A short history of lads in (British) English

Back when universities were still teaching face-to-face, the Times Higher reported on a research project which found that on some courses lecturing had been abandoned because of the ‘laddish’ behaviour of certain students, who disrupted the proceedings by heckling and interrupting. I found I had some questions about this. One was why universities were dealing with this problem by changing their teaching methods, rather than warning the offenders that if they persisted they’d be kicked out. Another, however, was about the language we use to discuss this kind of behaviour.

The Higher called it ‘laddish’, as did the researchers whose work was being reported. In Britain, the word ‘lad’ and its derivatives (e.g. ‘laddish’, ‘laddism’ and ‘lad culture’) are now well-established labels for what a 2012 report on sexual violence in universities described as ‘a group or “pack” mentality’ among young men, expressed in practices like heavy alcohol consumption and our old friend ‘banter’ (much of it, according to the report, sexist, misogynist and homophobic). But are these ‘lad’ terms helpful from a feminist point of view? Where do they come from and what do they imply?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the English noun ‘lad’ has been in use since the 14th century. Originally it had two main senses: the first, now obsolete, was ‘serving man or attendant, man of low birth’, while the second was ‘boy, youth, young man’. In some regional varieties of English (and Scots) ‘lad’ is still a straightforward synonym for ‘boy/young man’. But in the standard language it’s now more commonly used in another way: ‘familiarly’, to or about a male of any age, as either a term of endearment or a marker of solidarity among men who share ‘common working, recreational, or other interests’.

This non-age-specific usage is something ‘lad’ has in common with ‘girl’. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the argument that calling an adult woman a girl automatically demeans her by reducing her to the status of a child doesn’t work for all cases and contexts. ‘Girl’ can certainly be demeaning when it’s used by a person of higher status (e.g. by a boss about his secretary or a mistress about her servant), but among equals what it expresses is solidarity or camaraderie. It can also be a way of metaphorically attributing the positive qualities we associate with youth–like being carefree, fun-loving and sexually attractive–to someone who isn’t literally young. No doubt that reflects our culture’s ageism, but it isn’t necessarily an insult.

‘Lad’ works in a similar way. The plural form ‘lads’ most often appears in contexts where the emphasis is on solidarity and male bonding: ‘the lads’ may refer to the male friends a man goes out drinking with, the teammates he plays sport with, or—as the OED’s 20th century examples reminded me—his brothers in a union where the trade is working-class and male (‘I’ll have to take this offer back to the lads’). Like ‘girls’, ‘lads’ also turns up in expressions like ‘a night out with the ___’, where the implication is that those involved are temporarily putting adult cares aside and recapturing the pleasures of youth.

But there are also some differences between ‘lad’ and ‘girl’, reflecting the differing norms of masculinity and femininity. One of the senses listed for ‘lad’ in the OED is ‘a man of spirit and vigour’, as in ‘Jack the lad’ and ‘a bit of a lad’. These idioms suggest a general propensity for mischief or bad behaviour, but they can also take on a more specifically sexual meaning. One of the OED’s examples, from a text published in 1960, is ‘A bit of a lad, Mr Alan Clark, going around fancy-free for years’.

If you’re thinking, ‘but don’t girls also misbehave, sexually and otherwise?’, the short answer is yes, of course–but that isn’t part of the meaning of the word ‘girl’, nor indeed of ‘lass’, the female-specific term that directly parallels ‘lad’: we wouldn’t refer to a woman as ‘Jill the lass’ or ‘a bit of a lass’. So what do we call women who behave like ‘Jack’? Historically, they have also been ‘lads’: the OED notes that in the past ‘lad’ was sometimes used to mean ‘a spirited girl’ (the example it offers is dated 1935). More recently, young women who engage in ‘laddish’ behaviour–being loud and disruptive, getting drunk and having sex–have been referred to, belittlingly, as ‘ladettes’. This language suggests that female lad(ette)s are seen as gender-deviant: they’re assumed to be aping the boys rather than expressing their own authentic ‘spirit’.

The ‘lad’ of ‘lad culture’ is clearly a descendant of the ‘man of spirit and vigour’, and in 2001 the OED acknowledged this development by adding a new draft section to the ‘lad’ entry. In contemporary British usage, it explains, a ‘lad’ is

a young man characterized by his enjoyment of social drinking, sport, and other activities considered to be male-oriented, his engagement in casual sexual relationships, and often by attitudes or behaviour regarded as irresponsible, sexist, or boorish; (usually) one belonging to a close-knit social group’.

The first illustrative example for this sense comes from a 1986 article in The Face by Julie Burchill:

Remarried after more than a decade on the rampage, at 47 in true Lad style to a girl of 22.

The capitalization of ‘Lad’ here suggests that Burchill is referencing what she regards as a recognisable social type. It’s that type which the section is concerned with–though the  reference to ‘a young man’ does not acknowledge what the example clearly implies, that the Lad is defined less by his age in and of itself than by his attitudes and behaviour. In Burchill’s terms 55-year old Boris Johnson, with his long string of well-publicised affairs and his famously indeterminate number of children, would surely count as a Lad.

