Words of the year

And now to the second part of my end-of-year round up (ICYMI you can read the first part here). As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to choose some Words of the Year.

Actually, I’m a bit late to this party: like Christmas adverts, the WOTY announcements are getting earlier and earlier. We’re still waiting to hear from the American Dialect Society, the originator of the whole WOTY phenomenon, which doesn’t pick its winners until its annual meeting in early January. But it wasn’t even December when the lexicographers at Oxford University Press bestowed the annual accolade on something that isn’t even in the dictionary—the emoji ‘face with tears of joy’. Their counterparts at Collins chose ‘binge-watch’, while Merriam-Webster went for the suffix ‘-ism’, on the basis that their online dictionary’s most looked-up entries included a number of isms—‘capitalism’, ‘socialism’, ‘terrorism’ and, yes, ‘feminism’ among them.

This marked an improvement in the fortunes of ‘feminism’. A year ago, it was one of the items shortlisted in Time magazine’s poll for the year’s worst word, the one readers would most like to ban in 2015.  Also on the list were ‘bae’, ‘I can’t even’, and—oddly—‘kale’.

If this blog could ban a word in 2016, that word would be ‘banter’. Banter cropped up in the news several times during 2015, and on each occasion it revealed itself, once again, as a term whose main function is to normalize misogyny. Of course it’s true that getting rid of the word wouldn’t eliminate the thing itself. But it might make it harder for people to pretend that sexist verbal abuse is just a bit of harmless fun, in a totally different category from the racist or homophobic equivalent.

One traditional place for the ‘harmless banter’ argument to surface is in discussions of the shit that gets said to and about women by sportsmen, sports fans and sports pundits. In March, when the FA made a statement condemning sexist chanting at football matches, women involved in the Beautiful Game were supportive, but also sceptical. Carolyn Radford, the Chief Executive of Mansfield Town, contrasted attitudes to racist abuse (which was condoned for far too long, but is now subject to a zero tolerance policy) with the endless trivialization of sexism and misogyny. ‘Because it’s “banter”, so to speak’, she said, ‘I’ve got to flick my hair and just accept it’.

Yet it’s possible the tide is turning. In December there was a row about the inclusion of the boxer Tyson Fury on the shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, after he made a series of sexist and homophobic remarks. He did try the time-honoured ‘light-hearted banter’ excuse, but this time a lot of people were unimpressed. A petition to take him off the shortlist attracted around 130,000 signatures, and on the night (when he didn’t win) he was forced to make an apology of sorts.

But perhaps Fury’s big mistake was combining sexism with homophobia: you’re taking less of a risk if you stick to dissing women and girls. That point was made clearly in October, when a report commissioned by the Institute of Physics identified sexist language in schools, and the failure of the school authorities to deal with it in the way they deal with other forms of bigotry and harassment, as a factor contributing to gender inequality in the uptake of STEM subjects. Depressingly, large sections of the media presented the report’s recommendations as a case of humourless feminists trying to put a stop to the age-old tradition of ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’. It’s not bullying, it’s BANTER. Flick your hair and move on.

Just to be clear, I’m not really in favour of banning words. On the contrary, one depressing feature of this year has been the continuing determination of some feminist organizations to purge their political vocabulary of terms that refer to women as a class. A proposal to drop the word ‘sister’ from future campaigns was approved at the National Union of Students’ annual women’s conference. The Midwives’ Association of North America rewrote its core competencies document replacing the phrase ‘pregnant women’ with ‘pregnant individuals’. As more and more organizations campaigning for abortion rights took the word ‘women’ out of their literature, the Nation columnist Katha Pollitt wrote:

it feels as if abortion language is becoming a bit like French, where one man in a group of no matter how many women means “elles” becomes “ils.”

My first ever post on this blog pointed out that ‘woman’ has a long history of being treated as a ‘dirty word’, and that reclaiming it from silence and euphemism was one of the goals of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The new argument for avoiding it (that it’s exclusionary) may look different from the old one (that it’s ‘indelicate’), but if you’ve been around for long enough to remember when the old one was common-sense, you’ll find it difficult not to notice certain similarities. There is a persistent distaste for the idea of embodied femaleness which has deep historical and cultural roots. And that, I believe, is something feminism must continue to challenge.

But back to the words of the year.  As you’ll have gathered from the list of already-announced 2015 WOTYs at the beginning of this post, a WOTY doesn’t have to be a whole word, a single word or even a word at all; nor does it have to be either novel or otherwise linguistically remarkable. Choosing WOTYs is more like reading tea-leaves: they’re the items that jump out at you when you turn the year over and contemplate its linguistic detritus. So, what might we see in the tea-leaves this year that’s significant for feminist politics?

I’m going to start with online memes. In the hashtag subcategory, my 2015 winner is #distractinglysexy, women scientists’ riposte to the embarrassingly sexist comments made by Tim Hunt during the summer. In the ‘non-hashtag’ subcategory I’m giving another well-deserved shout-out to ‘Congrats, you have an all-male panel’,  the tumblr that got people to notice that all-male panels were still a thing, and that it was high time to make them a thing of the past. Because, as the newly-elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said when he was asked why half his ministerial appointments had gone to women, ‘it’s 2015’. (If this were a quote of the year contest, Trudeau would be in the running.)

