Pride, prejudice and pedantry

Last year I discovered the perfect gift for the supercilious arse in your life: a mug emblazoned with the legend ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’. grammar-mug The existence of this item testifies to the widely-held belief that sneering at other people’s language-use is not just acceptable, it’s actually a virtue. When the subject is language, you can take pride in being a snob; you can even display your exquisite sensitivity by comparing yourself to a genocidal fascist (‘I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi: I can’t bear it when people use language incorrectly’).

On Twitter there’s a ‘Grammar Police’ bot whose mission is to belittle random strangers by tweeting unsolicited corrections of their ‘defective grammar’. Because, according to its profile, ‘publishing defective grammar abases oneself’.

‘Abases *oneself*’? Try ‘one’, or better, ‘you’. And maybe get your thesaurus out, because I don’t think ‘abase’ is the word you want.

What I’ve just done is an example of what I’m going to take issue with in this post: criticising the way someone has (mis)used language as a proxy for challenging their actual message. This strategy has featured prominently in critical commentary on Donald Trump: he’s been lambasted as often for his limited vocabulary, fractured syntax and inability to spell ‘hereby’ as he has for his bigotry, dishonesty and megalomania. Linguistically speaking, a lot of this commentary is wide of the mark (for a more illuminating take on Trump’s speech-style,  try this). But the strategy was common long before Trump came on the scene. One of the first things I noticed when I joined Twitter in 2014 was how often liberal progressive types used the grammar-sneer to call out bigots. Like this*:

We should round all you feminazi’s up and put you on an island away from society.

we’ll be moving on to punctuation later this afternoon.

And this:

As a straight male how would u feel about yr child having a homosexual school teacher?! Who their around for 8hrs of the day?

If a gay teacher teaches my child the difference between they’re, their and there, I’m good.

The conflict that accompanied last year’s EU referendum produced a bumper crop of examples like this:

Britain was once a proud nation, but is now afraid to speak it’s own name.

and restore our ancient birthright of putting apostrophes where they don’t belong!

In the wake of the referendum, which the Leave side won, there was an upsurge of public racism and xenophobia—threats, vandalism, harassment, verbal abuse and violence targeting people perceived as ‘foreign’.  Facebook pages were set up where people could report incidents they’d experienced or observed. A number of these reports followed the same formula: first they described a racist white Briton telling a non-white or non-British person to ‘start packing’ or ‘go home’, and then they commented that the racist couldn’t even speak English properly. One writer reported that she’d stood up to a white woman who harangued her in a shop, by telling her, among other things, that ‘I speak better English than you’. She explained that she’d heard the white woman speaking to someone else, and noticed that ‘her grammar was appalling’.

I’m not going to blame someone in this situation for defending herself with whatever weapons are to hand. My question is why claiming to speak better English than your adversary is so often a weapon people reach for. Why does it seem more apt, and less crass, than (for instance) ‘I’m better looking than you’ or ‘I’ve got more money than you’?  Maybe it’s because it chimes with the idea that bigots are ignorant and stupid. It allows their critics to feel intellectually and culturally as well as morally superior (‘I’d hate my child to be educated by a gay teacher’. ‘Pity no one bothered educating you. Gotcha’). But however satisfying that may be, it raises the question of whether you can claim the moral high ground by using one unjust prejudice against another.

If you describe someone you’ve heard speaking in a shop as using ‘appalling’ grammar, the only thing you can mean is that s/he speaks a nonstandard dialect. In Britain, speaking a nonstandard dialect generally means that (a) you grew up working class and (b) you didn’t spend enough quality time in formal education for your native dialect to be replaced in everyday speech by the more prestigious dialect of the middle class (though you’ll use that dialect when you write, and you’ll certainly be able to read it). So, criticising a racist’s nonstandard grammar is mobilising one form of privilege (based on class and/or education) to attack another (based on whiteness). As I said before, I’m not going to blame the person who uses this tactic in self-defence. But that doesn’t mean I have to applaud the tactic.

Maybe you’re thinking: ‘but what you linguists call “nonstandard” is actually just bad English. Criticising that isn’t snobbery: anyone who goes to school for long enough to learn to read and write can learn what the correct forms are. If they haven’t learnt, it means they’re lazy. Plenty of working class people speak correctly: it’s an insult to suggest that bad grammar is good enough for them’.

Sorry, but no. Nonstandard English is not ‘bad’ by any objective criterion; it’s stigmatised because the people who use it have lower social status than the people who don’t. The actual linguistic forms used by nonstandard speakers (like, say, ‘we was’ instead of ‘we were’ or ‘she done it’ rather than ‘she did it’) are neither better nor worse than the forms we judge ‘correct’. The judgment is based on what class of person uses a particular form, and the form’s status can change as its class associations do. A hundred years ago, for instance, saying ‘aint’ was associated with upper-class Brits like Winston Churchill and the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey. Today it’s strictly for the lower orders, and it’s also become one of the most stigmatised of all English grammatical forms.

grammarpoliceAs for the apostrophe fetish (‘its’ and ‘it’s’, or ‘they’re’ versus ‘their’), that’s got nothing to do with grammar. The English apostrophe does mark grammatical distinctions, but the reason people make mistakes isn’t that they don’t know the difference between possessive pronouns and contracted verb forms: what they don’t know is which spelling goes with which form. The possessive form of nouns has an apostrophe (as in ‘the dog’s bowl’), so people often reason that the possessive pronoun ‘its’ should logically have one too. It’s also easy to pick the wrong option when writing in haste or on autopilot. On this one I’m with Jesus: ‘let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone’.

But there are other reasons for feminists (and other defenders of equality and social justice) to think twice before mocking a political opponent’s ‘incorrect’ use of language. Here are a few of them.

1. It’s a red herring

Earlier I mocked the creator of the Grammar Police bot for using ‘oneself’ incorrectly. It was a fine display of my superior linguistic knowledge, but it also completely missed the point. My quarrel with the bot-maker isn’t that he corrects other people’s grammar when his own is nothing to shout about. It’s that correcting strangers’ grammar in public is a shitty thing to do.

The same problem arises with the political examples I took from Twitter. In no case does the response engage directly with the tweeter’s prejudice. It says, in effect, ‘this mistake tells me you’re stupid, and if you’re stupid I can just dismiss your argument, which is also, by extension, stupid’. And the argument may indeed be stupid, but it wouldn’t be any less stupid if it were spelled correctly (just as Hitler wasn’t any less fascist because he could write a coherent sentence). Conversely, deviations from standard usage do not make a true fact less true or a just argument less just. The moral status of what someone says is about the content, not the grammar.

2. It cuts more than one way

On this blog I have complained frequently about the policing of women’s language, arguing that there’s no linguistic justification for the criticisms people make of uptalk and vocal fry, hedging, apologising, etc. What’s behind this is common or garden sexism: if a way of speaking is associated (accurately or otherwise) with women, it’s judged inferior to the male alternative. Not because it objectively is inferior, but just because women are the lower status group.

Judgments on nonstandard language work in exactly the same way, the difference being that the relevant status hierarchy is based on class and education rather than gender.  So, when feminists engage in grammar policing they’re undermining their own objection to the gendered equivalent. If you dismiss someone’s argument because of a misplaced apostrophe, what do you say to the people who claim they can’t take women seriously because of their ‘shrill’ voices and annoying ‘verbal tics’?

3. It’s a vote for the status quo

People sometimes say: ‘OK, I get that what’s “correct” is arbitrary, but if you want to get your point across you have to play by the rules’. But this is not a progressive argument, because it treats ‘the rules’ as neutral rather than asking whose interests they serve. If someone defends a workplace dress-code requiring women to wear high heels as just ‘reflecting the prevailing standard for appropriate female business attire’, we don’t say, ‘oh, OK then’, we say it’s time the standard was changed.

In the case of linguistic standards, we should question why we’re so obsessed with shibboleths like ‘aint’ and ‘we was’ and the apostrophe, which say a lot about a person’s social background and education, but very little about how well they can actually communicate. Would any feminist suggest that the nonstandard grammar of the phrase attributed to Sojourner Truth, ‘and aint I a woman?’ detracts from the clarity, coherence or persuasiveness of her speech?

