Bullshit: the struggle goes on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problem 1: do women really talk like that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W180511_SMITH_MANAGERSUSE-850x576

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

you should do it like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In praise of strident women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dictionary wars

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

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle of the big girl’s blouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold my beer

This week we learned that the organisers of the Great British Beer Festival, an annual event sponsored by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, have taken the radical decision to ban alcoholic beverages with sexist names. The products which were said to have fallen foul of this new policy included a cider called ‘Slack Alice’ slack alice(whose makers describe it, hilariously, as ‘a little tart’), and beers named ‘Dizzy Blonde’, ‘Village Bike’ and ‘Leg Spreader’. A quick trawl of the internet produced a number of other potential candidates, such as ‘Bristol’s Ale’ (‘I’ll let the image reproduced below speak for itself), ‘Top Totty’, and ‘Voluptuous Vicky’.

In my last post, about the sexism of dictionary and thesaurus entries for the word ‘woman’, I pointed out that the vocabulary of English is rich in terms that represent women as men’s inferiors, dependents, servants and sexual objects. The beer and cider names just mentioned cover most of these bases—as with ‘humorous’ greeting cards and ‘saucy’ seaside postcards, there seems to be a particular obsession with double-entendres featuring breasts—but the thing I find most striking is how many of them are drawn from a very specific part of the lexicon of sexism: the extensive and elaborate set of terms which mean ‘an unchaste or promiscuous woman’. One who spreads her legs for any man, or has been ‘ridden’ by every man in the village. Who is ‘slack’, a ‘little tart’, a strumpet, a slut, a whore. bristols ale

As feminists have been pointing out for at least the last 45 years, there is no analogous set of slur-terms denoting men. Men who have a lot of sex are ‘studs’ rather than ‘whores’. ‘Gigolo’ can be an insult, but that’s about it. As Amanda Montell summarises the rule in her recent book Wordslut: (incidentally, I’m not going to get into the debate on reclaiming ‘slut’, but there’s a good concise discussion of the word’s past and present uses in this blog post by Nancy Friedman):

If you want to insult a woman, call her a prostitute. If you want to insult a man, call him a woman.

Even then, as Montell observes, there are far more insults based on the first principle than the second. Where do they all come from?

Quite a few are the result of a process which the linguist Muriel Schulz named ‘the semantic derogation of women’. As she explained:

Again and again in the history of the language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or a woman may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications, at first perhaps only slightly disparaging, but after a period of time becoming abusive and ending as a sexual slur.

‘Tart’, for instance, started out as a term of endearment, like ‘sweetie’ or ‘cupcake’. ‘Hussy’ is a variant of ‘housewife’, a neutral occupational label. ‘Slut’ was always negative, but in its earlier meaning of ‘untidy or slovenly person’ it wasn’t a sexual slur. ‘Slack’, as in ‘Slack Alice’, can be applied to people of either sex, but it only means ‘unchaste, promiscuous’ when it’s used about a woman. If I criticised a man for being ‘slack’ I’d be implying that he was lazy or careless, not sexually incontinent or undiscriminating in his choice of partners. (Similarly, we can talk about ‘loose women’, but not ‘loose men’.)

Female promiscuity and prostitution belong to the set of socially taboo subjects which tend to generate a lot of slang words. The variety and inventiveness of this vocabulary has often been celebrated by lovers of language. There’s a famous literary example in John Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor, a 1960s pastiche of 18th century picaresque novels like Tom Jones, where two characters identified as prostitutes engage in a prolonged verbal duel (it goes on for several pages) consisting entirely of English and French epithets meaning ‘prostitute’.

“The truth is,” said the dealer, “Grace here’s a hooker.”
“A what?” asked the poet.
“A hooker,” the woman repeated with a wink. “A quail, don’t ye know.”
“A quail!” the woman named Grace shrieked. “You call me a quail, you, you gaullefretière!”
“Whore!” shouted the first.
“Bas-cul!” retorted the other.
“Frisker!”
“Consoeur!”
“Trull!”
“Friquenelle!”
“Sow!”
“Usagère!”
“Bawd!”

Amanda Montell also notes that some promiscuous woman-terms are ‘fun to say’. Archaic-sounding words like ‘strumpet’ and ‘harlot’, or newer coinages like ‘skankly hobag’, are colourful, exotic, over the top; other terms are ‘fun’ because, like ‘village bike’, they involve some kind of play on words. In all this celebration of linguistic creativity, it’s easy to forget that what we’re looking at is a long list of sexual, and sexist, slurs.

