Call the fishwife: thoughts on sex, class and swearing

Do men find women who swear unattractive? This old chestnut of a question recently popped up on social media after it was posed by Britain’s leading litter supplier, the Metro.  On my own timeline, by far the commonest answer was ‘who gives a fuck?’ But outside the feminist bubble, there was no shortage of young men expressing more conventional opinions.  Men like Hugh, 25, who told the Metro:

I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears. I feel it makes them seem more masculine… I’m more used to men swearing more.

If you asked 100 randomly-selected English speakers which sex swears more, the great majority would probably say ‘men’. For most of the last 100 years that was also what linguists thought. Otto Jespersen commented in 1922 on women’s ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Half a century later Robin Lakoff suggested that the shrinking was not instinctive, but rather the result of social pressure. Women who expressed themselves forcefully were liable to be criticised for their ‘unladylike’ behaviour; among other things, this meant that they avoided ‘strong expletives’, and were more likely than men to use inoffensive substitutes like ‘fudge’.

But there was not much hard evidence to back up these claims. When researchers began to look more closely, they also began to suspect that, like many beliefs about the speech of men and women, this one had more to do with prescriptive gender norms than with the facts about our actual linguistic behaviour.

In 2005 the corpus linguist Tony McEnery published Swearing in English, a book whose first section, ‘How Brits Swear’, contains a systematic analysis of the use of swear words in the spoken component of the British National Corpus (BNC)—a sample of 10 million words transcribed from recordings made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Part of the sample consists of speech recorded at meetings or from radio discussions; the rest is informal conversation. Male and female speakers are represented in approximately equal numbers, and the corpus also includes speakers from a range of age groups and socioeconomic categories. This allowed McEnery to see how the frequency of swearing was affected by age, sex and social class.

So, what did he find? Well, age made a difference, along the lines you’d probably expect. The most prolific swearers were people under 25; after that age there was a steady decline. Class also had an influence, but it wasn’t a straightforward case of ‘the lower the class, the more people swear’. The highest frequencies were indeed found in the lowest socioeconomic strata, but the next most frequent swearers were the highest-status group, the professional middle class. (The BNC probably doesn’t include many representatives of the aristocracy, but they’ve never been shy about swearing either: some members of the Royal Family, like Prince Philip and Princess Anne, are famous for it.) In Britain it’s the people in the middle who swear the least.

What about sex? I’ve left it until last because unlike age and class, it turned out to have no effect on the overall frequency of swearing. If all types of swearing and all swear words were considered, there was no significant difference between men and women.

But if it isn’t true that men swear more, why do so many people insist that swearing is ‘unfeminine’? Hugh, 25, for instance, finds women who swear unattractive because ‘it makes them seem more masculine’. What’s the connection between swearing and masculinity?

One answer might be that we understand swearing as a form of aggression—a trait we think of as masculine, and find less acceptable in women. Recently, a book called Swearing is Good For You has popularised the theory that swearing evolved as a kind of safety valve, a way of ventilating negative emotions that stopped short of physical assault. I’m unconvinced by this argument. For one thing, swearing and physical violence often go together (the former may also precipitate the latter). But more importantly, a lot of swearing isn’t motivated by aggression. It’s common among friends (and particularly among same-sex friends) for the same reasons banter and gossip are common among friends: because the communal breaking of a social taboo (whether it’s gossiping about others’ business or uttering words you’re not supposed to say in public) is a symbol of intimacy and mutual trust.

Is it men who do the ‘aggressive’ swearing while women prefer the ‘solidary’ kind? Well, no, not really: the evidence shows that both sexes do both kinds. It may not match our preconceptions, but the historical record provides abundant evidence of female verbal aggression, very often directed against other women (and sometimes accompanied by physical violence).