Johnson was also what we might now describe as a lad when he was young: at university in the early 1980s he belonged to the hard-drinking, restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club. But as boorish and irresponsible as their behaviour undoubtedly was, it was not yet described as ‘laddish’. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the ‘lad’—or as he was sometimes called at the time, the ‘New Lad’–became a familiar cultural figure, his laddish enthusiasms both codified and celebrated in a clutch of popular ‘lad mags’ like Loaded and FHM.

What, you might wonder, was ‘new’ about the New Lad? In many ways he wasn’t new at all: he was an amalgam of all the earlier ‘lads’, simultaneously engaged in male homosocial bonding, disruptive mischief-making and aggressive heterosexuality. Some high-profile New Lads were middle-class men adopting a working-class style of masculinity (their sport was football, their drink was beer), but that wasn’t unprecedented either. The real point of the ‘new’ label was to contrast the emerging ‘New Lad’ with the already-established ‘New Man’, who was ‘sensitive, charming, considerate…he’d do the housework and not be afraid to shed a tear’. After a decade when pop culture had been dominated by foppish New Romantics and androgynous synthpop types, the ‘New Lad’ represented the return of the repressed: he gave men permission to be men again.

‘New lads’ were uninterested in feminism, but to begin with, at least, they were keen not to come across as unreconstructed misogynists. The message of Loaded, according to one of its founders, was

Don’t take us too seriously, we’re blokes and we’re useless. . .We like football, but that doesn’t mean we’re hooligans. . .We like looking at pictures of fancy ladies sometimes but that doesn’t mean we want to rape them.

Feminists were not impressed, however, and there was also concern in other quarters. The examples illustrating ‘lad culture’ in the OED show that by the end of the 1990s it was widely regarded as a problem. This quote, for instance, is taken from the Glasgow Herald:

Boys seem to have an extreme amount of pressure on them and it’s very hard for them to resist the lad culture.

What prompted this anxiety wasn’t the sexism of lad culture, but rather the contribution it was thought to be making to the much-discussed problem of boys’ academic underachievement. Research confirmed that one of the hallmarks of laddism among school-age boys was the belief that studying was uncool. No one wanted to be what Boris Johnson once called his slightly less laddish contemporary David Cameron–a ‘girly swot’. The worry was that lad culture was leading boys—especially the middle-class white boys who had embraced it so enthusiastically—to neglect their schoolwork and undermine their future prospects.

In hindsight this anxiety seems misplaced: far from ending up unemployed, the lads of the 1980s and 1990s have become the new Establishment. Whether they’re posh Tory boys like Boris Johnson and Toby Young, or leftists like Owen Jones (and yes, I know he’s gay, but he’s also a classic lad), they are well-represented among Britain’s most powerful and influential people. And it’s not just at the top that laddism rules. The lad mags are long gone, but the culture they promoted lives on. The current pandemic has given us countless examples of irresponsible, boorish and sexist male behaviour, whether it’s students ‘zoombombing’ online classes with offensive messages and/or pornography (which is generally having, as the Economist put it, ‘a good pandemic’), ‘covidiots’ flouting lockdown rules (in Britain 80% of those fined for this have been men, the majority young), or middle-aged professional men expressing outrage because they’ve been told to wear a mask or expected to look after their own children.

Of course this has not gone uncriticised. Nor has the sexual harassment and sexual violence associated with lad culture in educational settings. The effect of ‘lad’ masculinity on women students gets far more attention today than it did in the 1990s. But I do sometimes wonder if the vocabulary of ‘laddism’ does feminists any favours.

As this blog has pointed out before, words carry baggage from their history of being used. ‘Lad’ is arguably a case where that historical baggage is largely positive, and thus in tension with the feminist analysis of ‘laddism’ as a serious problem. The ‘lad’ has long been associated with youthful exuberance, vigour, rebelliousness, hedonism and humour–qualities which many people find attractive, and whose less appealing manifestations they are willing to shrug off as ‘only natural’. Familiar excuses for irresponsible, boorish and sexist behaviour—‘boys will be boys’, ‘it’s just banter’, ‘we’re blokes and we’re useless’—are more or less baked into the discourse. (See also: ‘classic Dom’, and ‘it’s just Boris being Boris’.)

What words could we use instead? For some forms of ‘laddish’ behaviour (like disrupting lectures, or partying in large groups in the middle of a pandemic) I’d be happier with a term like ‘anti-social’; for ‘lad culture’ I’m tempted to suggest substituting ‘toxic masculinity’. (For the Boris Johnson/Toby Young variant there’s also ‘posh boy misogyny’, but not all misogynists are posh.) It’s not that I think this language would have a deterrent effect (a true ‘lad’ would presumably delight in the disapproval of feminist killjoys); but it would send the message that no, we don’t think this is harmless, or funny, or something we must put up with because that’s just the way men are.

Of course it could be argued that changing culture is more important than changing labels, and that efforts to change culture have to start from where people are. That’s the view of the Good Lad Initiative, which works with men and boys to rethink ideas about manhood. They want to reclaim the ‘lad’, not demonise him. But while ‘lad’—like ‘girl’–has some uses which I agree are innocuous, there might still be a case for calling ‘lad culture’ or ‘laddism’ by a name that doesn’t trivialise it or make excuses for it.