But why, you may be wondering, would sexual slur-terms be considered good names for alcoholic beverages? What are you trying to say when you call your product ‘Leg villagebikeSpreader’ or ‘Village Bike’? Is it, ‘hey, lads, this one’s as good as Rohypnol if you’re looking to get your end away’? Or ‘this beer is convenient and undemanding–good for a quickie in the car-park, but you wouldn’t take it home to meet your parents’? Or is the point just to associate a product that targets a certain (male) demographic with something else that demographic is believed to be keen on?

Actually, I don’t think what’s behind these names is the old adage that ‘sex sells’ (there’s surely nothing sexy or aspirational about the Village Bike): what they’re selling has more to do with masculinity and male camaraderie. Beer, after all, is the classic male homosocial beverage, the one men consume while engaged in stereotypically male homosocial activities like watching the football on TV or having a night in the pub with the lads. Arguably, what’s being referenced in names like ‘Leg Spreader’ and ‘Village Bike’ is the stereotypical language of male homosocial bonding—our old friend ‘banter’, which, just like the crude beer names, is transgressive, politically incorrect and resolutely non-serious (hence the common coupling of the term ‘banter’ with words like ‘irreverent’, ‘witty’ and ‘light-hearted’).

In support of this interpretation I will cite what I consider to be—at least for this purpose—an unimpeachable source, namely the comments made on the CAMRA ban by readers of the Daily Mail. There were three points that recurred in this set of comments. The first (though in fairness it did not command universal agreement) was that beer is a man’s drink, and that in attempting to make it less off-putting to women, CAMRA was alienating its core constituency. The second point, which did command more or less universal agreement, was that banning ‘Slack Alice’ et al. was ‘PC nonsense’; and the third was that anyone who found these ‘light hearted’ names offensive must be a miserable git with no sense of humour.

Interestingly, a fair number of commenters felt impelled to add that in their experience, women are not at all offended by expressions like ‘village bike’. ‘All the women I know find this funny’, wrote one. ‘My wife’, affirmed another, ‘thinks [the ban] is PC, puerile condescension’. Yet another recalled that his ‘good lady’, an enthusiastic patron of beer festivals for many years, had only ever been put off a beer by its name on one occasion, when someone offered her a glass of ‘Old Fart’.

It’s always suspicious when a conversation about sexism consists predominantly of men making claims about what their wives, female friends and colleagues think, while the women themselves remain conspicuously silent. (The extract I quoted earlier from The Sot-Weed Factor is another case of a man putting words in women’s mouths and attitudes in their imaginary heads.)  But that’s not to say that the Mail readers’ wives, if asked, would share CAMRA’s attitude to ‘Slack Alice’ and her ilk. Women’s relationship to sexual slur terms is complicated: they have their own reasons for tolerating this kind of sexism, and even on occasion for joining in with it.

For many women who are not feminists, men’s fondness for beer, banter and busty women comes under the heading of ‘boys will be boys’. It’s seen as harmless, and they indulge it. It’s also common for casual sexism to be presented in the way the Mail comments do, as ‘light-hearted’, just a bit of fun. If you object to it, you’ll be that humourless person (and if you’re female, worse still, that humourless feminist killjoy) who doesn’t get, or can’t take, a joke. As I’ve said before, the charge of having no sense of humour is a surprisingly powerful one, and women are especially vulnerable to it (since it’s an old sexist stereotype that women can’t tell or understand jokes).

Another reason women may tolerate, or indeed actively embrace, the language of ‘sluts’ and ‘strumpets’ and ‘village bikes’ is to distinguish themselves from the women those epithets are aimed at. It certainly shouldn’t be thought that only men call women whores: there’s abundant evidence that women have been calling each other whores for centuries. What is known in modern parlance as ‘slut-shaming’ has long been, and continues to be, a way for women in patriarchal societies to exercise power over other women. Because of that, as I noted in an earlier post about sex and swearing, exchanges of sexual slurs between women were not usually light-hearted: accusations of unchastity could not be taken lightly, because a woman whose reputation was damaged by them faced real and serious social consequences. In some communities and situations that’s still the case today.

