping his client by going on TV, sweating profusely and voice cracking, saying that he was working on behalf of the State Dept when he pressed Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden.

I’m no expert, but I don’t think removing UK nationality from UK citizens overseas was on the ballot

Used in this way, ‘I’m no expert, but…’ does not downgrade the speaker’s claim to knowledge; rather it implies that the speaker knows better than whoever came up with the claim she’s ‘politely’ (i.e., sarcastically) contradicting.

Of course, there are cases where speakers do want to emphasise their lack of certainty. In the tweets I looked at, they tended to do that by using ‘I’m no expert’, or some variation on it, not as a preface to an assertion, but in a disclaimer following it. There’s an example in the tweet reproduced below, which was accompanied by a photo of an insect:

X found this beauty under our front porch table. My guide suggests Capnodis, a buprestid (jewel beetle). (But I’m no expert, that might be complete nonsense!)

So, what ‘I’m no expert’ communicates can vary, and one clue (though the pattern isn’t totally consistent) is its position in the utterance. As a preface, especially when followed by ‘but I don’t think…’, it’s unlikely to be heard as self-deprecating and ‘weak’.

Problem 3: if ‘research’ is cited, has it been represented accurately?

At this point you might be thinking: OK, but most people don’t subject everything anyone says to a deep linguistic analysis. They go by first impressions, and according to the TES writer there’s evidence that this works against women:

…linguistic differences have a tangible impact: researchers have found that subjective views of men and women vary enormously, with women far more likely to be described as indecisive, inept and panicky.

This sentence invites readers to infer that research has shown a causal relationship between the propositions on either side of the colon. It implies that women’s ‘linguistic differences’ from men are the basis on which they are judged to be ‘indecisive, inept and panicky’. But if you click on the link the writer provides and read the text it takes you to, you soon discover that the research she’s citing does not show, or claim to show, any such thing.

What you get if you click the link is a piece published in the Harvard Business Review, summarising a study in which researchers compared the words that were used about male and female leaders in a sample of more than 80,000 military performance evaluations. Although men and women scored similarly on various ‘objective’ measures of performance, these more subjective assessments of their strengths and weaknesses showed striking differences, as displayed in the graphic below:

W180511_SMITH_MANAGERSUSE-850x576

This study belongs to a growing body of work which seeks to uncover covert biases in organisations’ hiring, promotion and funding decisions by looking for sex-differentiated and/or gender-stereotyped patterns of word-choice in (for instance) job advertisements, performance evaluations and grant proposals. The existence and potential significance of this kind of bias is not in doubt; but what does it have to do with women’s alleged use of a ‘weak and ineffective’ speech-style?

The answer is, ‘nothing, so far as we can tell’. Apart from being about language, the claims made by these researchers are entirely unrelated to the contention that women’s style of speaking has a tangible impact on the way others perceive them. As is often the case in bullshit articles about women’s language, the allusion to what ‘researchers have found’ is just window-dressing: at best it’s irrelevant, and at worst it’s downright misleading.

Problem 4: is the writer proposing a workable solution to whatever she’s identified as a problem?  

Articles about women’s language are big on avoidance, and many of the things they tell women to avoid are conventional markers of politeness. The writers seem to think formulas like ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and ‘could we possibly’ are mere fluff: they add nothing of substance and can therefore be dispensed with. But while it’s true they contribute little substantive information, they are crucial to maintaining the interpersonal relationships on which successful communication also depends. Dispensing with them will not make you sound, in the TES writer’s words, ‘courageous and authentic’; more likely it will make you sound uncooperative or even hostile.

This problem becomes evident when you look at the way advice-givers tell women to reformulate utterances containing ‘forbidden’ expressions. In the TES piece, for instance, we get these suggestions:

Change “I would like to…” to “I want to…”
Change “If you get a moment, would you be able to…” to “Can you…”
Change “I know you’re really busy, but…” to “This is urgent.”

So, instead of asking a co-worker for a favour like this:

I know you’re really busy, but I would like to discuss your report with John before tomorrow’s meeting, so if you get a moment, would you be able to make a summary and send me a copy by the end of today?

you should do it like this:

This is urgent. Can you send me a summary of your report by the end of today, because I want to discuss it with John before tomorrow’s meeting.