And now to words (and phrases and morphemes). In a pre-Christmas radio interview, Ben Zimmer, who chairs the American Dialect Society’s new words committee, tipped a number of gender-related items as possible WOTY contenders: he mentioned singular ‘they’, the gender-neutral title ‘Mx’ and the word ‘cisgender’ (I touched on the rise of ‘cisgender’ in a post about dictionaries earlier this year; pronouns and titles are among the subjects I’ll be tackling in 2016.) Of the three, I’d say ‘they’ has the best claim: it’s both acquiring a new use (in specific references to non-binary individuals, as in ‘Lee called to say they were running late’) and being officially recognized in the use it has had for centuries (indefinite and generic reference, as in ‘has everyone picked up their badge?’). So, ‘they’ makes it into my own top five.

After Merriam-Webster went with ‘-ism’, I thought about nominating the suffix –ette. As I wrote earlier in the year, it’s making an unexpected (and from my perspective, not entirely welcome) comeback in words like ‘stemette’. But I decided that instead I’d go for the first authentically English word in which it appeared—‘suffragette’, originally coined in 1906 as a derogatory term for the militant campaigners of the WSPU.

As 2018–the 100th anniversary of (some) British women getting the vote–approaches, we’ll doubtless be hearing more of ‘suffragette’, but this year the ground was prepared by the film of that name, which arguably did something to change perceptions of ‘suffragette’ as a label. Specifically (and whatever anyone thought of the film overall), it made more people aware of three important points: (1) feminism wasn’t invented a few years ago or even just a few decades ago, (2) British women were not just handed their civil rights because they asked the nice men nicely, and (3) most suffragettes bore no resemblance to Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins.

Next, and based on a completely unscientific poll of my own feminist network, the word most in need of being reclaimed. My own choice would have been ‘woman’, for the reasons already discussed; but my respondents went for ‘sisterhood’, in its political meaning of solidarity among women.

Also on my list is ‘tampon tax’, the phrase that became shorthand for the treatment of sanitary products as ‘luxury’ items. Feminists in the UK (and elsewhere) held protests against the tax which were visually as well as verbally inventive; though they didn’t get the tax removed, the response to their efforts did reveal that a lot of supposedly modern men have some pretty old-fashioned ideas about menstruation. Add Donald Trump’s comments on the subject (and women’s response to them) into the mix, and you could almost say that 2015 was the Year of the Period: periods figured in public and political discourse in a way they haven’t for quite a while.

And finally, ‘feminism’. You’re probably thinking, ‘really? What a boringly predictable choice’. But for the F-word, the year has been anything but dull. It began 2015 at the centre of the controversy around Time magazine’s proposal to ban it, and it ended the year by polarizing opinion in a YouGov survey which showed that a majority of British people support the core goals of feminism, but only a minority are willing to use the word.

31% identify with the term overall, but this only rises to 35% for women – half (50%) of all women would not call themselves a feminist. And people are more likely to consider calling someone a feminist as an insult (19%) than a compliment (15%).

I sometimes think it’s more of a compliment when it’s meant as an insult. But the point is that ‘feminism’ is a word that makes waves. First, second, third, fourth… just kidding, I mean a word that stirs strong emotions. No term is more contested among feminists themselves, and few terms are more controversial in the wider world. It’s loved, it’s hated, it’s claimed and it’s disclaimed, but above all it’s talked about: on a blog called Language : a feminist guide, ‘feminism’ is the obvious choice for my first Word of the Year.

So that’s it for 2015. But before I sign off, I’d like to thank everyone who’s read, followed and shared this blog over the last seven-and-a-bit months. When I started it I had no idea if anyone would want to read it, and I’ve been truly amazed by the number of people who did (as well as the number of locations they read it from). I’d also like to thank my fellow-linguists, and all the other researchers whose work I’ve made use of. The words and the opinions you read here are mine, but the research I write about comes from many sources. So, to everyone who’s contributed and everyone who’s taken an interest: thanks, happy new year, and I hope I’ll see you again in 2016.

It’s beginning to smell a lot like bullshit…

In my last two posts of 2015 I’m going to tap into the seasonal zeitgeist and review some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the year. In the second of these round-ups I will emulate some of the great linguistic institutions of our time, such as the American Dialect Society and the publishers of major dictionaries, by nominating my Words of the Year. But first, I return to what has proved to be one of this blog’s most popular subjects: bullshit.

Sexist bullshit about language was ubiquitous in 2015. When I started this blog, in mid-May, the people of Britain had just endured almost two months of what you might call the ‘soft’ variety, in which women’s allegedly superior communication skills are ‘celebrated’ in an endless string of patronizing stereotypes. The objects of this treatment were three female politicians who had led their parties into the General Election—Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood. Following their appearance in the first set of nationwide TV election debates ever to feature anyone with two X chromosomes, these women were repeatedly said to have shown us what civilized political discussion looks like: no shouting, interrupting, talking over your opponents or trading personal insults. In the words of the Daily Telegraph, the women ‘brought a measure of dignity to an occasion that could have descended into chaos and rancour’.