But surely, you might be thinking, you can’t compare the representation of women in beer names and on pumpclips with the slut-shaming of women in real life. ‘Slack Alice’ and ‘Voluptuous Vicky’ aren’t real people: their names may be sexist, but they’re clearly intended to be humorous, and arguably the humour is more affectionate than contemptuous. If you look at their visual representation, you’ll also notice that these women are presented as figures from a bygone age. vickyThey exemplify, in fact, the advertising strategy that the cultural critic Judith Williamson labels ‘retrosexism’, where you use obviously ‘retro’ imagery (in this case it’s most often drawn from the mid-20th century visual language of either the seaside postcard or the pin-up photograph) to locate sexism firmly in the past. The implication is that we all know this isn’t meant to be taken seriously: the past was another country, and we’re enlightened enough now to look back and laugh at the absurdity of it.

As Williamson says, though, in reality the world is still full of entirely unreconstructed and un-ironic sexism. The retro style may be dated, but the substance–objectifying women and judging them by a sexual double standard which is not applied to men–shows no sign of withering away. In her view what retrosexism really expresses is nostalgia: the longing of many men, and some women, for a time when sexism wasn’t just (as it still is) a thing, but an acceptable, taken-for-granted thing. A time when nobody complained that tit jokes were offensive, or lectured cider-makers about slut-shaming, or tried to attract more women to beer festivals.

In Britain in 2019 there’s an awful lot of this nostalgia about—expressed not just in retrosexism but also retronationalism and retroimperialism. In that sense, the popularity of crudely sexist beer-names and 1940s imagery is a depressing sign of the times. I’m glad to see that CAMRA, at least, is not just keeping calm and carrying on.

All the images reproduced in this post are taken from Pumpclip Parade, a blog dedicated to ‘aesthetic atrocities from the world of beer’ 

Dissing the dictionary

This week the Guardian writer Emine Saner drew my attention to a petition on Change.org asking Oxford University Press, the publisher of the Oxford Dictionary, to change its entry for the word ‘woman’.

od def woman

The petition condemns this entry as ‘unacceptable in today’s society’, noting that many of the synonyms it gives for ‘woman’ are derogatory, and the illustrative examples are variations on old sexist themes:

A ‘woman’ is subordinate to men. Example: ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’, ‘one of his sophisticated London women’.

A ‘woman’ is a sex object. Many definitions are about sex. Example: ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’, ‘If that does not work, they can become women of the streets.’

‘Woman’ is not equal to ‘man’. The definition of ‘man’ is much more exhaustive than that of ‘woman’. Example: Oxford Dictionary’s definition for ‘man’ includes 25 ‘phrases’ (examples), ‘woman’ includes only 5 ‘phrases’ (examples).

The creator of the petition, Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, has found that Oxford’s entry is not an isolated case. In a piece entitled ‘Have you ever Googled “woman”?’ she examines the entries in several widely-used dictionaries and points out similar problems with all of them. Her petition targets Oxford, however, because as well as being, in her view, the worst offender, it’s also got a market advantage: it’s the dictionary you get with Apple’s products and the one that pops up first in searches on Google, Yahoo and Bing.  Her petition calls on the Press

  1. To eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women;
  2. to enlarge the definition of ‘woman’ and equal it to the definition of ‘man’;
  3. to include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc.

As I told Emine Saner (whose own piece you can read here), I’ve got mixed feelings about this campaign. I do think the entries Giovanardi reproduces are terrible, and I’ll come back to that later on. But the petition is based on ideas about dictionaries–how they’re made, what they aim to do, and how they’re used–which, to my mind, are also a problem. I’ve written about this before, but let’s just recap.

Modern dictionaries are descriptive: their purpose isn’t to tell people how words should be used, but rather to record how words actually are used by members of the relevant language community (or more exactly, in most cases, by ‘educated’ users of the standard written language). What’s in the Oxford Dictionary entry for ‘woman’ does not represent, as Giovanardi puts it, ‘what Oxford University Press thinks of women’. The dictionary is essentially a record of what the lexicographers have found out by analysing a large (nowadays, extremely large—we’re talking billions of words) corpus of authentic English texts, produced by many different writers over time.

