Who owns words?

Lately there’s been some controversy about the word ‘partner’, meaning the person you’re in a long-term relationship with. I’d always considered ‘partner’ an innocuous term, too colourless to generate strong feelings (though an acquaintance once told me he hated it because it was so bland: ‘it sounds like you’re a firm of solicitors’.) But some people, it turns out, do feel strongly about it–or more exactly, about who has the right to use it.

In August Sadie Graham described her frustration with a series of encounters where the people she was introduced to had talked about their ‘partners’:

it was a guessing game every time whether they meant a long-term, serious relationship with another queer person or a long-term, serious relationship with another straight person, but one who wears flannel and cares about justice and reciprocity and shit.

As she saw it, the hip heterosexuals who talked about their ‘partners’ were guilty of a kind of cultural appropriation, using the language of queerness to make themselves look cool, and to downplay or deny their heterosexual privilege. ‘At some point’, she complained, ‘it’s like: can we have anything?’

These sentiments were echoed a month later in an article about ‘partner’ that posed the question bluntly: ‘should straight people be saying it, or does it belong to queers?’ The writer, a self-described femme married to a trans man, explained why the two of them prefer ‘partner’ to the spousal terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. First, because it’s ‘the only word equipped to convey the seriousness of our bond without ascribing either of us a fixed gender’; and second, because it ‘dispels some of the ownership associated with the institution of marriage’. This second point–that ‘partner’ doesn’t carry the same patriarchal baggage as ‘husband’ and (especially) ‘wife’–is also a reason why many non-queer couples use it. But in this writer’s view they shouldn’t just assume they’re entitled to do so:

“partner” was brought into its current understanding through a history of use—often out of a necessity not felt by cis, straight people—within the queer community. If they want to say “partner,” people of relative privilege should take a moment to reflect on their word choice.

I’m tempted to reply that if people want to make claims about the history of words, they should take a moment to check their facts. As a glance at the relevant OED entry makes clear, ‘partner’ has been used for centuries to denote a spouse, a lover or a member of a cohabiting couple, and for most of that time it has been used predominantly by and about heterosexuals. The earliest illustrative quotations for this sense of ‘partner’ come from letters written in the late 16th century by Richard Broughton and his wife Anne, each of whom refers to the other as ‘my partner’. By contrast, the earliest quotation illustrating same-sex usage is dated 1977. That’s not to say the term wasn’t used by lesbians and gay men before the 1970s, but it’s unlikely to have been common before the 20th century.

Even today, queer uses of ‘partner’ have not overtaken straight ones, mainly because ‘partner’ has become the mainstream term of choice for referring to people who live together without being married. Since 1970 the number of people in relationships of this kind–the majority of them heterosexual–has increased significantly, and as a result the word ‘partner’ is very frequently used in reference to cohabiting heterosexuals. There is nothing cool or hip about this usage, as the OED’s examples of it show. It’s hard to imagine anything less cool—or more heteronormative—than this piece of advice, taken from a 2000 publication of the Institute of Advanced Motorists: ‘if you are a married or cohabiting man, try adding your partner to your insurance policy’.

There is, in short, no historical foundation for the claim that straight people ‘appropriated’ ‘partner’ from queers. But of course, proposals about the use of a word in the present do not have to be based on facts about its usage in the past. We wouldn’t think much of someone who defended the use of racist or sexist epithets by saying ‘but people have used this word in this way for hundreds of years’. Being a politically conscious language-user may well mean deferring to the preferences of marginalised groups—for instance, using the names/pronouns they specify, avoiding labels they consider offensive, and being cautious about using in-group terms (like words from an indigenous language, or reclaimed slurs like ‘dyke’ and ‘crip’) if you don’t belong to the group yourself. But how far should this principle extend? Do ‘people of relative privilege’ have a moral obligation to stop using everyday words like ‘partner’ if they are claimed by a marginalised group? More generally, what does it mean to talk about the appropriation, and thus by implication the ownership, of words?

Modern capitalism has made it possible for a person or corporation to claim ownership rights over a word by trademarking it. This is a strictly limited form of ownership: Apple, for instance, can only use its rights over the word ‘apple’ to prevent its use by competitors in the tech sector, not to stop the rest of us talking about fruit. Specsavers, which has trademarked the verb form ‘should’ve’ (as used in its ‘should’ve gone to Specsavers’ ads), can’t just sue anyone who drops ‘should’ve’ into casual conversation: they’d have to be using it in a way that threatened the company’s commercial interests. But not all cases are so straightforward. Some have raised questions about whether the trademarking of words places unacceptable restrictions on artistic or political freedom.

One case of this kind was reported earlier this year, when several romance novelists received a message from a fellow-author, Faleena Hopkins, telling them to remove the word ‘cocky’ from their book titles because she had been granted a trademark giving her the exclusive right to use it. Hopkins is the producer of a self-published book series in which every title contains the adjective ‘cocky’ (they include Cocky Biker, Cocky Cowboy and Cocky Romantic): she applied for the trademark after she became aware that readers were ordering other books with ‘cocky’ in their titles in the mistaken belief that they were part of her series. She managed to convince the US patent office, which granted the application, that titles including ‘cocky’ were part of her brand. But that didn’t impress the other writers who were forced to retitle or remove their books from sale. In fact, they petitioned for the trademark to be revoked, pointing out that ‘cocky’ is a common word in romance titles because it’s a conventional way of describing the ‘alpha male’ hero who is one of the genre’s stock characters. How, they asked, can anyone be granted exclusive rights to a cliché?

In France in 1979, a women’s group known as ‘Psych et Po’ (short for ‘psychanalyse et politique’, or in English ‘psychoanalysis and politics’), managed to trademark the words ‘Mouvement de Libération des Femmes’ (Women’s Liberation Movement) and its abbreviated form ‘MLF’, so that the name could no longer be used by any other group. This benefited Psych et Po both politically and commercially: by taking the movement’s name as their own, they were able to present themselves, and their publishing company des femmes, as the quasi-official voice of French feminism. Since most feminists considered them an unrepresentative fringe group whose ideas had little to do with feminism, their action was seen as a deliberate provocation. The conflict it caused consumed feminists’ energies for several years, prompting Simone de Beauvoir to describe it as ‘a grave threat to the entire women’s movement’.