This assessment may have been gallant, but it was also inaccurate, as I discovered when my fellow-linguist Sylvia Shaw and I actually analysed the TV debates for a forthcoming book about language and gender in the General Election. When the book comes out I’ll post about our findings in more detail. But let’s just say that the women’s behaviour didn’t match what we read about it in the papers.

Nicola Sturgeon was, on many measures, the most combative of the seven party leaders who took part in the debates. She interrupted more often than anyone else except Nigel Farage, and she was a master of the withering put-down. Sometimes her target was Farage, who was treated as fair game by everyone (the first leader to round on him was Leanne Wood), but she also got in some digs at Cameron and Clegg, and she was relentless in her goading—there’s really no other word for it—of Ed Miliband.

Sturgeon is a skilled exponent of the classic, adversarial style of political debate: in other words, she can beat the men at what’s supposed to be their own game. But instead of giving her credit for that, the commentators wittered on about how warm and empathetic women politicians are, how unconcerned with scoring points and getting into heated arguments.

That might sound like a compliment, and it might even be intended as one, but it’s only the other side of the same coin that gets women the media don’t like labelled ‘aggressive’, ‘shrill’ and ‘strident’. Of course women shouldn’t have to behave exactly like men to be accepted in positions of power, but nor should they have to conform to stereotypical notions of ‘feminine’ linguistic behaviour. Rather than praising them for civilizing men’s conversations, we should let women participate in those conversations on their own terms, as men’s equals. Which is pretty much what Nicola Sturgeon did: if I were handing out awards, she’d be my Woman Speaker of the Year.

Summer arrived in June, and with it came news that women weren’t such great communicators after all. (Bullshit does not have to be internally consistent.) There was a spate of articles about what’s wrong with women’s speech, and what they need to do to fix it if they expect people to take them seriously. Stop saying ‘just’ all the time!  Quit apologising! Cut out the uptalk and the vocal fry!

These pieces purported to be feminist (one, written by Naomi Wolf, was framed as a plea to the most ‘empowered’ generation of women in history not to throw it all away in a bid to sound like Kim Kardashian). But as I pointed out in a series of posts (see here, here and here), what they actually did was continue a long tradition of sermonizing on the general theme ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one who’d had enough of this finger-wagging dressed up as ‘empowerment’. Collectively the three pieces I wrote on this subject got nearly a quarter of a million page-views, and throughout July and August there was a steady stream of other blog posts and articles making similar points (this satirical take headed ’13 tips on how to speak while female’ was one of my favourites).

By December, even Business Insider—the publication responsible for publicizing the ‘stop saying just’ article that first prompted me to call bullshit—ran a piece with the uncompromising title ‘’There’s a war on the way women talk–and it needs to end’. I don’t suppose that will put an end to it, but it’s encouraging to see so many women talking back. ‘Next year I will ignore anyone who tells me to change the way I speak’ would make an excellent feminist new year’s resolution.

But I don’t want to give the misandrist impression that the field of sexist bullshit this year was totally dominated by women. They did make a strong showing in the ‘empowering you by telling you you’re shit’ subcategory, but in the ‘common or garden misogyny’ division the most outstanding performances came from men.

A particularly impressive contribution came from the cartoonist Scott Adams, who complained in the course of a lengthy rant about how tough life is for men in ‘female-dominated’ western societies that

Women have made an issue of the fact that men talk over women in meetings. In my experience, that’s true. But for full context, I interrupt anyone who talks too long without adding enough value. If most of my victims turn out to be women, I am still assumed to be the problem in this situation, not the talkers. The alternative interpretation of the situation — that women are more verbal than men — is never…

I’m afraid I’ll have to interrupt Adams there, as his arrogant mansplainy whining isn’t adding enough value to this discussion. He evidently forgot to read my post ‘Why women talk less’, which contains links to numerous studies demonstrating that in mixed-sex groups it’s men who are ‘more verbal’ than women.

That point also escaped another of the year’s most notable linguistic misogynists, the guy whose family Christmas card showed his wife and young daughters tied up with fairy lights and gagged with festive green duct tape, while he held up a blackboard bearing the message ‘Peace on Earth’. (You probably saw it, since it went viral on social media, but even if it’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, I refuse to link to a degrading image of children who cannot possibly have given informed consent to its public circulation.)

In his essay ‘On Bullshit’,  the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt suggests that the defining characteristic of bullshit is its complete indifference to questions of truth and falsehood. The true bullshitter isn’t deterred by anxiety about getting things wrong:

He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

One of my aims when I started this blog was to make this slightly harder to get away with. Sexist bullshit is difficult to kill (it has, after all, been around for centuries), but it doesn’t have to go undetected and unchallenged. Or in some cases, unlaughed at.

I’ve done what I can for this year; but I’ll be back for more (because there will be more) in 2016.