I’m not trying to suggest that dictionaries compiled in this way are beyond criticism: they’re not, and that’s another point I’ll come back to. But a distinction needs to be made between the producers’ own biases and biases which are present in the source material they use as evidence. A lot of the sexism Giovanardi complains about is in the second category: it’s the result of recording patterns of usage that have evolved, and still persist, in a historically male-dominated and sexist culture.

For instance, one reason why the Oxford entry for ‘man’ is longer than the one for ‘woman’ is that men have been (and still are) treated as the human default. Men are both people and male people; women are only women. The historical reality of sexism also makes itself felt in the presence of so many degrading and dehumanizing terms on lists of synonyms for ‘woman’. These reflect the social fact that women have been sexually objectified in ways that men have not; they have also been treated, in life as well as language, as men’s appendages or possessions. It’s not even two centuries since that was their status in English law.

If the vocabulary of a language reflects its users’ cultural beliefs and preoccupations, then it’s no surprise that many English words and expressions denoting women highlight their dependence on and inferiority to men, their physical appearance and their sexual availability. (In an early feminist study of this phenomenon, the linguist Julia Penelope Stanley identified over 200 words for ‘woman’ that meant, or had come to mean, ‘prostitute’.)  It’s true dictionaries have a bias towards the usage of men from the most privileged social classes–the section of society that has historically had most access to the means of representation–but in this case it’s not obvious that a more balanced sample would paint a totally different picture. Sexism and misogyny have never been confined to a single class, or indeed a single sex.

The demand to eliminate ‘phrases and definitions that discriminate against or patronise women’ (or other subordinated groups: there have been similar campaigns in the past relating to entries where the issue was race, ethnicity or faith) implies that dictionaries should sanitise the reality of word-usage which is sexist, racist, anti-semitic or whatever, in the hope that this gesture will help to make a better world. Lexicographers tend to be wary of that suggestion, since it goes against their descriptivist principles. They also reject the popular belief that merely by including a certain word or definition they’re somehow endorsing it, giving it a degree of currency and acceptability which it would lack if it were not in the dictionary.

But while I agree this belief misunderstands the aims and methods of modern lexicography, I also think there’s something disingenuous about the standard ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ response. If the public at large treat dictionaries as arbiters of usage, then in practice, whether their producers like it or not, they do have authority, and therefore some responsibility to reflect on how it should be used.

In some areas it’s clear they have reflected, and concluded that some sanitising is justified. You may have noticed, for example, that Oxford’s entry for ‘woman’ doesn’t propose ‘cunt’ as a synonym: that can’t be because it isn’t used as one, so presumably it’s been excluded on the grounds of its offensiveness. In recent years there’s also been a move to eliminate the casual racism and homophobia which were features of some older dictionary entries (today you’ll find fewer references to ‘savages’ or ‘unnatural acts’). Casual sexism, by contrast, has mostly escaped the cull. I may not agree with Giovanardi’s proposed solution, but I think she’s right to raise this as a problem.

What solution would I be in favour of, then? Essentially, a more context-sensitive, ‘horses for courses’ approach. Different kinds of dictionaries serve different purposes and audiences: there are some cases where I think it would be wrong to sanitise the facts of usage, and others where nothing important would be lost by being a bit more selective.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—the massive historical dictionary which is Oxford’s flagship product—contains an entry for ‘woman’ which is an absolute horror-show of sexism: the senses listed include things like

3a. In plural. Women considered collectively in respect of their sexuality, esp. as a means of sexual gratification.
4. Frequently with preceding possessive adjective. A female slave or servant; a maid; esp. a lady’s maid or personal attendant (now chiefly hist.). In later use more generally: a female employee; esp. a woman who is employed to do domestic work.

Further down there’s a long list of delightful idioms containing ‘woman’ (‘woman of the night’, ‘woman of the streets’, ‘woman of easy virtue’) and a section full of even more delightful proverbs and sayings (‘a woman, a dog and a walnut tree/ the more you beat them the better they be’). And many of the illustrative examples, even some of the most recent ones (this entry was last updated in 2011), are as terrible as you’d expect. Any feminist who reads the entry from beginning to end will want to go out and burn the world down. But in this case I believe that’s as it should be. The OED is designed primarily for scholars, and it’s an invaluable repository of cultural as well as linguistic history. Hideous though the ‘woman’ entry is, cleaning it up would do feminism a disservice: it would erase evidence that needs to be preserved for our own and future generations.