4. In other contexts you’d call it ‘shaming’

If you don’t think it’s acceptable to make people feel ashamed (or exploit the fact that they already feel ashamed) of their bodies, their clothes, what they eat or who they have sex with, you’re going to have to explain to me why shaming them for the way they speak or write is different.

5. Modesty becomes you

If your own grammar and spelling are 100% standard, that’s probably because you served a long apprenticeship in a series of educational institutions where, through constant practice and feedback, you acquired a set of socially-valued linguistic skills which eventually became ingrained habits. Well, good for you, but let’s not get carried away. Other people have gone through a similar process to master a craft like carpentry or hairdressing. They also take pride in their skills, but they don’t mistake them for proof of superior intelligence. They don’t come to your house and laugh at the wonky shelf you made, or stop you on the street to offer unsolicited advice on blow-drying. If they did, how would you react?  Which brings me to…

6. It’s counterproductive

This point is well made in a post Nic Subtirelu wrote in 2015 after Grammarly (a major player in the online culture of language pedantry) drew attention to the poor grammar and spelling it had found on Facebook pages for supporters of Donald Trump. grammar-crackersWhat are the angry white working class men who came out in force for Trump in 2016 going to think about liberals making fun of him because he doesn’t use big words or complicated sentence structure? Might that not reinforce their conviction that supporting Trump is striking a blow against ‘the elite’, aka snobs who look down on anyone less educated than themselves?

Maybe your answer is that you don’t care what a bunch of racists, misogynists and homophobes think. Fine, I’m not asking you to (though I do think a commitment to social justice requires you to care about the economic inequality which is clearly a factor in the rise of right-wing populism). By all means take issue with bigots–but for their politics, not their punctuation. Criticise their views, not the size of their vocabulary. Stop using their grammar as a measure of their moral worth.

Language pedantry is snobbery and snobbery is prejudice. And that, IMHO, is nothing to be proud of.

*The examples used in this post are real, but I’m not supplying links, names, handles or screenshots because I’m not trying to single these particular authors out, I’m just illustrating something that’s very common.

The clue’s in the name

The lawyer Miriam González Durántez was unimpressed this week when she was invited to speak at an International Women’s Day event by someone who addressed her as ‘Mrs Clegg’ (she is married to the MP and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg).  The Daily Mail deplored her ‘aggressive feminism’,  while below the line its readers, inevitably, complained about bloody foreigners with no respect for British traditions.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Emily Thornberry MP–who is not a foreigner but rather the Shadow Foreign Secretary–protested to the Speaker after Theresa May called her ‘Lady Nugee’ (Thornberry’s husband, it transpires, is Sir Christopher Nugee).  Whereas ‘Mrs Clegg’ seems to have been a careless mistake, ‘Lady Nugee’ was evidently a deliberate taunt. Even as May apologised, she found it necessary to inform the House that she herself had been known by her husband’s name for the last 36 years.

You might have thought that if there was one thing we could all agree on in the year 2017, it would be the right of every individual to be referred to by the personal name of their own choice. English law affirms that right: as long as you aren’t trying to defraud anyone, you may go by whatever name you like. So why is there still so much controversy about what married women choose to call themselves?

Let’s begin, logically enough, at the beginning. In her informative and readable account of the history of marital name-changing, Sophie Coulombeau explains that hereditary surnames were brought to these shores by the Normans who conquered England in the 11th century. (Or to put it in Mail readers’ terms, by bloody foreigners with no respect for Anglo-Saxon traditions.) The Normans also introduced the doctrine of ‘coverture’, according to which wives were vassals, with no legal existence independent of their husbands. It followed that when a woman married she would ‘lose every surname except “wife of”’.

A few hundred years later, this originally alien custom had come to be considered an English tradition. Writing in 1605, William Camden described surnames as the foundation ‘whereon the glory and credit of men is grounded, and by which the same is conveyed to the knowledge of posterity’. Women from wealthy and powerful families shared this view, and over the next two centuries a number of them would petition the King or Parliament for the right to take action to prevent their names from dying out. (Frances Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia is a fictional exploration of this theme, featuring an heiress who can only inherit if her husband takes her name.)

These women’s motivations were more dynastic than feminist, but in the 19th century surnames did become a feminist concern. Probably the best known of all campaigners on this issue was the American abolitionist and feminist Lucy Stone. At her wedding in 1855 the minister read a statement announcing that she would keep her own name, and criticising the laws that

refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer on the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess.

Soon afterwards she challenged the authorities who refused to register a land purchase in the name ‘Lucy Stone’, and was told by a lawyer that, in the US as in England, the prohibition had no legal basis. Later on, though, a number of US states would enact laws to make married women’s access to official documents like drivers’ licenses, and in some cases even the right to vote, conditional on their using their husband’s surname. It was not until the 1970s that these laws were overturned. At that point, women on both sides of the Atlantic were both legally and socially free to choose whether to keep or change their names. That did not, however, put an end to the argument; it only marked the beginning of a new phase.

As with titles (‘is that Miss, Mrs, Ms or Mx?’), and pronouns, the introduction of choice into a previously rigid system makes all the options politically non-neutral. If you stick with tradition you can no longer say you’re doing it because there’s no alternative: you’ll be indicating that your attitudes to marriage are traditional. Rejecting tradition conveys the opposite message. Whatever your reasons for wanting to be called, say, ‘Miriam González Durántez’ rather than ‘Miriam Clegg’ (you might just hate the name ‘Clegg’, or you might want your name to symbolise your Spanish national origins), your preference will be interpreted as a feminist statement. For many women, who are neither die-hard traditionalists nor militant feminists, this situation creates a dilemma. How have they negotiated it over the past 40 years?

All research on English-speaking women’s marital naming choices since the 1970s shows that the introduction of choice has not produced a wholesale shift away from tradition. Both in the US and the UK, the great majority of married women have continued to take their husbands’ names. The size of the majority has fluctuated over time. The percentage of name-keepers increased sharply in the 1970s, rose to a peak in the 1980s, and then held steady for several years before declining noticeably in the 1990s. By 2010 one US study reported that 94% of native-born married women used their husband’s names. More recently it’s been claimed that ‘maiden names’ (an expression I’d like to ban) are on the rise again. If so, though, they are rising from a pretty low baseline.

Married women who keep their original names are not just a minority, they’re a minority of a minority–they are heavily concentrated in the elite professional class. Name-keeping is strongly correlated with having at least one degree, and you’re most likely to be a keeper if both you and your husband have more than one. Another strong correlation is with the woman’s age at marriage. Women who marry in their early 20s are more likely to change their names than those who marry later (a group that overlaps significantly with the category of highly-educated women). Economists have argued that this need not be because the women concerned are feminists. If a professional woman marries when she’s already established a reputation (aka ‘made a name’ for herself), then—regardless of her political beliefs—it makes sense for her not to change her name.

But there are other factors which have been shown to influence women’s choices, and which do seem to be related to social and political attitudes. For instance, religious believers are more likely to change their names than non-believers, and so are women who grew up in small towns rather than big cities.

There are also some racial and ethnic differences. African American women, including those with higher degrees, are more likely to be changers than white women; other women of color, by contrast, are more likely than white women to be keepers. (It’s been speculated that the African American pattern may reflect the historical knowledge among Black women that their enslaved ancestors were denied the right to marry—name-changing in this group may be more meaningful as a symbol of (Black) emancipation than of (female) subservience.)

One study conducted in 2011 investigated the connection between attitudes to marital name-changing and attitudes to gender issues more generally. On the naming question its findings were depressing: a large majority of respondents agreed that it is usually better for a woman to take her husband’s name than to keep her birth name, and a significant minority thought it would be a good idea to revive the old state laws requiring this. The responses are also revealing about what’s really behind one of the commonest arguments for name-changing: ‘everyone in a family should have the same name’. Presented with the statement ‘It’s OK for a man to take his wife’s name when he marries’ (a strategy which would be equally compatible with the ‘one family, one name’ principle), over half of the respondents disagreed, and just over 30% disagreed strongly. Coverture may be legally defunct, but its cultural traces evidently linger on (‘a husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband’).

