The naming of dogs

On a Zoom call last week I realised that every dog-owning north American I know addresses their dog as ‘buddy’. At least, they do if it’s a male dog: they probably wouldn’t use ‘buddy’ (a form of ‘brother’) as a familiar appellation for a female dog. But anyone might say ‘buddy’ to an unfamiliar dog: the way we talk to/about animals in general is strongly influenced by the default male principle. And dogs, at least in Anglo-American culture, are imagined as prototypically male (whereas cats are prototypically female). As one Internet Sage explains,   

Dogs are considered masculine because they smell bad, shit great quantities on everything, and are forever poking their noses into crotches. Cats are considered feminine because no matter what you do on their behalf, it is never good enough.

This is one example of the way human gender-stereotypes get projected onto our closest non-human companions. And the same tendency is apparent in the names we give to dogs.

‘Buddy’, it turns out, is not just a common appellation for male dogs, but in many cases their actual name. According to a list I consulted, which was compiled using data sourced from several English-speaking countries, Buddy ranks fourth among the current top ten male dog-names—behind Bailey, Charlie and Max, but above Cooper, Jack, Toby, Bear, Scout and Teddy. The corresponding list of popular female dog-names has Bella, Molly, Coco, Luna, Lucy, Poppy, Daisy, Ruby, Lily and Becks.

These lists might remind us of the now-commonplace observation that companion animals in affluent societies are regarded as part of the family, with a status not unlike that of human children. Almost all the dog-names I’ve just listed could as easily be given to a child, and many have featured on recent lists of the top 100 baby-names. In the UK in 2020, for instance, Lily was the fourth most popular girl’s name; Poppy came in at 17; Bella, Molly, Luna, Lucy, Daisy and Ruby were all in the top 100. Charlie and Jack were among the top ten boys’ names, while the top 100 also included Max, Teddy and Toby.  

Since historical dog-name records are hard to come by, it’s difficult to say if this convergence between child and dog names is a recent phenomenon, but in my own recollection there used to be less overlap. When I was a child, the dogs owned by families in my street were called Prince (a black Labrador), Lad (a German Shepherd), Snowy (a white poodle) and Wag (a corgi). And yes, I know people can be called Prince and Lad (though I’ve yet to hear of a person called Wag), but those were not recognisable people-names in 1960s Yorkshire.  

That’s not to say dogs never had people-names. The sheepdogs on the TV show One Man and His Dog [sic] often had names like Bess, Jess or Tess; my favourite fictional dog was called Toby. But only some people-names were acceptable dog-names, and their status as dog-names could raise questions about their use for people. My mother had strong opinions on this topic. Whenever I complained about my own name, Debbie, she would remind me that if I’d been a boy, my father had wanted to call me Bruce, a name she regarded as only suitable for dogs. Today that distinction has evidently disappeared. All kinds of people-names can now be dog-names, and they’re seen as the unmarked choice: websites tell new puppy-owners they can make their pet stand out by not giving it a human name.  

But while there’s significant overlap between currently popular dog-names and baby-names, the two sets are not identical. The three most popular names for baby girls in 2020—Sophia, Olivia and Amelia—do not appear anywhere in the dog top 100. That could be because they’re too long: I’m told that for the purpose of calling a dog you want a name no longer than two syllables (in the current top 100 lists only four names have more than two). There are also cultural constraints. My brother-in-law, who was raised Catholic, was told as a child that you couldn’t give a dog a saint’s name. And it’s no surprise that Muhammad, one of the commonest baby names in Britain, does not feature on the list of popular dog-names.  

Interestingly, however—and despite the dearth of dogs named Sophia/Olivia/Amelia—the list of popular female dog-names is closer than the male one to the corresponding list of popular baby-names. To explain why that’s interesting, I need to revisit some points from an earlier post about gendered patterns of human personal naming in English-speaking societies over the past 100+ years.

Research in this area has consistently found that parents are more conservative when naming boys. Girls’ names (rather like their clothes) are both more varied and more influenced by fashion, so that the rankings change more rapidly over time. One historically important reason for this—the tradition of naming boys after their fathers or other close relatives—is perhaps less relevant today; but there’s still a widespread view that ‘fancy’ names, meaning anything unusual, complicated, trendy or ‘decorative’, are more appropriate for daughters than for sons.   

Another consistent finding is that English-speaking parents prefer names that clearly indicate their child’s sex, especially if the child is male. Some trendwatchers are now predicting a surge in the popularity of ‘androgynous’, ‘unisex’ or ‘gender-neutral’ names, but historically these have never comprised more than about 2% of the names in circulation, and over time they almost invariably morph into girls’ names (historical examples include Beverley, Dana, Evelyn and Shirley). What’s behind this is a form of status anxiety, reflecting the fact that gender in patriarchal societies is a hierarchical system. For girls, androgynous names are seen as status-enhancing, but for boys the opposite is true. So, as a name becomes more common among girls, it will start to be avoided by parents naming boys, until eventually it ceases to be androgynous.

What’s interesting about the dog-names is that they don’t replicate these patterns: rather they reverse them. There’s more variation among names for male dogs, and more of the male names are androgynous.    

These two patterns are related, in that the lack of ambiguity in the female list reflects, in part, the lack of variety. A large majority of the top 100 female dog-names—82 of them—are conventional (human) girls’ names like Molly, Lucy and Lily. The 18 items that don’t fall into that category include eight less conventional people-names which are either female (Dakota, Piper, Harper, Meadow, Willow, Summer) or androgynous (River, Storm), and five female endearment/respect terms used as names (Honey, Sugar, Lady, Missy and Princess). The remaining five items are Bramble, Pepper, Sage, Snickers and Ziggy—names you’d be unlikely to give a child, but could probably give a male dog. On this list, then, androgynous names are marginal, both few in number and low in rank (the highest-ranked androgynous name, Bramble, only just makes it into the top 50).    

What about the male dog-names? Once again, a clear majority of the top 100 are conventional (human) boys’ names, but they’re a smaller proportion overall (66 items rather than 80+), which means that other kinds of names make up a third of the list. Within that third, the largest subgroup, containing about a dozen items, consists of androgynous people-names (I classified them as androgynous if a combination of personal experience and online searching identified at least one male and one female person with the name in question). Androgynous names are not only more numerous on the male list, they’re also higher-ranked. One of them, Bailey, is right at the top, and several others are in the top 20.

The remaining items on the male list are non-people names, and with three exceptions (Blue, Oreo and Shadow) they can be sorted into four groups. One of these is comparable to the Honey/Lady/Missy/Princess group on the female list: it contains the title Duke and a series of nicknames—Ace, Buddy, Buster, Sparky—which I’d intuitively classify as male, though Ace and Sparky might be somewhat ambiguous. The other three groups, however, are different from anything on the female list.

One group contains names of gods and other mythological figures: Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, Loki and Thor from Norse mythology, the Greek deity Zeus, and—oddly, since she’s a goddess—the Roman Juno. A second subcategory is ‘large wild animals’, in which we find Bear, Koda (the name of a Disney character who’s a bear), Moose, and Simba (the name of the Lion King). Finally there’s a looser group which I’ve labelled ‘Manly Things’, because the names in it allude to stereotypically male roles, activities and objects (such as weapons and powerful motor vehicles): they are Bandit, Diesel, Gunner, Harley, Hunter, Ranger, Remington, and Tank.

Whether or not we find them appealing, the male dog-names are a more inventive collection than their female counterparts—which is surprising, especially if you subscribe to the ‘dogs are the new children’ theory, because for children the pattern is that boys’ names are more conservative. We might expect dog-names in general to be less conservative than baby-names, because dog-namers have a degree of freedom that (responsible) baby-namers don’t: a dog isn’t going to be embarrassed by its name, or bullied by other dogs because of it. But that doesn’t explain why it’s specifically male dogs who get the more unusual names. I can’t claim to have a watertight explanation, but I do think there’s more to say about the difference.

Giving any ‘personal’ name to a dog means treating it as a quasi-human person (dogs themselves don’t use naming to mark individual identity). In theory we could do this without also projecting the human attribute of gender onto dogs, but in practice the names we choose for them suggest we do see masculinity or femininity as an important part of the identities we construct for them. The vast majority of popular dog-names are unambiguously gendered in the same way as most (English) people-names; even the androgynous names only appear on either the male or the female list, not both. I don’t think this way of naming dogs is just a natural consequence of the fact that dogs have a sex. They also have a sex in cultures where they aren’t companion animals, but in those cultures they may have names that are more like labels, chosen simply to distinguish one from another, which reference more visible features like size or colour (e.g. ‘Big Dog’ and ‘Small Dog’, which a friend tells me are common dog-names in Vanuatu).

Do the kinds of gendered dog-names we favour suggest that we imagine male and female dogs differently? The answer seems to be ‘yes and no’. Both lists are dominated by the same type of name, one that could also be given to a male or female child, and that suggests that the gendered connotations of human names are also projected onto dogs. For instance, flower-names like Lily and Daisy are popular choices for girls, but more or less unthinkable for boys, because the qualities they connote (e.g. beauty, delicacy and freshness) are considered feminine/unmasculine. The same rule is applied when naming dogs, though among dogs the sexes are less different in appearance, and neither sex is famous for delicacy and freshness.

Another gendered pattern involves diminutive names, which (in English) typically end in -ie or -y; they connote ‘small, cute, unthreatening, immature’, and they are given more frequently to girls. This pattern does not seem to transfer to dogs. Though there are more -ie/y names in the female top 100 (42 to the males’ 33), many of them, like Daisy and Poppy, aren’t true diminutives (i.e., affectionate forms of another name, like Betty for Elizabeth or Benjy for Benjamin). If we count only the ‘true’ ones, the numbers are almost equal–17 for female dogs and 16 for male ones.

Maybe this supports the idea that dogs’ status within families is similar to that of young children. It’s common for little kids of both sexes to be called by a diminutive form of their name, but as they get older, boys more often shift to using their full name, or a less childish short form. Benjy is more likely to become Benjamin or Ben than Betty is to become Elizabeth. With dogs there is no such difference: both sexes can be given diminutive names on the assumption they will never outgrow them.     

But we shouldn’t forget that about a third of the top 100 male dog-names are not just conventional boys’ names. The male list is more varied than the female one, and the names on it, especially the more unusual ones, suggest that dog-masculinity can be imagined in a wide range of different ways. At one end of the spectrum we have androgynous names like Bailey and Riley: I imagine dogs with these names as dignified and faithful companions, possibly large, but not aggressive or obtrusively masculine. At the other extreme are names like Thor, Simba, Gunner and Tank, which imply power, dominance, strength and aggression. In between are names like Buster and Sparky, suggesting a more boyish, playful or mischievous masculinity.

By contrast, dog-femininity seems to be imagined more narrowly, as either motherly or girlish. Many popular female dog-names (Bella, Molly, Abby et al.) suggest qualities like warmth, kindness and dependability; some (Luna, Willow, Meadow) are a bit fey; few suggest mischief (just Snickers and Ziggy, though Becks might be a bit of a tomboy), and none imply aggression or nastiness. I can’t help wondering if this is related to our culture’s more expansive view of what roles, behaviours or personality traits are acceptable or attractive in boys and men compared with girls and women.

By now you may think it’s me who’s projecting. If so I take your point: merely perusing lists of popular dog-names tells you nothing about what motivated people’s choices. Context, as always, matters: what we think it means to name a dog Thor will obviously be different depending on whether the dog is a German Shepherd or a Yorkshire terrier (and whether its human has some personal connection to the name, like being the descendant of Vikings or an expert on Norse mythology). Without contextualisation, any patterns we see in lists of popular dog-names will only be interpretable in very general terms, and the rest–like the last two paragraphs–will be speculation. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that there’s apparently so much consensus on how female dogs should be named, whereas our views on naming male dogs seem far more polarised. Still, there is a way around that. If in doubt, just call them ‘Buddy’.

Thanks to Meryl, Miriam and Tim for their insights, and a shout-out to all the Buddies.