The Oxford Dictionary, however, as accessed via iPhones and search engines, is (or should be) a completely different animal. I said earlier that I thought the entry reproduced in Giovanardi’s petition was terrible, and what I meant by that was not only that it’s terribly sexist, but also that it seems poorly designed to meet the needs of those who use this type of dictionary. The basic definition of ‘woman’ is unremarkable (albeit redundant, since this is a high-frequency word that English-speakers generally acquire before they can read), but the thesaurus section is stuffed with archaic terms which would hardly be usable in any contemporary context. Who, in 2019, calls women ‘besoms’, ‘petticoats’ or ‘fillies’?  And if you did encounter one of these expressions in a novel or period drama, the context would make clear what it meant. So what is this list of synonyms good for? What pay-off would its makers cite to justify its rank misogyny?

But in any case, does anyone in real life use their phone, or Google, to look up common words like ‘woman’? After speaking to Emine Saner, I rather belatedly began to wonder what people do use dictionary apps for, and I put out a call on Twitter asking people to tell me if they used them, what they did with them, and what the last word they’d looked up was. Leaving aside the people who replied that they only ever used either bilingual dictionaries or monolingual dictionaries for languages they weren’t native speakers of, the responses clustered in three main categories. In order of frequency, these were

  1. Checking the meaning and/or spelling of low-frequency words (examples included ‘obviate’, ‘noctilucent’ and ‘eschatology’)
  2. Using the thesaurus element of an entry—or an actual thesaurus app—to find synonyms to use when writing
  3. Searching for words while engaged in word-based leisure activities like doing crosswords or playing Scrabble.

One or two people mentioned other uses, like checking the pronunciation of a word they’d only ever met in writing, or looking into the history of a word, or decoding the slang terms used by their children (for this purpose Urban Dictionary was the go-to source). But no one reported looking up basic vocabulary items whose meaning, spelling and pronunciation they already knew. Of course you can’t draw general conclusions from what you’re told by a self-selected sample of your Twitter followers, but it seems possible the Oxford Dictionary entry for ‘woman’ isn’t exerting a malign influence on our attitudes to women, simply because so few of us will ever look at it.

I’m not saying that makes it OK to leave the entry as it is: I do think the dictionary makers should revisit their synonyms and illustrative examples (they could start by getting rid of any expression that no one under the age of 85 has ever uttered). But if I had to make them a to-do list, revising their ‘woman’ entry wouldn’t be at the top. Dictionaries reinforce sexism and gender stereotyping in other ways, which are arguably more pernicious because they’re not so immediately obvious.

An example is the persistent use of sex-stereotyped illustrative examples in entries for words that have nothing to do with sex or gender. I discussed this form of banal sexism in a previous post, prompted by the row that broke out when the anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan queried the use of ‘a rabid feminist’ in the Oxford Dictionary entry for ‘rabid’. We’ve also got dictionaries for learners of English in which men mop their brows while charwomen mop the floor, and men slip on their shoes while women slip off their dresses. How do these sexist clichés enhance anyone’s understanding of the words ‘slip’ and ‘mop’? Do the entry writers think learners are planning to practise their English on a coach tour of the 1950s?

As I’ve said before, though, my feelings about political activists lobbying dictionaries are mixed: I can see why you might want to put pressure on what are, whether they acknowledge it or not, influential cultural and linguistic institutions, but something that bothers me about this approach (that is, apart from the problems I’ve already mentioned) is its linguistic authoritarianism. It’s buying into the idea that dictionaries can and should lay down the law—that it’s fine for them to prescribe, so long as what they prescribe reflects our own preferences rather than those of our political opponents. I know I’ve used this example before, but let’s not forget that Christian conservatives lobbied dictionaries in an attempt to stop them changing their entries for ‘marriage’ to include the same-sex variety–and progressives applauded when the dictionaries took no notice. In that instance feminists were happy to endorse the principle that dictionaries just record the facts of usage. I don’t think we can reasonably demand that they should be descriptive when it suits us and prescriptive when it doesn’t.

But the deeper problem underlying these contradictory demands is the status we accord to ‘the dictionary’ as the ultimate authority on language. In the past that was something feminists questioned: they were less interested in harnessing the power of what Mary Daly called the ‘dick-tionary’, and more interested in challenging its patriarchal claims to ‘authoritative’ and ‘objective’ knowledge.