When respondents were asked to explain why they thought name-changing was or wasn’t preferable to name-keeping, supporters of the traditional practice tended to express what the researchers labelled a ‘collectivist’ rather than ‘individualist’ view of women’s role: they believed it was the responsibility of a wife to put her family first. Not surprisingly, this view was strongly expressed by the most conservative respondents, including some who cited Biblical pronouncements on the authority of husbands over wives. But it was also expressed by some women who considered themselves feminists (though these women did not really explain how it serves the collective good for all family members to share, specifically, the husband’s name).

I found this aspect of the study interesting, because most discussions treat the decision to keep or change one’s name as a purely individual choice, made on the basis of a woman’s personal convictions. Yet when I hear the married women I know discussing their own decisions, I’m always struck by how much of what they say is about other people’s attitudes or feelings. I’ve heard women who kept their names say things like ‘I’m lucky, my husband wasn’t bothered either way’; I’ve heard feminist friends who changed their names say things like ‘I didn’t want to, but it was really important to my parents/in-laws’. Part of what it means to be a woman in our society is that you can’t just disregard others’ feelings—or at least, not without being harshly judged. So in many cases it’s an oversimplification to treat a woman’s choice as a direct reflection of her political beliefs. Her husband’s and both families’ attitudes may be at least as relevant as her own.

As someone who came of age in the mid-1970s, though, I do find it remarkable how controversial this issue has remained. I’d thought I would never blog about this hoary old chestnut of a subject; I’d thought the days were over when even the Daily Mail could make a fuss about a couple of high-profile women not using their husbands’ names. And if I’m honest, despite what I’ve just said about the pressure women feel to consider others, I’m always both surprised and a little disappointed when a student, or a younger colleague, asks me to start calling her by a new, married name.

In my own youth, just keeping the name you’d always had was quite a long way from the cutting edge of ‘aggressive feminism’. I knew several women in the early 1980s who regarded surnames in general as offensively patriarchal, and who had substituted their mother’s given name, or something new-age-y like a colour-term or the name of a tree. I knew one woman who had changed her given name and dropped her surname entirely (though I doubt the resulting nom de guerre will have survived the age of the computer and the tyranny of the drop-down menu). I knew of a commune where all the children had the same last name, ‘Wild’, which belonged to none of their various parents. Does any of this still go on now, or is name-keeping (and its slightly less assertive cousin, hyphenating) as daring as today’s young people get?

When people aren’t invoking the ‘one family, one name’ principle to justify sticking with tradition, they’ll most often be shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘hey, it’s only a name. It doesn’t define me as a person’. But while I understand what they mean, I think they’re overlooking something important. The custom of women taking their husbands’ surnames was historically part of a legal and social system that did define women—as non-persons. And the outcry, even today, when a woman chooses a name that symbolises her independent personhood, suggests that the old assumptions are not yet dead. A woman’s name will be ‘only a name’ when no one cares what it is, or has an opinion on what it should be.

‘Language changes, deal with it’

Last October the writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett told her followers on Twitter how her boyfriend had reacted to her new Georgia O’Keeffe print—by complaining that ‘you’ve put a big vagina on our wall’. Then she added:

Ten points for the first pedant who tweets me “it’s a vulva”. Language changes, deal with it.

As you’ll know if you read my post lamenting the state of most people’s female genital vocabulary, when it comes to ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ my feminist heart is with the pedants. But in my linguist’s head I know that Cosslett is right. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. If enough people understand a word to mean X, then X is what it means.

Even pedants, if pressed, will generally acknowledge that language changes, and that the meanings of words are no exception. ‘Silly’ no longer means ‘holy’. ‘Vagina’ no longer means ‘sheath’. But there’s still a strong folk-belief that change (along with its precursor, variation) is undesirable, dysfunctional, a threat to communication. If words mean different things to different people, and if their meanings are constantly shifting, how can we understand each other, or have rational, meaningful dialogue?

In modern liberal democracies there’s a particular fear that the tendency for meaning to change as words are used will be exploited deliberately by the powerful and the unscrupulous. If we don’t stand firm, we’ll be at the mercy of dictators who use language not to communicate, but to obfuscate and manipulate. Since Trump and his gang took office, there’s been a deluge of commentary on this theme. You can hardly open a newspaper or scroll through Facebook without encountering some new complaint about the ‘abuse’ or ‘perversion’ of language.

The case that’s attracted most attention so far is Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase ‘alternative facts’, referring to the false claims made by the White House press secretary about how many people attended Trump’s inauguration. Conway’s lame attempt to defend the indefensible prompted scores of commentators to accuse her of trying to redefine the meaning of the word ‘fact’. In the words of one Huffington Post contributor:

Alternative facts are not facts. They are untruths. They are LIES. Here, look, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary kindly sent you a definition of what a fact is: “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality”.

Merriam-Webster’s intervention (tweeting out the definition of ‘fact’) was widely applauded: the Guardian even hailed the birth of a new superhero, ‘Dictionary Guy’, fighting lies and demagoguery by simply restating the ‘basic idea that words have non-negotiable meanings’. Other critics invoked Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, with his absurd delusions of semantic grandeur (‘when I use a word, it means whatever I choose it to mean’), or compared Conway’s rhetoric to George Orwell’s fictional Newspeak, a language designed not merely to restrict the public utterance of inconvenient truths, but to stifle dissent at source by making it literally unthinkable.

The criticism aimed at Conway was richly deserved (ditto the ridicule, in the form of jokes like ‘I’m not drunk, officer, I’m alternative sober’). But there’s a problem with the ‘basic idea that words have non-negotiable meanings’. They don’t. If they did, their meanings would never change, and there would never be any argument about them.

It’s true, of course, that some words provoke more argument than others. I’ve never witnessed a heated debate about the meaning of ‘cat’ or ‘trombone’. By contrast, I imagine that most people reading this have at some time been involved in an argument about the meaning of ‘feminism’, or ‘sexism’, or any number of other ‘hot-button’ terms, from ‘abortion’ to ‘Zionism’, which people with opposing political views define in different and conflicting ways. As the linguist Philip Seargeant recently observed, ‘disputing the meanings of words is always part of political debate’. And it isn’t just the ‘hot-button’ terms:  one current court case, about the the right of parents to take their children on holiday during the school term, has involved hours of legal argument about what ‘regular’ means. Wherever there are conflicts of interest, there will also be conflicts about the meanings of key terms.

Insisting that ‘words have non-negotiable meanings’–and that your meaning is the true meaning whereas your opponent’s is a ‘perversion of language’–is a time-honoured rhetorical move in arguments about disputed terms. But it’s a move that tends to favour  conservatives, because it’s most effective when deployed in defence of an older usage against a newer one. And typically what’s behind that defence is not just resistance to linguistic change, but opposition to whatever social change has produced a new way of using words.

When I first read the complaint about ‘alternative facts’ which I quoted earlier from the Huffington Post, I had a feeling of déjà vu, as if I’d seen it somewhere before. Eventually I realised what it reminded me of:

A same-sex marriage is not a marriage. It’s a parody of a marriage. It’s GROTESQUE. Here, the dictionary kindly sent you a definition of what marriage is. ‘Marriage is the union of a man and a woman’.

This phraseology is mine, but I didn’t invent the argument. Opponents of marriage equality really did say all these things. They repeatedly invoked the non-negotiable meaning of the word ‘marriage’ as a reason why the law could not be changed, citing the dictionary almost as often as the Bible.

If you’re as old as I am you may also remember when conservatives routinely appealed to the ‘real’ meanings of words to resist feminist demands for non-sexist or gender-inclusive terminology (‘etymologically, “man” just means “person”’), and to protest against the ‘hijacking’ of ‘gay’ (‘don’t let sexual deviants deprive us of a word which—according to my dictionary—means “cheerful or brightly coloured”’). These doughty defenders of the language were also fond of invoking Orwell: they rarely missed an opportunity to equate the linguistic innovations they labelled ‘political correctness gone mad’ with Newspeak, or to describe the ‘PC brigade’ as a new thought police, intent on eliminating not just the words they found offensive, but any worldview opposed to their own.

For decades, the argument that words have non-negotiable meanings has been used by the Right as a stick to beat the Left with. Feminists, anti-racists and campaigners for LGBT rights have all been accused of perverting language and destroying meaning. Now it’s the Left that levels these charges against the Right. Of course it’s important–and urgent–to  resist the new regime in the US, and the rise of the far right elsewhere. But is using the Right’s own (bad) arguments the best way to go about it?