Between children

On the first day of the first full week of the new school year, the BBC reported that cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ had doubled over a period of two years. In 2016-17 the police in England and Wales recorded just under 8000 incidents where both the abuser and the victim were minors; in 2018-19 the figure was over 16,000. During the pandemic the number fell, but there were still more than 10,000 cases recorded in 2020-21. And since these figures include only cases which were reported to the police, they almost certainly understate the true extent of the problem.  

This news would, of course, be shocking whatever words were used to report it; but I couldn’t help being struck by the phrase ‘sex abuse between children’. This formula seems to have originated with the BBC (the statistics were compiled for its long-running current affairs programme Panorama). But it soon became ubiquitous: as so often happens in contemporary news reporting, the language used in the original source got picked up and recycled by other media outlets with minimal or no alteration. The Times’s headline, ‘Sexual abuse between children more than doubles in two years’, was almost identical to the one that appeared on the BBC website (‘Reports of sex abuse between children double in two years’). The Mail Online had an expanded version, ‘Reports of sex abuse between children doubles [sic] in two years to 16,000 cases in England and Wales – with 10% of youngsters accused aged 10 or under’. The Sun was an outlier, diverging from the ‘between children’ formula and going with ‘Reports of children sexually abusing other kids DOUBLE in a year to almost 16,000 cases’.

One thing that’s notable about all these headlines is their use of gender-neutral/inclusive terms like ‘children’, ‘kids’ and ‘youngsters’. That pattern continues in the body of the reports, and in quotes from named sources like the psychologist Rebekah Eglinton, who said that unwanted touching and being pressured to share nude photos had become ‘a part of everyday life for children’. There were also quotes from politicians who affirmed their commitment to ‘keeping children safe’ and ‘creating a safe learning environment for children’.

In most contexts this would be unremarkable—neutral/inclusive terms are the default choice—but in this case it’s striking because the issue under discussion is by no means gender-neutral. In the words of the BBC’s report, ‘a big majority of cases involved boys abusing girls’. Later the report spells out what ‘a big majority’ means: around nine out of ten abusers were boys, while eight out of ten victims were girls (figures which suggest that there must have been as many cases of boys abusing other boys as there were of girls abusing anyone). The framing of sexual abuse as something ‘children’ do to other ‘children’ glosses over this enormous imbalance. Apart from the BBC, most media outlets treated it as an incidental detail: the Times and the Sun each devoted one sentence to the information that most abusers were boys, while the Mail didn’t mention the issue at all.  

But when I first heard ‘sex abuse between children’, what caught my attention wasn’t primarily the word ‘children’. In the headlines, at least, I found the choice of ‘children’ understandable: the point, I assumed, was to flag the topic of the story as cases where both abuser and abused were under 18, as opposed to cases where children are abused by adults. Still, to my ear there was something not quite right about the phrase–and on reflection I concluded that the problem was ‘between’.

My guess is that ‘between’ was chosen for the same reason as ‘children’—to emphasise that the report dealt with cases where both the perpetrators and the victims were minors. More familiar phrases like ‘sexual abuse of children’ wouldn’t have made that clear. But ‘between children’ is jarring, because it tends to imply that what’s being described is in some sense a joint activity. That’s how ‘between’ works in phrases like ‘a quarrel between neighbours’ or ‘a fight between rival gangs’. The activities referred to are inherently adversarial, but they are nevertheless understood to require reciprocity. You can’t quarrel or fight with someone who isn’t also quarrelling or fighting: if your adversary doesn’t reciprocate you’re not having a quarrel or a fight, you’re just ranting at them or beating them up.

‘Sexual abuse between children’ is apparently constructed in the same way, but it doesn’t fit the template, because reciprocity is not part of the meaning of ‘sexual abuse’. You can see this even more clearly if you turn the nouns (back) into verbs. If it’s true that ‘the Jets fought the Sharks’ then it’s also true that ‘they fought [each other]’; but ‘Jack sexually abused Jill’ does not entail that ‘they abused [each other]’. Sexual abuse, by definition, is something one person does to another without their consent, let alone their active involvement. That’s what makes ‘sexual abuse between children’, and indeed any reference to ‘abuse between Xs’, so peculiar.  

As I’ve already said, I don’t think whoever came up with ‘sexual abuse between children’ actually intended to convey the idea of mutuality or reciprocity. It’s more likely they just didn’t notice that implication. But I still think it’s a problem, as is the consistent preference for gender-neutral or inclusive terms. These linguistic choices are part of a larger pattern—one I’ve commented on in several previous posts about the representation of both sexual violence/abuse and sexism/sexual harassment in schools.

In commentary on these issues there’s a persistent tendency to present coercion or exploitation as mutual engagement. One way in which this is often done is by exaggerating girls’ maturity, agency and power. You see this a lot in court cases involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of children by adults, where it is clearly intended to minimise the adult’s culpability. By presenting the girl as an autonomous agent who voluntarily engaged in a relationship with an older man, defence lawyers hope to persuade jurors, judges and/or public opinion that the so-called ‘abuse’ was in reality no such thing: though her age makes it technically illegal to have sex with her, her precocity makes that a victimless crime, and the verdict or punishment should reflect that.

The idea of female precocity can also be invoked in cases where the abuser is a minor rather than an adult. Boys, the argument goes, mature later than girls both sexually and socially, and this is a reason to cut them some slack: they’re not really bad, just clumsy and impulsive (and easily manipulated by more sexually sophisticated girls). Both versions of this discourse represent girls as more grown-up, and more equal in their relations with boys and men, than most really are, or than they tell researchers they feel.

In relation to schools there is also a persistent tendency to frame sexism and sexual harassment in terms of an eternal ‘battle of the sexes’ which ‘naturally’ expresses itself in conflict between boys and girls. In 2015, when the Institute of Physics issued some guidelines for combatting sexism in schools, commentators regretted that this po-faced political correctness might bring an end to (in one Telegraph writer’s words) ‘the days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake”’. Like the ‘between children’ formula, ‘baiting each other’ implies reciprocity: the combatants are by implication positioned as equals, ‘cheerfully’ engaged in the mutual ‘baiting’ which has been a feature of playground culture since time immemorial.

The IoP made it easier than it should have been for the media to take this line. Though its intervention was prompted by concern about the way sexism affects girls, its guidelines made a point of being inclusive, treating sexist insults directed to boys, like ‘sissy’ and ‘man up’, on a par with those directed to girls (most of which are far more degrading than ‘sissy’). Other reports published since 2015 have taken a similar approach: though they invariably report that both verbal and other forms of harassment are experienced far more frequently by girls, they end up paying disproportionate attention to the minority of cases where boys are targeted. Presumably this even-handedness is meant to counter accusations of anti-male bias; but when the evidence shows clearly that sexism in schools affects girls far more commonly and more seriously than boys, a representation which suggests otherwise is itself biased.

The same bias is apparent in comments like the one I quoted earlier from the psychologist who said that unwanted touching and pressure to share nude photos had become ‘part of everyday life for children’. It is overwhelmingly girls for whom those things are ‘part of everyday life’, just as it is girls who make up the great majority of victims in cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ (while boys are an even larger majority of abusers). In both our language and our actions we need to face up to the reality of that difference, and of the power imbalance that underpins it. We will never solve the problem of sexual violence and abuse if we habitually use linguistic formulas that obscure what the problem really is.   

The fall of Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned this week, following the publication of a report which found he had ‘sexually harassed a number of current and former New York State employees by, among other things, engaging in unwelcome and nonconsensual touching [and] making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women’.

The part of this story that caught my attention was Cuomo’s repeated protestations that what had happened was not harassment, it was ‘miscommunication’. Referring to a complaint made by his executive assistant Charlotte Bennett, he told the investigators that Bennett had ‘processed what she heard through her own filter. And it was often not what was said and not what was meant’. At a press conference after the report was published, he again insisted that Bennett had ‘heard things I just didn’t say’.

This didn’t get my attention because it was novel or unexpected. We’ve heard it before and we’ll undoubtedly hear it again. So, this may be a good time to take a closer look at the ever-popular ‘miscommunication’ defence.

There are several reasons why this defence is useful to men like Cuomo. One is that it stops short of calling the complainant a liar: that’s also popular, of course, but for a liberal politician with a lot of female supporters there’s something to be said for a less overtly woman-blaming approach. It also has the advantage of resonating with beliefs about communication which are part of our cultural common sense. Cuomo suggested that some of the complainants had misinterpreted his actions because of cultural differences (he’s Italian-American, he touches everyone); he also mentioned generational differences (he’s 63, you have to make allowances). And lurking in the background was the idea that men and women routinely misunderstand one another because they’re from different planets, speak different languages, and process reality through different ‘filters’.

The claims made in self-help books about ‘male-female miscommunication’ are not, in fact, supported by credible evidence. But the miscommunication defence contains a core of truth which makes it difficult to refute conclusively. Because humans are not mind-readers, and language is not a rigid code in which every utterance has only one possible interpretation, there’s always room for doubt about what someone really meant by what they said.

When Andrew Cuomo says of Charlotte Bennett that she ‘heard things I just didn’t say’, he’s describing what all of us do all the time in our efforts to understand other people. We have to ‘hear things they didn’t say’, because not everything we need to make sense of an utterance is in the words a speaker uttered. Some of it we have to supply ourselves, using contextual information, background knowledge about the world, and our ability to reason about how everything fits together.

If someone says to me ‘it’s cold in here’, is that a statement or is it an indirect request to close the window? To decide, I have to put the words together with other relevant information. If we’re two strangers sitting in a public building (where neither of us has the authority to go round closing windows, or the obligation to make other visitors comfortable), I’ll probably treat it as small-talk and respond in kind (‘yes, it’s freezing’). But if the speaker is my boss who’s just walked into my office, I might well take it as a request and respond by closing the window. In which case, clearly, I will have heard something my boss didn’t actually say.

Because she didn’t actually say it, however, it could turn out that I got it wrong. Maybe when I move to close the window she’ll say ‘oh no, don’t do that, I like it cold’. It’s always open to the speaker to deny that what you inferred was not what she intended. And to complicate matters further, when she denies saying A and meaning B, that could be because she genuinely didn’t mean B, but it could also be a strategic denial: she did in fact mean B, but it’s in her interests to say she didn’t.  

Men accused of sexual harassment have an obvious interest in denying they meant what the complainant took them to mean. And this will often be made easier for them by the nature of the communication whose meaning is in dispute. While some forms of verbal sexual harassment may be direct enough for their meaning to be indisputable, others are very indirect, relying on the hearer to ‘read between the lines’. In this respect, sexual harassment is not unlike another linguistic practice through which sexual interest may be communicated: flirting.

Flirting has been defined by the linguist Scott Kiesling as ‘an off-record negotiation and recognition of interpersonal desire’. ‘Off-record’ means that the participants don’t put their cards on the table: they leave things inexplicit, vague or ambiguous. It’s been suggested that this element of uncertainty is part of what makes flirting fun–it keeps the participants guessing and prolongs what’s been called ‘the excitement of possibility’. In the case of sexual harassment, however, inexplicitness serves less benign purposes. Uncertainty about the harasser’s intentions only increases the victim’s discomfort (is she misjudging the situation? If she objects will she be being unfair?), and in the event of any challenge it gives the harasser ‘plausible deniability’.

In 2003 the conversation analyst Liisa Tainio published an analysis of a phone conversation in which a Member of Parliament in Finland sexually harassed a 15-year old girl (he was later convicted of attempting to sexually abuse a child). This was the second call he had made to the girl: after the first she decided, with the help of her family, to arrange another call and record it. Tainio’s transcript confirms that inexplicitness is a key feature of the harasser’s talk. At no point does he explicitly mention any recognisably sexual activity: his proposition to the girl, which he repeats in various forms no fewer than 15 times, is that they should ‘go for a ride’. At one stage he mentions the possibility of going to a hotel: that might hint at a sexual intention, but since there are other, non-sexual things one could do in a hotel, it remains ambiguous and deniable.