The question these cases raised was whether an individual or a small group should be able to take a community resource–a word or phrase that was previously available to everyone–and turn it into private property.  In the controversy about ‘partner’, by contrast, the issue is more or less the opposite. The writers I quoted earlier aren’t accusing straight people of treating a communal good as their exclusive property, but rather of failing to recognise ‘partner’ as the property (in this case moral rather than legal) of the LGBTQ community. In the age of identity politics, it seems that more and more disputes over language are being framed in this way: ‘this word belongs to group X, and if you’re not a member of that group your use of it is disrespectful/ offensive/ ‘cultural appropriation’.

The idea that words are property–that some people have a right to them and others don’t, or that they can be stolen from their ‘rightful owners’– is one I struggle to get my head around, because it’s at odds with what we know about the history of languages and the way they are shaped by contact between different groups. Consider, for instance, the 20th century British argot Polari, which is remembered and celebrated now as—to quote the title of Paul Baker’s book about it—‘the lost language of gay men’. There’s no dispute that Polari did at one time function as a gay in-group code, but it wasn’t something gay men just spontaneously created for that purpose. Rather, as Baker explains,

It arose from a number of overlapping “low” forms of slang that were associated with travelling or stigmatised groups, stretching way back to the Thieves’ Cant of Elizabethan England. The 18th century added words from the molly house culture – mollies being men who had sex with other men… The 19th century also saw the incorporation of some Parlyaree, the Italian-derived language used by travelling entertainers, fairground people, costermongers and beggars. Later influences on Polari included Cockney rhyming slang, backslang (pronouncing a word as if it is spelt backwards), Yiddish, Lingua Franca (words from sailors’ slang), American air force slang and the vernacular of drug users.

To identify gay men as the owners and originators of Polari would not do justice to this history. At the same time, it would make little sense to accuse gay Polari-speakers of stealing or misappropriating words that ‘really’ belonged to someone else. The words Polari-speakers learnt from fairground people and Yiddish speakers didn’t stop being used in Parlyaree or Yiddish: they just acquired an additional use in Polari Words are not objects that can only be in one place, or belong to one community, at a time.

In the past the charge of ‘stealing’ words was most often levelled against minorities by conservatives who claimed to speak for the majority. I’m old enough to remember, for instance, when newspapers regularly printed letters complaining that a bunch of perverts had stolen that useful and charming word ‘gay’, which as everyone knew really meant ‘cheerful or brightly coloured’. Obviously, they lost that argument–though the people who won it were not able to prevent the subsequent development of a new usage among (some) young people in which ‘gay’ means ‘lame’ or ‘uncool’.

More recently, religious conservatives accused campaigners for same-sex marriage of hi-jacking the word ‘marriage’ and trying to change its meaning (‘the union of a man and a woman’) to suit their own agenda. And though they were operating with an unconvincing theory of language (according to which the meanings of words are set in stone), what they said about their opponents was correct. Of course campaigners for same-sex marriage were trying to change the meaning of ‘marriage’: that’s what radicals do, try to change things. ‘You can’t go around appropriating other people’s words and changing their meanings to suit yourself’ is an inherently conservative argument, and the only part of it that’s right is ‘to suit yourself’. Attempts to change language will only succeed if they also suit other people in the relevant linguistic community. For that to happen, enough people need to be persuaded to see something about the world in a new way. Debates about language are never only about the words.

I’m not suggesting that all change, either in language or in the world, should automatically be considered progressive; I’m not saying it’s never legitimate to object to someone else’s way of using words. But whether you’re promoting change or resisting it, you can only do it by persuasion, not by laying down the law on the basis that the words you’re arguing about belong to you, and other people have no right to an opinion. Words belong to whoever uses them, and different people use them differently, reflecting their differing beliefs, values, life experiences and social positions. We need to learn to live with that–to understand that we don’t own words, and we can never make everyone use them our way.

 

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Coming to terms with the past: what should we call Anne Lister?

This summer the city of York got its first LGBT history plaque, dedicated to the 19th century landowner Anne Lister.  It was placed at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Goodramgate, where in 1834 Lister and her partner Ann Walker took part in an unofficial marriage ceremony.

In the course of her life Anne Lister had numerous sexual and romantic relationships with women, as we know from her voluminous diaries, which were partly written in code to conceal the details. Since they were decoded in the 1980s Lister has been regarded as a significant figure in British lesbian history. To people already familiar with her story, therefore, it came as something of a surprise that the word ‘lesbian’ did not appear on the commemorative plaque. Instead the local LGBT group which was responsible for the wording chose to describe Lister as ‘a gender non-conforming entrepreneur’.

The pushback was immediate: many objectors visited the group’s Facebook page to protest, and a petition proclaiming ‘Anne Lister was a lesbian: don’t let them erase her story’ attracted over two thousand signatures. In the face of these complaints the York Civic Trust undertook to review the wording of the plaque. They have now opened a public consultation which invites people to choose between the original phraseology and an alternative that refers to Anne Lister as a ‘Lesbian and Diarist’.

Both these options are open to the charge of anachronism, projecting present-day concepts and identity categories back into the historical past. Though Anne Lister clearly understood herself as someone who desired women, she had no access to the conceptual frameworks that enable or even oblige us, 200 years later, to classify individuals in terms of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

In the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault famously argued that the modern notion of ‘the homosexual’ only emerged in the latter half of the 19th century. Before that, he maintained, discourse on sex focused on what people did rather than what or who they were; but the advent of a ‘scientific’ approach brought a new interest in explaining sexual behaviour as an expression of people’s underlying (and in the case of homosexuals, ‘deviant’) nature. ‘The 19th century homosexual’, wrote Foucault,

became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. …It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration: the homosexual was now a species.

From this perspective, labels like ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ are not just names for categories which have always existed in essentially the same form, just with different (or no) words attached to them. The terms come into existence along with the categories, and both are effects of the production of knowledge, which in modern societies, Foucault argues, is inextricably bound up with power and control. It follows that the problem of anachronism in language is both real and intractable. And as numerous commenters pointed out, the compromise chosen by the York LGBT group in the case of Anne Lister—describing her as ‘gender non-conforming’—is not really a satisfactory solution.