You might answer that question with another: what is the alternative? Am I suggesting we should just shrug our shoulders, and say ‘language changes, deal with it’? The short answer to that is ‘no’. We do have to deal with the fact that language changes–meaning is always in the process of being negotiated–but we should also remember that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The things which can influence the way words are used, and therefore what people will take them to mean, include social changes, technological changes, and–sometimes–political interventions.

As a concrete historical example, consider the word ‘rape’. The earliest meaning of ‘rape’ recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘the act of taking by force, especially the seizure of property by violent means’. It subsequently developed a more specialised use, referring specifically to the taking of women by force: it was applied to the practice of bride abduction, as well as to sexual assaults committed without the intention to marry the victim. The framing of rape as a crime, in either case, was still about taking what did not belong to you: a woman could not be raped by her husband (or in the case of an enslaved woman, her master), since he was already her legal owner.

There are still places in the world where rape is treated as a crime of property, but in the part of the world where I live this has changed. Today, English law defines ‘rape’ as an act of penile penetration to which consent has not been given (or to which it cannot validly be given because the person concerned is underage or incapacitated). There are still, as we know, many arguments (and myths) about what constitutes consent, but it’s generally agreed that consent is what’s at issue. And while this shift in the meaning of ‘rape’ reflects a long term historical shift, both in attitudes to violence and in the legal status of women, it also reflects the more specific influence of feminist campaigns, which explicitly challenged the definitions found both in expert (e.g. legal) sources and in everyday talk.

Another form of political intervention that can influence the way words are used involves appropriating your opponent’s words, reinflecting them to express a meaning that’s at odds with the original intention, and circulating the result as widely as possible. The ‘alternative X’ jokes mentioned earlier, which ridicule Kellyanne Conway’s attempt to rebrand lies as ‘alternative facts’, are one example; another is the way some of the government agencies Trump has gagged have adopted ‘alt’, as in ‘alt-right’, in naming the unofficial social media accounts they’ve set up in defiance of the gag (for instance, the National Park Service’s new Twitter handle is @AltNatParSer).

Most recently there’s been a feminist intervention, reacting to reports that women working for the Trump administration had been ordered to ‘dress like women’. The illustration at the top of the post is an example of the most common response: posting photos of yourself, or other women, wearing anything from a tux to a spacesuit. Other responses employed words to undermine the intended meaning (‘dress in a feminine manner’) by refusing to accept its sexist premise (‘there’s a certain way women should dress’) and recasting it as a vacuous tautology. Several tweets offered step-by-step instructions like (1) Be a woman. (2) Put on any clothes you like. (3) That’s it.

This kind of ‘rapid response’ intervention differs from a campaign to change the way people understand the word ‘rape’. The stakes are lower, and the effects will be more limited. It’s unlikely, for instance, that being ridiculed on Twitter will make the people responsible for the ‘dress like a woman’ edict feel obliged to reverse their policy (though I do think humour has its uses when you’re dealing with people this self-regarding–they’d almost certainly prefer fear and anger, which make them feel powerful, to mockery and disrespect). But the trick is to keep doing it: keep contesting the credibility of what they say, keep disputing their assumptions and their logic, keep showing that there’s more than one way to define what’s ‘alternative’ or what it means to ‘dress like a woman’. Keep puncturing the illusion–because it is an illusion–that the powerful, like Humpty Dumpty, can just decide what words will mean for everyone.

Feminism has a long history of trying to change the way words are used. We’ve invented new words and we’ve redefined old ones. We’ve argued about what words mean, both with our opponents and among ourselves. Arguments about meaning–and attempts to influence it–play a role in every kind of politics. If that’s an abuse of language, then all of us are guilty.

 

2016: the bad, the bad and the ugly

Once again tis the season to look back on the last twelve months, and since we’re talking about 2016, that may not make for uplifting reading (unless your heroes are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and President-Elect Donald Trump). If the Words of the Year chosen by dictionaries are any guide, the mood among English-speakers is darker than it was a year ago. Whereas Oxford’s choice in 2015 was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji, in 2016 it has gone for ‘post-truth’; other dictionaries’ selections have included ‘paranoid’, ‘surreal’ and ‘xenophobia’.

The reasons why this year sucked were not primarily to do with language, but language played a part—in some cases quite a prominent part. So, this review will be more about the lowlights than the highlights. Here are six of the worst:

Bantering bigots. In my 2015 annual round-up I named ‘banter’ as the word I’d most like to ban (if banning words were either feasible or desirable, which IMHO it isn’t). But banter continued to be exchanged in 2016, and the word ‘banter’, and variations thereon, continued to be used to wave away accusations of misogyny and bigotry. Both these tendencies peaked in October with the release of a 2005 tape in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump engaged in what he and his defenders called ‘locker room talk’. He was elected just a few weeks later.

Relentlessly sexist commentary on female politicians, often focusing (most notably in the case of Hillary Clinton) on their voices and style of speaking. All the familiar word-weapons—‘shrill’, ‘harsh’, ‘grating’, ‘aggressive’—were deployed by all the usual suspects.

If you’re thinking, ‘but surely there was plenty of critical commentary on Donald Trump’s language too’, you’re not wrong, but the comparison is instructive. When negative judgments are made on the speech of a female politician, her alleged failings are typically presented as the failings of her sex in general. Trump’s failings, on the other hand, were presented as his alone. They were ‘Trumpisms’, not ‘man-isms’ (it was even argued that Trump talks like a woman). The one exception was the ‘locker room talk’, where the idea that this was typical male behaviour got wheeled out not to condemn Trump but to excuse him.

If a female politician is widely acknowledged as an excellent public speaker, you can always accuse her of talking too much. In April, Owen Smith MP (in case you’ve forgotten, he was the man who unsuccessfully challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership) tweeted about his visit to a café in Millport in Scotland. He included two photos, one showing him with his arms around two of the ‘ladies’ (his description) who worked there, and the other showing a jar of old-fashioned gobstoppers. The part of the tweet relating to this second image said: ‘they’ve got the perfect present for @NicolaSturgeon, too’. A gobstopper, geddit? Because Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland (and at the time—before Theresa May became PM—the most powerful female politician in the UK), talks entirely too much and needs a good shutting up.

The continuing war on the word ‘women’. Two of the most popular posts I published this year touched on the question of why ‘women’ now seems to be the hardest word. In April the women’s section of the UK Green Party set off a Twitterstorm with its use of the term ‘non-men’. Across the Atlantic in September we had Planned Parenthood talking about ‘people’ being ‘criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’. And throughout the autumn there were regular sightings of a new addition to the lexicon of ‘women’-avoidance: ‘menstruators’.

Having rejected sex or gender-based labels as essentialist and exclusionary, promoters of this term apparently felt that bodily function-based labels were the way to go. I, by contrast, feel pretty sure they aren’t. If you don’t want to say ‘women’, OK, I get it, but why not try using your linguistic judgment to find a contextually appropriate alternative? In this case, where the news story was about the removal of sales tax on pads and tampons, ‘sanitary product buyers’ would have worked—or where the report had already made clear what products were being discussed, just ‘customers’. If you’d find it offensive, or just plain weird, to read statements like ‘the recent fall in the price of toilet paper has been welcomed by defecators across the country’, or ‘perspirers have questioned the classification of deodorant as a luxury’, then you shouldn’t be giving house-room to ‘menstruators’ either.

More terrible advice and stupid opinions about women’s speech. This year hasn’t (yet) brought us anything quite as ludicrous as the ‘Just Not Sorry’ app that appeared at the very end of 2015, but bullshit continued to be churned out by the bucketload. It remained a truth universally acknowledged that women apologise too much, and constant criticism of female ‘verbal tics’ was once again presented as empowering rather than underminingAn op-ed piece in the New York Times added ‘I feel like’ to the list of words and phrases women should avoid if they want anyone to take them seriously—while also managing to relate the rise of ‘feeling like’ to Everything That’s Wrong With Our Society Today. (If anyone from the Times is reading this, I’d be happy to advise on what linguistic opinions editors should avoid giving space to if they want anyone to take them seriously.)

Not all bad advice is addressed to women: some of it is advice for men on how to make women’s lives a misery. The example that got most attention this year advised on how to make a woman take off her headphones and PAY ATTENTION. Because it’s part of a woman’s job description to be available to random men who want to converse with her AT ALL TIMES.