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Mother, father, parent

Last Monday the Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work from sick leave; two days later it was announced that he would miss Prime Minister’s Questions because he’d just had a baby. Obviously, Johnson hadn’t given birth himself: he’d delegated that task to his partner Carrie Symonds. But in the media coverage the baby was very much ‘Boris’s’, and its birth was presented as a major life-event. The political commentator Robert Peston tweeted: 

Having babies change [sic] us. Near-death experiences change us. @BorisJohnson has the full set. So will he become a very different PM from the one the UK voted for in December?

This take was greeted with some incredulity, because we all know Boris Johnson has a number of children already–though we’re not sure exactly how many, because he’s refused to answer the question. Many responses to Peston’s tweet were joking references to this:

The first 7-9 kids didn’t do it but I’ve got a good feeling about this one

Ah you know what they say, nothing like getting a sixth/seventh [subs pls check] child to change a man

There were also some more serious responses. One man suggested that

For a certain class of man, having children really does not change him at all… They’re what you do, and after they have arrived in the house, they’re simply there while your life carries on. They have their rooms, you yours. You know their names; birthdays not so sure.

Boris Johnson, who by his own account has never changed a nappy, belongs to the class that delegates routine childcare to others. Its young children have nannies, and are later sent away—as Johnson himself was—to boarding school. Women of this class may not do much nappy-changing either. But their class privilege does not completely cancel out the effect of their sex. Women generally are expected to be able to keep track of their children’s birthdays; and it’s hard to imagine a woman becoming prime minister who’d had (at least) five children with (at least) two different men, had abandoned and tried to conceal the existence of (at least) one child, been denounced by another as a bastard, and launched her bid for the highest office while pregnant by a third man. A woman with this record wouldn’t just be joked about: she’d be vilified as a terrible mother, irresponsible, negligent and selfish.

This difference is also evident in some uses of the English words ‘father’ and ‘mother’. These may look like a straightforward pair of terms denoting, respectively, a male and a female parent; but if we look more closely it becomes apparent that their meanings aren’t entirely parallel. As many feminists have noted, the difference is most obvious when they’re used as verbs. To father a child is not at all the same thing as to mother one.

By way of illustration, here’s a list of synonyms for the verb ‘to father’ taken from an online thesaurus:

Sire, beget, originate, generate, create, procreate, found, get, engender, institute, conceive, initiate, spawn, author, reproduce, breed, produce, trigger, bring to life, give life to, sow the seeds of

and here’s the same thesaurus’s list of synonyms for the verb ‘to mother’:

Pamper, nurture, coddle, raise, tend, cherish, cosset, protect, care for, deliver, look after, overprotect, spoil, mollycoddle, indulge, take care of, mind, minister to, fuss over, give birth to, bring into the world

Whereas the ‘father’ synonyms focus on men’s contribution to the biological process of reproduction (‘sowing the seed’, supplying the sperm that fertilises the egg), most items in the ‘mother’ entry relate to women’s social role as carers. They also illustrate the tendency for women’s performance of mothering to be scrutinised and judged (good mothers ‘nurture’ and ‘cherish’, bad mothers ‘spoil’ and ‘mollycoddle’) in ways men’s performance of fathering is not.

Though motherhood also has a biological element and fatherhood a social one, the way the verbs are used and interpreted underlines that one is conceptualised primarily as a social role and the other primarily as a biological function. If you say ‘he fathered six children’ you cannot mean, or be taken to mean, ‘he brought up/took care of six children’; you can only mean ‘he begat/sired six children’. With ‘to mother’ the reverse is true: ‘she mothered six children’ will be interpreted as meaning that she brought them up, not that she gave birth to six children who were then raised by other people.

These non-parallel meanings reflect a combination of social facts and ideological beliefs which have a long history in patriarchal cultures. But in recent decades we have seen the rise of a more ‘modern’ ideology which rejects the traditional division of roles in favour of something more equal and symmetrical. One sign of this shift is linguistic: the increasingly widespread use of the gender-neutral or inclusive verb ‘to parent’.

The meaning of ‘parent’ as a verb is close if not identical to the meaning of ‘mother’: if you insert it in the same hypothetical sentence I used before—‘he/she/they parented six children’—the meaning (at least according to my intuitions) has to be ‘brought up, took care of’, not ‘begat’. In this case, then, the purpose of switching to inclusive terminology is to include fathers in the caretaking role traditionally assigned to mothers. But it might be asked: does this new language correspond to any new reality? If in reality it’s still women who are doing most of the work involved in raising children, but we now call what they’re doing ‘parenting’ rather than ‘mothering’, has anything, from a feminist perspective, been gained?

This is one instance of a more general dilemma which radical political movements have often grappled with: should we choose our terms to reflect the world as it currently is, or the world as we would like it to become? The answer, in practice, is ‘it depends what you’re trying to do’. Sometimes what you want to do with words is name the reality of injustice and oppression; sometimes what you want to do is model alternatives to that reality, on the basis that (put crudely) words shape thoughts and thoughts shape actions.