But from a politeness perspective this is terrible advice. You might be irritated by the obsequious tone of the first email, but you’d surely be infuriated by the brusqueness of the second. Is the writer a human or a robot? If the former, who does s/he think s/he is? And that’s not just my own intuitive judgment. Research done during the heyday of assertiveness training found that if you follow the orthodox recommendations (be direct, don’t hedge, don’t apologise or explain yourself, stick to talking about your own needs and feelings), most English-speakers will think you’re weird, rude and obnoxious.

If you’re a woman, following this kind of advice has an additional cost: you may well find that you’ve just exchanged one stereotypically negative judgment–that you’re ‘weak and ineffective’–for another–that you’re ‘aggressive, shrill and strident’. These two judgments may look like polar opposites, but at a deeper level they’re two sides of the same coin. The logic they follow is one in which (1) whatever men are said to do with language is axiomatically preferable to whatever women are said to do with it, but at the same time (2) any woman who doesn’t behave according to stereotype will be negatively judged for her ‘deviance’.

This is what I mean by ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’. Whatever women do with language is always either too little or too much: too passive or too aggressive, too self-effacing or too domineering, too feminine or not feminine enough. The overall effect is to render women’s speech, whatever it may consist of, less legitimate than men’s. And it’s not just about delegitimising women’s speech: criticisms of women’s language function as post-hoc justifications for sexism more generally.  ‘I can’t vote for her because of her shrill voice’/ ‘we didn’t promote her because she’s always apologising’…these are just coded ways of saying that you don’t think women are up to the job. They’re used to rationalise prejudices the critic already holds, and defend decisions which were really made for other, even less defensible reasons.

Articles like the one in the TES help to justify this kind of sexism by suggesting that it’s a rational response to women’s own linguistic inadequacies. If you don’t talk like a boss, you can’t expect to be treated like one. But what that doesn’t explain is the treatment meted out to women who do sound like bosses. Those women, the Hillary Clintons and Greta Thunbergs, are no less harshly judged: they just get accused of a different set of female deadly sins.

The conclusion I draw is that the advice-givers are reasoning backwards. It isn’t women’s speech that causes prejudice against them, it’s prejudice that leads to the devaluation of their speech. Instead of fighting our own alleged bad habits, we should put our energies into fighting prejudice against women speakers. Because that’s the root of the problem: everything else is just bullshit.

In praise of strident women

Here’s what some random man on Twitter had to say about Greta Thunberg yesterday (just to put it in context, he was replying to a woman who had tweeted her admiration for Thunberg following the latter’s speech at the UN Climate Action summit):

But she’s so strident! Just her speaking style, if we can set aside for a moment what’s she’s speaking about, which is critically important I agree. All the more reason to win over a broad base with an agreeable presentation; you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

This was not, by a long shot, the worst thing anyone had said about the 16-year old activist. A pundit appearing on Fox TV called her ‘a mentally ill Swedish child’; Dinesh D’Souza shared an image showing a photo of her alongside an old Nazi propaganda poster featuring a blonde-braided, rosy-cheeked Nordic maiden, and invited us to infer that she was continuing an old ‘socialist’ (aka totalitarian and racist) tradition. And—with the inexorability of night following day, or of targets being missed for the reduction of carbon emissions—US President Donald Trump mocked her in a tweet, which read: ‘She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!’ (It was later reported that Thunberg had upped the ironic ante by incorporating his words into her own Twitter bio.)

Unlike these critics, however, Random Twitter Guy thought he was being constructive. He wasn’t politically opposed to Thunberg’s message; he just thought there was a problem with the way she delivered it. He felt her presentation hadn’t been ‘agreeable’ (which is true: the speech was visibly angry and linguistically accusatory, punctuated regularly by the question ‘how dare you?’): it had too much vinegar and not enough honey. He presented this concern as tactical, a question of maximising the reach of this critically important intervention by taking care not to alienate listeners when you could be recruiting them to the cause.

But we might want to probe what’s behind this perception of Thunberg’s style as alienating to a mass audience. Would Random Twitter Guy have had the same reaction if the ‘how dare you’ speech had been made by a male teenager? I suspect the answer is ‘no’, and the reason for that suspicion has to do with language. It’s not, to my mind, just a random coincidence that the word RTG reached for to describe Greta Thunberg was ‘strident’.