Death. It’s become a truism (though maybe not an actual truth) that 2016 brought a bumper harvest for the Grim Reaper. Two posts on this blog reflected that: one was a response to the death of the architect Zaha Hadid and the other was prompted by the murder of Jo Cox MP.

Online misogyny. In 2016 the abuse directed at women online was widely acknowledged as a significant problem, and in Britain it was the subject of a high-profile cross-party campaign—which was launched with a report that managed to blame half of the problem on women. (If you want to read something more sensible on this subject, I can recommend Emma Jane’s new book Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History.)

There were a few small consolations:

Resolution 109. The American Bar Association made the use of patronising endearment terms to women lawyers a breach of professional standards. (Meanwhile in the UK, a female judge responded to a male defendant who called her a cunt by saying ‘you’re a bit of a cunt yourself’.)

Women political speakers kicking ass. In the wake of the referendum that brought us Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon showed once again that few politicians can touch her when it comes to rhetorical skill. The US presidential campaign brought another outstanding female political speaker to the world’s attention: Michelle Obama.

Arrival. Not the best thing I’ve ever seen, but hey, Hollywood made a film about a woman linguist who saves the world!

In real life, of course, linguists don’t save the world: the best someone like me can do is try to make a bit more sense of some of the things that are happening in the world. As ever, my efforts to do that this year have been indebted to the work of many other researchers and/or bloggers, and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve cited/linked to in my posts.

I’ll be back with more feminist guiding in 2017, but in the meantime I thank everyone who reads the stuff I put here (there are a lot more of you than I ever thought there would be when I started this blog in 2015), and I wish you as much peace, love and joy as you can find in these unsettled and discouraging times.

A brief history of ‘gender’

In New York City in 1999, I heard a talk in which Riki Anne Wilchins (self-styled ‘transexual menace’, and described in the Gender Variance Who’s Who as ‘one of the iconic transgender persons of the 1990s’) declared that feminists had no theory of gender. I thought: ‘what is she talking about? Surely feminists invented the concept of gender!’

Fast forward ten years to 2009, when I went to a bookfair in Edinburgh to speak about The Trouble & Strife Reader, a collection of writing from a feminist magazine I’d been involved with since the 1980s. Afterwards, two young women came up to chat. Interesting book, they said, but why is there nothing in it about gender?

From my perspective the book was all about gender—by which I meant, to use Gayle Rubin’s 1975 formulation, ‘the socially-imposed division of the sexes’. Feminists of my generation understood gender as part of the apparatus of patriarchy: a social system, built on the biological foundation of human sexual dimorphism, which allocated different roles, rights and responsibilities to male and female humans. But by 2009 I knew this was no longer what ‘gender’ meant to everyone. To the young women at the bookfair, ‘gender’ meant a form of identity, located in and asserted by individuals rather than imposed on them from outside. It wasn’t just distinct from sex, it had no necessary connection to sex. And it wasn’t a binary division: there were many genders, not just two.

Fast forward again to October 2016, when Pope Francis, during a pastoral visit to Georgia, denounced ‘gender theory’ as a threat to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The correspondent who reported his comments explained:

Gender theory is broadly the concept that while a person may be biologically male or female, they have the right to identify themselves as male, female, both or neither.

I thought: ‘I remember when gender theory threatened the teachings of the Church by suggesting that women’s traditional roles were not ordained by God and nature’. I also thought: ‘OK, this is the tipping point’.

I’m not going to lament the fact that ‘gender’ means different things to different people (though clearly it does, and one consequence is a lot of arguing and talking at cross-purposes). Like everything else in language, word-meaning varies and changes: always has, always will. The question I’m interested in is how we got to where we are. Where did the two competing senses of ‘gender’ come from? When did they start to be used, by whom and in what contexts?

I’ve had many conversations about this, and I’ve often felt as if the world is divided between people who think gender as a theoretical concept was basically invented by Judith Butler in 1990, and people who hold Butler (or queer theorists) responsible for undermining the feminist analysis of gender and distorting the ‘real’ meaning of the word. I’ve never been satisfied with either of these views, and I wanted to see what light I could shed on them, using various sources of information about the history and usage of English words.

One key source I used is the Oxford English Dictionary: fortunately for me, its entry for ‘gender’ has been revised very recently, so it’s as close to fully up to date as historical dictionaries get. I also made use of large text corpora–in this case, collections of American English texts, because the usages I’m interested in were first recorded in the US. I used COHA, a historical corpus which covers the period from 1810 to 2010, and COCA, a contemporary corpus which covers 1990-2015. Dictionaries and corpora typically aim to represent ‘general’ usage, and their coverage of non-mainstream sources can be sparse. So, I also used some 20th century feminist texts to provide supplementary evidence about the way feminists used ‘gender’.

I discovered some things I was expecting, and others that surprised me. For instance: it wasn’t feminists who first made the sex/gender distinction (actually it took a while for them to adopt the term ‘gender’ consistently), and it wasn’t queer theorists who first defined the concept of gender identity. The ‘identity’ meaning of ‘gender’ has only recently become mainstream, but it isn’t new: it’s been around for approximately the same amount of time as the one it now competes with, and both of them were in use well before the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s.

I’ll come back to these points, but first let’s take a very quick look at the earlier history of the English word ‘gender’. You may have heard that it started out as a grammatical term, used in the description of languages where nouns are classified as masculine, feminine and neuter. The usual story is that this grammatical sense got extended later to talk about the distinction between male and female persons. ‘Later’, however, is a relative term: in Norman French, which was where English got the word from, gendre was already being used to mean ‘the quality of being male or female’ by the second half of the 12th century. The first record in the OED of the English form ‘gender’ being used with the ‘male or female’ meaning is dated 1474—a reference to ‘his heirs of the masculine gender’. In short: the ‘male or female’ meaning of ‘gender’ goes back a long way. People have been using it in a way feminists often complain about–that is, as just a fancy word for ‘sex’–for more than 500 years.

When did the sex/gender distinction first get made in English, and who made it? You might imagine its first appearance would be in some feminist text from the late 1960s or the 1970s. But in fact the OED’s earliest illustrative quotation for the relevant sense (‘the state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones’) comes from an article published in 1945 in an academic psychology journal:

in the grade school years, too, gender (which is the socialised obverse of sex) is a fixed line of demarcation, the qualifying terms being ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.

The same journal is the source of the next quotation [1], dated 1950:

it informs the reader upon ‘gender’ as well as ‘sex’, upon masculine and feminine roles as well as upon male and female and their reproductive functions.

As these examples illustrate, the meaning of ‘gender’ which depends on an explicit or implicit contrast with biological sex was first used by academics in social science disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology. The quotations I’ve reproduced suggest that this usage was initially confined to a fairly narrow group of specialists: even when writing for their fellow-academics, the authors evidently didn’t expect all readers to be familiar with it (hence the parenthesis in the first example and the inverted commas in the second).

The earliest quotation in the OED which doesn’t come from an academic source, or treat ‘gender’ as a piece of obscure jargon, is from a 1968 issue of Time magazine. That might imply that by the late 1960s the social scientific concept of gender was beginning to move into the mainstream. But the historical corpus data show that even in the 1960s ‘gender’ (used in any sense) was still an uncommon word. In COHA it is recorded from the 1830s, but until the end of the 1950s its frequency remains low—under one occurrence per million words of text. In the 1960s the frequency rises to (just) over one use per million words, and there’s a further very slight increase in the 1970s. It isn’t until the 1980s that there’s a larger jump to more than five uses per million words.

Does this mean that the story about feminists before 1990 having no theoretical concept of gender might be true after all? That question raises the somewhat tricky issue of what the relationship is between theory and terminology. My reading of early second-wave feminist texts suggests that ‘gender’ during this period (that is, the late 1960s and 1970s) was still largely an academic term: it’s common in feminist academic writing (Gayle Rubin’s 1975 article ‘The traffic in women’, which I quoted earlier, is one example), but it seldom appears in writing by feminists who were politically active outside the academy [2]. However, that doesn’t mean the activists made no distinction between biology and culture: often it’s clear they had the concept of gender, they just expressed it using other terms.