During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, a number of feminists produced alternative dictionaries that embodied this challenge in both their content and their form. The compilers of these texts didn’t deny that their selection of headwords, definitions and examples represented a non-neutral point of view; rather they maintained that this was covertly true of all dictionaries (Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary defined a dictionary as ‘a word book. Somebody’s words in somebody’s book’.) Their entries emphasised the variability of meaning—words can mean different things for different speakers—and the fact that it’s contested rather than consensual. Though admittedly they were not much use if what you needed was a definition of ‘noctilucent’.

In some ways, as Lindsay Rose Russell points out in her recent history of women’s contributions to dictionary-making, these late 20th century feminist dictionaries anticipated digital-era efforts to democratise and diversify knowledge, as exemplified by Wikipedia and Wiktionary, and (in a different way) Urban Dictionary. They were anarchic, utopian, and they often featured a multiplicity of voices which they made no attempt to homogenise. They used sources that conventional dictionaries neglected, and tried to amplify the voices those dictionaries had marginalised or muted.

In theory the digital revolution offered an opportunity to develop this tradition further, and perhaps to produce feminist alternatives to the mainstream online dictionaries which most people use today. But in practice that hasn’t happened. Digital knowledge-making communities have been dominated by men, and they can be hostile environments for women—witness the many female Wikipedians who say they’ve been bullied or sidelined by men who treat the site as their turf. Any attempt to create a feminist dictionary online would be a magnet for these mal(e)contents, who would either want to take it over or to take it down. Ironically, there may be less space for feminist lexicography in the limitless expanse of cyberspace than there was in the olden days when dictionaries were books.

But although I regret the fading of the more radical spirit that animated projects like A Feminist Dictionary, I’m not completely opposed to the reformist approach. As Lindsay Rose Russell told Emine Saner, ‘we ought to care what definitions are made most readily available and why’–and we have every right to bring our concerns to the attention of the people responsible for those definitions. Even if Oxford’s public response is defensive or dismissive, I suspect that Maria Beatrice Giovanardi’s petition might still prompt discussion behind the scenes. Its demands won’t be met in full: a descriptive dictionary can’t eliminate all sexism from the record of a language in which sexism is so pervasive. But if it makes the producers aware that a lot of people find their entries for ‘woman’ gratuitously offensive, outdated and useless, they may, eventually, make some changes. In this case I think they should, and I hope they will.

Deeper and down: verbal hygiene for men

Like every other feminist in recorded history, I sometimes get asked, ‘But what about the men? Why do you only write about the linguistic injustices suffered by women?’

The short answer is that we live in a world that treats men as the default humans, and that is reflected both in our use of language and in our public conversations about it. Of course men’s speech may attract negative judgments if they belong to a group that’s a perennial target for this kind of criticism (like ‘young people’ or ‘foreigners’ or ‘speakers with working-class accents’), but they are rarely targeted specifically because they’re men. We don’t, for instance, see men’s employers sending them on courses to learn to speak more like women. And when did you last read an opinion piece in a newspaper criticizing some irritating male ‘verbal tic’?

But while men’s language doesn’t attract the same relentless scrutiny as women’s, that doesn’t mean it isn’t policed at all. Masculinity in general is pretty heavily policed, as any man or boy will tell you who’s ever been bullied for his failure to measure up to its exacting standards. But what those standards embody is the same sexist and misogynist belief-system that oppresses women. They police the boundary between the dominant and the dominated, with a view to maintaining the patriarchal status quo. Hence the Prime Directive of masculinity, from which no self-respecting male may deviate: ‘don’t be like a woman’. Don’t throw/run/play like a girl. Don’t like girly things. Don’t cry, or show weakness, or talk about your feelings. Don’t be a sissy, a pussy, or anybody’s bitch.

There are forms of language policing which are clearly related to the Prime Directive. For instance, while researching my last post, about the woman who allegedly faked a ‘deep baritone voice’, I stumbled into a part of the internet where men seek advice, or offer other men advice, on how to make their voices deeper. This quest is based on a simple assumption: the deeper the voice, the more masculine the man. Going lower is desirable, not only because it underscores the all-important difference between men and women, but also because it enables men to claim a higher status among their peers.