However, Tainio points out two other features of the call that support an interpretation of it as harassment. One is the repetition of the proposition. Issuing the same invitation 15 times in a single conversation is highly marked behaviour. Analysis has shown that if someone is going to accept an invitation they will normally do so promptly; if they hesitate or hedge that will be heard as declining, even if it isn’t followed by a direct refusal (refusing by ‘just saying no’ is in reality very rare). The girl does hesitate and hedge (‘I don’t know’… ‘I’m very busy’), but the MP ignores this, and keeps re-issuing the invitation. By normal standards he is badgering her, and that’s one piece of evidence suggesting harassment.

The other piece of evidence that he’s harassing her is the fact that he tries to blackmail her. He informs her that he knows (because he’s been spying on her) that she has had a boy in the house in her father’s absence, and then says:

Listen, I know more about you than you think. I won’t ever tell these things to your Daddy, y’know …cause I do know your Daddy… I won’t gossip, I won’t do that, I’m nice enough …but I know a lot about you

This is a good example of an utterance whose intended meaning differs from its apparent meaning. On the surface he’s promising not to tell the girl’s father what he knows, but by implication he is threatening to tell unless the girl co-operates.   

Despite the creepiness of this man’s behaviour—spying on an adolescent girl and calling her at home to ask her out—Tainio tells us that the police and the press were initially reluctant to treat it as sexual harassment. That may be because, as she says, ‘there is no one single feature of the talk which could be “typical” of sexual harassment’. In particular, the MP makes no explicit and unambiguous sexual propositions. Tainio’s analysis picks out several different features (the badgering, the hesitant or hedged responses, the veiled threats), and suggests that it’s only when you put them all together (along with the information that this is an adult man talking to a 15-year old girl) that the case for sexual harassment becomes compelling.

Could we make a similar analysis of the interaction which prompted Charlotte Bennett to accuse Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment? Not quite, because we don’t have a recording of the interaction; but we do have a detailed narrative account of Bennett’s testimony, which is included in the report I linked to earlier. Here’s an extract:

the Governor asked her how long it had been since she hugged someone, and complained that he had not hugged anyone in a long time. Ms Bennett understood that the Governor did not seem to be asking about platonic hugs, because when she responded that [he] could hug his daughters he responded with something like “No, no, not like that–a real hug”. Ms Bennett testified that the Governor then said he was lonely and that he wanted a girlfriend in Albany. In the same series of conversations, the Governor asked her if she had ever been with older men and whether she thought age mattered in relationships. According to Ms Bennett, while she was trying to figure out how to answer…he cut her off and said “I don’t think [age differences] matter”. [He] then said that he would have a relationship with someone who was “22 and up” or “over the age of 22”. Ms Bennett noted that earlier the same day she and the Governor had discussed the fact that she had recently turned 25. The Governor also asked Ms Bennett if her last relationship had been monogamous.

From this Bennett concluded that Cuomo was expressing a sexual interest in her—something he strenuously denied, saying she had ‘processed what she heard through her own filter’ (i.e., her interpretation was not grounded in any plausible reading of what he said to her). To assess these competing accounts, we need to reconstruct the process Bennett might have gone through to get to her conclusion. Were her inferences, as Cuomo suggested, unwarranted, or were they, in context, reasonable?

We can begin by acknowledging that Cuomo didn’t explicitly say he wanted a sexual relationship with Bennett (if he had there would be nothing to argue about). He did, however, introduce the topic of sexual relationships into a conversation that took place at work, and you would expect someone in Bennett’s position to treat that as meaning something. You would also expect her, in pondering what it might mean, to take account of who was talking to whom (sex-talk addressed by a man to a woman has a different range of potential meanings from the same kind of talk between two male colleagues, for instance). Of course, the fact that he broached the subject does not, in itself, license the conclusion that he was hitting on her (though it doesn’t rule out that possibility either); but there were other clues in the details of what he said. For instance, he mentioned wanting a girlfriend in Albany (he knew Bennett was living in Albany); then he asked if she’d had relationships with older men (he’s an older man himself, nearly 40 years older than Bennett), and followed up by saying he’d have a relationship with anyone older than 22 (Bennett was 25 and that had been mentioned earlier in the day). Finally he asked if her previous relationship had been monogamous (a question that could be heard as probing her openness to casual or illicit sex).

As in the Finnish case, you can’t point to any single thing Cuomo said as definitive: you have to put it all together and consider the cumulative effect. That’s evidently what Charlotte Bennett did, and while we can never know with 100% certainty whether the conclusion she ultimately came to was right (in the sense of reproducing exactly what was in Cuomo’s mind), I think we can reject the claim that she simply imposed an interpretation which the evidence did not support. She did have to read between the lines, but those lines weren’t just figments of her imagination. 

Cuomo, of course, disputed that. He claimed that his reasons for broaching the subject of sex were related either to his responsibilities as Governor (e.g., his comments about hugs expressed a general concern about the emotional impact of Covid restrictions on New Yorkers) or to his role as Bennett’s mentor (he said he’d asked her about her experience with older men because he’d heard rumours she was involved with someone older and he wanted to give her a chance to talk about it). Once again, we can’t be 100% certain these explanations are untrue, but we might think they’re less convincing than the one Bennett constructed from the same evidence. That appears to have been the view of the investigators, whose report describes Cuomo’s account as ‘unpersuasive’.  

Am I saying that there are no circumstances in which it would ever be legitimate for someone like Cuomo to claim that miscommunication had occurred? No: clearly people can and do misunderstand one another. But I don’t think just saying someone misunderstood you is sufficient to make the case, and I also don’t think communication between men and women has some special propensity to go awry. In fact, I believe that so-called ‘male-female miscommunication’ often doesn’t involve misunderstanding at all; what’s presented as a misunderstanding is actually a conflict.

There’s a famous line in the 1967 prison movie Cool Hand Luke, spoken by the prison warden after Luke has escaped and been recaptured: ‘what we’ve got here is failure to communicate’. They both know communication is not the issue. Luke doesn’t defy the warden because he doesn’t understand him. His defiance is a challenge to the warden’s authority. It’s a conflict, not about what words mean, but about who gets to impose their will and who is obliged to submit.

Back in the days when sexual harassment, in Gloria Steinem’s words, ‘was just called life’, women on the receiving end of behaviour like Andrew Cuomo’s had little choice but to submit. They might complain about it privately, but it was difficult to challenge the prevailing view of harassment as just normal male behaviour. Harassers didn’t need to justify themselves, because they didn’t expect their behaviour to have consequences. The courts agreed that employers could not be expected to regulate this kind of behaviour, since, in the words of one US judgment quoted by Gillian Thomas in her history of Title VII,

The attraction of males to females and females to males is a natural sex phenomenon and it is probable that this attraction plays at least a subtle part in most personnel decisions.

Today things are different. Sexual harassment has been named and defined as a problem; workplaces have policies that prohibit it, procedures for reporting it, and sanctions for those who perpetrate it. In practice we know this hasn’t solved the problem. But it has had some consequences, and in my view the popularity of the miscommunication defence is one of them. This defence is a weapon in the ongoing conflict between men who still feel entitled to harass women, and women who’ve been emboldened to challenge that.  

In this case the conflict was resolved in favour of the women. But the struggle isn’t over. Though it didn’t prevent the fall of Andrew Cuomo, the miscommunication defence remains an obstacle to justice, and feminists must continue to point that out.   

Speakin while female

Remember the summer of 2018, when a woman was allowed to commentate on a men’s football World Cup match, prompting a tsunami of complaints about her ‘shrill’, high-pitched voice? Well, the sport-watching blokes of Britain have been at it again. Halfway through the Tokyo Olympics a man named Digby Jones (in case you’ve never heard of him, he used to run the Confederation of British Industry and was later elevated to the House of Lords) took to Twitter to complain about Alex Scott, the former Arsenal and England footballer who’d been presenting the highlights for the BBC:

Enough! I can’t stand it anymore! Alex Scott spoils a good presentational job on the BBC Olympics Team with her very noticeable inability to pronounce her ‘g’s at the end of a word. Competitors are NOT taking part, Alex, in the fencin, rowin, boxin, kayakin, weightliftin & swimmin

What this tweet draws attention to is something all English-speakers do at least some of the time, whether they’re aware of it or not: pronounce the final consonant in the –ing ending on words like ‘swimming’ with an [n] rather than the [ŋ] Jones thinks it should have. (Neither of these pronunciations contains an actual [g] sound, BTW—though there are some English accents that add one on.) The alternation isn’t totally random: we’re more likely to use the [ŋ] in more formal situations, and the [n], conversely, when we are or want to sound more relaxed (it’s ‘sittin on the dock of the bay’, not ‘sitting’). But the difference between the two pronunciations is also socially meaningful: though virtually everyone uses both, exactly how much we use each of them varies with demographic characteristics like age, ethnicity, gender and social class.

Interestingly, the current social class meaning of so-called ‘g-dropping’ (though that’s a misnomer for the reasons I’ve just explained—and also because speaking is not, in fact, reading from an invisible autocue in the sky) is not the only one it’s ever had. Today it’s understood as a working-class thing, but in the early 20th century it was also associated with the British upper classes, who talked about ‘huntin, shootin and fishin’ (and possibly fencin and rowin, though probably not kayakin and weightliftin). Writers of the time both used the [n] form in the dialogue they gave to upper-class characters (like Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey) and sometimes commented on its use explicitly, in a way that makes clear it was a recognized social stereotype.

Here’s an example from Jan Struther’s 1939 novel Mrs Miniver: the setting is a shooting party at Lord and Lady Chervil’s country house.

‘Now take huntin’…’ ‘Oh, bull-fightin’ — that’s quite a different kettle of fish.…’ Italics bred italics. Dropped g’s fell as thick as confetti.

Then as now, ‘dropped gs’ were considered a deviation from the standard pronunciation. But the tone of the disapproval they attracted was rather different when the g-droppers were aristocrats. Middle-class Mrs Miniver finds the sound of the upper-class voices at Lady Chervil’s table ‘musically unpleasing’, but she doesn’t accuse their owners of being ‘lazy’, ‘illiterate’, or in need of the ‘elocution lessons’ Digby Jones prescribed for Alex Scott.

That’s one way we know criticisms of pronunciation aren’t, as those who make them often claim, a case of ‘it doesn’t matter who says it, I just hate the way it sounds’. It does matter who says it: the things people claim to hate the sound of are almost always things they associate with an out-group, a group they don’t belong to themselves. And while they may, like Mrs Miniver, make mildly disparaging judgments on higher-status speakers, they generally reserve their harshest and most public criticism for those lower down the social hierarchy.  

But in 2020s Britain, as Digby Jones would soon discover, you won’t make yourself universally popular by criticising a young Black working-class Londoner for talking like a young Black working-class Londoner. As well as defending herself (‘I’m from a working-class family in East London, Poplar, Tower Hamlets, & I am PROUD. Proud of the young girl who overcame obstacles and proud of my accent’) Scott had heavyweight supporters ranging from London Mayor Sadiq Khan to former rugby international Will Carling. Jones came out looking like, as one tweep put it, ‘a f**kin snob’.

But before we conclude that British accent prejudice has had its day, let’s not forget a very similar incident that sparked controversy less than a year ago. Last September the former Labour spin-doctor Alistair Campbell tweeted about the Conservative politician Priti Patel: ‘I don’t want a Home Secretary who can’t pronounce a G at the end of a word’. He deleted the tweet after Patel’s Conservative colleague Sajid Javid called it ‘blatant snobbery’, but in my own (basically Left-leaning) part of the Twitterverse, the jibes about Patel’s accent continued. And when the row about Alex Scott blew up, I noticed a few people suggesting her case was different from Patel’s: maybe Patel’s g-dropping was less ‘authentic’ than Scott’s, or maybe Patel had less excuse for it.

Sorry, people of Twitter, but that kind of talk just underlines the point that accent prejudice is a proxy for other kinds of prejudice. You don’t like Priti Patel’s politics, so you want it to be OK to criticise the way she speaks (which IMHO is perfectly ‘authentic’ given where she grew up and went to school–according to Wikipedia, at a girls’ comprehensive in Watford)–while simultaneously maintaining that it’s not OK to criticise when the speaker is someone you approve of.