The social historian Jonathan Healey describes an incident in Winchester in 1544, when two women started fighting in the street. According to witnesses, the first woman’s daughter came out of her house and subjected her mother’s adversary to a tirade of verbal abuse:

thow meseld faced [‘measle-faced’] hore, thow camest to towne with a lepers face & a skalled hed, And I defye thee utterly, for I wold thow knewist yt that the fowlest place of myn arse ys fayrer then thy face.

Another historian, Laura Gowing, cites a case from 1590, in which one London woman was heard to tell another,

thou art a whore an arrant whore a bitche yea worse than a bitche thou goest sawghting up and downe the towne after knaves and art such a whott tayled whore that neither one nor two nor ten nor twenty knaves will scarce serve thee.

This wasn’t just friendly joshing: the reason there’s a record of these altercations is that the parties ended up in court. We know from court documents that such aggressive exchanges between women were not rare.

Later on, though, the belief took hold that respectable women were incapable of swearing. In the early 1920s a Littlehampton woman named Edith Swan sent a large number of anonymous letters to her neighbours which were full of obscenities like ‘You bloody fucking flaming piss country whores go and fuck your cunt’. The first time she was prosecuted, the judge more or less directed the jury to acquit her because he could not believe that a woman of her appearance and demeanour would ever have used such indecent language. The person who got the blame was a less outwardly respectable woman, Rose Gooding, who was twice found guilty of libel before forensic evidence conclusively proved that Edith Swan was the author of all the letters.

This story points to another connection between swearing and masculinity. Recall Hugh’s assertion that ‘I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears’. The idea that swearing is ‘vulgar’ (in the modern sense of ‘impolite’ or ‘unrefined’) seems obvious enough, but etymologically ‘vulgar’ means ‘of the common people’—it has connotations of low social status. A similar concern was evident in the comments made by another man who was quoted in the Metro.  Jodel, 23, explained that he doesn’t swear himself, and doesn’t like anyone—male or female—swearing in his presence. However, he ‘doesn’t find it appealing when girls speak in certain dialects, for example, a colloquial regional slang’.

What these comments show is that forms of language which are associated with working class speakers (including swearing, street slang and regional dialect), are also perceived as ‘masculine’. A ‘feminine’ woman keeps it classy: she doesn’t soil her mouth, or men’s ears, with ‘vulgar’, low-status and nonstandard speech.

This mapping from class to gender (working class = masculine, middle class = feminine)  doesn’t only work for language, as you’ll know if you ever watched the reality TV show Ladette to Lady, in which young working class women were sent to finishing school to learn to behave like upper-class ‘ladies’. ‘Unfeminine’ was a word their teachers used repeatedly to describe every aspect of their self-presentation, from their speech to their deportment to their fashion choices. This wasn’t because they looked or acted like men: it was just that their understanding of what a woman should look or act like was more Bet Lynch than Elizabeth II. And that doesn’t match our cultural template for ‘proper’ femininity, which is based on the upper- or middle-class ‘lady’.

By contrast, our template for ‘proper’ masculinity is not the effete upper-class gentleman, it’s the set of working-class male archetypes parodied by the Village People—the cowboy, the construction worker, the sailor. These ‘real men’ are tough, they don’t mind their manners (or their grammar) and they swear like the proverbial troopers. That’s why, when Donald Trump talks about ‘shithole countries’ and ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, his supporters don’t find it objectionable: like his baseball cap and his junk food diet, it’s seen as evidence that this over-privileged millionaire is really a man of the people. Female populist politicians have to be more careful, as Sarah Palin discovered in 2016 when she told an audience of Trump supporters that their candidate would ‘kick ISIS’s ass’–and was immediately criticised for her ‘profanity’.