The group acknowledged that in practice the label ‘gender non-conforming’ is most often applied to people who identify as trans, non-binary or queer. But in principle, they argued, it could be used to describe ‘a broad range of identities, expression and behaviours that are non-normative and/or marginalised by a particular society or culture at a particular moment in time’. The implication seemed to be that whereas ‘lesbian’ names a specific identity that has only existed in some times and places, ‘gender non-conforming’ is more generally applicable: it says only that the person so labelled deviated in some way from whatever gender norms prevailed in their society.

I can’t say I’m convinced by this. One problem with the broad definition of ‘gender non-conforming’ is that it’s too broad (is there anyone on earth who has never deviated in any way from the prevailing norms of masculinity or femininity?). But in addition, the claim that it avoids anachronism does not stand up to scrutiny. There’s nothing timeless and universal about either the phrase ‘gender non-conforming’ or the assumptions embedded in it.

For one thing, its meaning depends on a sense of the word ‘gender’ which did not become established in English until the mid-20th century. We can be confident that Anne Lister wouldn’t have described herself as ‘gender non-conforming’. If that’s our criterion, incidentally, it’s also unlikely she would have called herself an ‘entrepreneur’. According to the OED, the relevant sense of that word, meaning the owner/manager of a business, did not appear in print until more than a decade after her death. (One critic of the plaque remarked that the overall effect of ‘gender non-conforming entrepreneur’ was to make Lister sound less like a 19th century landowner and more like the recipient of an award for the year’s most successful LGBT start-up.)

But perhaps all this agonising about anachronism is beside the point. A commemorative plaque is not a thesis: its purpose is to make whatever it commemorates intelligible and relevant to a contemporary audience. We memorialise historical figures like Anne Lister because of what they mean to us now, and the choices we make about how to do it, including what terminology to use, are always going to be shaped by what’s at stake for us in the present.

For most of those who got involved in it, what was at stake in the debate about the wording of the plaque was not some abstract theoretical point about the applicability of terms like ‘lesbian’ and ‘gender non-conforming’ to a person who lived 200 years ago. The issue was rather why one of those anachronistic terms had been preferred to the other, and what that said about contemporary attitudes to lesbians.

The commonest objection to the original wording was that, like the code Anne Lister used in her diaries, it seemed like a deliberate attempt to downplay if not conceal her sexuality. Why, critics demanded, was lesbianism being treated as the love whose name could not be spoken? Is the idea of sex between women still so shocking or revolting that it can only be alluded to in the vaguest and most ambiguous terms? But while I’m sure there are people who shy away from the L-word because of basic anti-lesbian prejudice, I wouldn’t expect to find them in an LGBT forum. In this case I think it’s more likely the group had a different reason for finding ‘lesbian’ problematic–a reason that was spelled out last year in a much-debated Buzzfeed article which asked, ‘Can lesbian identity survive the gender revolution?’

As the article’s author Shannon Keating explained,

Attitudes about gender identity are evolving, which has started to impact the way many of us think about sexual orientation. Young people in particular are more likely than ever before to identify outside the assigned-gender binary; trans men and women are joined by those who identify as genderqueer, agender, non-binary, genderfluid — to name only a few. …Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like “gay” or “lesbian” starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?

Not surprisingly, this article was controversial. Many lesbians were less than delighted to be dismissed as ‘stale and stodgy’, and some were vocal in their criticisms. Nevertheless, I think it’s true that the emphasis placed on gender identity in contemporary LGBT politics has affected the way sexuality is thought about. In particular, it has led to the adoption in some quarters of the principle that sexual orientation should be defined in relation to gender identity rather than sex. This opens up the possibility that someone like the ‘gender non-conforming’ Lister might not have been (that is, felt herself to be) a woman; and if she wasn’t a woman then her attraction to women wouldn’t make her a lesbian. If the York group was applying this logic, that would explain their otherwise puzzling reluctance to use the L-word.

This particular way of understanding the relationship between gender and sexuality is a relatively recent development, and as we saw in the row about the plaque, it remains highly contested. But the questions it grapples with are not new, and nor is their capacity to cause conflict.

Fifty years ago when I was growing up, homosexuality was commonly understood as a form of gender deviance or ‘inversion’. That was how my parents explained it to me: homosexual men and lesbian women were people who felt and behaved like members of the opposite sex. This mid-20th century common sense reflected the expert theories of an earlier period. The term ‘invert’ had been used by the 19th century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and the concept was popularised in Radclyffe Hall’s early 20th century novel The Well of Loneliness. It also shaped the way homosexuals were depicted in mainstream popular culture (something my parents and I were more directly acquainted with)–most commonly as effeminate, campy ‘queens’.

But by the end of the 1960s this understanding was being challenged. The new gay liberation movement promoted the idea that gender and sexuality were distinct and independent–a view championed in particular by younger, middle-class activists who found the association of homosexuality with effeminacy embarrassing, and saw it as an obstacle to achieving social acceptance. In a 1972 piece entitled ‘The fairy princess exposed’,  the gay liberationist Craig Alfred Hanson denounced the old-style queens as ‘relics of a bygone era in their fantasy world of poodle dogs and Wedgwood teacups’. Though these ‘relics’ were unlikely to change their ways, the movement needed to ‘expose our Princess Flora Femadonna so that our younger brothers will not fall into the lavender cesspool’.

As this rhetoric makes clear, there were divisions and tensions within the emerging gay ‘community’: not everyone had the same ideas about what it meant to be gay or what would constitute ‘liberation’. Lesbians had their own version of the conflict dramatised in Hanson’s attack on the ‘fairy princess’: as I noted in an earlier post, the new generation of lesbian feminists were often critical of the older culture of butch-fem relationships, which they saw as aping heterosexuality and reproducing traditional gender roles. Like their gay male comrades, they wanted to challenge the idea that same-sex desire was integrally bound up with gender deviance (or to put it another way, that all desire was fundamentally heterosexual–that every sexual relationship must involve a ‘masculine’ and a ‘feminine’ partner, even if they were both women or both men).