‘Strident’ is one of a number of code-words which have become covertly gendered because of the way they’re most commonly used. Though in principle they are applicable to anyone who speaks in a certain way, in practice they are used significantly more frequently to criticise the speech of women and girls. It doesn’t necessarily matter how the target of this criticism actually speaks, because what’s couched as a complaint about her speech style is really just a way of complaining about the woman or girl herself, while making the speaker’s antipathy to her appear to have some reasonable or ‘objective’ basis. (‘I’m fine with women holding office/ making speeches/ leading movements…it’s just that this particular woman’s voice/speaking style is so horrendously [insert code-word here].’)

Another classic code-word of this type, as we saw in commentary on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, is ‘shrill’ (there’s a graphic here showing the sex-unbalanced distribution). ‘Abrasive’ is popular in some contexts (as Kieran Snyder found in 2014 when she analysed a sample of performance reviews in the tech industry), and ‘bossy’ does the job in others; ‘aggressive’, ‘intimidating’ and ‘pushy’ may also work. A related code uses apparently positive, or at least not overtly negative, terms to express condescension rather than outright dislike—the iconic example would be ‘feisty’. (And somewhere in between the two we find ‘formidable’, as in ‘the formidable ladies of the WI’.)

But back to ‘strident’. What exactly is a ‘strident’ speaker being accused of? The word itself comes from the Latin verb ‘stridere’, meaning to creak (it also covers ‘shriek’ and ‘screech’, which in English show a similar pattern of sex-preferential usage to ‘shrill’), and one thing it can evoke is a loud, rough or grating vocal quality. In relation to Greta Thunberg’s speech, however, we’re probably dealing with another sense of the word, relating to the (metaphorical) tone in which an argument is made or an opinion expressed.  To quote the definition offered by the Oxford Dictionary, being ‘strident’ in this sense means

presenting a point of view, especially a controversial one, in an excessively and unpleasantly forceful way.

Like the rest of the code-words, ‘strident’ used in this way isn’t inherently a gendered or sexist term. The illustrative example given in the OD entry I’ve just quoted is the gender-neutral ‘public pronouncements on the crisis became less strident’. But its well-established use as a criticism of female speakers reflects the sexist tendency to judge men and women by different standards when considering what might constitute being ‘excessively and unpleasantly forceful’. What might be deemed appropriately forceful in a male speaker—taken as a sign of his sincere and urgent concern about the issue at hand—becomes ‘excessive’ and ‘unpleasant’ in his female counterpart, because it diverges from the stereotypical feminine ideal against which her performance, unlike his, is consciously or unconsciously being measured.

‘Forceful’ speech is rather generally disapproved of in women. As Robin Lakoff noted in her pioneering 1973 essay ‘Language and Woman’s Place‘, it’s considered unladylike and unattractive to be too blunt, too direct and too sure of oneself. If women do express opinions, they are expected to do it in a suitably measured and ‘pleasant’ way: to be deferential rather than commanding, gentle rather than aggressive, agreeable rather than accusatory, soothing rather than angry or despairing. Rather than being forceful, women are taught that they should use their charms to get what they want. But that’s a lesson Greta Thunberg seems to have skipped: she doesn’t pose or smile for the cameras, she isn’t sexy or flirty or cute. As commentators have noticed, this is hard for certain men to understand, and some of them are evidently enraged by it.

The philosopher Kate Manne has pointed out that the primary duty assigned to women as a class—taking care of other people, especially male ones—requires them both to suppress their own feelings (which Thunberg, angrily accusing today’s leaders of failing her generation, obviously did not do) and to put inordinate effort into making others feel better–another expectation Thunberg did not meet, giving a speech which some commentators found long on blame and short on hope. ‘Giving hope’, observed Manne on Twitter,

whatever the grim truth of the matter, is a feminine-coded pseudo-obligation that is far too seldom questioned.

Since one of the criticisms ‘strident’ implies is a failure or refusal to meet the linguistic demands associated with ‘proper’ femininity, it is not surprising that the word has a specific history of being used to disparage feminists—women who express Rebecca West’s proverbial ‘sentiments that distinguish me from a doormat’. In my own youth, the pairing of ‘strident’ and ‘feminist’ was a cliché in its own right—it may even have been where I first encountered the word ‘strident’.

Sometimes ‘strident’, when paired with ‘feminist’, was pretty much a code-word for ‘man-hating’, and that association apparently lingers on. Last year, the hashtag #StridentWomen was created in response to a comment made by the (male) Chief Scientist of Australia, who had complained that the real progress being made on sexism and sexual harassment in science was being unfairly ignored by ‘strident’ women. Here, once again, the underlying complaint is about women not treating men the way men feel entitled to be treated—not deferring to their superior knowledge, not expressing gratitude for whatever crumbs we’ve been tossed, not reassuring men we know they’re trying and everything will be OK.