Though the BNC data show women and men swearing with equal frequency, Tony McEnery (like Robin Lakoff) thinks the gendered double standard does have an effect, in that it leads women to avoid the ‘strongest’ words. His statistical analysis revealed that while both sexes had the same basic vocabulary, men were significantly more likely than women to say ‘fuck/fucking/fucker’, ‘jesus’ and ‘cunt’; women, by contrast, were significantly more likely than men to say ‘god’, ‘bloody’, ‘hell’, ‘shit’, ‘arsed’, ‘pig’, ‘piss/pissy’, ‘bugger’ and ‘bitch’. He also noted that some words were more frequently used to or about one sex than the other. For instance (and I’m guessing this won’t surprise you), it was women who got called ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’, while it was men who got called ‘wanker’ and ‘gay’. It was also men who were most often addressed or referred to as ‘cunts’. The word was sometimes applied to women, but its commonest use was from one man to another.

In more recent research with newly-collected data, McEnery has found that women no longer lag behind men in the frequency with which they use ‘fuck’. But in any case, the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘mild’ swearing is one that will bear closer examination. Can offensiveness be treated as a constant, an inherent property of individual words, or does it vary in different contexts and social groups?

The offensiveness ranking McEnery used, originally produced for the British Board of Film Classification, is a typical example of what you get if you give people a list of offensive words and ask them to rate them on a five-point scale. It classifies ‘cunt’ and ‘motherfucker’ as ‘very strong’, ‘fuck’ as ‘strong’, ‘whore’—along with ‘bastard’ and ‘wanker’—as ‘moderate’, ‘arse’ and ‘bitch’ as ‘mild’, and ‘bloody’, ‘crap’ and ‘damn’ as ‘very mild’. Other surveys of this type have produced similar results, suggesting a high degree of consensus among English-speakers on the relative strength of various words. But these surveys ask people to judge words in isolation, whereas in real life our judgments of offensiveness are affected by the specifics of the situation. It won’t be irrelevant who is using a word to whom, or what message they are using it to communicate.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s go back to the 16th century cases in which one woman called another a ‘whore’. According to the BBFC ranking, this would count as a ‘moderate’ insult rather than a ‘strong’ one. But in context there was nothing moderate about it. Historically, calling a woman unchaste was the way you impugned her honour: it was an attack on her reputation which could have serious social consequences. ‘Whore’ and its synonyms were therefore regarded by women as extremely offensive and provocative words. In some communities they still are. One study conducted with working class women in Salford in the 1990s found that they viewed ‘slag’ as the most serious insult, closely followed by ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’.

That wasn’t because they shied away from ‘strong expletives’. According to the researcher Susan Hughes, these were women who swore habitually and unapologetically: ‘their general conversation is peppered’, she reported, ‘with fuck, twat, bastard, and so on’. When she asked about the reasons for this, the women told her it was just ‘part of our way of talking’. They didn’t see it as anything special, and that’s consistent with the historical evidence that swearing has always been part of working class women’s linguistic repertoire. (Nor should we assume that it was totally absent from the repertoire of middle class women: while they may have avoided swearing in public, there is no reason to think they never swore among themselves.)

Yet it seems to be virtually an article of faith that women today swear more than previous generations. For those commentators who defend women’s right to swear (including both the writer of the Metro article and the author of Swearing is Good For You), this supposed change is a sign of progress—it shows how far women have come in the past half-century. Commentators who are critical of women swearing agree that it’s a sign of changing times, but they don’t think the change is for the better. Some argue that modern ideas of sex-equality have forced women to adopt ‘masculine’ behaviour in order to compete with or be accepted by men. Others suggest that women are doing it to shock, or because feminists have convinced them that it’s cool to be unfeminine and vulgar.

These arguments are (ironically) not new. Since the late 19th century, every increase in young women’s public visibility and independence has prompted comments on their alleged new enthusiasm for swearing (as well as for slang, smoking, drinking, ‘mannish’ clothes and ‘rowdy’ behaviour). The same observations were made about the ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s, the ‘munitionettes’ who worked in munitions factories during World War I, and the ‘flappers’ of the 1920s. And there were similar debates on whether these women’s prolific swearing symbolised a new era of female freedom, or whether it was simply vulgar, unfeminine and immoral.