This second argument was used in the 1970s by feminists who supported the introduction of gender-neutral job titles, even in cases where the job was still restricted to one sex: they hoped that inclusive terms, by making it easier for women to imagine themselves in new roles, would hasten progress towards their actual inclusion. In other cases, however, feminists have taken the opposite position. Neutral terms like ‘gender-based violence’ and ‘intimate partner killing’, for instance, have been criticised for glossing over the fact that these are acts committed predominantly by men against women, not vice-versa. Here the argument is that male violence needs to be named: the problem can’t be addressed effectively using language that renders it invisible.

As these examples illustrate, different problems call for different solutions. It’s entirely possible to maintain that sex-specific terms are preferable in some cases and inclusive terms work better in others. But that’s not to say feminists always agree among themselves about either the nature of the problem or the optimal solution. The language of parenthood is a case in point.

Recently a case which dramatises the dilemma has been making its way through the English courts. It concerns Freddy McConnell, a trans man who gave birth to a baby after he had already been legally recognised as a man. Because he had given birth to the child, the law required him to be recorded as its mother on the birth certificate. He contends that this was a breach of his rights, and that he should have been allowed to register either as the baby’s father or as its parent.

So far the courts have rejected this argument. Last week an Appeal Court judge, upholding an earlier decision against McConnell in the High Court, reiterated that the law requires whoever gives birth to a child to be registered as its mother. From the moment of a child’s birth there must be someone who is authorised to make decisions about its care, and the 1989 Children Act assigns that responsibility specifically and automatically to the child’s mother. ‘No-one else’, the judge explained, ‘has that automatic parental responsibility, including the father’.

Though this case is about the rights of trans parents, the principle set out by the judge applies to all parents, and many who are not trans may also find it questionable, since it is at odds with the modern, inclusive concept of ‘parenting’. If a birth certificate can be issued which doesn’t name the father—though every child must axiomatically have a male as well as a female progenitor—why is it impossible to issue a certificate which doesn’t name the mother? And why can’t a registered father be given ‘automatic parental responsibility’? The law seems to follow the same logic as the verbs ‘to mother’ and ‘to father’: it applies a similar understanding of how reproductive functions are connected to social roles, assuming that the caretaking element is central to motherhood (it is seen as following naturally from mothers’ reproductive role) whereas the social element of fatherhood is dispensable or peripheral.

In McConnell’s case these two elements have been separated, so deciding whether he should be identified as a mother or a father means deciding whether to give priority to the biological or the social component of parenthood. Since I think of parenthood as primarily a social role and a social relationship, my own view is that it makes more sense to identify McConnell as the child’s father, that being the only role in which the child has ever known or related to him. It is true, however, that while ‘father’ is closer to the child’s experience, it elides material facts about its history. Neither term is a perfect fit with all the relevant facts.

Is this a situation where gender-neutral or inclusive language would be preferable? There are jurisdictions which have adopted neutral terms as standard on some official documents: in the state of New York, for example, the parties to a marriage are recorded simply as ‘Spouse A’ and ‘Spouse B’. In addition to being inclusive (putting both men and women and same-sex/mixed sex couples on a par), this terminology has the advantage of not carrying the same ideological baggage as the traditional terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ (I’ve written before about my problems with the word ‘wife’). ‘Spouse’ defines you as a party to a contract that entails certain rights and obligations, but beyond that it says nothing about your role in the relationship. In theory there seems to be no reason why this minimalist approach could not be extended to birth certificates, replacing ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ with ‘Parent A’ and ‘Parent B’.

But in practice there might be good reasons to resist that move. As I said before, inclusive terms are open to the objection that they do women a disservice by glossing over or concealing politically consequential facts—such as, in this case, the fact that motherhood and fatherhood are not generally treated as equal and interchangeable roles. Most fathers still do significantly less childcare than most mothers (even, it turns out, when both are working from home), and plenty of men still father—that is, ‘beget’—children while treating the social role/relationship as optional. Society as a whole is still organised on the assumption that women, not men, will be primary carers, and it’s women, not men, who experience discrimination because of their actual or potential status as mothers, Does the language of ‘parenting’ help feminists’ efforts to change this reality, or does it hinder them by obscuring what the real problem is?

Clearly, different feminists have different views. But what’s also clear is that you can’t resolve issues of terminology simply by asserting that language should represent reality (whose reality?) Disputes about terms arise because there’s conflict about the reality they relate to: they are political through and through.

Slanging match

In 1960 the lexicographer Stuart Flexner declared in his preface to the Dictionary of American Slang that ‘most American slang is created and used by males’.

Many types of slang words – including the taboo and strongly derogatory ones, those referring to sex, women, work, money, whiskey, politics, transportation, sports, and the like – refer primarily to male endeavor and interest. The majority of entries in this dictionary could be labeled “primarily masculine use.”

This view reflected more general assumptions about women, men and language. Forty years earlier the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen had suggested that linguistically as in other respects, the two sexes were complementary. Women’s role in the development of language was to exert a civilising influence through their ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Men, by contrast, were responsible for ‘renewing’ language to ensure that it did not become ‘languid and insipid’. Slang, from this perspective, had two defining masculine qualities: much of it was ‘coarse and gross’, but it was also inventive and continuously changing–a product of the linguistic creativity which Jespersen assumed that men possessed and women lacked.