Here’s an example taken from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970):

Just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

Firestone doesn’t use the term ‘gender’, but she does differentiate between the biological markers of sex and what she calls ‘the sex distinction’, by which she evidently means something like Rubin’s ‘socially-imposed division of the sexes’. It’s this, she argues, that feminism aims to eliminate. After the revolution there will still be ‘genital differences between human beings’, but they will ‘no longer matter culturally’.

Shulamith Firestone acknowledged a debt to Simone de Beauvoir, whose observation that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’ has often been hailed as the founding statement of modern anti-essentialist feminism. Beauvoir didn’t use the word ‘gender’ either. In 1949 when The Second Sex first appeared, and indeed for some decades afterwards, French-speakers did not make a linguistic distinction equivalent to the English one between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (though some have recently adopted the term genre to fill the gap). But that obviously didn’t stop French feminists (or feminist speakers of other languages that lacked the distinction) from rejecting biological determinism and developing an analysis of women’s subordination as the product of social forces.

What about the ‘identity’ sense of ‘gender’? When does that start to turn up in the texts sampled for dictionaries and corpora, and what kinds of texts do you find it in? The answer is that it first appears in the 1950s, in texts dealing with the clinical treatment of what were then called ‘hermaphrodites’ (i.e., people with intersex conditions) and ‘transsexuals’. It isn’t entirely clear whether this medical usage developed in parallel with the social science usage or directly from it, but in any case the clinicians soon began to produce a distinctive body of knowledge, which included proposals about the definition of ‘gender’.

There are two names which turn up repeatedly on quotations illustrating the medical usage of ‘gender’ in the mid-20th century. One is that of Robert Stoller, a psychiatrist who was associated from the mid-1950s with the Gender Identity Clinic at UCLA. He was the author of a 1968 book called Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity, and he is often credited with introducing the term ‘gender identity’, meaning more or less what it means in current usage.

I say ‘more or less’ because Stoller’s ideas about gender identity weren’t exactly the ones we’re most familiar with today. He believed there was a biological basis for what he called ‘core gender identity’—defined as an innate sense of being male or female which is normally fixed by the second year of life—but he also wrote extensively about the influence of nurture. As well as having a medical degree, he was trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, and he was interested in the idea that an individual’s sexual desires and behaviours, particularly those defined at the time as ‘perversions’ (including homosexuality, sadomasochism and transvestism), develop in response to childhood events which threaten the individual’s core gender identity.

The other name is that of John Money, the psychologist who founded the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Money was an influential proponent of the view that gender is learned rather than innate: his clinical observations showed, he claimed, that children acquire the gender they’re raised in, even when it’s incongruent with their natal sex. The case study he relied on most heavily to support this claim was later discredited, damaging Money’s reputation and the credibility of his theories. But the work done at Johns Hopkins made a significant contribution to the history of gender—both the concept and the word.

In a 1955 research report, Money and two of his colleagues explained their concept of ‘gender role’, which they defined as

all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. …Gender role is appraised in relation to: general mannerisms, deportment and demeanor; play preferences and recreational interests; spontaneous topics of talk in unprompted conversation and casual comment; content of dreams, daydreams and fantasies; replies to oblique inquiries and projective tests; evidence of erotic practices, and, finally, the person’s own replies to direct inquiry.

‘Gender role’ is conceptualised here in a similar way to gender identity today–as an internal characteristic of individuals, ‘disclosed’ in their behaviour and what they say about themselves. The missing element of the current meaning is the idea that gender isn’t a binary division: this early definition acknowledges only two categories (‘boy or man, girl or woman’). Stoller, too, assumed that a person’s ‘core gender identity’ must be either male or female. The more recent emergence of alternative categories (including ‘nonbinary’ and ‘genderfluid’ identities) may reflect the influence of queer theory; but in all other respects, arguably, today’s understanding of gender as a form of identity owes more to the medical model elaborated by people like Money and Stoller.

I can’t claim to have produced an exhaustive account of the history of ‘gender’, but I’ve still found the exercise revealing. Knowing that the two competing senses have developed from different intellectual traditions (one sense has its roots in the social scientific study of human culture and behaviour, while the other is rooted in the theory and practice of clinicians working with gender-variant individuals) makes it easier to understand why they conflict in the ways they do. And the conflict is profound: if I use ‘gender’ to mean ‘a social status imposed on people by virtue of their sex’, and you use it to mean ‘an innate sense of identity linked to the sex of a person’s brain’ (a now-common understanding which derives from the medical tradition), we may be using the same word, but our conceptual frameworks have almost nothing in common (for instance, your ‘gender’ has a biological basis, whereas the defining feature of my ‘gender’ is that it doesn’t).

This situation particularly annoys those feminists who feel they’ve lost ‘their’ word. But it might be asked how much we really need that word. It didn’t originate in feminist political analysis or grassroots activism: it belonged to an academic register (and is still, according to the corpus evidence, used predominantly in academic contexts). Many classic feminist analyses of the social condition of women (like Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex and Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class) do not use it at all.

In recent years I’ve become more careful about when and how I use ‘gender’, since in some contexts and for some audiences I know it might not be clear which sense I’m using it in. Now I’m asking myself if there are any contexts where I really couldn’t manage without it. As I’ve said, plenty of feminists in the past did manage without it. Maybe what was good enough for Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis should be good enough for me.

_____________________

NOTES

[1] The ‘it’ referred to in this quotation is the work of the US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead herself did not use the term ‘gender’, but in her books Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and Male and Female (1949) she gave an account of the variability of men’s and women’s qualities and social roles across cultures which prefigured, and in some cases directly influenced, later discussions of gender among social scientists and feminists. (If you read French, there’s a good short account of Mead’s contribution to this history here).

[2] One academic book which examined both the concepts of sex and gender and the associated terminology in some detail was the sociologist Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society, first published in 1972 and now considered a feminist classic (this year it was reissued in a new edition with a retrospective introduction by the author). The book discusses Margaret Mead’s work, as well as the work of Robert Stoller and John Money. Oakley’s new introduction also briefly alludes to Mathilde Vaerting, a German near-contemporary of Mead who was writing about the way societies constructed men and women as both different and unequal as early as 1921. (There’s some information on Vaerting here.)

Sex, death and aliens: a feminist watches ‘Arrival’

Last week I saw Arrival, the recently-released film with Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the US military to decode the language of some non-humanoid aliens who have unexpectedly arrived on earth. I wasn’t expecting to love it; in fact, when I first heard about it I thought I’d probably give it a miss. For one thing, I’ve never been a great fan of the ‘aliens have landed’ genre; for another, I’d read that Arrival leans heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a 20th century theory which says that your perceptions of reality are influenced—or in the strongest version of the theory, determined—by the characteristics of the language you speak.

People in my line of work tend to approach anything based on this premise with caution. Most linguists rejected the ‘strong’ version of the hypothesis long ago (though ‘weak’ versions continue to be debated), but that hasn’t prevented it from being endlessly recycled in popular culture, often in crassly simplistic ways. Some propositions based on it have been around forever, repeated so often they’ve passed into received wisdom (like the indestructible zombie fact about Eskimos having a lot of words for snow—they don’t, but even if they did, as Geoff Pullum says in his classic debunking piece ‘The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’, why would that be any more significant than printers having a lot of words for fonts?) Others, testifying to its continuing vitality, have popped up more recently (remember the headline-making claim from 2013, that people save more if their language lacks a future tense?)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has also been of interest to feminists. In 1980 Dale Spender invoked it to support her thesis that women were oppressed by having to view the world through the lens of a ‘man made language’. And a few years later, as I explained in an earlier post, the feminist linguist and sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin made it the premise of a series of novels, for which she also created an alternative ‘women’s language’.

Not all versions of the idea that idea that language determines thought are directly indebted to Sapir and Whorf. Another perennially popular source for it is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. (Orwell was a contemporary of Whorf, though it’s unclear if he knew Whorf’s writing). Though Arrival refers explicitly to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in some ways it seemed closer to the Orwellian tradition. Specifically, it reminded me of a classic piece of feminist writing in that tradition: Carol Cohn’s 1987 article ‘Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals’.