cropped-billingsgate-eloquence-by-james-gillray-published-by-hannah-humphrey-26-may-1795-national-portrait-gallery1.jpgWhether her behaviour is judged positively or negatively, the woman who swears is always seen as behaving like a man: it’s assumed, in other words, that there is no authentically female tradition of swearing. But in that case, how do we understand the 16th century women yelling insults like ‘measle-faced whore’, or the 20th century Salford women whose conversation was ‘peppered with fuck, twat and bastard’? What do we say about the fishwives pictured in this post, whose swearing was so legendary, their occupational title acquired the secondary sense of ‘foul-mouthed woman’? These women weren’t competing with men, nor rebelling against middle-class norms of femininity (which, as Susan Hughes says in her discussion of the Salford women, were completely irrelevant to their lives). They were doing their own thing, and in the communities they belonged to it was a thing women had done for generations.

Asking whether women should swear is a bit like asking whether women should have children out of wedlock, or weigh more than seven stone: it’s a question designed for no other purpose than to allow people to air their prejudices. And those prejudices are, in most cases, socially selective. If a single mother on benefits peppers her discourse with ‘fuck, twat and bastard’, people say she’s ignorant, unable to express herself in any other way.  If a stand-up comedian who went to public school uses the same words in his act, people say it’s edgy and subversive. Men like the Metro’s Hugh take their selective prejudices into their personal relationships, reserving the right to swear themselves while saying it’s a turn-off when women do it.

It’s depressing to witness 25-year old men recycling opinions in 2018 that were already clichés in 1918. My message to them is simple: ‘yes, women swear. They always have and they always will. Get over it. Move on’.


Pride, prejudice and pedantry

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. It’s a red herring

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

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

2. It cuts more than one way

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

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

3. It’s a vote for the status quo

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

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

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

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

5. Modesty becomes you

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

6. It’s counterproductive

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

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

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

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

Mxing it

At a conference not long ago, I found myself talking to a woman whose name-badge identified her as ‘Ms Kate Brown’. Mine just said ‘Deborah Cameron’. We concluded that there was no logical explanation for this disparity: maybe the administrator whose job was to make the badges had just got more and more pissed off with having to check each female delegate’s title–‘Ms Brown, Mrs Green, Dr White, Miss Pink’–until finally she thought, ‘fuck this shit, I’ll just use people’s names!’

And why not? I wish I had a pound for every minute of my life that’s been wasted on dealing with the question ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ In the past, when I was young and stroppy, I used to respond by giving an obviously untruthful and absurd answer like ‘Rear Admiral’ or ‘Wing Commander’. Since my interlocutors were human, I could count on them to work out that what I actually meant was, ‘mind your own business: for the purpose of making a dental appointment, my marital status is irrelevant’.

But in the age of the drop-down menu resistance has become futile. The system demands that a box must be ticked, and the system is a literal-minded fool. Once, while transacting some business online, I was pleased to see that the title menu had a ‘none’ option. I selected it, and subsequently received several emails that started ‘Dear None Cameron’.

‘Ms’ was supposed to solve the ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ problem by replacing both options and becoming simply a female analogue of ‘Mr’. But English-speakers in their collective wisdom constructed a more complicated three-way system: ‘Miss’ for young unmarried women, ‘Mrs’ for married ones, and ‘Ms’ for all the anomalous women left over—older unmarried women, divorced women, lesbians, and of course, those pesky Wimmin’s Libbers who had supposedly come up with ‘Ms’ in the first place (though in fact it was originally proposed in 1901 as a way to avoid the awkwardness of having to address a woman whose marital status you didn’t know).

The upshot was that instead of contracting, the menu of options expanded. And that process has continued with the addition of ‘Mx’, a title which has now been recognized by various institutions, including banks, government departments and the Royal Mail, acknowledging the preference of some trans and non-binary people for a title that leaves gender unspecified.