Of course this is a common reaction, and I can’t claim to be untouched by it myself. Boris Johnson has a way of pronouncing the word ‘to’ (with an elongated and heavily-stressed schwa vowel) that irritates me beyond all reason. Others might feel the urge to punch him when they look at his perpetually uncombed hair; for me what does it is hearing him say ‘to’. I can’t control that reaction, but what I can do, and what I think we all should do, is recognise it for what it is (a projection of my feelings about the person onto the way he speaks), and resist the temptation either to broadcast our prejudices or to invent spurious linguistic justifications for them.

For feminists there’s an extra reason to be wary of this kind of criticism. It’s not a coincidence that the two examples of accent-shaming I’ve discussed both targeted high-profile women. As Katie Edwards recalled in a piece about the Alex Scott affair,

When I first started presenting radio I discovered pretty quickly that while it’s all right for Alan Titchmarsh to be ‘nobbut a lad’ as a broadcaster, women with regional accents have a trickier time of it.

She’s right: the policing of nonstandard pronunciation, and other linguistic behaviours which are popularly associated with working-class speakers—for instance, swearing and using slang—is even more intense for female speakers than for male ones. Working-class speech has ‘rough and tough’ connotations, and is therefore perceived as ‘masculine’; in women it attracts not only the usual class-based criticisms, but also the sex-specific judgment that it’s ‘unladylike’. Regardless of her social class, a respectable woman is supposed to act like a ‘lady’; being ‘well-spoken’, as people say in Britain, is part of that. The Yorkshire-accented Katie Edwards was once described as having ‘no decorum’; Faima Bakar has written about the way Black women get told they shouldn’t ‘talk street’ because ‘it’s just not attractive’.

The idea that women should be ‘well-spoken’ is yet another item on the already long list of requirements (like not being shrill, strident or aggressive) that create a hostile environment for female speakers. In the case of Priti Patel that might seem like poetic justice. But when we condone the weaponizing of linguistic prejudice against a woman, whoever she is and whatever we think of her, we make it easier for the same weapons to go on being used against us all.  

Let us not praise famous women

I’ve just finished reading a 650-page book called Women in the History of Linguistics. It introduced me to all kinds of women I’d never heard of before, from Ban Zhao, a scholar in Han Dynasty China, to Ekaterina Dashkova, President of the Imperial Russian Academy under Catherine the Great.  Even the parts about the early 20th century—the tradition of linguistics I was educated in myself—featured numerous women I knew almost nothing about.

This isn’t just a linguistics thing. Most of us know little about the women who came before us. And most of us don’t have the time or the opportunity to fill in the blanks by reading a weighty academic tome. What we do have today, though, is the internet, which was meant to democratize knowledge and make it possible for anyone to educate themselves about anything. What would I find if I did simple online searches for some of the women in Women in the History of Linguistics?

I started with Ann Eliza Worcester Robertson (1826-1905), who is mentioned in the book as the first US woman ever to receive an honorary doctorate. Robertson was a missionary who worked with the Creek Nation in Oklahoma: she studied the Creek language primarily so she could translate the Bible into it. However, the quality of her analysis earned the respect of academics too—hence the honorary degree, which she was awarded in 1892. That achievement, however, gets little attention online. It’s mentioned in a biography I found on a website about Oklahoma history, but not in Robertson’s entry in Encyclopedia.com, which describes her simply as a ‘missionary and teacher’–though it does refer to her father, who was also a missionary, as a linguist.  

The next woman I went in search of was E. Adelaide Hahn (1893 -1967). She makes a cameo appearance in Women in the History of Linguistics on a list of women who served on the Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) before 1939. The book doesn’t say so, but I learned from the LSA’s website that she would later become the Society’s first woman President. In the hope of learning more, I put her name into a search engine. I found a (short) Wikipedia entry, which records that Hahn was born in New York City, earned a PhD in Classics from Columbia University and taught the subject for many years at Hunter College; later she branched out into Indo-European linguistics, attending seminars at Yale taught by the most famous (male) linguists of the time. But the entry says nothing about her own contribution to linguistics. Instead it informs readers that

Hahn’s distinctive New York accent, forceful way of speaking, and penchant for large feathered hats earned her a reputation as a “character,” a colorful and unforgettable personality.

If you think that’s insulting, try looking up Alice Kober (1906-1950), who like Hahn was born in New York City, studied Classics at Columbia, and spent the rest of her life teaching at another local institution, in her case Brooklyn College. She’s remembered for her extensive work on the ancient and at the time still undeciphered script known as Linear B. It was finally deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris, and most early accounts downplay Kober’s contribution, preferring to celebrate the inspired male amateur rather than the woman whose painstaking structural analysis took many years and 180,000 index cards. But the importance of Kober’s work has since been acknowledged, making it easy to find her online: she features on the BBC website as an ‘unsung heroine’, and in a series of retrospective obituaries published by the New York Times to recognize women and people of colour who were not commemorated when they actually died. She also has a Wikipedia entry, which includes a reasonable section on Linear B. But the rest of it knocks Adelaide Hahn’s entry into a large feathered hat. After quoting an ex-student’s physical description (‘Her figure dumpy with sloping shoulders, her chin heavily determined, her hair styled for minimum maintenance, her eyes behind bottle-bottom glasses…’), the entry continues:

Kober never married, and no evidence exists to suggest a rich personal life. [She] lived with her widowed mother and, so far as is known, never had a romantic partner.

(Footnote: the economist Adam Smith also lived with his mother and never married: in his Wikipedia entry those facts are recorded without comment.)

The next woman on my list, Mary R. Haas (1910-1996), was a respected figure in linguistics, and like Hahn she served as President of the LSA. However, I learned from Women in the History of Linguistics that her career nearly ended before it had begun because, unlike Alice Kober, she was married. Her supervisor Edward Sapir thought it unseemly for married women to hold salaried positions, and did not support her efforts to find an academic job. By 1937 she was so frustrated that she divorced her husband (fellow-linguist Morris Swadesh), telling him she wanted to be free to pursue her career. Her moment came when the US entered World War II, and many male academics were drafted. With women suddenly in demand, Haas went to UC Berkeley, where she stayed until 1977. Searching for her online yields a respectable amount of information, including a decent Wikipedia entry.   

I moved on to Lucy Shepard Freeland (1890-1977), who like Haas specialized in the study of American Indian languages. Before reading Women in the History of Linguistics I knew one thing about Freeland: according to the recently-revised entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, her dissertation The Language of the Sierra Miwok (published in 1951) contains the first known use in writing of the term ‘code-switching’. Online she is elusive, partly because of the perennial problem of women’s names. Freeland called herself not ‘Lucy’ but ‘Nancy’, and she sometimes used the last name of her husband Jaime de Angulo. Her published work appeared under several names, ranging from ‘L.S. Freeland’ to ‘Nancy de Angulo’—and who would guess those two were the same person? But what’s particularly frustrating is that, whichever name you use, you repeatedly find yourself on pages that mention her but are actually about her husband.

Here’s part of an item which kept coming up in my searches. It’s from a project commemorating famous residents of Berkeley, and is headed ‘Jaime de Angulo, Anthropologist, “Erratic Genius” (1887-1950)’.

Born in Paris to a wealthy, devout, expatriot Spanish family, the handsome, brilliant, and charismatic linguist, writer, and ethnomusicologist Jaime de Angulo received a Jesuit education. At age 18 he rebelled and fled to Colorado where he worked as a cowboy. He then travelled on to South America, pursued silver mining in Honduras, and arrived in San Francisco just in time for the 1906 earthquake.

De Angulo subsequently earned a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and married Carey Fink, a fellow medical student and future associate of Carl Jung. After working as a genetics researcher at Stanford, de Angulo dismissed medicine as “a pile of junk” and bought a cattle ranch in Modoc County, where he came in contact with California’s Pit River Indians.

The ranch failed in 1915 and de Angulo homesteaded in Big Sur on a ranch where he would live intermittently for much of the rest of his life. In nearby Carmel he met Lucy Shepard Freeland (“Nancy”), a New Jersey native from a wealthy family who would become his second wife. De Angulo introduced Nancy to linguistics and encouraged her to enrol at U.C. Berkeley.

De Angulo is portrayed as Freeland’s mentor, but their relationship became an obstacle to her professional success. She began living with de Angulo while he was still married to Carey Fink, and her supervisor, who regarded this as ‘scandalous and immoral’, denied her funding to finish her dissertation. When she did finally finish it, he did not take the necessary steps to have her doctoral degree awarded. Without it she was ineligible to apply for academic positions. Her work was later published, but by that time she was in her 60s. Adding insult to injury, when you look her up today you get redirected to her husband, the ‘erratic genius’.  

Finally I turned my attention to Britain, and looked up Barbara M. H. Strang (1925-1982), the woman who first taught me linguistics when I was a student in Newcastle in the late 1970s. She doesn’t feature in Women in the History of Linguistics because her career began after the book’s end-date, but I was curious to see how the information available online would compare with what I already knew about her. Her Wikipedia entry is sparse, though it does offer some irrelevant detail about her husband, ‘a lecturer and the heir apparent to his father’s barony’. After reporting that in 1964 Strang became Newcastle’s first professor of English Language and General Linguistics, the writer remarks that this was ‘a novel appointment’. In fact it was not especially novel: Strang’s specialist field, English historical linguistics, was one that women had excelled in for many years, and taught in various institutions long before 1964 (partly because English was originally seen as a women’s subject, inferior to the classical languages elite men studied).   

Except for Mary Haas, the women I looked up are not well-served by the most accessible online reference sources. It’s possible to do better if you have access to an academic library (or a good public librarian), but if you rely on what’s easy for anyone to find you will be presented with material which is thin, grudging about women’s achievements, overly attentive to the men in their lives (or in Alice Kober’s case, the absence of men), and sometimes downright insulting. It’s true that 20th century women linguists are a niche interest; but catering for niche interests is supposed to be one of the things the internet is good for. Also, we know that my experience would have been similar had I been searching for information about women who distinguished themselves in other ways: this is a woman problem rather than specifically a woman linguist problem.

The Wikipedia part of the problem (which matters because Wikipedia is such a go-to source for students and anyone without access to academic libraries) is well-known, and there have been efforts to deal with it by organizing ‘edit-a-thons’ in which entries for missing women are added. But this approach has limitations. It’s implicitly based on the assumption that women have been overlooked inadvertently, and that attempts to correct the record will be welcomed. But some recent research by Francesca Tripodi casts doubt on that assumption.

Tripodi’s research focused on the issue of ‘notability’, which Wikipedia uses as a criterion for deciding which individuals should get an entry. In itself that’s not unreasonable: you don’t want hundreds of entries for people nobody would ever look up. But on Wikipedia, a collective, ‘democratic’ project, anyone can challenge any entry, and propose that it should be deleted, on the grounds that its subject isn’t ‘notable’. Tripodi found this strategy is disproportionately used to target women. Biographical entries for women make up less than 20 percent of all biographical entries on Wikipedia, but they consistently account for over 25 percent of the items nominated for deletion. Women aren’t just missing because they’ve been accidentally overlooked; they’re being actively and deliberately erased.

This is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1982, Dale Spender wrote a book entitled Women of Ideas (and What Men Have Done To Them) in which she showed how women’s ideas and achievements had been repeatedly erased from the (printed) record, and argued that men’s control over the dissemination of knowledge was fundamental to the maintenance of patriarchal power. Among other things, it deprives women of information about their predecessors, leading each new generation to believe that women in the past achieved far less than they actually did. It shouldn’t surprise us that the digital revolution hasn’t changed this. There is no technological fix for sexism: the problem is political, and the solution must be too.     

The illustration shows Alice Kober and a Linear B tablet.

If you’d like to read my (academic) review of Women in the History of Linguistics use this link

Women of letters

A feminist academic I know is having an argument with the publisher of a book she’s currently editing. The issue is the bibliography: she wants to include authors’ full names, but the publisher wants her to follow the APA style guide, which says that authors must be listed by their last name and initials only.

If you’re not an academic (and maybe even if you are), you’re probably wondering why anyone would bother arguing about something so insignificant. Who cares if the author of Cheesemaking in Early Modern Europe is listed as ‘Joan Smith’ or ‘J. Smith’? The answer is that feminists care: this is a long-running debate, and it continues to divide opinion.