Today we are seeing another shift in ideas about the relationship between sex and gender, identity and desire—one which is also exposing divisions within the community. I’m not suggesting this is a straightforward case of history repeating itself (or reversing itself), but the questions being raised are not completely unfamiliar either. In some form or other, they may even have been questions for Anne Lister and the people around her in the first half of the 19th century.

But that isn’t what’s at issue in the dispute about the wording of her commemorative plaque. What the plaque will show, whatever it ends up saying, is not how Anne Lister defined herself, but how we have chosen to define her. And what makes that so contentious is not what we can’t know about the past, it’s what we don’t agree on in the present.

Note: at the time of writing it is still possible to respond to the consultation about the plaque: if you want to read the background information and then register a view on the competing options you can do so here.  

Dykes, old maids and the summer of 66

This summer, British television has been reliving the glory days of 1966, when London was swinging and England’s footballers won the World Cup. My own memories of the year are rather less glorious. 1966 was the year when I turned eight; it was also the year when I first heard the word ‘dyke’.

It happened when I was eavesdropping on a conversation between my parents (a bad habit I developed at an early age). My father used the phrase ‘those dykes’ in a passing reference to two women who lived in the posher part of the village. I knew who he meant: they weren’t part of my parents’ social circle, but the village was the sort of place where everyone knew everyone by sight. But I had no idea why he called them ‘dykes’. When I asked my mother later, she said: ‘he just meant they’re old maids: they live together because they never got married’.

I’m not sure if my mother was just trying to avoid the issue, or if she genuinely disagreed with my father about the nature of the women’s relationship. Looking back, I really don’t know if they were lesbians. There was nothing about the way they dressed, spoke or behaved in public that set them apart from other women of their age and class—women I knew to be married because they were addressed as ‘Mrs So-and-So’. ‘Those dykes’ might have been a couple, but equally they might have been friends, or even sisters, who had chosen to pool their resources. It’s pointless to speculate, since I’ll never know their story. But it’s interesting to consider the way such women were talked about back then, and how differently we talk about them now.

In 1966, my father’s phrase ‘those dykes’ was markedly pejorative: even without knowing what it meant, I could tell it was not meant kindly. My mother’s phrase ‘old maids’, by contrast, though also negative in its connotations, was not too offensive to be uttered in polite company, or to an eight year-old. The difference reflected the differing levels of stigma attached to the two classes of women. Both were considered ‘unnatural’, but the unnaturalness of the lesbian was more extreme: she inspired disgust, whereas the unmarried and unmarriageable (but presumptively heterosexual) woman inspired–in varying proportions–pity and contempt.

In the 1960s there were still women around who were understood to have been denied a ‘normal’ life because the men they should have married had been lost to the carnage of World War I. These women were pitied rather than despised; some were admired for the way they had channelled the energy that should have been devoted to their families into various forms of community service. But when people spoke in that vein, they didn’t generally use the term ‘old maid’. What that term evoked was much more negative: sexless, downtrodden church-mice, or censorious old biddies whose nasty, interfering ways were the products of bitterness and sexual frustration.

In search of more evidence about the usage of ‘old maid’ 50 years ago, I paid a visit to COHA, a historical corpus of American English where you can track words and phrases decade by decade. In the 1960s section there are 42 occurrences of ‘old maid’ (giving it a frequency of just under two occurrences per million words). A couple of these, on closer examination, were not examples of the ‘older unmarried woman’ sense, but rather references to an old person who worked as a maid (or in one case, to a closet formerly used by the maid). But once those had been excluded, almost all the rest were clearly negative in the ways I’ve already described. Here’s one from a mystery novel that was published in 1966:

There’s usually one to every couple of blocks or so. The snoopy old maid with nothing better to do than look out of the window most of the day.

But by the end of the decade there are signs of change. One interesting example crops up in a 1969 Good Housekeeping article by Dr Joyce Brothers, entitled ‘Women who don’t need men’.

How can we explain the fact that so many women don’t seem to need men? Well, for one thing, the world has changed. A hundred years ago, a woman had two choices: she could marry, devoting herself to the intensely real, demanding business of childbearing and housekeeping (and maybe helping her husband plow the land and fight off Indians); or she could spend the rest of her life in her parents’ house, tatting doilies. No wonder the “old maid” became a comic-strip caricature—a tiresome old busybody with no place in the social scheme. Today, of course, a woman has multiple choices. If she doesn’t wish to marry, she can have an intensely real life as a research chemist or an officer of a bank. Furthermore, she doesn’t need a husband to enjoy sex. Moral standards are more lenient than they used to be and a woman’s private life can remain just that…

With the sexual revolution in full swing and feminism resurgent (Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl had appeared as early as 1962, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique a year later), it seemed the old maid might have had her day: unmarried women’s lives in 1969 were no longer about tatting doilies and minding other people’s business.

In the 2000-2010 section of COHA the old maid not only makes fewer appearances than she did in the 1960s (the number of tokens falls to 26, and their frequency dips below one per million words), it’s also striking that many examples explictly locate her in the historical past:

She was only 36. Considered an old maid at one time, but not now.

In an age when women were wives before they were 21, she was already an old maid.

In 2016 I think I’d be more surprised than affronted to hear myself, or any other woman, referred to unironically as an ‘old maid’. If I did hear it, though, I would assume that the speaker intended to cause offence: the connotations of the term have, if anything, become even more negative. One key attribute of the old maid was her lack of sexual experience (historically, ‘maid’ meant ‘virgin’), and today, large parts of western culture consider abstinence from sex far more unnatural than a preference for same-sex partners. You could say that the old maid has swapped places with the lesbian: as the latter’s sexuality has become more normalised, the former’s abstention or exclusion from sex has been further pathologised.

Which brings me to the recent history of the word ‘dyke’.

In the 1960s section of COHA there are only five examples of ‘dyke’ meaning ‘lesbian’ (two taken from play scripts and the rest from a single 1968 novel), and all of them mark it clearly as a pejorative term.