Just as ‘Ms’ could have replaced ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’, ‘Mx’ could in theory replace the whole menu. I’m betting it won’t, though. More likely it will prompt English-speakers to construct a revised taxonomy with a new slot for people who don’t identify as male or female. This is in line with our general approach to linguistic change. We’re like homeowners who would rather keep on adding extensions than demolish the house and start again. But also, we’re used to the idea that titles should mark social distinctions. If we’re going to use the same title for everyone, why bother using titles at all?

The answer is that marking social distinctions (e.g. of age, rank and sex) is only one function of titles. They are also used to mark differences in social relationships: the use or non-use of a title says something about whether a relationship between two people is close or distant, equal or unequal, formal or informal. I call the elderly woman who lives next door ‘Mrs Jacobs’ as a mark of respect, because she’s a generation older than me. I call my colleagues by their first names in casual conversation, but in a formal meeting I might refer to the same people as ‘Dr This’ and ‘Professor That’. I also use titles when I write to people I’ve never met, to avoid seeming over-familiar. So even if we only had one title for everybody, using it (as opposed to not using it) would still be a meaningful act.

The use of titles is revealing, not only about a society’s most significant social distinctions, but also about its implicit status hierarchies. Consider, for instance, the ordering of titles on printed forms and online drop-down menus: how many of these have ‘Mr’ as the first option, followed by ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and ‘Ms’, in that order? In my experience, most of them do. And what this pattern tells us is that the categories aren’t just ‘different but equal’: if they were, the order would vary. I don’t think the menu designers are engaging in conscious and deliberate sexism; they’re just using the order that seems ‘natural’. But every time they do it they’re recycling and reinforcing the common-sense assumption that men take precedence over women.

There’s also an order of precedence among the female titles, and not just on drop-down menus. I noticed long ago that when organizations send me unsolicited mail, they most commonly address me as ‘Mrs’. Since they don’t know whether I’m married, you might wonder why they don’t choose ‘Ms’, the one female title that doesn’t specify marital status. But their preference for ‘Mrs’ reflects the assumption that there’s a hierarchy, in which ‘Mrs’ outranks ‘Miss’ or ‘Ms’. They’re worried that if I do happen to be married, and they don’t address me as ‘Mrs’, I’ll be offended by the downgrading of my status. If I’m not married, on the other hand, I’m unlikely to feel slighted by an upgrade from ‘Miss’ to ‘Mrs’.

To a feminist, of course, this logic is offensive, a hangover from the centuries when the most important thing to know about a woman was which man currently owned her. That’s why, back in the day, using ‘Ms’ rather than ‘Mrs/Miss’ was presented as a radical break with an age-old patriarchal custom. But some interesting recent research suggests that in fact there is nothing ancient about encoding marital status in female titles.

According to the researcher Amy Erickson, who has studied the history of the titles ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, Englishwomen’s titles only began to reflect their marital status in the late 18th century. Until then, what they reflected was occupational and social status. In the higher ranks of society, a woman who did not have an aristocratic title became ‘Mrs’ when she reached adulthood or when her mother died, whichever happened first. In the middle-to-lower ranks, ‘Mrs’ was the title accorded to women who were either in business (for instance as drapers, grocers and milliners) or else were senior domestic servants (like housekeepers and cooks). This had nothing to do with their marital status. It was an acknowledgment of their standing in the community or the household, and the authority they wielded over apprentices or junior servants.

The use of ‘Miss’ as a title for unmarried adult women appears to have originated among the gentry around the mid-18th century. Erickson speculates that like many fashions of the time, this one was imported from France, as an anglicised version of the distinction between ‘madame’ and ‘mademoiselle’. Jane Austen was among the writers who used ‘Miss’ in the new way: in her first novel Sense and Sensibility, the two Dashwood sisters, women of marriageable age, are ‘Miss Dashwood’ (the elder sister, Elinor) and ‘Miss Marianne’. Outside fiction, Erickson has found cases where the same unmarried woman was referred to as ‘Mrs X’ by acquaintances of an older generation, but as ‘Miss X’ by her own contemporaries. This illustrates that the shift in usage was gradual: ‘Mrs’ did not become a fully reliable indicator that a woman was married until around 1900 (and the custom of calling upper servants ‘Mrs’, whether or not they were married, persisted for even longer).