‘Strident’ women, in short, are women who not only speak out forcefully, but who do so on their own behalf, in the interests of their own sex, or in Thunberg’s case their own generation. And the misogynist reaction is, how dare they? How dare women behave so selfishly? How dare they question the official line that things are improving, or suggest that progress needs to be faster? How dare they turn the tables, wagging their fingers and saying ‘how dare you’ to their betters?

Here’s my advice to people like Random Twitter Guy: if you don’t want us to think you’re sexists and misogynists, be careful with words like ‘strident’. The code I’ve been discussing was cracked by feminists long ago: we know what you’re communicating, even if you don’t. And far from shutting us up, what you communicate when you call us ‘shrill’, ‘strident’, ‘pushy’, ‘bossy’, ‘abrasive’, etc., just makes us more determined to go on speaking—as loudly and as forcefully as we think the circumstances require.

Thanks to all the people on Twitter who shared their thoughts and examples.

Dictionary wars

As I had failed in my efforts to think without recourse to language, I assumed that this was an exact equivalent of reality; I was encouraged in this misconception by the grown-ups, whom I took to be the sole depositories of absolute truth: when they defined a thing, they expressed its substance, in the sense in which one expresses the juice from a fruit

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

Back in July, I posted about a petition calling on Oxford University Press to change the archaic and sexist entry for ‘woman’ in one of its most widely-used dictionaries, the Oxford Dictionary (the one you get with an iPhone). A few weeks later, in August, OUP’s blog published a response to the petition from Katherine Connor Martin, whose job title is ‘head of lexical content strategy’. This response made some of the same points I had: since language reflects the culture in which it is used, a certain amount of sexism is inevitable—you can’t eliminate all bias without compromising the aim of a modern dictionary, which is to describe the way words are actually used. Martin did, however, assure readers that OUP takes their concerns very seriously, and said the dictionary’s editors were investigating ‘whether there are senses of “woman” that are not currently covered, but should be added in a future update’.

At the time this response attracted little attention. But then this week, the petition was suddenly news again. There was a spate of press reports claiming, in effect, that because of the petition, which has now attracted 30,000 signatures, OUP was going to redefine the word ‘woman’. One report, in the Bookseller, misleadingly referred to the petition as ‘an online survey’, as if Oxford had commissioned an opinion poll and was proposing to change the meaning of a word on that basis. And at that point things really kicked off: Twitter was all over it, and by Thursday the debate had even been covered by Good Morning America.

In fact, nothing Katherine Connor Martin had said the press might do–like adding new senses to the entry, or marking some synonyms for ‘woman’ more clearly as offensive–would amount to ‘redefining’ the word ‘woman’. More fundamentally, you can’t change the meaning of a word like ‘woman’ simply by altering a dictionary entry. If OUP decided to redefine ‘woman’ as ‘a mythical white equine mammal with a single horn’, it would make no difference at all to the way English speakers actually use it. It would just make the dictionary look like (if you’ll forgive the mixing of equine species) an ass. No one checks the dictionary entry for ‘woman’ before they utter a sentence containing the word: we don’t need anyone’s permission to use words to mean what we already know they mean. Dictionary-makers spend a lot of their time and energy systematically investigating what we think words mean, as evidenced by the way we use them, so they can document that fully and accurately. They take their cue from us, not vice-versa.

But most people really don’t understand that, as I found out when I waded into the debate on Twitter. The Guardian’s report had mentioned one suggestion made in the petition—though in that context it was a minor point, almost an afterthought—that the example sentences in the ‘woman’ entry might include references to different kinds of women, like ‘a trans woman, a lesbian woman, etc.’ It then quoted Katherine Connor Martin’s point about ‘senses of “woman”…that should be added in a future update’. This juxtaposition led some Guardian-reading Twitter-users to infer that OUP was planning to update the entry to include, specifically, references to trans women. And the press was then accused of caving to political pressure from the trans lobby to redefine what ‘woman’ means.