Feminists, of course, have questioned this account. Like the related idea that women don’t swear, ‘women don’t create or use slang’ sounds suspiciously like a combination of wishful thinking and sexist language-policing (‘we don’t think women should swear/use slang, so we’ll insist that it’s not in their nature’). But in that case, why are dictionaries like Flexner’s so dominated by the vocabulary of men? Does that just reflect the historical fact that slang has flourished most conspicuously in the ‘underground’ subcultures of (for instance) thieves, conmen, gangsters, gamblers, soldiers and sailors—all groups in which women were un- or under-represented? Or is it a reflection of male slang-collectors’ limitations, either their inability to access women’s slang or their insistence on defining slang in a way that excluded female speech?

This long-running debate has recently been revisited by the slang lexicographer and historian Jonathon Green, in a book entitled Sounds and Furies: The Love-Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. Having dipped into it last year, I’ve now (thanks to the current lockdown) had time to digest it properly. At over 500 pages it’s not a quick read, but if you’re interested in the subject it’s full of fascinating detail. It is also (IMHO) a welcome corrective to the nonsense that has been talked for decades about women’s (non)contribution to slang.

Women’s supposed avoidance of ‘coarse and gross expressions’ is obviously a myth, contradicted by evidence about both the present and the past. We have many historical records of the abuse uttered by women during arguments with their neighbours that sometimes landed them in court, not to mention the Billingsgate fishwives whose obscene invective gave their occupational title a secondary meaning of ‘foul-mouthed woman’. However, slang encompasses more than just insults and obscenities: it also includes the informal terminology used by specific in-groups, especially those outside or on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society. On this question Green suggests (though cautiously, since most records of the speech of marginalised groups were written down by outsiders, making it difficult to gauge their accuracy), that what’s often been presented as male in-group slang was most likely known and used by both sexes, to the extent that they participated in the same activities and social networks.

Crime is the prototypical example of an in-group slang-generating activity (the precursors of slang dictionaries were glossaries of ‘thieves’ cant’, which began to appear in England in the 16th century), and it is one that has always involved women as well as men. Some women played supporting roles as men’s wives, girlfriends or accomplices, but others (like Mary Frith, aka ‘Moll Cutpurse’) engaged in daring exploits that made them (in)famous in their own right, or played influential roles behind the scenes. Early writing about these women represents them using the same cant as their male counterparts, and this is hardly surprising—if your business was robbing or conning people, you’d surely know the vocabulary of the trade. Later on, though, the conviction that women didn’t use slang (or obscenities, or nonstandard dialect) would lead writers to clean up the language of both real and fictional female criminals, creating such implausibly ‘well-spoken’ examples as Dickens’s Nancy in Oliver Twist.

One criminalized activity in which women were always over-represented was the sex trade, but some male authorities have gone out of their way to deny that prostitutes have created slang: as one put it, ‘they lack the sophistication to make and acquire an artificial language for themselves’. But the evidence Green reviews suggests, again unsurprisingly, that women who sell sex have developed their own ‘work-specific jargon’—including a list of terms describing their customers as fools, suckers, losers, sexual inadequates, perverts and scumbags. Perhaps they chose not to share this lexicon with the male researchers who sought them out—or perhaps the researchers didn’t ask. A similar point can be made about lesbians, another ‘outlaw’ group who have been said to have no slang of their own. The folklorist Gershon Legman put the dearth of lesbian material in his 1941 glossary of ‘the language of homosexuality’ down to lesbians’ ‘tradition of gentlemanly restraint’, but he doesn’t seem to have had much evidence about the way lesbians talked among themselves.

Slang is not, in any case, the exclusive domain of ‘outlaws’ or people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Green also discusses family and nursery slang (much of it probably female-coined), the slang of ‘respectable’ female occupations like nursing, and a number of historical cases where young women—not infrequently from the higher echelons of society—were the prime movers in the development of an identifiably female or female-centred form of youth slang. In these cases no one suggested that girls and women were incapable of inventing their own language; on the contrary, their linguistic creativity was used as a stick to beat them with. The Burlington Free Press complained in 1879 that

The poorest, feeblest and most vicious slang….is the fashionable slang which pollutes the lips of young girls. ‘Awfully jolly’, ‘Immense’, ‘Aint he a tumbler?’ ‘He has a great deal of the dog on today’.

This writer was talking about the in-group language of the young middle-class women who were referred to, disapprovingly, as ‘fast young ladies’. The term ‘fast’, applied to men, meant a hedonist who devoted his life to pleasure; applied to young women, however, it meant

one who affects mannish habits, or makes herself conspicuous by some unfeminine accomplishment—talks slang, drives about in London, smokes cigarettes, is knowing in dogs, horses, etc.

The slang-using girl was seen as rejecting femininity, and with it her prospects of future happiness. ‘She thinks she is piquante and exciting’, complained one (male) writer in 1868, ‘and will not see that though men laugh with her they do not respect her, though they flirt with her they do not marry her’. He called for the return of the ‘simple and genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesty’.