It seems, then, that for most of our history, we English-speakers managed without titles that categorized women by marital status. The system which 1970s feminists denounced as an archaic piece of sexism had only been in place for less than a century. But we’ve kept it for longer than some of our European neighbours. The German title equivalent to ‘Miss’, ‘Fräulein’, was removed from government documents in West Germany in 1972, leaving ‘Frau’ as the recommended title for all women. In 2012 the French government followed suit, announcing that it would no longer use ‘Mademoiselle’.

These governmental edicts encountered some resistance, especially from right-wingers who regarded the abandonment of the two-term system as a threat to traditional values. In France, one such opponent mounted an (unsuccessful) legal challenge, arguing that

The end of the use of the term “Mademoiselle” – which is normally used up to marriage – is a further indirect and heavy blow to the institution of marriage, abolishing a fundamental social distinction, and stranding it on the shores of the socialist dream that the move embodies.

Of course, just as many English-speaking women still use ‘Miss’, some French and German-speaking women have gone on using ‘Mademoiselle’ and ‘Fräulein’. The fact that a title is no longer used in government documents does not prevent people from using it in other contexts. But it does make a symbolic statement about changing norms and attitudes. Marital status titles persist, but they are no longer taken for granted as the ‘natural’ choice.

By contrast, there has been far less questioning of the idea that it is natural and necessary to use different titles for men and women–though in a language like modern English, which does not, in general, mark gender very extensively, it isn’t obvious that we need sex-specific titles. Arguably they’re redundant, since the great majority of English personal names are already clearly marked as either female or male.

This was the line of thought which originally inspired the creation of the gender-neutral title ‘Mx’. Just as ‘Ms’ wasn’t invented by the second-wave feminists who are now most closely associated with it in the popular imagination, ‘Mx’ wasn’t invented by the current generation of trans and genderqueer activists. The earliest use of it that lexicographers have uncovered was in 1977, in a magazine called Single Parent, where it was suggested as a non-sexist alternative to existing titles. Another early citation, from an online newsgroup discussion in the 1980s, argued that the feminist attempt to introduce a single female title, ‘Ms’, did not go far enough. ‘The issue’, it asserted, ‘should be that gender is unimportant’.

Three decades on, ‘Mx’ has begun to move from the margins into the mainstream, but not with the function originally envisaged for it. Rather than being used to make the whole category of gender irrelevant (which would require it to replace the other, gender-marked titles), it’s become a way for a subset of individuals–those whose self-defined gender identities do not fit into the established binary system–to mark their difference from the majority. The mainstream institutions which have officially accepted this usage are not endorsing the view that ‘gender is unimportant’, but simply applying the principle of respecting individual choice.

Should feminists regret the fact that we don’t have a universal, non-sex-specific title? In the 1970s I was in favour of the reduction of the ‘Mrs/Miss’ distinction to a single term: ‘Ms’ is the title I use for myself in non-professional contexts, and I find it frustrating that it didn’t supplant the alternatives. But my feelings about ‘Mx’ are more ambivalent.

Why? Because although I’m critical of gender distinctions as they currently exist, my problem isn’t with the existence of men and women, it’s with the systemic inequality between them. And one symptom of that inequality is a tendency for supposedly gender-neutral terms to be interpreted through the common-sense assumptions about status which I mentioned earlier. In my working life I’ve actually got a gender-neutral title—‘professor’—and it frequently prompts people who don’t know me to imagine that ‘Professor Cameron’ must be a man. Is that just because ‘professor’ denotes an occupational status in which men are known to outnumber women? Or would ‘Mx Cameron’ also be assumed to be male until proven otherwise?

There’s a bigger question lurking in the background here. Do feminists give too much weight to language as both a cause of and a remedy for oppression? As a linguist, I’m obviously not going to argue that language doesn’t matter, but I do worry that it’s sometimes treated like a magic wand–as if erasing the linguistic marks of gender would somehow erase it from our minds.