If I publish an academic book, the cover will generally identify me by my full name, ‘Deborah Cameron’. But if I publish an article in an academic journal, the journal’s style rules may dictate that I’m ‘D. Cameron’. References to my work in the text of a book or article will use my last name only (Cameron 2021), and bibliographies most commonly give a last name and then initials (Cameron, D). So, in most academic contexts where my name appears in writing, it appears in a de-gendered form. Which means that unless the reader already knows I’m a woman, they’ll be likely to apply the ‘default male’ principle, assuming people are male unless there’s evidence to the contrary.

I see this tendency in student essays, where it’s not uncommon for female researchers to be referred to as ‘he’. Occasionally what’s behind this is a gender-ambiguous name: the feminist linguist Robin Lakoff, for instance, is very often assumed to be a man because in Britain ‘Robin’ is a man’s name. But most English given-names are not ambiguous: they’re a very reliable guide to someone’s gender. That’s why feminists have argued they should appear in bibliographies, to make women’s contributions visible and stop their work being credited to men.   

Barbara Czerniawska came up against this issue when she was translating an English book into Polish. Polish makes extensive use of grammatical gender-marking, so to translate an English sentence like ‘Smith, a leading expert on this topic, disagrees’, you need to know if the reference is to John Smith or Joan Smith. Czerniawska turned to the bibliography for help, but that only gave her Smith’s initials. She was obliged to look up all the researchers mentioned in the book to find out which of them were men and which were women.

In the process she became aware of another problem. As well as concealing the contribution women have made to the research an author actually mentions, the use of initials may also conceal the author’s failure to reference women’s work. In the book Czerniawska was translating, less than a quarter of the scholars cited were women—which was not, she tells us, a faithful reflection of who was publishing on the subject at the time. We know from many studies that male citation bias is common, but until Czerniawska put names to the initials she couldn’t see it, and she certainly couldn’t measure the extent of it. If it were obvious to anyone who looked at a list of references, would that encourage more active efforts to avoid it?

But not all feminists would be in favour of a shift from initials to full names. The other side of this argument holds that using initials is good for women because it enables them to dodge the effects of sexism. If you want people to approach your work without any preconceptions, you’re better off being ‘D. Cameron’ than ‘Deborah’.  

This argument has gained traction not only in academia, but also among creative writers. A quick trawl through some of the online forums where writers of fiction and poetry exchange tips on getting published revealed that women are often advised to use initials. Some people who recommend this cite commercial considerations: if your name identifies you as a woman, you won’t attract male readers (which is, famously, why the creator of Harry Potter became ‘J.K. Rowling’ rather than ‘Joanne’). Others argue that the use of initials deflects the prejudices that make it harder for women to get their work taken seriously.

These advice-givers may have a point. Long-time readers of this blog might recall an experiment conducted by aspiring novelist Catherine Nichols, who sent the same manuscript out to literary agents under two different names—her own and that of an invented alter-ego called ‘George’. The results were depressing: not only did George’s work attract more interest than Catherine’s (he was, she reported, ‘eight and a half times more successful than me at writing the same book’), the agents’ comments on the manuscript were full of obvious gender stereotypes (like calling George’s prose ‘well-constructed’ while Catherine’s was described as ‘lyrical’).

Nichols didn’t test the effect of using initials. Would literary agents reading the work of ‘C. Nichols’ have defaulted to the male, and responded the way they did to George? Or would the non-committal ‘C’ have done what the people in the writing forums suggested, and taken the writer’s identity out of the equation? I say ‘identity’ because names are not just indicators of a person’s gender: they may also offer clues about their age, class, ethnicity or religion. Replacing them with initials removes that information: you might think it’s the next best thing to anonymity. But in fact it’s a bit more complicated than that, because initials have social meanings of their own.   

I was educated at the tail-end of an era when British academics, the great majority of them male, very often chose to publish under their initials. As a student I read the work of literary critics with names like F.R. Leavis, A.C. Bradley and C.S. Lewis (who didn’t just write books about Narnia)—and of writers like D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. Philosophers read A.J. Ayer and J. L. Austin; historians discussed the work of E.P Thompson and A.J.P. Taylor. Clearly these men were not using their initials to conceal their gender: their maleness went without saying. So, what other motivations might they have had?

Their choices reflected both personal and social considerations. C.S. [Clive Staples] Lewis, for example, is known to have hated the name ‘Clive’: people who knew him personally called him ‘Jack’. But in his time people didn’t generally use their private nicknames for public purposes, so initials were the obvious alternative. And it’s no surprise that T.S. [Thomas Stearns] Eliot, whose contemporaries frequently remarked on his extraordinarily formal manner and his obsession with what was ‘correct’, preferred initials not only to the name his intimates used, ‘Tom’, but also to the full version, ‘Thomas’. Substituting initials adds an extra layer of formality, impersonality, and seriousness or gravitas.

In England in the 20th century initials also had a class-related meaning: they, and the qualities they signified, were part of the persona of the upper-class ‘gentleman’. The blogger Mark Goggins recalls that as a boy he believed you couldn’t play cricket for England unless you had at least three initials. However, plenty of initial-users, including many of the writers and scholars named above, did not match the upper-class English prototype; rather they exploited the social meaning of initials to construct a ‘gentlemanly’ identity.

For women this was largely irrelevant, since there were few contexts in which it was either necessary or ‘correct’ to use an upper-class lady’s initials. Etiquette dictated that a married woman (if she didn’t have an aristocratic title) was formally referred to using ‘Mrs’ and her husband’s name—including his first name or initials. Nancy Mitford, for instance, who was both titled and married, was ‘The Hon. Mrs Peter Rodd’. But there were certainly women academics who used their initials in their published work, and I don’t think that was always intended to conceal or downplay their sex. It seems unlikely, for example, that the literary scholar Q.D. [Queenie Dorothy] Leavis, wife of the more famous F.R. Leavis, was hoping to keep her identity a secret. More likely her motivations were similar to her husband’s: the association of initials with status, formality and gravitas served a purpose for some women, just as it did for some men.

In the US, a more common practice than using only initials was to insert a middle initial between your first and last names, as in ‘John F. Kennedy’. The meanings this communicated were similar to the ones I’ve already mentioned: it added status, formality, gravitas. But while in principle the middle initial could be used by or in reference to anyone, research investigating its use in the US media found that in practice it was rarely given to women. Feminists analysed this as a subtle form of sexism, a manifestation of the same ‘gender respect gap’ that leads to male academics being ‘Professor A’ and ‘Dr B’ while women are ‘Kate’ or ‘Ms Smith’. I know female academics in the US who make a point of using middle initials for that reason. I was never tempted to join them, but perhaps I was missing a trick: according to a study conducted in 2014, ‘the display of middle initials increases positive evaluations of people’s intellectual capacities and achievements’.

But today the middle initial is in decline. Bruce Feiler, writing in the New York Times, noted its waning popularity among members of the US Congress: in 1900 84 percent of them used middle initials, and as late as 1970 the figure was still 76 percent; but by 2014 it had dropped to 38 percent. Comparing recent generational cohorts reveals a similar pattern. According to an expert Feiler consulted, boomers use middle initials more than Gen Xers, and millennials use them even less (with many reportedly eschewing them for ideological reasons, because they’re ‘classist’).

This expert also noted, however, that one group is bucking the trend: initials have remained popular among ‘women who aspire to power positions’. He went on to clarify that these women are more likely to use all initials (‘A.B. Roberts’) than first-name-plus-middle-initial (‘Anne B. Roberts’)–a choice he put down, as usual, to women’s desire to conceal their gender. Could the use of initials, once associated mainly with high-status men, become associated instead with high-status women?

Personally I doubt it. Initials are in decline because we no longer live in a culture that values formality and distance. That’s not just about egalitarianism: to my mind it has at least as much to do with the relentless personalisation of the public sphere, and the associated valorisation of qualities like openness, sincerity and ‘authenticity’. As Bruce Feiler put it in his Times piece: ‘These days, fewer people want to be an enigma. Everybody wants to be your friend’.

But it doesn’t surprise me that it’s women, in particular (and especially those who ‘aspire to power positions’), who are swimming against this cultural tide. For women the demand for informality and authenticity can feel like a trap, a double-bind: women have always been told not to give themselves airs, and judged more positively for being ‘approachable’ than for being clever, ambitious or decisive. Maybe those who use initials are not simply trying to conceal their gender; maybe what they’re after, not unlike the 20th century men discussed above, is a more formal, more distant and less approachable public persona.

This may all seem a long way from the question I began with–whether women academics should be referred to in published sources using full names or initials. I don’t have a definitive answer: I suppose I think names are personal, and it should ultimately be a personal choice. I realise that’s not very helpful, though, because it goes against the norm of consistency, one rule for all, that publishers generally insist on. (I have never cared about consistency: if it’s so important, why is there more than one ‘authoritative’ style guide?)

But what I mostly want to say about this long-running debate goes back to one of the perennial themes of this blog: that in language all choices are meaningful, but their meanings may be more complex than we think. The choice between full names and initials, for women, is most often presented as a choice between visibility and concealment. But while it is that, it’s also more than that: names and initials carry other kinds of baggage, and communicate other kinds of meaning.

The illustration shows F.R. and Q.D. Leavis

Fighting words

Note: this is post is a reworking/updating of a piece I wrote for Trouble & Strife magazine in 2014.

Remember Betty Friedan’s ‘problem that has no name’? Or Gloria Steinem recalling that in the 1960s no one talked about sexual harassment–not because it didn’t happen, but because ‘it was just called life’? Naming women’s experiences of oppression has always been an important political task. Though you don’t solve a problem just by giving it a name, naming it brings it more clearly into focus, making it easier to recognize, to analyse and to fight.

Feminists don’t always agree on what a problem should be called. We have arguments about terminology—about the difference between, say, ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’, or ‘gender-based violence’ and ‘male violence against women’—because we don’t think these are just empty labels. They are tools for making sense of the world, reflecting different understandings of what they name.

As times change, names may also change: in recent decades there’s been a change in the way we name forms of oppression. The radical social movements of the 1960s and 70s popularised a set of terms ending in –ism (e.g. racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableismageism, classism); many of these are still in use, but more recent social justice activism has produced another set that end in –phobia (e.g. homophobiatransphobia, Islamophobia, fatphobia, femmephobia, whorephobia). This hasn’t (AFAIK) prompted much heated debate: we don’t seem to think it matters much whether we call something an ‘ism’ or a ‘phobia’. But –ism words and –phobia words frame the problem in different ways–and that difference may not be inconsequential.

If we look at their meanings in the language as a whole, words ending in –ism most commonly name systems of ideas or beliefs–political, religious, intellectual or artistic (e.g. feminism, socialism, nationalismBuddhism, postmodernism, surrealism). Terms like sexism and racism are also names for systems. They were intended to capture the systemic nature of male or white dominance, the idea that these were not just individual prejudices, they were built into the social structure and the workings of social institutions.

Words ending in -phobia, by contrast, most commonly name clinical conditions. The first ‘phobia’ word to appear in an English-language text was hydrophobia (Greek for ‘morbid fear of water’), meaning rabies; in the 19th century the term became associated with mental rather than physical illness, and in current medical usage it names a class of anxiety disorders in which something that is not objectively a threat triggers a pathological reaction—intense fear, panic, disgust, an overwhelming desire to avoid or escape the danger. In everyday parlance the term is used more loosely: it retains the sense of ‘a pathological (over)reaction’, but the emphasis is less on uncontrollable anxiety, the main symptom of clinical phobia, and more on aversion or hatred. Terms like homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia thus suggest that the problem is not so much social structures as individual feelings or mental states.

Does the shift from ‘isms’ to ‘phobias’ go along with a shift in our understanding of oppression? Clearly there hasn’t been a total shift: we still talk about ‘isms’, and we still (at least sometimes) think in terms of systems. But in today’s progressive discourse I do think there’s a stronger tendency to link oppression directly to feelings of antipathy–and to treat those feelings as a source of harm in their own right. If I believe you hate me for who I am, even if you do nothing about it, that oppresses me.