The panic about ‘fast’ girls did eventually fade away, but complaints about young women’s slang lived on, finding new targets in the girls who featured in (and read) the early 20th century boarding school stories of Angela Brazil (‘Right you are, O Queen, it’s a blossomy idea!’) and in the slightly older figure of the 1920s flapper. Frivolous, flighty and ‘loose’, with her trademark bobbed hair and lipstick, the flapper had an elaborate slang lexicon for discussing her main preoccupations, which included dancing, drinking, money and men. Among the expressions she either coined or popularised are some we still recognise, even if we no longer use them—like ‘the cat’s pyjamas’, ‘the bee’s knees’ and ‘for crying out loud’ (a ‘clean’ version of ‘for Christ’s sake’: the avoidance of actual obscenity does seem to have been a feature of middle-class girls’ slang).

Flapperdom was the first in a long line of 20th century youth subcultures with a distinctive style that included slang. In some cases this argot was either male-centred or shared by both sexes, but in others, like the ‘Valley Girl-speak’ that emerged in California in the 1980s (‘gag me with a spoon!’), it was created and primarily used by young women—who were promptly criticised, like fast girls a century earlier, for being vacuous, frivolous, pretentious and superficial.

These recurring complaints underline the point that slang is not and never has been an exclusively male preserve. But each generation of critics has presented young women’s slang as if it were a wholly new phenomenon, a worrying departure from the relatively recent past when girls were allegedly ‘genuine’ and modest. As usual with verbal hygiene, there is more at stake here than language. Disapproving of girls’ slang has often been a coded expression of a deeper unease about social change. Whether she was a middle-class flapper or a working-class ‘munitionette’, the slang-using young woman symbolised female emancipation, and as such she was a threat to the patriarchal status quo.

Complaints about young people’s slang have continued into the 21st century: in the past few years a number of British schools have gone so far as to ban slang expressions like ‘peng’, ‘bare’, ‘bait’, ’emosh’ and ‘fam’. But today the anxiety youth slang provokes seems to have more to do with class (and sometimes race) than gender. Girls are no longer accused of ‘affecting mannish habits’, or warned that they are jeopardising their chances of finding a husband. Rather, both they and boys are told that their slang is holding them back academically and damaging their future employment prospects.

Yet the old sexist prejudices have not completely disappeared. Two years ago, when the Metro newspaper asked if swearing made a woman less attractive to men, not only did many men answer ‘yes’, some added that they were also turned off by women who spoke with strong local accents or used ‘colloquial slang’. Two years earlier, Faima Bakar had complained in a piece for Gal-Dem about young men telling young women not to talk ‘street’. Jespersen’s idealised woman (or rather, ‘lady’), with her ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’, lives on in these judgments—as does the idea of slang, along with nonstandard speech, as rough, tough and therefore male by definition.

This view of slang as ‘rough talk’ doesn’t just exclude women as legitimate users of slang, it also excludes certain kinds of in-group language used by women from the category of slang. As the lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin has pointed out, this makes the argument that women use slang less than men entirely circular. A full picture of women’s slang would require researchers to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and consult a wider range of sources. One source Jonathon Green looks at is Mumsnet, whose users, predominantly middle-class women with children, are pretty much the opposite of ‘outlaws’; yet they’re prolific creators of in-group terminology, and an excellent source for nursery slang (including terms for both sexes’ genitals: the male slang collector who confidently asserted in 1811 that ‘it is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of “twiddle-diddles”’ evidently hadn’t checked with his mother).

It has sometimes been suggested that women avoid what’s generally thought of as ‘real’ slang not because they’re prudes, but because so much of it is sexist and misogynist. But while that might be a consideration for some of us, there’s abundant evidence that woman-hating language has been weaponised by women as well as men. ‘Whore’ and its many synonyms have been the go-to woman-on-woman insults for centuries. Conversely, women’s in-group slang is often rich in disparaging terms for men. The flappers had various words for men who were reluctant to spend money on a date; contemporary female college students have produced a range of unflattering terms describing men you wouldn’t want to date in the first place—for instance, the unattractive ‘craterface’, the overweight ‘doughboy’, and—my particular favourite—the tedious ‘Mr Dry Guy’.

And what, we might ask, about feminist slang? While I was checking the opening quote from Flexner’s preface, I unexpectedly found myself in the manosphere–more specifically, on the MRA hellsite that calls itself A Voice For Men--where Flexner had been approvingly quoted in a 2017 post celebrating slang as ‘the original voice of men’. The writer points out that men’s rights activism has an extensive slang lexicon–‘cuck’, ‘mangina’, ’emotional tampon’ (no, me neither)–whereas feminists, he says, have only ‘prosaic’, quasi-academic terms like ‘benevolent sexism’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. ‘Feminism’, he comments,

is an ideology, and ideologues are not noted for their sense of humor. Also, wit is a trait only rarely associated with women, though they do excel at making catty remarks.