At the end of her paper on the history of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’, Amy Erickson points out that the story she has just presented contradicts the one most commonly told by feminists of the second wave—but what they were wrong about wasn’t women’s subordinate status, it was the role played by language in maintaining it. As she drily remarks,

It turns out that patriarchal control of women’s sexuality had no need of honorifics to flourish.

To me, this underlines the limitations of a politics that focuses too much on the symbolic. Gendered language can undoubtedly have the effect of reinforcing and recycling commonplace assumptions about the nature and status of men and women. But I don’t believe those assumptions depend on the use of certain terms, or that changing the terms will necessarily change the assumptions.

As a feminist who writes about language, I’m often asked (usually by someone who has no time for feminism at all), ‘why are you making such a fuss about words when you could be campaigning for something important, like equal pay?’ My answer has always been that it’s not a case of either/or, it’s both/and. But what I say to my anti-feminist critics, I would also say to other feminists: language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Changing terminology is a pointless activity if you don’t go behind the words to the beliefs which shape their use, and the material realities which produce those beliefs. If it’s going to make a difference, it has to be both/and.

Call Me Woman

When I left school in 1976, my first paid job was operating a steam press in a hospital laundry. My payslip described me as a ‘laundrywoman’—an archaic-sounding title that made me feel like a character in a Dickens novel. It was a hangover from a time when English-speakers distinguished between working class ‘women’ and middle or upper-class ‘ladies’. Originally ‘lady’ was the female analogue of ‘lord’, and it can still be a title for the wife or daughter of an aristocrat. But it has undergone a process known as ‘semantic derogation’, where the female term in a male-female pair gets downgraded in status. ‘Lady’ was initially downgraded to apply to bourgeois women as well as aristocrats. Later, it became a polite way to refer to a woman of any social class.

This was another reason why it felt odd to be called a ‘laundrywoman’. My early instruction in the mysteries of etiquette had given me the impression that the word ‘woman’ was disrespectful, if not actually insulting. When I was a child, my mother pointedly referred to most adult women we did not know as ‘ladies’. On buses, it was ‘let the lady sit down’. In sweetshops, ‘tell the lady what you want’. ‘Woman’ was the word she used to refer to someone whose behaviour she disapproved of. ‘Silly woman!’ ‘Someone should have a word with that woman’.

You could say that my mother was making symbolic use of the old class-related meaning of the woman/lady distinction, using the high-class term ‘lady’ to give status to those she wanted to show respect to and the low-class term ‘woman’ to withhold status from those she wanted to disparage. You see the same pattern in formulaic expressions containing ‘lady’ or ‘woman’. The wife of the US president is referred to (respectfully) as the ‘First Lady’ rather than the ‘First Woman’; the female lover of a married man is referred to (disrespectfully) as ‘the other woman’ rather than ‘the other lady’.

But the difference between a woman and a lady isn’t only about social status and respectability. To see what else it might be about, let’s try a little fill-in-the-blanks quiz. For each of the example sentences below, you have to decide whether it’s better to fill the blank with ‘woman/women’ or ‘lady/ladies’.

1. She was a perfect ____ about it.
2. The church flowers were arranged by the _____ of the congregation.
3. Esther thought of her grandmother as a strong and capable _____.
4. Some ____ reported that they experienced multiple orgasms.
5. In Victorian times, it was common for _____ to die in childbirth.
6. A ____ was raped in the city centre last night

These examples give no information about the social status of the people referred to, but I’d still expect English-speakers to have an intuitive preference for either ‘lady’ or ‘woman’. Example (1) is straightforward: ‘a perfect lady’ is another of those idioms where you can’t just substitute ‘woman’. (You can say ‘a perfect woman’, but it means something different.) In example (2), either ‘ladies’ or ‘women’ would be possible, but since the sentence is about a stereotypically feminine activity, flower arranging, you may have had a preference for ‘ladies’. In (3), the blank could potentially be filled by either ‘lady’ or ‘woman’, but in this case I’m betting you picked ‘woman’. And in (4), (5) and (6) I suspect you chose ‘woman’ without hesitation.

