September was an eventful month in the ongoing War of the W-Word. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted out an edited version of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words defending a woman’s right to choose, in which the words ‘woman’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ were replaced with ‘person’, ‘they’ and ‘their’. The medical journal The Lancet published a cover informing readers that ‘Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected’. And a series of British politicians publicly tied themselves in knots about whether it’s permissible to state that ‘only women have a cervix’.

‘Bodies with vaginas’ caused particular offence, but as the science writer and editor Sue Nelson pointed out, The Lancet had taken the phrase out of context. The statement on the cover was what’s known in the trade as a ‘pull-quote’, lifted from an article discussing an exhibition about menstruation at London’s Vagina Museum. Not only did the article mention women, it did so in the very sentence the quote was taken from:

Historically the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected—for example, the paucity of understanding of endometriosis and the way women’s pain has been seen as more likely to have an emotional or psychological cause, a hangover from centuries of theorising about hysteria.

The article does connect the treatment of ‘bodies with vaginas’ to the fact that vaginas, on the whole, belong to women. But the cover obscures that through selective quotation. Sue Nelson described this as ‘deliberately provocative’, adding that it was ‘clickbait…virtue-signalling, or both’.

What is it, though, that makes ‘bodies with vaginas’ so provocative? Many critics complained that the phrase dehumanised women by referring to them as ‘bodies’, but I’m not convinced that ‘bodies’ is the problem. I don’t think The Lancet would have been deluged with complaints if its cover had called attention to the historical neglect of ‘the anatomy and physiology of women’s bodies’, or ‘female bodies’, or ‘the female body’. On the cover of a medical journal, in a sentence about anatomy and physiology (‘the study of the structure and functions of bodies’) those phrases would not have seemed out of place.

In my view the provocation had less to do with the words The Lancet did use than with the word it conspicuously avoided. Whatever else they communicate, expressions like ‘bodies with vaginas’ (see also ‘menstruators’, ‘pregnant people’, ‘anyone who has a cervix’) signal that the speaker or writer has made a conscious decision not to use the word ‘women’. Particularly when it’s repeated across contexts and over time, this intentional avoidance implies that ‘women’ is taboo: it belongs to the category of words whose offensiveness makes them ‘dirty’ and publicly unspeakable.    

At this point you might be thinking: but this isn’t about avoidance, it’s about inclusion. It’s a way of acknowledging that some individuals who have vaginas/periods/abortions do not identify as women, but rather as trans men or nonbinary people. Is this not the same argument 1970s feminists made when they objected to the pseudo-generic use of masculine terms like ‘chairman’? I agree that there are parallels; but there are also, if you look closer, differences.     

1970s feminists looking for alternatives to ‘he/man’ language had a number of strategies at their disposal. One of these was ‘doubling’, conjoining terms with ‘and’, as in the phrase ‘servicemen and women’, now routinely used by politicians paying tribute to the armed forces. Feminists don’t complain about the continuing presence of ‘men’, who are still the majority of those who serve. But when the problem is the word ‘women’, and the issue is including people with other gender identities, there’s a tendency to shy away from the ‘add on’ approach (e.g. ‘we provide advice and support to pregnant women, trans men and nonbinary people’). The preferred strategy is to substitute a word or phrase that does not contain the word ‘women’—even if the result is bizarre (‘bodies with vaginas’), circumlocutory (‘anyone who has a cervix’) or unclear (e.g. the ACLU’s use of ‘person/people’ in a context where the reference is not to all people but specifically to those who can become pregnant). If you’re just looking for ways of referring to a category which includes but is not limited to women, why is it so important to avoid the word entirely?  

Another piece of evidence that we are dealing with avoidance is that the substitution rule only applies to ‘women’. As critics of the Lancet cover pointed out, a few days earlier the journal had tweeted something about prostate cancer which referred to those affected by the disease as ‘men’. If inclusiveness were the sole concern, the same considerations should apply to prostate cancer as to cervical cancer. In both cases, some patients in need of screening or treatment may identify as trans or nonbinary. But texts about cancers which only affect male bodies do not talk about ‘people with prostates’ or ‘bodies with testicles’. That can’t be because ‘men’ is more inclusive than ‘women’; the difference is that ‘men’ is not taboo.      

The English word ‘taboo’ means a kind of avoidance which reflects our notions of polite or socially appropriate behaviour. It covers such injunctions as not swearing in certain contexts (in front of your grandparents, or at a job interview), and not speaking plainly about certain subjects (e.g. death). The word ‘woman’ was once considered impolite (as a child I was taught to call say ‘lady)’, and avoiding it to be inclusive is also, to some extent, about politeness—being sensitive to others’ feelings and trying not to offend or upset them. But some aspects of the way this avoidance plays out might remind us of taboo in the more technical, anthropological sense.

The anthropological use of ‘taboo’ reflects the way it was observed to work in the Polynesian societies which originally gave English the word. In those societies, ‘tabu’ (or ‘tapu’ or ‘kapu’) is connected to the concept of ‘mana’, a form of power which all things are believed to possess, and which is dangerous if not correctly channelled. The danger is managed through the observance of ritual prohibitions, like not eating certain foods, or not bringing objects that serve one purpose into a space reserved for another, or not uttering the names of gods, rulers, or the recently deceased. Taboo-breaking is understood to be both dangerous and shameful: offenders may be shunned, and in extreme cases even killed.      