As I explored this subgenre of verbal hygiene, I found two things particularly striking. First, it seems to be an all-male affair, a case of men policing other men. Though I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive survey, I didn’t come across a single case where the advice-giver or self-proclaimed expert was a woman. Second, a surprisingly high proportion of it is undisguised quackery, a mixture of old-fashioned snake-oil cures (‘why not buy my patent voice-deepening vitamin supplement?’) and Viz Comic-style top tips, some predictable (‘breathe deeply and speak from the diaphragm’) and others less so (‘use a mentholated chest-rub when you go to bed and your voice will be lower in the morning’).

Of all the top tips I read, I think my favourite was probably this one:

How to Instantly Get a Deeper Voice

Step 1: Tilt your head back as far as you can.
Step 2: Recite the sentence “Bing, Bong. Ding, Dong. King Kong.” slowly, stretching/elongating the “ng” sound for each.
Step 3: Repeat step 2 but at a deeper pitch
Step 4: Repeat again, this time at your deepest possible pitch.

Congratulations, you now have a deeper, manlier and sexier voice. At least for the next day or so. Enjoy.

Reader, I laughed: it’s difficult not to laugh at the picture this conjures up, of men around the world throwing their heads back and intoning ‘Bing bong, ding dong, king kong’. But while the activity itself may seem harmless (if absurd), what’s behind it is arguably not so funny. What I haven’t told you yet is where I found this top tip: it was posted on a forum for followers of the pick-up artist Roosh V. Like other denizens of the manosphere—incels, MGTOWs, crusading men’s rights activists—PUAs buy into a toxic ideology of masculinity and male power, and their obsession with deep voices is clearly part of that. As the giver of the ‘bing-bong’ advice explains,

A deep voice is an inherently masculine strait [sic], being a symptom of both size and testosterone levels. Deep voices elicit attraction from women and respect from men.

Other sources clarify that these two benefits are linked: what really commands the respect of your peers is the ability to attract the ‘right’ women, the ones men regard as trophies (which is also to say, not as people. In this video, for instance, the presenter promises men who follow his voice-deepening instructions that ‘you’ll have your pick of the litter to sleep with’.) What PUAs call ‘game’, meaning ‘manipulating women for sex’, is a contest that pits men against both women and each other: the gratification it provides is at least as much about power and status as it is about sex per se.

But though the game by definition produces winners and losers, a recurring theme in all the advice I looked at is that everyone can be a winner: alpha-male status is not reserved for a few men who’ve won the genetic lottery, but can be achieved by any man who’s willing to make the effort. This classic self-improvement message makes a lot of voice-deepening advice seem very old-school, reminiscent of those 1950s ads where some former teenage wimp who’d had sand kicked in his face once too often explains how, with the help of Charles Atlas, he turned himself into the Incredible Hulk. Along those lines, the PUA prefaces his ‘bing bong’ advice with some personal testimony:

I was born…with a typical, merely average pitched voice. I was also born with a perfectionist streak which when met with discovering game and self-improvement meant maximizing all my attributes as best I possibly could, so having a merely average pitch voice was no longer good enough.

Mr Bing Bong represents the amateur end of the spectrum; at the other end is the slicker, more professional approach adopted by entrepreneurs like Dr Sam Robbins, the purveyor of a formula designed to deepen men’s voices permanently by increasing their testosterone levels ‘naturally’. As he explains in this promotional video, what he’s offering is a more expensive option than chanting or breathing deeply, but it’s also far more effective. And if you do buy the product, you won’t just be rewarded with the respect of your peers and the attentions of attractive women. Your investment will be repaid in actual money. Like the actor James Earl Jones, who was once paid a million dollars just for uttering the words ‘This is CNN’, you will benefit from the scientifically-proven fact that deeper-voiced men earn more than their higher-pitched peers.

This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the claim that lower-voiced men earn more, and I was starting to wonder where it came from. So I did a bit of digging, and eventually concluded that in this case the source was probably an article published in 2013 under the title ‘Voice Pitch Predicts Labor Market Success among Male Chief Executive Officers’. This article reports on a study that examined the relationship between the pitch of a male CEO’s voice and the size of the company he worked for. Analysis revealed, as the researchers had predicted, that larger companies typically had lower-pitched CEOs. These deep-voiced men did earn more than their higher-voiced counterparts, but the income differential was not directly linked to voice-pitch. Rather it was a by-product of the link to company size, reflecting the fact that big companies generally pay their executives more.