The difference between ‘ladies’ and ‘women’ in these examples is the difference between femininity and embodied femaleness. That’s why virtually no one would choose ‘lady’ over ‘woman’ in the example sentences dealing with sex, childbirth and rape—things that happen to, or are done to, female bodies. ‘Lady’ is a euphemism, a veil drawn over the grossness of female physicality, sexuality and reproduction. A lady does not have bodily functions, whether sex-specific, like menstruation (as the song says, ‘only women bleed’) or shared with the male of the species (there used to be a saying that ‘horses sweat, men perspire and ladies gently glow’). The word ‘lady’ appears in coy expressions like ‘lady garden’, which are designed to sanitize references to the female body, but when the reference is to something like rape, which cannot easily be sanitized, its effect is incongruous and jarring.

‘Lady’ is also an incongruous word to use in contexts where the emphasis is on female strength and physicality: that’s why ‘woman’ is more likely in example (3). It isn’t feminine to be strong, or ladylike to get physical. There is one significant exception to this rule: female athletes are often officially referred to as ‘ladies’. We have ladies’ football teams and ladies’ golf and tennis championships; in the US, high school teams for sports played by both sexes, like basketball, were traditionally called ‘the Xs’ and ‘the Lady Xs’. (I know of one school in Indiana where they were called ‘The Devils’ and ‘The Lady Devils’.) But this isn’t really an exception, or if it is, it’s the kind that proves the rule. Calling female athletes ‘ladies’ is an attempt to counter the perception of athletic pursuits, and the women who engage in them, as ‘unfeminine’.

There is a connection between the sex and class-related meanings of the lady/woman distinction. The femininity evoked by ‘lady’ is prototypically middle-class (and white). Think of the reality TV show Ladette to Lady, where young working-class women are sent to finishing school to learn to behave like upper-class ladies. Though there’s no question the ladettes are female, their teachers constantly describe them as lacking in femininity.

Similarly, there was nothing feminine about the job I did in the laundry, even though it was a job done exclusively by women. It was hard physical labour (the presses we operated were heavy, and so were the damp sheets we used them on), performed in conditions that made us sweat like horses. ‘Laundry ladies’ would have been a ludicrous way of describing us. (It’s true, of course, that women who clean other people’s houses are often referred to as ‘cleaning ladies’, but that’s another case of ‘lady’ functioning as a euphemism. Domestic employers, who have to negotiate an individual relationship with their cleaner, would rather not acknowledge the class inequality.)

Not long after I stopped being a laundrywoman, I started being a feminist—a supporter of what was then called the ‘Women’s Movement’ or the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’. We didn’t call ourselves ‘ladies’. The femininity of  the ‘lady’ was one of the things we wanted to liberate women from; another was the idea that female bodies are gross and unmentionable.

Second-wave feminists made a concerted effort to reclaim the word ‘woman’. But a new generation of activists has started to treat it the way my mother did, as a word to be avoided because of its potential to offend. In my mother’s day the problem with ‘woman’ was its class connotations; today the problem is that references to ‘women’ may be felt to exclude trans and nonbinary people. If we don’t want them to feel uncomfortable or disrespected, we’re told we should refer to the class of humans formerly known as ‘women’ using expressions like ‘uterused people’ or ‘people with ovaries’.

These phrases have been criticised for various reasons, but for me the fundamental problem is that they can’t be used in any context where you want to affirm women’s humanity, dignity and worth. Can you imagine saying ‘Esther thought of her grandmother as a strong and capable person with ovaries’? Or ‘In Victorian times it was common for uterused people to die in childbirth’? I can’t. These aren’t ways of talking about female human beings, they’re ways of talking about gynaecological specimens.

The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.