I thought that was a stretch, and I said so. Not because there hasn’t been lobbying on this issue—there has, from both sides—but I don’t think this petition is an example of it. (Its central concern is sexism rather than gender identity, and its creator is a feminist, not a trans activist.) I also don’t think that the press has ‘caved’ to any kind of pressure, except possibly the pressure to move the ‘woman’ question higher up its agenda. In the age of the internet, dictionaries, like other commercial enterprises, do feel an obligation to appear responsive to users’ concerns, so a petition with 30,000 signatures may have some influence on their order of priorities. Beyond that, I see no evidence of ‘caving’: far more has been read into Katherine Connor Martin’s comments than they actually say.

But as the discussion on Twitter progressed, I began to realise that the reason so many people believed or suspected things I found implausible or even absurd was because they saw dictionaries in a particular way—one which is at odds with the way dictionaries see themselves, and the way I, as a semi-insider, see them (I’m a linguist not a lexicographer, but I know how modern lexicography is done). Based on my conversations with people on Twitter over the last few days, some widely-held beliefs about dictionaries include the following.

The makers of dictionaries have absolute power to decide what words really mean, and they use that power selectively.

Some people I interacted with evidently imagined the editorial process at a dictionary as rather like what you see in movies or TV shows about journalism: people sitting in a meeting arguing the toss about definitions and debating whether to accept or reject new words and senses of words. (‘Does this deserve to be in the dictionary, or should is it too illogical, confusing and objectionable to make the cut?’) This may help to explain why there’s concern about the potential for political lobbying to influence definitions, just as people worry about, say, who might be putting pressure on the BBC to take a certain editorial line on Brexit.

Concern about dictionaries pushing, or being persuaded to push, a covert political agenda is reinforced by a second widely-held belief, that

The decision to include a word or sense in a dictionary is effectively an endorsement of that word or sense. It communicates that the word or sense is real, correct and should be used by everyone.

Another dictionary-related news story this week reported that ‘non-binary “they”’ (i.e., the pronoun ‘they’ used in reference to a specific individual who identifies as neither male nor female) had just been added to a leading US dictionary, Merriam-Webster. For some of my interlocutors on Twitter, this decision implied not, ‘we have looked at the evidence and found this use of “they” is now mainstream enough to be recorded in a dictionary entry describing the current usage of “they”’, but something more like, ‘we thoroughly approve of this new way of using pronouns, and we want to support non-binary people by telling everyone to adopt it’. The news reports themselves took a similar view, in some cases describing the decision as ‘validation for nonbinary people’. That only reinforced some people’s suspicion that the decision must have been prompted by lobbying.

When people expressed the view that dictionaries shouldn’t be entertaining politically partisan demands to change their entries, I pointed out that their own demand for no change was also politically partisan. But some of their replies invoked another belief which shows what’s ultimately at stake in arguments like the one about ‘woman’:

Dictionaries don’t just define words; since words (or a lot of words) name things in the world, the word-meanings that appear in dictionary entries are also definitions of reality itself.

For people who hold this belief, there is essentially no difference between asking ‘what does the word “woman” mean?’ and asking ‘what, in reality, is a woman?’ It follows that changing the definition of a word means changing what will count as reality, and in some cases that’s seen as a politically-motivated, quasi-Orwellian assault on the truth.

One of my interlocutors on Twitter explained this to me using a hypothetical question:

if some people started to demand we use the word ‘night’ to mean ‘day’ …would the dictionary record that use?

I think this person expected the answer to be ‘no, of course not, that would be absurd: “night” and “day” are antonyms in language because they’re opposites in nature’. But in fact the answer is ‘yes’: if the evidence showed that a significant section of the linguistic community was using ‘night’ to mean ‘day’, then that sense would be recorded in entries for ‘night’ (alongside the original sense, not instead of it). This is exactly what many dictionaries have done with the word ‘literally’, which, notoriously, is used very frequently as an intensifier with the opposite meaning, ‘figuratively’ or ‘metaphorically’ (as in Taylor Swift’s recent statement that ‘I’m literally breaking’, though as far as I know she remains physically intact). This ‘incorrect’ and much-criticised usage of ‘literally’ is so common, it would be hard for a dictionary whose aim is to document the actual use of words to leave it out.