Cohn wrote this article after spending a year at what she refers to as ‘the Center’, an institution devoted to studying the technology and strategic use of nuclear weapons. (She memorably describes herself as ‘a feminist spy in the house of death’.) A critic of US defence policy, she hoped that spending time with ‘defence intellectuals’ would give her politically valuable insights into their thinking. But she gradually became aware of a paradox. To interact with the experts it was necessary to speak their language, since if you didn’t use their specialist terminology they dismissed you as ignorant and naïve. But as Cohn learnt the language she realised her attitudes had changed:

The more conversations I participated in using this language, the less frightened I was of nuclear war.

Why did learning the language have this effect?  Cohn’s answer is that ‘nukespeak’ is designed to make its users feel powerful and in control. By positioning them as knowledgeable, rational agents, planning and overseeing the use of weapons of mass destruction, it insulates them from the emotions they would feel if they identified with the mass of powerless victims.

The most obvious feature of nukespeak which enables it to do this job is abstraction: it’s full of acronyms and obscure nominalisations (like ‘escalation dominance’ and ‘strategic stability’) which are, as Cohn comments,

so bland that they never force the speaker or enable the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust.

But it isn’t all about bland euphemisms. Another way in which users of nukespeak are induced to feel powerful is by imagining weapons as extensions of their masculinity. Cohn reports being both amazed and appalled by the extent to which explicitly sexual imagery pervaded the experts’ discourse:

Lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks—what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump”.

Yet the same weapons could also be imagined as cute animals or harmless pets: one anti-ballistic missile system went by the acronym ‘BAMBI’, and on a tour of a nuclear submarine the visitors were asked if they wanted to ‘pat’ a missile.

Cohn was also struck by what the experts couldn’t talk about. The model that informed their strategic discussions had been developed mainly by mathematicians, and its internal logic excluded the human factors which would be likely to affect any real-world conflict. For instance, discussions of ‘limited nuclear war’ were conducted on the assumption that

Our rational actors would be free of emotional response to being attacked, free of political pressures from the populace, free from madness or despair or any of the myriad other factors that regularly affect human actions and decision making. They would act solely on the basis of a perfectly informed mathematical calculus of megatonnage.

Which brings me back to Arrival, and why it reminded me of Cohn’s article. What I saw in the film was the same opposition Cohn posits between militaristic ‘male’ values (rationality, dominance, destructiveness) and their ‘female’ opposites (emotion, co-operation, nurturance). In Arrival the female values ultimately defeat the male ones. Whether you think that makes it a feminist film will depend on what kind of feminist you are.

What I knew about Arrival before I saw it suggested it would be a feminist film in the more conventional Hollywood sense. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (which requires at least one scene where two named female characters discuss something other than a man), because there’s only one adult female character in it. But that character, Louise Banks, is the main protagonist, and her role in the story is defined by her intellectual and professional achievements. She isn’t just a man’s sidekick or his love interest. She’s smart and brave and she ends up saving the world.

But at a deeper level the narrative is structured by the stereotypical male/female opposition I mentioned earlier. Louise isn’t just a brilliant linguist who happens (like many real-life brilliant linguists) to be a woman. The logic of the film requires her to be a woman—Venus to the military establishment’s Mars. I said before that what defines her role is her profession, but in fact she is also identified, in the opening moments of the film, as a mother—one who (we are led to believe) has suffered the death of a beloved child. And this is not irrelevant. Her success in decoding the aliens’ language is shown to depend not only on her technical skills (which are alluded to more than they are displayed), but also and crucially on her feminine/maternal qualities of empathy, intuition and compassion.

These qualities are especially prominent in the scene where Louise makes her initial breakthrough. She manages to connect with the aliens, before she knows how to communicate with them, when she impulsively abandons the defensive posture required by military protocol, and instead makes herself vulnerable. Defying her orders, she removes her protective gear, walks up to the glass wall that separates the humans from the aliens, and presses her naked palm against the glass—a gesture which the aliens reciprocate, and then follow up by offering the first, all-important evidence of their writing system.

Later on, Louise will apply her emotional intelligence to defusing the threat of global war, which arises because of a conflict among rival human powers (China, Russia, the US and their various satellites) about how to deal with the aliens, and in particular, whether to use force against them. This part of the film is like a textbook illustration of Carol Cohn’s point about the practical irrelevance of defence strategists’ abstract models. The politicians and generals who must decide what to do are clearly not in control, and nor are they making rational decisions. As their terrified populations riot, loot and demand immediate action against the alien menace, these leaders stop trying to figure out whether the aliens are really a threat, shut down communications and focus solipsistically on their own political interests (apparently they reason that it’s better to blow up the world than give up your strategic advantage by sharing intel with your rivals).

As the crisis escalates, the rational, pragmatic army colonel in charge of the US military operation seems to accept that the world is heading for catastrophe. Louise, however—who by now is in touch not only with her own feelings, but also with the aliens’ minds (this is where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in: by learning the aliens’ language she has become able to cognize the way they do)—refuses to accept defeat. Disobeying orders one last time, she makes a phone call and averts disaster. (I won’t reveal how she does it, but her strategy is definitely from Venus.)

Louise isn’t exactly a ‘feminist spy in the house of death’, since she appears to have no political convictions of any kind. But she can be seen as a disruptive female force in a world whose rules are made by men, and in the context of the film as a whole I think she does symbolise the old idea that women are the creators and protectors of life, whereas men—or at least the powerful ones—are the bringers of death and destruction.

That was also, of course, an argument used by some feminist peace activists in the 1980s. It’s not my favourite feminist idea; but the popularity of Arrival suggests that, like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it still resonates. And when you look at what’s happening around the world today, perhaps that isn’t hard to understand.

What makes a word a slur?

Content note: this post contains examples of offensive slur-terms. 

Last week, the British edition of Glamour magazine published a column in which Juno Dawson used the term ‘TERF’ to describe feminists (the example she named was Germaine Greer) who ‘steadfastly believe that me—and other trans women—are not women’.  When some readers complained about the use of derogatory language, a spokeswoman for the magazine replied on Twitter that TERF is not derogatory:

Trans-exclusionary radical feminist is a description, and not a misogynistic slur.

Arguments about whether TERF is a neutral descriptive term or a derogatory slur have been rumbling on ever since. They raise a question which linguists and philosophers have found quite tricky to answer (and which they haven’t reached a consensus on): what makes a word a slur?

Before I consider that general question, let’s take a closer look at the meaning and history of TERF. As the Glamour spokeswoman said, it’s an abbreviated form of the phrase ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’; more specifically it’s an acronym, constructed from the initial letters of the words that make up the phrase. Some people have suggested this means it can’t be a slur. I find that argument puzzling, since numerous terms which everyone agrees are slurs are abbreviated forms (examples include ‘Paki’, ‘Jap’, ‘paedo’ and ‘tranny’). But in any case, there’s a question about the status of TERF as an acronym. Clearly it started out as one, but is it still behaving like one now?

To see what I’m getting at, consider an acronym from the 1940s: ‘radar’. Do you know what all the letters stand for? I do, but only because I’ve just looked it up. I’ve been using the word for 50-odd years without realising it meant ‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’—a feat made possible by the fact that ‘radio detection and ranging’ isn’t really what it means any longer. Over time it’s become just an ordinary word, which is used without reference to its origins as an acronym. No one mentally expands the letters R-A-D-A-R into words; no one imagines that ‘gaydar’ must be short for ‘gay detection and ranging’. Also (a trivial but telling sign) no one now writes ‘radar’ in all caps.

I’ve been writing TERF in all caps, but these days you also see it written ‘Terf’ or ‘terf’. That’s one sign it’s going the same way as ‘radar’, becoming a word which can be used without knowing what the letters of the original acronym stand for. Another sign is the way it’s now used to describe people (e.g., men) who don’t fit the original specification, in that they aren’t radical feminists. It looks as if at least some users of the term don’t define it strictly as meaning ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, but use it with a more generic meaning like ‘transphobic person’.

This kind of change is common in the history of words. Word-meaning is inherently unstable, liable to vary among different groups of users and to change over time, because we don’t learn the meanings of most words by looking them up in some authoritative reference book, we figure them out from our experience of hearing or seeing words used in context.

It’s easy to see how that might shift the meaning of TERF in the way I’ve just suggested. Imagine you hear two of your friends discussing a mutual acquaintance who they refer to as a TERF. You’ve never encountered the term before and you have no way of knowing it’s a short form of a longer phrase (because it’s a true acronym, pronounced not as a series of letters but as a single syllable that rhymes with ‘smurf’).  So you listen to what’s being said about the TERF in question and make the simplest inference compatible with what you’re hearing: that TERF means a transphobic person.