It was a terrible thing to say. But the old dyke got my goat. Jerry said, ‘You shouldn’t call her names like that. You don’t know if she’s a dyke or not…’

But by the middle of the 1970s ‘dyke’ was no longer pejorative in every context. Many lesbian feminists not only regarded it as an acceptable term for in-group use, they actually preferred it to ‘lesbian’. As the linguist Julia Penelope explained the distinction in 1974,

A dyke is a woman committed to revolution, the most radical position. A lesbian is committed to a more liberal position, and she is more willing to compromise and work within the system. A gay woman affirms her commitment to a gay community, and sees nothing wrong with working with men.

Not all radical lesbian feminists preferred ‘dyke’, however: in the early 1980s I knew some who avoided it because they couldn’t get past its history of being used in the way my father used it, to express disgust. Then as now, opinions differed on whether words with that kind of history can ever really be ‘reclaimed’.

Another issue was who had the right to use in-group terms. Even women who did call themselves and each other dykes often objected to outsiders using the word. The same patterns are found with other reclaimed, historically offensive terms relating to ethnicity or disability. It’s usually only in-group members who have an unconditional right to use them (with some latitude sometimes given to trusted allies), and there are always some in-group members who object to them being used by anyone.

In the case of ‘dyke’ the arguments about reclamation are still ongoing. The examples in the 2000-2010 section of COHA include one, from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, referring directly to the view that ‘dyke’ is no longer pejorative:

She wants to erase the negative connotation to the word “atheist” just as homosexuals have reclaimed slurs like “queer” and “dyke.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, though, that this view is attributed to someone who isn’t herself a potential target for homophobic insults. Those who are potential targets know that ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ can still be slurs: it depends on the context, the speaker and the intent. In the week I’m writing this (in August 2016), it’s been alleged that some constituents of the lesbian Labour MP Angela Eagle held a meeting in her absence where she was referred to as ‘Angie the Dyke’. This has been described as a ‘homophobic slur’ both by those who allege the phrase was uttered and by those who insist it was not.

Looking through the 21st century examples of ‘dyke’ in COHA I was actually surprised by how many clearly were being used as slurs:

Your mama works in the closest hardware store, doesn’t she? What is she, a dyke?

[The] caller said he knew where she lived on campus and would kill her for being a “filthy dyke.”

There are a couple of cases where ‘dyke’ is evidently intended to be jocular rather than insulting:

‘Did you tell them you were a dyke?’ she asked with as much humor as she could muster.

I’d expected to find more of these; I’d even thought they might be more numerous than the pejorative cases. But in the mainstream sources sampled for COHA, the balance seems to tip the other way. The pejorative and ‘reclaimed’ uses coexist in contemporary English, and adjudicating their competing claims can be tricky–a point that was dramatized during the noughties by a legal dispute involving ‘dyke’.

In 2003 the San Francisco Women’s Motorcycle Club, unofficially known as ‘Dykes on Bikes’, applied to trademark their nickname. The US Patent and Trademark Office turned down their application on the grounds that the word ‘dykes’ was offensive and disparaged lesbians. The group contested this judgment, arguing that ‘dyke’ functioned, as the veteran activist Joan Nestle put it, as a symbol of ‘community and self-affirmation’. Apart from Nestle, those who submitted evidence in support of this argument included the cartoonist Alison Bechdel (creator of ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’) and the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, who had researched and written dictionary entries for ‘dyke’ and ‘bulldyke’.

In 2006 the original decision was reversed–and then immediately challenged by a Men’s Rights activist who claimed that the term ‘dyke’ was ‘scandalous and immoral’ and ‘a symbol of hate towards all men’. The complaint was eventually dismissed, but it took until 2008 for the trademark to be granted.

The fact that ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ can still be used against gay men and lesbians does not necessarily mean that attempts to reclaim them have failed. To put it another way, we should not assume that successful reclamation requires the total eradication of the earlier, pejorative meaning. At any point in time there will be variation rather than uniformity in the meanings with which a word is used: semantic change is not the result of one meaning suddenly being replaced by another, but a more gradual process in which the balance between coexisting variants shifts. Eventually a once-dominant meaning may drop out of use entirely, but that’s unlikely to happen in the space of a few years. A more realistic approach is to ask whether non-pejorative uses are becoming more frequent, and if they’re moving into the mainstream, so that in time they will predominate in the input received by speakers acquiring the language. With ‘queer’ I’d say that shift is definitely happening. With ‘dyke’ it may be less advanced, but both words have moved further along the path of reclamation than, say, ‘slut’, ‘bitch’, ‘whore’ or ‘cunt’.

Some of those words offer a useful reminder that reclaiming pejorative terms is not always the right thing to do. ‘Slut’, for instance, is a word that I would argue needs to be abolished rather than reclaimed. The problem isn’t the negative connotations attached to the word, it’s the fact that the category exists at all. The idea that we need any label–positive, negative or neutral–to identify a subclass of unchaste or promiscuous women is entirely a product of the sexual double standard. In a society that took women’s sexual autonomy for granted, the concept of a slut would become meaningless, and the word would fade into obsolescence.

That’s more or less what’s happened to ‘old maid’: its use has declined along with the relevance of the category it labels. That category was produced by the restrictions which historically prevented most women from living outside male-headed households while also remaining both respectable and financially solvent. In some societies those restrictions are still in place, but in modern western societies they have largely withered away. I say ‘largely’ because their traces do survive in certain cultural assumptions (e.g. that ‘normal’ women will find a spouse or partner before they reach a certain age, or that a heterosexual wedding is a happier and more significant occasion for the bride than for the groom). But there is no longer a material, structural basis for the idea that a woman who remains single has, as Joyce Brothers put it, ‘no place in the social scheme’.

When a social category becomes socially irrelevant, the label(s) attached to it will survive, if at all, only in archaic references (any mention of a ‘debutante’ or a ‘kept woman’ locates us either in the past or in some particularly retrograde corner of the present) and fossilized metaphors (‘lepers’ in contemporary English are more likely to be social outcasts than people with leprosy). When I did an online search for ‘old maid’, most of the top results were references to the card game (though as I scrolled down further I also discovered the quilt pattern ‘Old Maid’s Puzzle’ which I’ve used to illustrate this post). The old maid as we knew her in the real world of 50 years ago has now passed, it seems, into history. And a good thing too, IMHO: not everything was better in 1966.