For dictionaries (and linguists like me), the question ‘what does this word mean’ is an empirical question, reflecting the axiom that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’. You work out the meaning (or more often, meanings) of a word by collecting and organising evidence about its use by real speakers and writers in real contexts. There are no meetings where dictionary-makers compare their intuitions about the meaning of ‘woman’, or ‘they’, and debate whether a new sense is ‘good enough’ to deserve ‘endorsement’. What they’re looking for is evidence that the new sense is sufficiently well-established to be considered part of ‘general’ or ‘common’ usage. If it is, then it belongs in the dictionary. Not because the lexicographers think it’s a worthy addition, but simply because their aim is to provide a full and accurate record of usage. If enough speakers of the language have adopted a new word or meaning, descriptive accuracy requires it to be included.

So, what is the evidence that something is part of general usage? There’s probably some variation in the criteria different dictionaries use, and also in the criteria they apply to different kinds of words, but with something like non-binary ‘they’, which has been around for quite a while in certain subcultures (e.g., on college campuses and tumblr), Merriam-Webster’s decision that the time had come to add it was likely based on evidence that it’s now turning up regularly in mainstream sources targeting a general audience, like newspapers and general interest magazines. (In fact, it has recently been adopted as a norm in the style guides of several mainstream media organisations, so its frequency in their output will probably have increased.)

The source material dictionaries treat as evidence isn’t just selected and used in an ad hoc, unsystematic way. Today’s dictionary-makers rely on corpora, which are very large (millions or even billions of words), structured, taggable and searchable samples of authentic language-use. They’re constructed to cover a wide range of written and spoken genres and media, and to represent different sections of the language-using population (for English this may include writers/speakers in all the major world regions where the language is used). From a corpus you can collect not only a large number of authentic examples of a word’s use, but also quantitative data on how frequently it’s being used in particular ways, and whether these uses are common across contexts and populations or confined to specific regions, subcultures or genres. You can also monitor changes over time, tracking the spread of an innovation or the progress of a shift in meaning.

When Katherine Connor Martin says that editors are investigating ‘whether there are senses of “woman” not currently covered [that] should be included in future updates’, I’m guessing one thing that means is that they’ll be looking at recent corpus data to see what’s changed–if certain ways of using ‘woman’ have become more salient, or if they’ve moved, like ‘they’, from the subcultural margins to the mainstream. I’m confident the evidence will confirm that ‘adult female human’ is still the primary sense of ‘woman’ (and the commonest by a long way); the question is whether there will be a case for adding anything else.

For the dictionary-makers this is a question about the linguistic facts on the ground: it’s about how people are using the word ‘woman’, how frequently it’s being used in a particular way, and what range of contexts it’s appearing in. Even if they make a show of being responsive to concerns like the ones raised in the petition, they’re not going to ignore their own data on these points: their rigorous, evidence-based approach is, after all, what enables them to market their products as ‘authoritative’. However assiduously they’re lobbied, they’re unlikely to emulate Urban Dictionary by making popular opinion the measure of a definition’s value.

But whatever the linguistic evidence shows, it won’t answer the question at the heart of the Twitter spat, which is not an empirical question about the way words are used, but an ontological question about the nature of reality. Dictionaries cannot answer that kind of question, and it’s a mistake to think they can. They can only tell us (and only claim to be able to tell us) what the word ‘woman’ is currently used to mean. That will never settle the ongoing argument about what a woman is or is not.

The battle of the big girl’s blouse

During Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Boris Johnson accused the Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of being scared to fight an early General Election (the government would like to call one, but they have so far failed to get the votes they need to do it). As Corbyn charged the prime minister with being ‘desperate’, Johnson was heard to shout, ‘Call an election, you great big girl’s blouse!’

‘Big girl’s blouse’ is an expression of contempt for weak and wimpy men. The OED’s first citation for it (i.e., the first written record they could find—I can testify from personal experience that it was used in everyday speech in Britain before 1969) comes from a TV sitcom called Nearest and Dearest, where it was used by the main female character Nellie (a middle-aged working class northerner played by Lancashire actress Hylda Baker) to berate her useless brother Eli, with whom she ran the family pickle factory.

An entry for the phrase on Wordhistories.net suggests that its meaning derives from an analogy between a ‘feeble, cowardly man “in a flap”…and an oversized garment hanging loose’. I don’t find that entirely convincing, though, because it doesn’t explain the gendered nature of the insult. Its target is always male, and the point is to deride him as unmanly. You see this very clearly in one of the examples the entry reproduces, from a 1986 sports report in the Guardian:

The last time Liverpool lost in a home league match against Chelsea was in 1935. The following year scientists isolated the principal female hormone and there are those at Anfield who will tell you that Chelsea have been playing like big girls’ blouses ever since.