A version of this idea has been incorporated into the law through the concept of a ‘hate crime’, an offence which is motivated by hostility to the victim as a member of a certain social group. Such offences are seen as particularly serious because the victim is harmed twice over–not only by the act itself (e.g. a threat or an assault), but also by the hostility that motivates it. The law doesn’t criminalise hate itself, but it does treat it as an aggravating factor in cases where it motivates a crime, and directs the courts to consider imposing harsher penalties.

As I explained in a recent post, in Britain crimes against women are not currently eligible to be treated as hate crimes. Some feminists have campaigned for that to change, arguing that misogyny should have the same legal status as racism or homophobia. But there are also feminists who see this demand as misguided. The commonest crimes against women, they point out, such as domestic violence/abuse, do not fit the legal definition of a hate crime. They don’t express hostility towards women in general, but rather the perpetrator’s feeling of entitlement to dominate and control ‘his’ women. A law which treats domestic abuse as less serious than ‘misogyny hate crime’ will not deliver justice for most women.   

At a more general level, this disagreement reflects differing understandings of how women’s oppression works. It’s not that woman-hatred doesn’t exist, but if we want to understand the system feminists call patriarchy, we shouldn’t over-emphasise the role played by hate, or underestimate the contribution made by acts and practices which have other motivations. Domestic abuse is about dominance and control; many forms of workplace discrimination (e.g. not hiring female job applicants on the grounds that they might become pregnant, or paying women workers less than men) are motivated by economic self-interest. Other patriarchal practices reflect ingrained cultural beliefs about women’s nature and what’s best for them: in particular, the belief that women’s ‘natural’ role is to take care of others’ needs, and that curtailing their freedom for the benefit of others does not harm them in the same way it would harm men. This seems to be the attitude of the World Health Organisation, which was criticised last week for suggesting that women ‘of childbearing age’ should be ‘prevented’ from consuming alcohol, It’s also the attitude of men who do no housework or childcare. Hatred, in short, is not a necessary feature of oppression. Is the emphasis placed on it in current progressive discourse actually obscuring the nature of the problem?.

Another question we could ask is how this emphasis on hate might be affecting our own political culture. It’s a difficult one, because there was never a golden age when feminists didn’t criticise, attack or trash each other. (As Ti-Grace Atkinson said 50-odd years ago, ‘Sisterhood is powerful’. It kills. Mostly sisters’.) They just didn’t always do it for an audience of thousands on social media. But contemporary practices like accusing people of being ‘phobic’–harbouring irrational/pathological hatred—tend to raise the emotional temperature. When hating is thought of as the ultimate sin, or even, in the ‘phobia’ frame, something akin to a mental illness, the target of the accusation is bound to resent it–and also, perhaps, the critic’s presumption in claiming to have access to her inner feelings. The object of her alleged hate, meanwhile, may feel that since the provocation is so extreme, she is justified in fighting fire with fire–with abuse, threats, or demands for the offender to be fired/de-platformed/ostracised.   

Last week, two much-discussed pieces of writing directly addressed this issue. One was an essay in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recounted her own experience of being targeted after making what some considered a transphobic comment, and went on to criticise the vindictive online culture which has created a climate of fear, bad faith and self-censorship. The other was an article in which Ayesha Hazarika, a member of the Board of the UK women’s rights organisation Fawcett, described current feminist debates on sex and gender as ‘fights to the death of [sic] who can scream and shame the loudest’. I don’t think that’s universally true. But I do think the contemporary tendency to label anything anyone takes exception to as ‘phobic’ or ‘hate speech’ encourages more extreme and more emotion-based responses. These labels function like ‘fighting words’, provoking or escalating conflict.

The debate Hazarika discusses is relatively recent, but many much older political arguments among feminists (some, indeed, as old as feminism itself) have come to be conducted in the same accusatory language. Familiar criticisms of make-up and high heels draw complaints of ‘femmephobia’; concerns about sexual practices like ‘breath play’ (aka choking) are denounced as ‘kinkphobia’; feminists who oppose the sex industry are accused of ‘whorephobia’. Will reframing them in this way resolve these long-running disagreements? Do the new terms shed any new light, or do they just generate (even) more heat?    

The terminology of oppression has always had a tendency to rely on analogies between different forms of it. The term sexism, for instance, was modelled on racism: many women who became active in US second wave feminism drew inspiration from their prior experience in the civil rights movement, and from the parallels they perceived between Black people’s situation and their own situation as women. This tendency has continued in the age of the internet meme, a unit of meaning which replicates rapidly, generating new variations as it goes. The recent proliferation of ‘phobias’ is one product of that process.

But the analogies are always imperfect (many commentators have criticised 1960s feminists for overstating the parallels and underplaying the differences between sexism and racism) and as they multiply they may become progressively less illuminating. For instance, it’s not hard to see the logic of labelling prejudice against lesbians and gay men homophobia: some of the forms it commonly takes do exhibit the irrational loathing and disgust the word ‘phobia’ brings to mind. But it’s harder to see why the devaluation of ‘feminine’ things should be called femmephobia. Who feels loathing or disgust when confronted with, say, a lipstick or a Barbie doll? Whorephobia is even less apt: suggesting that feminists who oppose the sex trade do so because they hate the women who work in it is like suggesting that anyone who criticises Tesco or Amazon must hate checkout operators and warehouse workers.

‘Hate’, to me (and probably to most people) is a strong word, but in some circles it and its derivatives (‘hate group’, ‘hate speech’) are used so freely, and with such a broad range of reference, it’s hard to connect the emotional charge of the word with what it’s being used to describe. A lot of this hyperbolic hate-talk is probably just unreflective habit; but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop to reflect on what it means and what it does. In my own opinion it would be no bad thing if we were more selective about what we label ‘hate’, and what we pathologize as ‘phobia’.

Hit or Miss

This post is about a longstanding feminist bone of contention: the use of the terms ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ to address teachers in UK schools. According to Project Britain, a website about British life and culture,    

Teachers in primary schools (4-11 year olds) are always addressed by their surname by parents and pupils alike, always Mr, Mrs or Miss Smith.…. In secondary schools (11-16 years), teachers are usually addressed as Miss or Sir.

This is a bit of an overgeneralisation: there are primary schools where ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ are used, and secondary schools which prescribe other forms of address, most commonly ‘title + name’ (i.e., ‘Mrs/Ms/Miss/Mr Smith’). When I put out a call to teachers on Twitter asking what terms were used in their schools, most reported either ‘Miss/Sir’ or ‘title + name’, but some reported the use of first names (especially in private schools and sixth form colleges where students are over 16), and some worked in schools where the prescribed form for women was not ‘Miss’ but ‘Madam’ or ‘Ma’am’.

This variation isn’t new. At the girls’ grammar school I attended in the early 1970s we were strictly forbidden to call teachers ‘Miss’ (or ‘Sir’, though since we had almost no male teachers that issue rarely arose). We had to call them ‘Miss/Mrs X’. That wasn’t because of any feminist objection to ‘Miss’. It had more to do with class snobbery. Saying ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ was ‘common’, something the kids at the local Secondary Modern did. This prejudice seems to have been quite widespread. One woman who answered my question on Twitter commented that when she was at school her teacher used to say ‘don’t call me Miss, you’re not at Grange Hill’ (the name of a fictional comprehensive school in a popular children’s TV series).  

It’s ironic that my school regarded ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ as low-class and vulgar, because ‘Sir’, at least, seems to have originated—like so many British educational customs—in the public schools that educated the sons of the privileged in the 19th century (note for Americans: ‘public’ here means what you’d call ‘private’, i.e. fee-paying; your ‘public school’ is our ‘state school’). Calling teachers ‘Sir’ was like calling your father and other senior male relatives ‘Sir’—not uncommon at the time—or like calling a superior officer ‘Sir’ in the army: it was a mark of respect for and deference to authority in a hierarchical and highly regimented institution.

The story of ‘Miss’ is different. It’s not clear that pupils at elite girls’ schools addressed their teachers as ‘Miss’ (as opposed to ‘Miss X’). You don’t see it much in early 20th century schoolgirl fiction: at Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, for instance, only the French teacher is ‘Mam’zelle’, while other teachers are addressed as ‘Miss Potts’ or ‘Miss Williams’. Both in fiction and in life, however, their title was always ‘Miss’, the conventional marker of a woman’s unmarried status. Though the law had been changed in 1919 so that women could enter professions that had previously excluded them, many employers, including the local authorities that employed most teachers, continued to limit women’s access to employment by operating a ‘marriage bar’. They refused to hire women who were already married, and required those who married later to resign. In theory this policy was illegal, but challenges to it failed repeatedly, because of the widespread view that, as an Appeal Court judgment put it in 1925,  

It is unfair to the large number of young unmarried teachers seeking situations that the positions should be occupied by married women, who presumably have husbands capable of maintaining them.

The marriage bar in teaching lasted until 1944, and this is thought to be the reason why ‘Miss’ became the female analogue of ‘Sir’ in British schools.

But times have changed since 1944, and most women teaching in Britain’s schools today probably aren’t, in any other situation, ‘Miss’. In any case, the problem feminists have with ‘Miss’ isn’t just about the title itself, it’s also about the lack of parity between ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’.

In other contexts the female address term analogous to ‘Sir’ is not ‘Miss’ but ‘Madam’ or ‘Ma’am’: though ‘madam’ has undergone some semantic derogation (it has acquired the specialised meaning ‘woman in charge of a brothel’), as an address term it retains a higher degree of formality and gravitas than ‘Miss’. That’s presumably why the related form ‘Ma’am’ has become the standard address term for senior female officers in the armed forces and the police. ‘Miss’ does not suggest deference to someone senior: though it originated as an abbreviated form of ‘mistress’, which did historically denote a woman in authority, its modern associations with youth and what you might call ‘juniority’ mean it can easily come across as belittling or trivialising. Even if you don’t find it belittling, it’s less deferential than ‘Sir’. As the feminist linguist Jennifer Coates commented in 2014, ‘Sir is a knight, but Miss is ridiculous–it doesn’t match Sir at all’.  She added:

It’s a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status.

But this critical view of ‘Miss’ is not shared by all women teachers, or even all feminist teachers; and the reasons for that are complicated.

One complicating factor is our old friend the sociolinguistics of status and solidarity. The non-reciprocal use of any title marks the existence of a status hierarchy (if you call me ‘Professor’ and I call you ‘Susie’ it’s a safe bet that I outrank you), and feminists tend to be ambivalent about that, caught between resenting the way respect-titles are often withheld from women when men get them automatically, and feeling we shouldn’t care, because after all, we believe in equality. In that egalitarian spirit, some of the people who answered my question on Twitter said they’d prefer to be called by their first names. Though these commenters were critical of ‘Miss’, their objection was more to status-marking in general than to the sexism of ‘Miss’ in particular. This brought them into conflict with other people who were more interested in levelling up (ensuring that women teachers got the same respect as men) than levelling down (flattening the hierarchy by eliminating titles). The most-liked comment made by anyone in my thread was an uncompromising defence of hierarchy:

Miss or Sir is appropriate. Teachers are educators and advocates. They are not, nor should they be ‘bessie mates’ with their students. Titles establish boundaries. Boundaries help children as they grow into adults.

You could, of course, defend the use of titles without endorsing the specific titles ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’, but evidently this tweet’s author didn’t pick up on the issue of sexism. She wasn’t the only one. It’s true that I phrased my opening tweet in a deliberately general, open-ended way—‘are [Sir and Miss] used at your school? Does that bother you? Why or why not?’—but since I’m a feminist who tends to attract other feminists as Twitter followers I was surprised by the number of respondents who either didn’t appear to have noticed any problem with the Sir/Miss pairing or who explicitly said they hadn’t thought about it before.