The supposed nonexistence of feminist slang also shows that feminists are the establishment, whereas the men who invented ‘cuck’ and ‘mangina’ are rebellious outlaws. But hold on a minute, dude, if you’re going to boast about ‘mangina’, how about ‘mansplain’, ‘manterrupt’,  ‘manspread’ and ‘mantrum’? And while you’re waxing nostalgic about the 1960s, may I remind you that the feminists of that decade called men like you MCPs, which stood for ‘male chauvinist pigs’?

The truth is, as Green says in his conclusion, that slang is ‘an equal-opportunity employee’. Though men and women may have different slang repertoires, they employ them for the same basic purposes: bonding with in-group members while excluding outsiders, entertaining their friends and insulting their enemies. Those aren’t just things that men do: for better or for worse, they’re things that humans do.

Mandemic

Whatever else the current pandemic may be, here in the UK it’s been a communications car crash. We’ve been bombarded with confusing official messages, some containing technical terms which are used variably even by experts, and are incomprehensible to much of the public (‘herd immunity’, anyone?) And some politicians’ ‘backstage’ language (though in the age of social media what’s uttered behind the scenes tends to find itself under the spotlight sooner rather than later) has been remarkably ill-judged. Boris Johnson reportedly suggested to business leaders he had approached for help manufacturing ventilators that they could call the initiative ‘Operation Last Gasp’. In the US, someone complained on Twitter that a member of the Trump administration had referred to COVID-19 as ‘Kung flu’, and Trump himself has publicly called it ‘the Chinese virus’. Sexism, which is this blog’s territory, has not been such an overt problem in public health messaging. But I do think it is there more covertly, both in what’s not being said and in the way some things are being said.

Feminists have already called attention to certain absences or silences—most obviously of women’s voices at the highest level. There are exceptions, such as Germany and Scotland, but globally it is mainly men who are the public voices of  both political and scientific authority. As someone commented when the media published a photo of Mike Pence and his then all-male Coronavirus Taskforce praying, ‘it must be a mandemic’. (Pence has since appointed one woman expert, Deborah Birx.) Boris Johnson too has set up a high-level committee (‘C19’) that consists entirely of men.

When not making racist remarks or tasteless jokes, both Johnson and Donald Trump have adopted a martial rhetoric in which we are now ‘at war’ with the novel coronavirus. In Britain the tone is evidently intended to be Churchillian: rousing, patriotic, appealing to the legendary ‘Blitz spirit’ of plucky little England. At one press conference this week Rishi Sunak, the 39-year old who has very recently become Chancellor of the Exchequer,  uttered a series of platitudes about doing ‘whatever it takes’ to defeat ‘the enemy’:

Yes, this enemy can be deadly, but it is also beatable – and we know how to beat it and we know that if as a country we follow the scientific advice that is now being given we know that we will beat it.  And however tough the months ahead we have the resolve and the resources to win the fight.

But though wars are traditionally men’s business, they also make demands on women. The government’s recently-published list of key workers, for instance, includes a number of predominantly female occupational groups, like nurses, care workers and supermarket staff, who will all be at heightened risk because of the personal contact their jobs involve (these are also, and will doubtless remain, among the lowest-paid jobs on the key worker list). The absence of women from pandemic ‘war cabinets’ isn’t just a symbolic issue, it’s a ‘nothing about us without us’ issue. It raises concerns that the men in charge will give little or no thought to the way their decisions affect women–differently, not always equally, and potentially in very damaging ways.

Apart from the Churchillian posturing, one way I see ‘mandemic’ thinking being subtly reflected in language is in the way politicians and official spokespeople talk about ‘home’. ‘Stay at home’ is one of the UK government’s key public health messages, along with ‘wash your hands’ (it’s said that Johnson’s advisor Dominic Cummings particularly favours these three-word slogans—see also ‘Take back control’ and ‘get Brexit done’). But it was long ago pointed out by feminists that ‘home’ doesn’t have quite the same meaning for most women as it does for most men.

In Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s Feminist Dictionary the entry for ‘home’ defines it as ‘most women’s place of work’. In current conditions it’s temporarily become a place of work for large numbers of men as well as women whose jobs do not require their physical presence in the workplace, and also the place where 5-18 year-olds will now be doing their schoolwork. All this only adds to the unpaid care-work—domestic labour, childcare, the ‘mental load’ of planning and strategising that keeps the show on the road—which makes ‘home’ a permanent workplace for women with families (whether or not they also have a paid job). The idea of ‘home’ as a safe haven, a shelter from the dangers of the outside world, may be less than soothing when you’re the one who will be expected to do even more caring than usual, in conditions of household isolation (i.e., without a break, or any of the usual social supports), and possibly with drastically reduced economic resources.

There’s also the point that for some women ‘home’ is a place of danger rather than safety. Reported incidents of domestic violence increase significantly even during relatively brief holiday periods; it’s horrifying to think about what could happen during a lockdown lasting weeks or months. We know this was a serious problem in Wuhan, but the British government has pledged no additional funding for the organisations that provide services to women. (There’s some general advice and contact numbers here.)