Lesbian slang: a postscript

In my last post I quoted the folklorist Gershon Legman, whose introduction to a 1941 glossary of gay slang drew attention to ‘the seeming absence of almost any but outsiders’ slang in relation to female homosexuality’. I also pointed out that his comments on this subject said as much about his own limitations as they did about the language of lesbians.

This prompted some readers to wonder what Legman had missed: apart from the few terms his glossary included (such as ‘bull-dike’, ‘bulldagger’ and ‘daddy’, all labels for a butch or masculine lesbian), what terms were actually in use among lesbians before the advent of women’s and gay liberation? This postscript will address that question–though for the reasons I mentioned in my earlier discussion, what we know is unlikely to be the full story.

I’m fortunate to have had help from someone who knows a lot more than most–the lexicographer Jonathon Green, editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This is a historical slang dictionary (you can see some of the data from it visually represented on a tumblr whose self-explanatory name is The Timelines of Slang): to compile it, Green sifted through a range of source material including, for instance, pulp fiction and muckraking journalism, as well as the work of earlier lexicographers and academics. I’m grateful to him for giving me access to his data, though he can’t be held responsible for what I’ve made of it.

Before I go on, I should point out that what’s mainly been documented by slang historians is not some generic ‘language of homosexuals’, but the in-group vocabulary of a subculture which only some gay men and lesbians were part of, while others avoided it or had no access to it. As late as the mid-1970s, research investigating gay men’s knowledge of what was supposed to be ‘their’ slang found that many didn’t use or even know the words in question. This research didn’t include lesbians, but it’s likely that many women, too, were unfamiliar with in-group slang because they were isolated from any larger community .

Even if they were not isolated, lesbians did not form a single, internally homogeneous group. Historical evidence from the US shows there were differences in the slang used by Black and white lesbians; there was also a big difference between upper-class bohemians (the targets of Legman’s dismissive remark that a lot of what passed for lesbianism was just ‘a faddish vice among the intelligentsia’), and working-class women whose social lives were conducted in the bars and on the streets, and whose activities in some cases led to repeated stints in prison.What’s mostly presented under the heading of lesbian slang is the usage of the latter group.

Examining that usage underlines a point made in 1969 by the anthropologist David Sonenschein: ‘The language of homosexuality’, he wrote,

is basically the language of social and sexual relationships rather than of the sexual act itself. The deviancy of homosexual sexual orientation has been so salient…that previous research has ignored two main and very real factors of homosexual life: (1) its social complexity and (2) its relatively unexotic (even unerotic) nature as a total lifestyle.

Sonenschein went on to point out that in glossaries like Legman’s, what he called ‘role terms’ were approximately twice as numerous as ‘sex terms’. Virtually all the lesbian-specific terms Legman included fall into the ‘role term’ category, and the same pattern is evident in later sources, with the largest number of terms relating to the central role distinction between butch and fem.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, some of the most interesting sources are accounts of life in women’s prisons, which reproduced inmates’ stories in their own words. Two notable examples, both from the 1960s, were Rose Giallombardo’s academic study Society of Women, and the journalist Sara Harris’s book Hellhole: The Shocking Story of the Inmates and Life in the New York City House of Detention for Women. Not all the slang recorded in these texts was specifically lesbian slang, as opposed to general prison slang, but ‘the racket’ (as inmates called the lesbian subculture) was clearly a salient aspect of prison life.

Prison slang made a distinction between women who were lesbians on the outside, and women who turned to lesbianism only while incarcerated. The latter were known as ‘j.t.s’ (short for ‘jailhouse turnouts’), ‘dogs’ or ‘guttersnipers’–derogatory terms indicating the low regard in which they were often held. In some cases they appear to have been subjected to a degree of coercion: there was a word, ‘flagging’, for older inmates’ attempts to involve younger ones in sexual activities. The evidence suggests that this practice existed in both prisons and reform schools, and that young women sometimes submitted because, as one told Harris, ‘you got to belong or get hurt’.

As on the outside, relationships on the inside were typically organized around the butch/fem role division. The butch (known as, among other terms, a ‘stud broad’, ‘king’ or ‘pop’) was the dominant partner both socially (Giallombardo noted that the fem was expected to ‘give him respect’) and sexually. Taking the active role in sex was known as ‘giving up the work to someone’, an expression whose use is illustrated by this quote from Hellhole:

And that, says Lucky, was the last time she ever played femme and let anybody give up the work to her. From that day on, she knew herself to be a dyke and she was the one who gave the work up to other girls.

Lesbian slang overlapped not only with prison slang, but also with the vocabulary of other groups whose members were engaged in illicit sexual activities. An example is the verb ‘mac(k)’: applied to lesbians, it meant ‘to act in a masculine manner’ (to ‘mack it’ was to wear men’s clothing). Applied to men, however, the same verb could mean ‘to work as a pimp’. Because they were all viewed as sexual deviants and/or criminals, lesbians, gay men and people working in the commercial sex trade inhabited a shared underground social world; their networks intersected, and that was reflected in their vocabularies.

Some gay men and lesbians were directly involved in the sex trade, most commonly through working as prostitutes. For some this was a regular occupation, while for others it was more occasional: Sara Harris reports that ‘when they needed to, femmes and butches […] picked up tricks and put on circuses [i.e., performances of lesbian sex] for them’. There were also women who would pay to have sex with a woman. The term ‘jane’ (a female analogue of ‘john’) is recorded, referring to ‘the female client of a streetwalker’, as is the use of the word ‘freak’ to describe a woman who catered to lesbians.

Jonathon Green observes that what slang dictionaries offer is ‘an oral history of marginality and rebellion, of dispossession and frustration’. They make visible a world which standard, ‘general purpose’ dictionaries either pass over in silence or handle with metaphorical tongs (as I noted in a previous post, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary declined to include the word lesbian itself until 1976). But this does not reveal everything about a marginalized community’s life: it’s in the nature of slang to be more concerned with some areas of experience than others. You may have noticed, for instance, that the themes of the vocabulary I’ve been discussing include sex, commerce and power, but not love, affection and other tender feelings,  though those must also have existed and been expressed between women.