Others had thought about it, and had decided they didn’t mind being ‘Miss’. The main reason they gave for not minding was that they didn’t believe ‘Miss’ either was, or was intended to be, disrespectful. Calling women teachers ‘Miss’ was seen as, in one teacher’s words, ‘accepted practice, really’: it’s just what children do in school. Another teacher compared ‘Sir / Miss’ to a pronoun, a proxy for the teacher’s full name (which students may not know or remember), adding, ‘I don’t personally receive it as in any way derogatory’. Several respondents said that as long as students weren’t overtly disrespectful they didn’t care what address terms they used. What mattered was not the language but the quality of the relationship.

Some teachers at schools which prescribed other modes of address, either title + name or an alternative title like ‘Ma’am’, commented that pupils often reverted to ‘Miss’, which was entrenched, along with ‘Sir’, in the oral culture of their peer-group. Others also remarked that it’s primarily an oral form, and that in writing many students replace it with ‘Mrs’ or ‘Ms’. This is an interesting observation sociolinguistically: it may help to explain the longevity of a form which has its origins in the conditions of the fairly distant past (i.e., the period before the lifting of the marriage bar). While some aspects of the language of children and adolescents evolve rapidly (teenage slang is an obvious example), others may be very resistant to change, and particularly to attempts to impose it from outside.

‘Miss’ did have some feminist advocates. Two contributors to the thread cited the argument made by the teacher and writer Kate Clanchy in her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me:  

Miss: I have heard so many professional people express distaste for that name, but never a working teacher. Usually the grounds are sexism, but real children in real schools don’t use ‘Miss’ with any less (or more) respect than ‘Sir’. ‘Miss’ grates only on the ears of those who have never heard it used well: as it grated on me, a middle-class Scot, thirty years ago. No longer: Miss is the name I put on like a coat when I go into school; Miss is the shoes I stand in when I call out the kids in the corridor for running or shouting; Miss is my cloak of protection when I ask a weeping child what is wrong… Miss seems to me a beautiful name, because it has been offered to me so often with such love.  

Clanchy thinks the distaste of ‘professional people’ for ‘Miss’ reflects a combination of class and gender prejudice. She points out that teaching has historically been both a profession open to women (albeit not always on the same terms as men) and ‘the profession of first resort for graduates from working-class backgrounds’. Those facts contribute to the perception of it as a low-status profession; in that context, criticisms of ‘Miss’ may be just another way to put teachers, and especially teachers of working-class children, in their socially inferior place. I can’t help feeling Clanchy has a point here. I also agree with her that ‘Miss’, uttered by schoolchildren, is neither more nor less respectful than ‘Sir’–though the fact that a term is used with the intention of showing respect, or being polite, does not prevent it from also being sexist (the word ‘lady’ is a case in point).

However, I can’t agree with Clanchy’s suggestion that working teachers don’t find ‘Miss’ distasteful. Some of the working teachers who responded to my tweet made their distaste for it crystal clear. For some the problem was its generic, depersonalising quality. ‘I’m not a fan…I’d prefer to be Mrs ____’. This complaint was also made by men about ‘Sir’. ‘I always hated it’, wrote one: ‘I have a name’.  For others, what they disliked wasn’t being addressed by a generic label, it was being addressed, specifically, as ‘Miss’. ‘I’m not a “Miss” and wouldn’t want to be called that’. ‘I’m a “Ms” and always have been’. Several women who had worked in schools where the prescribed female address term was ‘Ma’am’ contrasted it favourably with ‘Miss’. ‘Ma’am’, said one, ‘felt genuinely respectful, whereas “Miss” always feels demeaning’. ‘I miss the Ma’am’, wrote a woman who had moved to another school, adding ‘Really dislike Miss’. A man whose wife was also a teacher said that both of them were troubled by the disparity between ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. ‘She receives a less flattering term of address – one that creates a child-like impression’.

This echoes some of my own feelings about ‘Miss’. One commenter suggested that the idea of it as demeaning is based on a lack of understanding of where it comes from: it’s a shortening of the ‘mistress’ in ‘headmistress’ and ‘schoolmistress’, and those are not demeaning terms. Well, maybe; but language change has obscured the connection. ‘Schoolmistress’ is now archaic (though while writing this I discovered that schoolmistresses do still feature in porn, where their main job is administering corporal punishment); ‘headmistress’ is going the same way, as schools increasingly shift to the gender-neutral ‘head teacher’. Today the most salient associations of ‘Miss’ have less to do with authority and more to do with immaturity. It’s telling, perhaps, that one woman in my Twitter thread said she preferred ‘Miss’ to ‘Ma’am’ because ‘Ma’am’ made her feel old. That points to another complicating factor: our culture views ageing in women so negatively, many women feel more flattered than demeaned by terms that imply youth.

I should acknowledge, of course, that you don’t get a representative sample of the teaching profession by canvassing your followers on Twitter. But the diversity of views expressed in my small and unrepresentative sample suggests there is no consensus on ‘Miss’. Which might also suggest there’s no great impetus for change. Though you’ve probably gathered that I’m not a fan myself, I do think ‘Miss’ is a survivor: the debate about it has been going on for years, and I doubt it will be settled any time soon.

Thanks to everyone who responded to my questions on Twitter.

Who’s to be mistress?

On April 13, the Associated Press Stylebook’s Twitter account issued a reminder:

Don’t use the term mistress for a woman who is in a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else. Instead, use an alternative like companion, friend or lover on first reference and provide additional details later.

I call this a ‘reminder’ because the rule isn’t new: it was added to the stylebook last year. Nevertheless, the tweet got a reaction: people were variously puzzled, irritated and–in the case of the usual suspects–outraged by this latest manifestation of political correctness gone mad. ‘The word “mistress”’, declared the Daily Mail, ‘is CANCELED’.

Many responses queried the suggestion that ‘mistress’ could be replaced by ‘friend’ or ‘companion’: weren’t those euphemisms rather than synonyms, and as such potentially misleading? The AP conceded that these alternatives ‘fell short’, but insisted they were ‘better than having one word for a woman and none for the man, and implying that the woman was solely responsible for the affair’.

By this point I was confused myself. Is that really the problem with ‘mistress’? And if it is, can it be solved by simply substituting a different word? I couldn’t help feeling that the AP was missing the point—or at least, that it was only skimming the surface. So, in this post I want to take a closer look at a word with a complicated history.

Borrowed from French in the middle ages (the earliest example quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the early 14th century), ‘mistress’ was originally just the feminine form of ‘master’, and its core meaning was ‘a woman having authority or control’. ‘The mistress’ could be the female head of a household, or its the highest-ranking female member; she could also be a female boss, in charge of workers, apprentices or servants (it has the same sense in compounds like ‘schoolmistress’ and ‘postmistress’). The female respect titles ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, which are still in use today, are both abbreviated forms of ‘mistress’–and what they originally marked was not marital status, but simply status.  

But of course, word-meanings can change—and when the words refer to women, they have a tendency to change for the worse. Back in 1975, Muriel Schulz named this tendency ‘the semantic derogation of woman’, explaining that

again and again in the history of the [English] language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or women may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications. 

Schulz drew attention to several male/female word-pairs, including ‘Lord/lady’, ‘governor/governess’ and ‘master/mistress’, where the two forms, originally parallel, had diverged in their meaning over time. In each case it was the masculine term which preserved its original association with authority and status, while the feminine term acquired a less exalted meaning. For instance, while ‘Lord’ still denotes a male aristocrat, ‘lady’ can now describe a woman of any social rank. ‘Governess’, originally a direct equivalent of ‘governor’ (in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I could be described as ‘the supreme Majesty and Governess of all persons’, meaning that as monarch she ruled over all her subjects), came to refer to a woman who earned her living teaching other people’s children. US states still have ‘governors’ (as do prisons in the UK), but where women have occupied those positions they have invariably adopted the masculine form rather than styling themselves the ‘governess’.

‘Mistress’ is a similar case, with the added problem that it exemplifies what Muriel Schulz considered the archetypal form of semantic derogation, where in addition to being downgraded in status, a word referring to women acquires a specifically sexual derogatory meaning. Often it ends up as yet another synonym for ‘prostitute’. ‘Mistress’ has stopped short of that final destination, but it’s certainly in the same ballpark: Schulz glosses it as ‘the woman with whom a man habitually fornicates’, while the AP’s rule proscribing the word alludes to the idea of the mistress as a ‘kept woman’, financially supported by the man in the relationship.

To understand this history we need to consider the larger context in which words are used—which in this case means examining the economic, social and cultural conditions that have shaped relationships between men and women. If we have, as the AP suggests, ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’, that’s not a random accident; it has a logic which is rooted in past and present realities.

In fact, though, we do have words for the man. Leaving aside the informal and pejorative ones (like ‘cheat’ and ‘love rat’), the most obvious one is ‘lover’. I was taught at school (I know, weird) that if Mary Jones is John Smith’s mistress, then John Smith is Mary Jones’s lover. ‘Lover’ is also the traditional term for a man in an illicit relationship with a more powerful women, as in the Boney M song about Rasputin (‘rah rah Rasputin/lover of the Russian queen’). The pairing of ‘lover’ with ‘mistress’ has a literary pedigree, going back to the mediaeval courtly love tradition in which a knight dedicated his life to the service of the lady he loved, but who was forever out of reach because she was married, often to a higher-ranking man (e.g. Sir Lancelot loved Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur). This is where we get another sense of the word ‘mistress’, ‘a woman who is loved and courted by a man’. That usage remained common in literature for several centuries, but there’s a note in the OED explaining that by the late 19th century writers had started to avoid it. They feared readers would interpret the word as referring to the morally suspect ‘kept woman’ rather than the idealised love-object of the past.  

We also have at a word for a ‘kept man’: ‘gigolo’, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a man who is paid by a woman to be her lover and companion’. But a gigolo is different from a mistress, in ways that reflect some basic facts about patriarchal societies. To begin with, fewer women than men have the resources to pay someone for sex and companionship. Also, men are not encouraged to view economic dependence on women as desirable, or even acceptable, nor to treat their own sexuality as a marketable commodity. That’s why ‘gigolo’ is—I would say—a more pejorative term than ‘mistress’. Of course, nobody tells women in so many words that they should treat their sexuality as a commodity, but historically that has often been their best or their only route to economic security. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when women’s earning opportunities were limited and their rights almost nonexistent, feminists often drew parallels between marriage and prostitution, pointing out that both were exchange-relationships–sex for money, or for upkeep—which women entered into by necessity. The mistress as a ‘kept woman’ also had a place in this structure. The gigolo does not: like his female employer he is an anomaly.

Would calling a man a gigolo imply, as the AP thinks ‘mistress’ implies, that he was ‘solely responsible for the affair’? My feeling is that it wouldn’t, and indeed that we wouldn’t describe this relationship as an ‘affair’. ‘Affair’ tends to imply mutual desire (even if there’s also a financial element), but the gigolo is understood to be in it for the money, not the sex—if his employer were desirable she wouldn’t need to pay. The gigolo isn’t like Whitney Houston’s character in ‘Saving All My Love’, lamenting that she can only share ‘a few stolen moments’ with her lover because his family comes first; nor is he Dolly Parton’s Jolene, the flame-haired temptress and homewrecker. He’s a paid employee, a sort of cross between an escort and a personal assistant.

There’s no way of knowing if the women in the songs are mistresses in the ‘kept woman’ sense, or just single women in relationships with married men. Do ‘kept women’ even exist any more? The economic element doesn’t seem to be central to the current meaning of ‘mistress’ for most English-speakers, who seem happy to use the word for women who have well-paid jobs and/or husbands to support them (Camilla Parker-Bowles, for instance, was referred to as Prince Charles’s mistress during the period when both of them were married to other people). I remember, back in the 1980s, being told about a senior academic who had allegedly asked a woman he met at a conference to become his mistress, presenting her with a draft contract in which he undertook to pay all her expenses if she gave up her job and devoted herself to his needs. We found this both shocking and hilarious: what professional woman in the late 20th century would be remotely interested in such a proposal? (Today I’d have another question: what man would feel obliged to make it?)