The avoidance of ‘women’ among contemporary English-speakers is not motivated by fear of supernatural forces, but it does sometimes seem to be rooted in another kind of fear—the fear that if you don’t observe the rules you will be publicly shamed and ostracised. When politicians were asked about ‘only women have a cervix’, it was striking how many of them could not explain why, in the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s words, ‘it is something that should not be said’. Some of their responses were like the answer James Cook got when he asked why it was forbidden for Tongan men and women to eat together: ‘it is our custom’, they told him, ‘and the custom is right’. A taboo does not require an explanation.     

Even in modern western societies, linguistic taboos retain an element of the ancient belief in word-magic. An obvious example is swearing, where the effect depends on harnessing the power attached to a specific word: if you substitute a synonym (e.g. say ‘copulate off’ rather than ‘fuck off’) the effect is completely lost. And quite similar ideas about the potency of certain words inform some common recommendations for making language more inclusive.

The psychologist Carol Tavris drew attention to this phenomenon in a piece about some new guidelines produced by the University of California at Irvine (UCI).  Noting that the guidelines recommended avoiding ‘hearing impaired’ and replacing it with ‘hard of hearing’, she wondered why one was considered preferable to the other. The answer is that guidelines often proscribe terms that include the word ‘impaired’ on the grounds that it is negative and therefore stigmatising. But is ‘hard of hearing’ any less negative just because it doesn’t contain ‘impaired’? (One piece of evidence which might suggest otherwise is the existence of the joke-expression ‘hard of thinking’, meaning ‘stupid’.)

Even if they’re not efficacious, we might think these avoidance-based rules are harmless. But as Tavris says, for the average language-user, who is not steeped in the discourse of diversity, equality and inclusion, they make talking about certain issues into what can easily appear to be a minefield. They also create a gap between the approved language of inclusion and the everyday language used by most people most of the time. The mismatch is apparent in another of UCI’s recommendations—to avoid the phrase ‘homeless people’ and substitute ‘people experiencing homelessness’. If most ordinary English-speakers don’t follow this advice, is that because they don’t believe homeless people are people? Or are they just reluctant to use such wordy, convoluted jargon? Maybe they think ‘people experiencing homelessness’ is a patronising euphemism—like when doctors ask if you’re ‘experiencing discomfort’ when you’re actually in excruciating pain.   

Disregarding the views of ordinary language-users is a mistake language reformers have made repeatedly. When the ACLU substituted ‘person’ for ‘woman’ in its edited quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many objections took the form of mockery—repeating the same substitution in a context where it was clearly absurd, like ‘When a man loves a person’, or ‘feminism is the radical notion that persons are people’. Something similar happened in Britain after the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to use gender-specific terms in job advertisements. With the many jobs whose title had traditionally contained ‘-man’ there were two options: you could either use paired terms like ‘servicemen and women’, or find a gender-neutral variant to cover both. One result was a crop of new compounds like ‘chairperson’, ‘salesperson’ and ‘spokesperson’. Another was an endless stream of jokes about ‘personholes’, ‘personagers’ and whether in future diners would have to ask the ‘waitperson’ for the ‘people-u’.

To begin with this looked like a predictable backlash which would die down as the new terms became familiar. But there were other problems with -person. One was our old friend ‘the illusion of inclusion‘. Outside job ads, person-terms were frequently used not as generic substitutes for ‘man’, but as euphemisms for ‘woman’. Women were ‘chairpersons’, while men continued to be ‘chairmen’. It also became evident that replacing ‘man’ with ‘person’ often produced real terms that sounded like jokes. Soon after the law came into force I got a job in a local hospital, where my wage-slip informed me I was a ‘laundrywoman’. I found that term archaic, but on reflection I could see why it hadn’t been replaced with the ludicrous-sounding ‘laundryperson’.

‘Person’ once appeared to be the obvious substitute for ‘man’, but in hindsight we can see that it failed. Today almost none of the old -person compounds survive. But over time people converged on more acceptable solutions to the problem of making job-titles inclusive (e.g. ‘chair’, ‘sales assistant/associate’, ‘firefighter’). What they rejected was not the basic principle of inclusion, but the imposition of terms they found unnatural or ridiculous.    

The very public controversies of the last few weeks suggest that the kind of inclusive language that requires the avoidance of ‘women’ may be encountering similar resistance. It wasn’t just a certain kind of feminist who criticised ‘bodies with vaginas’. There were other Lancet-readers who were not so much offended as just bewildered that a medical journal would go to such lengths to avoid the W-word.

But many women were angry, and that isn’t hard to understand. Erasing one group of people as a way of including others sends a clear message about who matters and who doesn’t. And replacing the word a group of people use to name themselves with terms that many of them find alien and insulting makes it clear that women’s own preferences are irrelevant. This isn’t new: for millennia, all kinds of names have been imposed on women against their will. In that respect, terms like ‘menstruator’ and ‘birthing person’ are not so different from ‘slut’ and ‘slag’. Men like Keir Starmer and the editor of The Lancet would deny that they think of women as subordinates–yet they apparently feel entitled to tell women what it’s acceptable for them to say about their own bodies. They need to understand it isn’t up to them to decide, and let women speak, in their own words, for themselves.