It’s also difficult to see this vocabulary as either a language of conscious political resistance to oppression or a proto-feminist language of sisterhood. Though lesbians as a group occupied a precarious position in male dominated society, the subculture had its own power hierarchies: women could be exploited not only by men, but also by other women–like the older women who put pressure on younger ones in prisons, or the richer women who paid poorer ones for sex. It’s a reminder, if we needed one, that women have no special claim to superior moral virtue, and that oppression does not generally make people behave like saints.

As a linguist who’s interested in the history of English, I’m happy to have a record of terms like ‘hawk’ (a lesbian who makes pick-ups on the street), ‘jasper’ (African American prison slang for a lesbian), ‘mantee’ (a masculine lesbian), ‘ruffle’ (a fem) and ‘sil’ (short for ‘silly’, meaning a lesbian who’s infatuated with another woman). But I wouldn’t want to live in the world they belonged to. Creative and colourful though the words may have been, I’m glad that social change has made them history. .

Missing words

Last week, the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour ran an item on the American documentary film Do I Sound Gay?  The film explores what’s popularly known as ‘the gay voice’, a way of speaking that identifies a man as gay (though not all gay men have it, and some men who do sound gay are actually straight). The Woman’s Hour feature ranged more widely over the subject of gay language, including a lengthy discussion of Polari. But it was all about the boys–until, towards the end of the item, the presenter broached the inevitable question: do lesbians also have a language of their own?

The short answer is no: there isn’t a lesbian equivalent of the gay voice, or a lesbian argot comparable to Polari. But since this blog does not do short answers, let’s consider the question–and what’s behind it–more closely.

Questions of the form ‘what is the lesbian analogue of X?’, where X is something gay men do, are usually asked with good intentions–most often the idea is to counter the tendency for discussions of gay culture to centre on the male variety, thus erasing or marginalizing the contribution of lesbians. But the way the question is framed introduces another kind of male bias. It treats gay male culture as prototypical, assuming that lesbian culture must be a copy or a mirror image, rather than something that needs to be considered on its own terms.

What this overlooks is that a group’s culture is a product of its history, and gay men and lesbians do not have identical histories. Though there were certainly experiences they shared, their lives were also affected by gender difference and inequality. How that may have influenced their ways of using language is an interesting, though also complicated, question.

The non-existence of a lesbian language was noticed and discussed as long ago as 1941, when Gershon Legman, a folklorist with a particular interest in sexual matters, published ‘The language of homosexuality: an American glossary’. As Legman acknowledged, what was documented in this list of more than 300 slang expressions (which appeared, somewhat incongruously, in a weighty tome summarizing the current state of medical and scientific knowledge about homosexuals) was an almost exclusively male vocabulary. ‘Very noticeable’, he wrote, ‘is the seeming absence of almost any but outsiders’ slang in relation to female homosexuality’. He proceeded to speculate on the reasons for this absence:

The tradition of gentlemanly restraint among Lesbians stifles the flamboyance and conversational cynicism in sexual matters that slang coinage requires; and what little direct mention of sexual practice there is among female homosexuals is usually either gruffly brusque and vague, or else romantically euphemistic.

But restrain yourself, gentlemen, there’s more:

Concomitantly, Lesbianism in America—and perhaps elsewhere—seems in a large measure factitious: a faddish vice among the intelligentsia, a good avenue of entry in the theatre, and most of all, a safe resource for timid women and demi-vierges, an erotic outlet for the psychosexually traumatised daughters of tyrannous fathers and a despairing retreat for the wives and ex-wives of clumsy, brutal or ineffectual lovers.

So, most so-called lesbians were only pretending, and the rest were either too restrained or too romantic to be capable of coining slang terms.

It’s tempting to dismiss Legman as just an arrogant sexist jerk. But if we put what he says alongside the work of later historians, it becomes easier to understand what actual characteristics of gay and lesbian cultures in the 1930s and 40s might have led him to pursue this line of argument.

One difference between lesbians and gay men was that lesbians were less likely to be arrested and imprisoned for engaging in illegal sexual acts. The riskiness of sex between men may have been a factor influencing the ‘language of homosexuality’, since it intensified the desire for secrecy and in-group solidarity. Legman remarked that lesbians had less sense of ‘criminality, let alone criminal community…two attitudes of mind which seem particularly conducive to the manufacture of slang’.

In other ways, though, gender inequality made life harder for lesbians. It was harder, economically and socially, for women to live independently of men, and to inhabit public space without male protection. This suggests an alternative explanation of why lesbians did not develop an extensive in-group vocabulary or a widely-used argot like Polari. As the lesbian feminist linguist Julia Penelope once put it,

Lesbians have been socially and historically invisible in our society and isolated from one another as a consequence, and have never had a cohesive community in which a lesbian aesthetic could have developed.

In their history of the working-class lesbian community in Buffalo, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis point out that in the 1940s and 50s what we would now call the ‘lesbian community’ was not perceived as a unified group whose members shared a single identity. Rather, ‘butch’ and ‘fem’ were regarded as distinct identities: they were associated with different ways of behaving, and in the case of fems, though there were exceptions, with a less permanent commitment to the lesbian life. When Legman talked about ‘factitious’ lesbians it was probably fems he had in mind. .

By contrast, when he talked about ‘gentlemanly restraint’ he was probably thinking more of butches. Kennedy and Davis show that butches, who were more visible as gay women because of their overt gender non-conformity, faced a different set of risks from those that confronted gay men. Butches attracted hostility not only as sexual ‘deviants’, but also as women who claimed certain male prerogatives. Kennedy and Davis think this may be why they did not display the kind of wit and flair that were features of gay men’s linguistic performance. Butches’ survival depended on acting and talking tough, so their style needed to be blunter and more assertive.

But I don’t think we can take it for granted that lesbians never created in-group vocabularies or other distinctive ways of speaking. Whenever the record seems to show that women haven’t done something, the question always has to be asked: is that because women really didn’t do it, or is it just because history did not preserve the evidence?