The reference to female hormones suggests to me that what the writer wants to conjure up isn’t a mental picture of an outsize garment flapping around. Something is being made here of what’s inside a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when its owner wears it. A ‘big girl’s blouse’ is a man who’s soft when he should be hard: metaphorically he has breasts instead of balls.

As Declan Kavanagh observed on Twitter, this is a classic example of an ‘effeminophobic’ insult, and Boris Johnson’s use of it prompted some debate about whether he was guilty of sexism or homophobia. The answer is surely that any insult whose core meaning is ‘effeminate/emasculated man’ is both homophobic (insofar as popular homophobia conflates being gay with being effeminate) and sexist. Its sexism is slightly less straightforward than the sexism of, say, ‘bitch’, or ‘slut’, because unlike those two epithets it’s used to insult men rather than women. But that should not prevent us from noticing that its force depends on a sexist presupposition. It follows the rule I alluded to in my last post, that one reliable way to insult a man (of any sexuality) is to attribute female or feminine qualities to him.

Why is the attribution of femininity insulting to men? Not only because it implies gender nonconformity (though that’s part of the story), but also because it demotes the target from a dominant to a subordinate position. It exploits, in other words, the tacit understanding that gender isn’t just a difference, it’s a hierarchy. That’s why, although it’s possible to insult a woman by attributing masculine qualities to her (especially if you’re talking about how she looks), it’s also possible for that gesture to be a compliment (‘you think like a man’ is a classic example: we’re supposed to be flattered by this ‘promotion’ to the ranks of the superior thinkers). Attributing femininity to a man, by contrast, pretty much always implies a downgrading of his status.

Feminists were in no doubt that ‘big girl’s blouse’ is a sexist expression, and some quickly set about ‘reclaiming’ it, composing tweets which recontextualised the insult as part of a positive message of resistance to sexism. Sophie Walker, the former leader of the Women’s Equality Party, tweeted:

Today at Young Women’s Trust we are all wearing our #BigGirl’sBlouse to fight the gendered job roles and sex discrimination that’s holding back the brilliant young women we need in all our workplaces and decision-making spaces

Another feminist photographed a pink shirt on a washing line, explaining that

This is the #BigGirlsBlouse I wore yesterday, when I went to talk to an employer about how they can protect their staff from #sexualharassment. They’re especially keen to tackle the everyday, ‘low-level’ sexism that erodes people’s status at work. The gov’t could learn from them!

There were also tweets like this one, thanking Johnson for inspiring the writer to take action:

Well this Big Girls Blouse has just contacted her local Labour CLP and offered to campaign for the first time ever. I’m 52 and a 40 E cup in case it’s of interest to Boris. And me and my assets will now be doing all we can to bury him. Thanks for the inspiration. #BigGirlsBlouse

Whether sexist insults can be ‘reclaimed’ is one of the questions I’m asked most frequently: to my mind it’s a complicated issue, and the reaction to ‘big girl’s blouse’ is quite a good illustration of its complexity.

The way #BigGirl’sBlouse has been taken up on Twitter exemplifies what might be called ‘opportunistic’ reclaiming–intervening in a specific context to get a specific, and usually limited, effect. It’s the same thing feminists did with ‘[such a] nasty woman’ after Donald Trump used the phrase to describe Hillary Clinton. I call it ‘opportunistic’ (which I don’t mean to imply a negative judgment—being able to seize the moment is an important political skill) because you’re essentially exploiting a political opportunity created by your opponent, using his own insulting words to criticise and/or ridicule him. The goal isn’t really to reclaim ‘nasty woman’ or ‘big girl’s blouse’ by turning them into terms of feminist approbation; on the contrary, in fact, it’s to make these expressions less acceptable in future.

Another well-known example of this type is the use of the term ‘slut walk’ to name a protest against rape culture which was organised in response to a police officer’s comment that if women didn’t want to be raped they shouldn’t dress like sluts. Opinions on this one differ: mine is that the original slut walk was a great example of seizing the moment–taking the opportunity to call out an egregious piece of public slut-shaming–but that’s where it should really have stopped. Now that most onlookers can no longer connect the concept of a slut walk to the context in which it originally emerged, the political message has become less clear, and it’s been accused of uncritically celebrating an inherently sexist concept (though in fairness, the founder of the slut walks, Amber Rose, has said herself that she’d like the word ‘slut’ to become obsolete.)