If TERF’s meaning has started to shift that’s actually a sign of its success (words evolve as they spread to new users and contexts). But it makes the argument that TERF is just a neutral descriptive label for a specific group of people less convincing. That argument either takes no account of the way usage has changed over time, or else it’s a version of the etymological fallacy (‘however people actually use a word, its original meaning is the true meaning’).

But the fact that a word isn’t a neutral description doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a slur. We’re back to the question philosophers and semanticists have found so tricky: on what basis can we say that a word is a slur?

As I’ve already mentioned, the people who’ve written on this subject don’t agree on what the answer is. And after reading their various accounts, I’m not sure I believe there’s a single right answer. Rather, I think there are a number of criteria which need to be considered. If we’re in doubt about a word’s status as a slur, we can try asking the following questions, and then looking at the overall balance of the answers.

My first two questions are based on what the philosopher Jennifer Hornsby proposes as the two fundamental features of a derogatory term or slur.

Is the word commonly understood to convey hatred or contempt?

Does the word have a neutral counterpart which denotes the same group without conveying hatred/contempt?

This definition seems to have been constructed using racial/ethnic slurs as a prototype. In these cases it’s generally understood that the slur term, used in preference to a neutral term which denotes the same group of people, communicates hatred/contempt as part of its meaning (that’s the difference between, say, ‘Jew’ and ‘kike’). This doesn’t help us much with terms like TERF whose status as slurs is disputed. TERF is certainly understood by some people to convey hatred and contempt, but others deny it conveys those things.

It’s also unclear whether there’s a neutral term which TERF contrasts with. TERF doesn’t so much refer to a pre-existing group as bring a new category into existence (there was a pre-existing group of radical feminists, but they weren’t defined as a category by the belief that trans women are not women, and in fact they still aren’t, since not all radical feminists hold that belief). So, to decide whether TERF is a slur we need to ask some other questions.

Do the people the word is applied to either use it to describe themselves or accept it when others use it to describe them?

Both parts of this question are important. If a group of people voluntarily use a word to describe themselves, then—on the assumption that people don’t generally slur their own group—you might conclude the word isn’t a slur. However, this does not allow for the possibility that a term might be a marker of identity and solidarity when used within the group, while remaining a slur if it’s used to/about the group by outsiders. (The classic example is the solidary use of the N-word among (some) Black people: it doesn’t make it OK for white people to use it. ‘Dyke’ for ‘lesbian’ is another example: fine if you are a lesbian, suspect if you aren’t. ) There are also jocular, ironic and self-mocking uses which don’t undermine the status of a word as a slur (women friends might refer to themselves in private as ‘sluts’ or ‘bitches’, but they wouldn’t accept being described in those terms in public or by non-intimates).

With TERF, I’d say the answer to both parts of the question is ‘no’. There may be people who use TERF ironically/self-mockingly in private, but I’m not aware of any who publicly define themselves as TERFs, and it’s common for those who are called TERFs by others to reject the label. Note that these observations concern attitudes to the word: there are certainly some feminists who publicly affirm the belief mentioned by Juno Dawson, that trans women are not women, but they may still deny being TERFs. This suggests they see TERF in the same way members of a certain ethnic group might see an ethnic slur: ‘yes, I am a member of the group you mean, but no, I do not accept the implications of the name you’re calling it by’.  Which brings me to the next question:

Do the people the word is applied to regard it as a slur (e.g. do they describe it explicitly as a slur, protest against its use, display offence/distress when it is used)?

For some writers, a ‘yes’ to this question is enough on its own to make a word a slur.  Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore argue that

…no matter what its history, no matter what it means or communicates, no matter who introduces it, regardless of its past associations, once relevant individuals declare a word a slur, it becomes one [emphasis in original]

What these writers are trying to account for is the fact that labels which were previously considered acceptable, or even polite, can get redefined as slurs (examples include ‘Negro’ and ‘coloured’), and the reverse may also happen (‘Black’ was not always acceptable, and ‘queer’ used to be unambiguously a slur). This isn’t a matter of what the term means (the literal meaning of ‘Black’ and ‘Negro’ is the same), but rather depends on the perceptions of ‘relevant individuals’ (members of the target group) at a particular point in time. If they declare a term offensive, then it’s offensive: it’s idle for non-members of the group to tell them they have no business taking offence.

On this criterion, TERF is indisputably a slur.  Many individuals who have been described as TERFs have called it a slur, protested against its use (witness the complaints about Juno Dawson’s column) and explicitly said that it offends them. But I’m reluctant to make that the sole criterion. I agree that for something to be a slur it’s necessary for members of the target group to regard it as offensive, but I’m not sure that’s a sufficient condition (and what do you do about cases where the target group is split? ‘Queer’, for instance, divides opinion in the LGBT community).

As a sociolinguist (unlike the writers I’ve been referencing), I’m also dissatisfied with the implication that members of a group just arbitrarily and randomly decide that, for instance, ‘queer’ has ceased to be a slur or ‘Negro’ has now become one. I think these developments can be related to the changing social and political contexts in which words are used (for instance, the context for the ‘unslurring’ of ‘queer’ was the surge of radical activism prompted by the HIV-AIDS epidemic). Perceptions of words have to be seen in relation to what the words are being used to do, either by the group itself or by its opponents. So another question I would want to ask is,

What speech acts is the word used to perform?

If a word is just a neutral description, you might expect it to be used mainly for the purpose of describing or making claims about states of affairs. If it’s a slur, you’d also expect it to be used for those purposes, but in addition you might expect to see it being used in speech acts expressing hatred and contempt, such as insults, threats and incitements to violence. (By ‘insults’ here, incidentally, I don’t mean statements which are insulting simply because they use the word in question, but statements which say something insulting about the group, e.g. ‘they’re all dirty thieves’.)  

There’s evidence that TERF does appear in insults, threats and incitements. You can read a selection of examples (mostly taken from Twitter, so these were public communications) on this website, which was set up to document the phenomenon. Here are a small number of items from the site to give you a sense of what this discourse looks like:

you vile dirty terf cunts must be fuming you have no power to mess with transfolk any more!

I smell a TERF and they fucking stink

if i ever find out you are a TERF i will fucking kill you every single TERF out there needs to die

why are terfs even allowed to exist round up every terf and all their friends for good measure and slit their throats one by one

if you encounter a terf in the wild deposit them in the nearest dumpster. Remember: Keeping our streets clean is everyone’s responsibility

Precisely because it was set up to document uses of TERF as a slur, this site does not offer a representative sample of all uses of the term, so it can’t tell us whether insulting/threatening/inciting are its dominant functions. It does, however, show that they are among its current functions.  It also points to another relevant question:

What other words does the word tend to co-occur with? 

It’s noticeable that on the website I’ve linked to, TERF quite often shows up in the same tweet as other words whose status as slurs is not disputed, like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. Other words that occur more than once or twice in these tweets include ‘disgusting’, ‘ugly’, ‘scum’ and a cluster of words implying uncleanness (‘smell’, ‘stink’, ‘garbage’, ‘filth’)—which is also a well-worn theme in racist and anti-Semitic discourse.

One of the clues we use to infer an unfamiliar word’s meaning in context is our understanding of the adjacent, familar words; the result is that over time, recurring patterns of collocation (i.e. the tendency for certain words to appear in proximity to one another) have an influence on the way the word’s meaning evolves. The examples on the website are too small and unrepresentative a sample to generalise from, but if the collocations we see there are common in current uses of TERF, that would not only support the contention that it’s a slur, it might also suggest that the word could become increasingly pejorative.

In summary: TERF does not meet all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, but it does meet most of them at least partially. My personal judgment on the slur question has been particularly influenced by the evidence that TERF is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution). Granted, this isn’t the only kind of discourse TERF is used in, and it may not be the main kind. But if a term features in that kind of discourse at all, it seems to me impossible to maintain that it is ‘just a neutral description’.

I believe in open debate on politically controversial issues, so I’m not suggesting the views of either side should be either censored or protected from criticism. My point is that when one of the key terms used in the argument has become a slur, it is no longer fit for any other purpose, and the time has come to look for a replacement.