In the UK people over 70 have been told they should isolate themselves completely for several months, a policy which has been referred to both in Britain and Ireland as ‘cocooning’ the ‘elderly’. Both those words set my teeth on edge. ‘Elderly’ is a euphemism which people use to avoid the plain but apparently taboo word ‘old’, and it has strong connotations of frailty and helplessness—hence the need for ‘cocooning’, wrapping the frail and helpless in cotton wool. I’m sure the term ‘cocooning’ was chosen to sound warm and caring, but for those who remain fit and active (as many people do in their 70s and even beyond), the policy might well sound more like house arrest, removing all personal freedom at a stroke. It’s true that social distancing restricts everyone’s freedom, but the degree of restriction envisaged for the over-70s is extreme—no leaving the house or seeing anyone in person for months—and I don’t think it helps to dress that up in warm and fuzzy words. (Especially if you’re leaving it to volunteers to make sure that ‘cocooned’ people who don’t have family nearby, or at all, can still access food and other necessities.)

As someone who’s not far from being ‘elderly’ myself, I’m not surprised that some people over 70 are resisting the official advice (which is not (yet) being stringently enforced). I doubt that’s because they’re unaware that rates of serious illness and death from COVID-19 rise steeply after the age of 60, but they might think there are other factors to consider (like the effects of such prolonged isolation/immobility on mental health) when deciding if extreme measures are necessary or desirable for them personally. What the world seems to think, however, is that any ‘elderly’ person who resists being ‘cocooned’ is simply proving that old people in general are muddle-headed and irresponsible, in denial about the risks they face and incapable of making rational decisions. They must be nagged, patronised and held up as Bad Examples on social media by people who know better, not uncommonly their own children.

A lot of this discourse is covertly sexist as well as ageist. Because ‘elderly’ (does anyone, of any age, actually ‘identify as’ ‘elderly’?) connotes ‘frail and helpless, in need of protection’, we tend to imagine the prototypical ‘elderly’ person as a woman. I’ve noticed it’s most often the behaviour of their mothers that prompts people in their 30s and 40s to take to Facebook or Twitter to recount examples of ‘reckless’ behaviour and solicit advice on how to stop it. Of course this anxiety is fuelled by love, and the fear that comes with love; and of course there are old people (of both sexes) who really are extremely frail and at very high risk. But where people are still healthy and independent, neither the government nor their younger family members will get through to them by patronising and infantilising them.

Meanwhile, the populist (and in some cases, ‘elderly’) male political leaders who have cast themselves as latter-day Churchills make a public spectacle of their recklessness. They’re no longer suggesting, as Donald Trump initially did, that the pandemic is either a hoax or ‘just the flu’, but they go on ostentatiously shaking hands: not long ago Boris Johnson boasted that he had shaken hands with people who had COVID-19, while Trump said he would continue to shake hands with anyone who might ‘want to say hello’, adding that if they ‘want to hug you and kiss you, I don’t care’. When he and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro were found to have had close contact with someone who later tested positive for the virus, both said initially that they saw no need to get tested themselves. (Trump later announced he had tested negative.)

These are performances of masculinity (of which the firm handshake, in particular, has long been a powerful symbol), and of imagined alpha-male invincibility. They say ‘I’m not afraid, I’m not a wimp, I’m hard enough to take the risks I’m telling others to avoid’. Which is bullshit at the best of times, and even more so when the risks they’re taking are potentially harmful to others too. And it isn’t just ageing politicians who think there’s something emasculating about following advice to act responsibly. According to one report on the introduction of stricter social distancing measures in Britain, ‘millennial men have been the worst offenders at failing to reduce their contact with other people, continuing to visit pubs, travel widely and take part in other social events’.

Finally in this round-up of ‘mandemic’ rhetoric, let’s not overlook the early signs that anti-feminism may be replicating alongside the novel coronavirus. National crises tend to turn people’s minds to what kind of world they’d like to build when it’s all over, and these visions of a better future are often marked by nostalgia for the past—especially when it comes to the roles of men and women. During World War II, comparisons with which have already become a cliché of pandemic-talk, women like the iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ were drafted in to help the war effort by filling the roles male combatants had vacated; but afterwards they faced intense pressure to become the dependent housewives whose profound dissatisfactions Betty Friedan would later write about in The Feminine Mystique.

If you’re thinking, ‘OK, but we’ve moved on since 1945’, consider the fact that the closure of schools across Britain yesterday prompted this ruminative tweet from a man whose profile identifies him as a trades unionist and ‘Blue Labour’ supporter (i.e. economically on the left but socially conservative):

One of the downsides of the shift towards an economic structure & culture in which both parents are expected to work is that domestic chaos ensues when a crisis hits. We need to build an economy which allows families to enjoy a good standard of living on the wages of one earner.

This does illustrate one way in which we have, perhaps, moved on: it is written in impeccably gender-neutral or ‘inclusive’ language. But as I’ve pointed out before, that formal inclusiveness often masks a clearly gendered meaning. I’m willing to bet that when you read the tweet you drew a non-random conclusion about which parent he was imagining as the ‘earner’, and which would be assigned responsibility for staving off ‘domestic chaos’. (And don’t bother asking about single parents: though they’ve always existed, nostalgia generally renders them invisible.)

Watch out for the bullshit, and whenever you come into contact with it, wash your hands.

The spinster returns?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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