There are a number of problems with this study which I won’t dwell on, because for the purposes of this discussion they’re a side-issue; but even if we took the findings at face value, they still wouldn’t license the conclusion implied by Sam Robbins’s sales-pitch–that men can increase their earnings by lowering their voice-pitch. Apart from anything else, the study only makes claims about one particular group of men, namely CEOs of public companies. Why would we expect a deep voice to confer the same financial benefits on Joe the Plumber or Jon the IT guy? Yet I’d guess it’s mostly the Joes and the Jons who are keeping Sam the Snake-Oil Seller in business.

Clearly, Sam’s business model works because so many men share his enthusiasm for the deep male voice. In America it would be fair to say that this enthusiasm is the cultural norm. But there are a few dissenters, one notable example being Dr Morton Cooper, a practising speech pathologist who is also the author of a best-selling self-help book called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life. Cooper is a controversial figure in his profession, not only because of his celebrity clients and his popular writing, but also because he is seen as a crank. One reason for this is his forcefully-expressed belief that a cultural bias towards deep voices is leading millions of Americans to damage their vocal apparatus by speaking at an unnaturally low pitch.

Not being a speech pathologist, I can’t say whether the preference for lower-pitched voices is having the harmful effects Cooper suggests, but I don’t think he’s wrong to say this preference exists. Apart from the ideological evidence provided by verbal hygiene advice (in both its male and female-directed forms), empirical investigations in a number of countries suggest that the average pitch of the female voice has fallen over time, to a degree which can’t be explained in purely physiological terms (e.g. as a side-effect of better nutrition or increased use of oral contraceptives). If, as some researchers think, it’s a response to social changes which have brought women into more direct competition with men, that could also be a factor driving the popularity of voice-deepening advice among men themselves.

But to judge from the items I reviewed while writing this post, the main reason voice-deepening advice is popular is not that it promises men increased earnings or higher social status; in most cases its central message is that going lower will improve your sex-life. The proposition that deeper-voiced men are more attractive to women is generally presented as a truism: why else, after all, would this form of sexual dimorphism have evolved? As it turns out, though, this is one of the many mysteries of human evolution about which scientists do not agree. There are competing theories, and the evidence is not clear-cut.

One frequently-cited piece of research on this subject is a 2007 study conducted with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer group in Tanzania, which found that deeper-voiced male members of the group (where according to the researchers no one used any kind of contraception) fathered more children than those with average voice-pitch. This is compatible with the theory that women prefer lower-voiced men as mates, but as one of the researchers pointed out, it could also be explained in other ways—it’s possible, for instance, that men with lower voices (which implies higher testosterone levels) begin having children earlier.

The same researcher, Coren Apicella, went on to investigate Hadza women’s preferences directly, by playing them recordings of male voices and asking them whether they thought each speaker (a) was a good hunter, and (b) would make a good husband. Low-voiced speakers were generally judged to be better hunters, but there was no clear preference for them as husbands. In fact, when Apicella divided the women into two subgroups, those who were currently nursing infants and those who were not, she found that the nursing mothers actually preferred men with less deep voices. This was puzzling, because women do less foraging while they’re breastfeeding, and are consequently more dependent on the food provided by men. Why wouldn’t women in this position prefer the low-pitched good hunters? Apicella speculates that less deep male voices might be associated with ‘pro-social behaviour’—there’s no advantage in marrying a good hunter if he’s not committed to sharing.

Some scientists believe that the low-pitched male voice did not evolve to make men more attractive to women, but rather to make them more intimidating to other men; a super-low voice suggests high levels of testosterone, which are potentially associated with high levels of aggression. Evolutionary scientists often assume that women are attracted to aggressive men, but feminists might think there are reasons to question that assumption.

Clearly the evolution question has not yet been definitively answered; but whatever the answer turns out to be, it’s unlikely to change my belief that voice-deepening advice for modern men is bullshit. Not only because the advice itself is bullshit (though I’m certainly sceptical about herbal formulas and mentholated rubs), but also because, like verbal hygiene for women, it exploits and magnifies insecurities which are themselves a product of sexism. The response I recommend to men is the same one I’ve spent three decades recommending to women: don’t buy it, either literally or metaphorically. Don’t let a bunch of quacks, conmen and PUAs tell you what’s ‘manly’. Their ideas on that subject belong in a museum, and their advice belongs in the bin.