But if the ‘kept woman’ is disappearing—if women no longer need or want to be her and men no longer feel an obligation to compensate her—why do we go on using the term ‘mistress’ for women in sexual relationships with married men? Without the element of financial dependence there’s surely nothing distinctive about these relationships: anyone–man, woman, straight or queer–can get involved with someone who is cheating on their spouse. So, why not abandon ‘mistress’—which is sex-specific, presumptively heterosexual and, in its ‘kept woman’ sense, increasingly archaic—and adopt a single label that covers all the possibilities? If we don’t like ‘friend’ or ‘companion’, we could go with the AP’s other suggestion, ‘lover’. We use it for men, so why not for women too?  

But the responses to the AP’s tweet suggested that some people do think a mistress is different from a lover. And this does seem to be connected with the question of responsibility, though I don’t see the connection in exactly the same way as the AP. To my mind, the issue isn’t that we have ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’—that she gets blamed because (only) she is named. Arguably it has more to do with the historical baggage ‘mistress’ carries, a lot of which is about female power. The mistress may no longer be a powerful woman in the original (social and economic) sense, but what she does still have, in our collective imagination, is sexual power: she uses her lover’s desire for her to gain authority and control over him.  

That view of the mistress was visible in some comments both on the AP tweet and the Daily Mail article. They tended to come from women whose husbands had had affairs, and who wanted to push back against the idea that it’s unfair to women to use a word that ‘implies the woman is responsible for the affair’. Their point was that wives are women too, and it isn’t unfair to hold mistresses responsible for behaving in ways that harm other women. Some conceded that the mistress wasn’t solely responsible—‘I know it takes two’—but they clearly blamed her more than they blamed their cheating husbands.

One reason for that may be simply that it’s easier and less painful to blame the one we don’t love. But also in the mix is the idea that when it comes to sex men are weak and gullible creatures: they can’t help themselves, whereas a woman in a relationship with a married man ‘knows exactly what she’s doing’ and could choose, if she had any decency, not to do it. In essence this is the ‘Jolene’ story, where the salient power differential is not between men and women, but between the wife and the woman who threatens to ‘take her man’ (an interesting phrase, since it reverses the usual pattern by making a woman the agent and a man the object).

The connotations ‘mistress’ has acquired over centuries of use make it particularly well-placed to serve this woman-blaming/man-excusing purpose. Yet it is clearly possible to express the same ideas in other words. As an illustration, consider a recent Spectator article in which Douglas Murray aired his concerns about the power wielded by Carrie Symonds, the partner of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Murray doesn’t call Symonds a ‘mistress’: though their relationship began while Johnson was married, it would be a strange term to use now she is living with him and their child in Downing Street. Instead he refers to her as Johnson’s ‘girlfriend’ or his ‘companion’. The AP Stylebook would presumably approve–except that what follows is exactly the kind of woman-blaming the ban on ‘mistress’ was meant to counter.

Murray points out that in Britain by convention we don’t assign a political role to the ‘first lady’ (or gentleman): we think the only people who govern us should be the ones we actually elected. But as he sees it Carrie Symonds is not abiding by that convention: she is using her position to gain undeserved political influence. He also suggests that many of Johnson’s problems since 2019 have arisen because of the ‘sway—even terror—his younger companion seems to exert over him’. She is said to be responsible for a number of misjudgments: for instance, she ‘persuaded the PM to stop a badger cull’, and ‘made him stop a COBRA meeting at the height of the Covid crisis’.

Here, once again, we have the female agent/male object pattern, presenting Symonds as the powerful one and Johnson as her puppet. Yet even if he did cancel an important meeting to placate her, that was still his decision, his action, his responsibility. He’s the Prime Minister, FFS: ‘she made me do it’ is the excuse of a four-year old. Granted, it’s not Johnson himself who’s making that excuse, but Murray isn’t the only person making it on his behalf. Dominic Cummings recently claimed that Johnson tried to prevent an inquiry he feared would cause ‘trouble with Carrie’; and more or less everyone blames her for the current ‘cash for cushions’ scandal. (And no, I’m not suggesting Johnson cares about cushions—just that he’s the one who ultimately decides what will or won’t be purchased for his official residence.)

Times may change and words may change, but what doesn’t change is the story of the ambitious, manipulative woman and the man whose desire for her makes him putty in her hands. You can give her whatever name you want: terminology, in this case, is a symptom of a deeper problem. Though I’d be happy to see the back of ‘mistress’, we shouldn’t imagine that cancelling the word will stop people blaming women, or making excuses for men.

Death of a patriarch

Not long ago I quoted Robin Lakoff’s observation that looking closely at the details of language-use can reveal, or bring into sharper focus, beliefs and attitudes that usually go unnoticed. I’ve been reminded of that again this week, following the announcement of the death of the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip.

Since he was approaching his 100th birthday, this event was not unexpected; the government and the media had made a detailed plan (code-named ‘Operation Forth Bridge’) which they could put into action whenever it happened. So, what we are now reading and hearing—all the news reports and tributes and retrospective features about his life—is not the result of some hasty bodge-job. Much of this material was compiled well in advance, by people who had plenty of time to consider what they were going to say. I was expecting the coverage to be a lot of things I haven’t personally got much time for: royalist (obviously), obsequious (naturally), nationalistic (inevitably). But I’ll admit I was not expecting it to be quite so… patriarchal.

When I say ‘patriarchal’, I mean that in a very basic and literal sense. I’m not just talking about the presentation of the Prince as a model of aristocratic masculinity, a man who had served in World War II, who spoke with the bluntness of a former naval officer, who sent his son to a school that prescribed cold showers and stiff upper lips, etc., etc. I’m talking about the fact that commentary on his life has been organised, to a remarkable extent, around the proposition—not directly stated, but apparently still taken for granted—that it is natural and desirable for men to rule over women and children, in any social unit from the family to the nation-state. That proposition has shaped the outlines of the story we have been told—the story of a man who was outranked by his wife,  and who (understandably) found that demeaning; and also of the wife herself, a Good Woman who understood the problem and made every effort to mitigate it.  

In case you think I’m just making this up, let’s have a look at some textual evidence.

The first thing that’s striking about the coverage is that many news reports announcing Philip’s death chose headlines that specifically drew attention to his subordinate position. In Italy the Corriere della Sera had ‘Goodbye to Philip, always one step behind the Queen’. This wasn’t the only occurrence of the ‘step behind’ formula: he was also compared, by Andrew Marr, to ‘an Indian bride’ walking two steps behind (not surprisingly this comment was criticised for ignorance/casual racism, but I’m mentioning it in the context of this discussion because it’s such a clear pointer to the underlying idea that Philip was feminised, or emasculated, by his role). Another phrase used by several newspapers was ‘in the shadow of’, as in the Spanish daily El Pais’s headline ‘Muere el Principe que vivió 70 años a la sombra de Isabel II’ (‘the prince dies who lived for 70 years in the shadow of Elizabeth II’). Some reports combined these formulas: the Bangladeshi Daily Star, for instance, informed readers that Philip ‘lived in the shadow of the woman he married at Westminster Abbey in 1947 and always walked a step behind the queen’.

To assess the significance of these choices, we need to ask if the same phrases would be equally likely to appear in reports on the death of a queen consort, the wife of a surviving male monarch. That’s hard to test empirically because it’s rare, at least in recent British history, for a male monarch to be widowed (the last four kings all died before their wives). But it would be odd to describe a queen consort as living in her husband’s shadow, because that’s exactly where important men’s wives are expected to live. Being outranked and overshadowed by one’s spouse is the unmarked case for women; for men it is marked, and that’s what makes it headline material.

For Prince Philip, unlike the female consorts who preceded him and those who will follow, being relegated to the shadows was a problem; indeed, it was the problem that defined him. In the words of the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins, ‘Philip’s life was…lived in perpetual limbo, his every move, every remark, every glance reflecting on his wife. He enjoyed none of the scope extended to various predecessors [like William of Orange and Prince Albert]’. ‘The frustration’ adds Jenkins, ‘must have been intense’. This frustration is clearly a function of Philip’s maleness: if a woman in his position were to complain (as he once did) that she was ‘nothing but a bloody amoeba’, she would be met with a mixture of incomprehension and accusations of being a jumped-up, power-crazed harpy. Royal wives are expected to content themselves with smiling, looking pretty, accepting bouquets and providing heirs: those who do threaten to overshadow their husbands do not, on the whole, remain royal wives.  

The second notable thing is the emphasis commentators have given to the idea that while the Queen may have outranked her husband in public, behind the scenes their roles were reversed—or to put it another way, their marriage was based on the ‘normal’ patriarchal arrangement whereby wives defer to husbands, not vice-versa. Perhaps the bluntest statement to that effect appeared in Italy’s La Repubblica, which described Philip as ‘l’unico che poteva permettersi di dire alla sovrana: “Stai zitta”’ (‘the only one who was allowed to tell the sovereign to shut up’). For this the paper did get some pushback on social media. But it wasn’t unique: the Guardian said that Philip ‘allowed’ the Queen to take the lead in public, while the LA Times assured us that he was ‘the undisputed master of the royal household’. Sky News noted that ‘the Queen wore the Crown—but when it came to family, Prince Philip wore the trousers’. Ah yes, the Crown and Trousers, that beloved 1950s pub where women couldn’t get served at the bar or set foot in the saloon…I remember it well, and apparently so does a royal correspondent who’s probably about half my age.

If the Prince ruled the roost at home, perhaps he was really the power behind the throne, and his place in the shadows, always a step behind, was just a carefully nurtured illusion. A number of papers reminded us that for decades the Queen began every address to the nation with ‘My husband and I’, as if to underline his indispensable status as ‘her closest advisor and confidant’. And the idea that he was indispensable, if not actually in charge, might explain an otherwise puzzling piece of fluff put out by Reuters under the headline Despite loss of husband, little sign Queen Elizabeth will abdicate. That ‘despite’ clause is a classic, encouraging the inference that we would naturally expect her to consider abdicating at this juncture—that the death of her husband would be an appropriate moment for her to ‘relinquish the throne in favour of her son and heir Prince Charles’. (Time, perhaps, to draw a line under the anomaly represented by a female monarch, who is only ever there because her predecessor had no sons.)

In reality, as the piece goes on to acknowledge, there is no reason to think the Queen has any intention of abdicating, ‘despite the huge hole in her life that Philip’s death leaves’. It isn’t explained why she, or indeed anyone, would decide to deal with a ‘huge hole in her life’ by making another huge hole in it. But apart from the thought that a woman in her 90s should not be clinging on to power when a man is waiting for his turn (once again, although I can’t test it, I doubt this would ever be the response to a reigning King’s loss of his wife), the idea that it’s time for her to go may be related to another theme which has been quite noticeable in the coverage of Prince Philip’s death, the portrayal of him as ‘the love of her life’ (vice-versa has been rarer, presumably on the old romantic/Romantic principle that only women are ruled by their hearts). ‘He was her King’, said Bild, metaphorically bestowing on him the title he was not permitted in reality, because kings have higher status than queens. Perhaps the commentators think that, like Queen Victoria after Prince Albert died, she will be (or should be) too grief-stricken to carry on.

Does any of this really matter, though? Would we not expect media coverage of such an anachronistic institution to be, itself, anachronistic? Yes, and in many respects it has been: in its solemnity, its deference, its assumption that mourning dead royals is the same kind of shared national preoccupation it was in 1903, and its total disregard for the realities of the digital age (the BBC shut down one of its television channels entirely for a day while showing the same royal-themed programming simultaneously on the other two; meanwhile on the other gazillion channels, life went on as usual). All this seemed, to many people, weirdly old-fashioned, as if we’d suddenly gone back 50 or 100 years in time (the BBC even set up a webpage specifically for complaints about the excessiveness of its coverage).

But I don’t think the patriarchal presuppositions I’ve been discussing are in the same category. Nobody needed to have it spelled out why Prince Philip’s position was so difficult and ‘frustrating’ (something that will never be said about the future Queen Camilla); journalists my own age or younger reached unselfconsciously for formulas like ‘wore the trousers’ and ‘in her shadow’. The Times was able to report that Prince Charles had ‘step[ped] up to fill his father’s shoes as male head of family’ (because of course every family must have a man at its head). The assumptions behind all this did not strike most people as weird. And that, depressingly, is because they aren’t.