A different type of reclamation involves repurposing a term that was historically an insult as a positive marker of group identity and solidarity, though its use as such is usually restricted to group members and trusted allies. Examples include ‘crip’ (as used by some disability activists) ‘dyke’ and ‘queer’, as well as, some would argue, ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ (which are used by some female speakers as terms of endearment, though that doesn’t mean they’d accept them from non-intimates). ‘Big girl’s blouse’ is not a good candidate for this kind of reclamation, because although it expresses contempt for women, it is not used directly to insult them. It’s not obvious in this case who would want to reclaim it as an identity marker: its targets, allegedly ‘effeminate’ or wimpy men, do not form a coherent political community.

Even where there is such a community, though, the reclamation of insults as positive identity labels tends to generate internal dissent. ‘Queer’ is a case in point: you increasingly see it being used positively, but surveys have found that a lot of LGBT community members, especially gay men, do not find this in-group use acceptable. Some say they will never be willing to call themselves by a word their experience has led them to associate with being verbally abused, threatened and even assaulted. While words continue to be used as slurs, some of the people targeted by them will find proposals to reclaim them insensitive and insulting.

With ‘queer’, the aim of the pro-reclamation camp is not just to make the word positive for in-group members, but also to make it more generally usable as a neutral, descriptive term. The idea is that ‘queer’ should be as widely accepted as ‘gay’ has become in recent decades. Similarly, there have been regular proposals to reclaim ‘cunt’ as simply a non-clinical descriptive term for the female genitals (though as I’ve explained elsewhere, I doubt that will ever happen).

One word that women did succeed in reclaiming as a neutral descriptive term is the word ‘woman’ itself. ‘Woman’ was not a strongly pejorative term like ‘cunt’ or ‘queer’, but it was often felt to be ‘impolite’ and therefore avoided or replaced. Historically the politeness issue had been about class distinctions: it was insulting to call female people of a certain social status ‘women’ rather than ‘ladies’. But even after that distinction had been lost, the idea lingered on that ‘lady’ was polite while ‘woman’ was disrespectful. Feminists were critical of what they saw as the squeamish avoidance of ‘woman’, and they made a concerted effort to establish it as simply the unmarked or default way to refer to an adult female. Broadly speaking that effort was successful (though ‘woman’ has since become contentious for other reasons, and the baggage that made people uncomfortable with it in the past remains visible in, for instance, the dictionary and thesaurus entries that recently inspired a petition complaining about their sexism).

In some cases it’s pointless to try to reclaim a word, because social change has made its use as an insult, and sometimes its use for any purpose, a non-issue. An example is ‘old maid’, a derogatory label for a no-longer young woman who, as people used to say, has been ‘left on the shelf’. In a world where unmarried women are no longer social outcasts or freaks, this term has lost its sting, and much of its currency: in the unlikely event that someone did call you an old maid, you’d probably assume they meant it as a joke.

If you’d asked me before this week, I’d have put ‘big girl’s blouse’ in the same category of archaic joke-insults. I hadn’t heard it in years; to hear it being uttered in the House of Commons, especially by someone who’s younger than I am, was more of a surprise than an affront. Though I don’t dispute that it’s a sexist expression, what it connotes, at least to me (perhaps because I first encountered it in the school playground 50 years ago), is an old-fashioned and particularly puerile kind of sexism. In short, I thought Boris Johnson sounded silly and childish calling Jeremy Corbyn a ‘great big girl’s blouse’.

It has since turned out that this is not the only occasion on which Johnson has resorted to the language of the playground. Last month, as he and his advisers planned to sideline Parliament in the crucial run-up to Brexit, he wrote a note in which he referred to fellow-Old Etonian David Cameron as a ‘girly swot’. Critics have been quick to diagnose arrested development, and to blame it on the British upper-class habit of sending impressionable children to single-sex boarding schools. But in fact this isn’t just a British problem: all over the world (in the US, the Philippines, Brazil) we are seeing the rise of middle-aged, misogynist man-children whose political rhetoric leans heavily on crude and puerile insults. When we criticise Boris Johnson’s language we need to see it in that context–as an outward and visible symptom of a deeper political malaise.

The header image shows a detail from one of Ronald Searle’s illustrations for Willans and Searle’s series of  Molesworth books