That question did occur to Legman: he acknowledged that there might have been something for him to find if he’d been able to look in the right places:

I have been assured that the situation is quite different in prisons, and that a fairly extensive Lesbian argot is likely to be found there. I have not had the opportunity to find out.

Later research would bear out this prediction. In 1966, the social scientist Rose Giallombardo published Society of Women , a study of a women’s prison in which she reproduced a number of the letters exchanged by inmates involved in romantic relationships. These suggested that a lesbian argot did, indeed, exist, and offered a glimpse (though only a glimpse, since language wasn’t the author’s main interest) of what it might have looked like.

Women’s prisons are not the only locations where this kind of evidence might have been found. Slang typically flourishes in what the sociologist Erving Goffman called ‘total institutions’ (e.g. prisons, asylums, boarding schools, religious orders, the armed forces), and many institutions of this type have historically been sex-segregated. All-female total institutions (like girls’ boarding schools, women’s colleges and the women’s armed services, as well as prisons and reformatories) would have been good places to look for lesbian slang in the pre-feminist, pre-Stonewall era. But they weren’t readily accessible to male researchers. Legman’s methods had an inbuilt male bias: as well as reading pornography, he spent time hanging out in burlesque theatres and what he described as ‘the grimier shit-houses around Broadway’ (toilet wall graffiti was one source of slang and vulgar terms, and some toilets were also ‘tea rooms’, places where men had sex.)

By the time lesbian researchers came on the scene, the linguistic situation was changing. The advent of the women’s and gay liberation movements at the end of the 1960s produced divisions between those gay men and lesbians who saw sexuality as a political issue, and those who remained resolutely unpoliticized. While the second group continued to use the traditional slang in the traditional way, the first denounced it as reactionary and oppressive. As Julia Penelope argued in 1974:

Too much of the lexicon of gay slang is given over to a preoccupation with sexual objectification and social stratification… Insofar as gay slang reflects and encourages the value system of a racist, patriarchal culture, those gays who use it are engaging in self-oppression. …although gay slang is the vocabulary of those who are themselves outcasts from the straight culture, it also binds us to the same value system that makes us outcasts.

Penelope noted that the gay community’s political awakening had not led to the wholesale abandonment of traditional slang terms, but rather to a shift in their meaning. ‘Certain terms…have ceased to be used with sexual meanings and have, instead, taken on new, political meanings’. The pejorative words ‘dyke’ and ‘faggot’, for instance, were reclaimed as positive identity labels. For activists, the term ‘gay’ itself now denoted ‘a state of political awareness in which one no longer needs the narrowly-defined sex stereotypes as bases for identity’.

These new meanings, however, were not accepted by everyone. Many self-styled homosexual men who remained outside the movement (and often firmly inside the closet) thought ‘gay’ was ‘trivializing and inane’. Meanwhile, some lesbians rejected the label ‘gay’ because their primary allegiance was to feminism. In the new nomenclature of sexual identity politics,

A dyke is a woman committed to revolution, the most radical position. A lesbian is committed to a more liberal position, and she is more willing to compromise and work within the system. A gay woman affirms her commitment to a gay community, and sees nothing wrong with working with men.

Today if you Google ‘lesbian slang’ you get more than half a million hits. I can’t say I looked through all of them, but many of the top ones turned out to be variations on the same two wordlists. Commentators continued to wonder why lesbians lag behind gay men. A piece posted in September 2015 with the title ‘11 lesbian slang words we wish existed’ began:

IDK if you’ve noticed, but the gays have completely monopolized the gay slang world. They have words for everything. Otters?! Pups?! Twinks! Where are our words!!!??!

That question has a long history, but maybe it’s time to move on. If we only ever talk about what lesbians’ language isn’t, we’ll never understand what it is.

An extract from Legman’s glossary is reprinted in The Language and Sexuality Reader, which I co-edited with Don Kulick. This post draws on other research and writing which Don and I  did together, and I thank him for his contribution–though he isn’t responsible for the views I’ve expressed here. 

 

Dictionaries, dick-tionaries and dyketionaries

Exactly ten years ago, in June 2005, I was contacted by a man from the British Potato Board. He wanted me, in my capacity as a professor of the English language at Oxford University, to endorse the Board’s campaign to get the expression ‘couch potato’ removed from the Oxford English Dictionary. It gave potatoes a bad name, he explained, by suggesting they were unhealthy, when in fact they were virtually a superfood, packed with fibre and vitamin C. The Board wanted the OED to replace ‘couch potato’ with ‘couch slouch’, which would convey the same meaning without unfairly maligning potatoes.

Initially I suspected this was a wind-up; but then a group of people turned up, dressed in potato costumes, to protest outside the offices of the OED’s publisher, Oxford University Press. Basically it was a publicity stunt: I’ve never been sure how serious they were about getting the dictionary to alter its entry. But even if the aim was just to get media coverage for the health benefits of potatoes, the campaign still traded on the popular belief that dictionaries function as a kind of supreme authority on the existence, validity and meaning of words. As if removing ‘couch potato’ from the dictionary were equivalent to banishing it from the language.

This attitude was on display again last week when it was announced that the most recent additions to the OED included an entry for the word cisgender.  On one hand you had people triumphantly hailing this news as proof that the word, and by extension the concept it denotes, is both real and legitimate.  On the other hand you had people—many of them feminists who dispute the political analysis behind the word—saying that the OED should not be giving legitimacy to such a flawed and biased term.

When I hear this kind of argument I feel pulled in two directions. The linguist part of me wants to defend the OED, explaining–just as I explained to the man from the British Potato Board–that the function of modern dictionaries isn’t to authorize words or make judgments on their value, it’s to document their existence and the way they’re used in the language. The main criterion for adding new words is that they have entered mainstream usage. Cisgender, for instance, used to be a little-known piece of in-group jargon, but now it turns up regularly in publications like newspapers which are aimed at a general audience.

Since the OED is a historical dictionary, whose aim is to chart the development of English vocabulary over time, it’s full of words which are obsolete, arcane, useless, offensive or frankly silly. Like scrolloping, a word that appeared once in the work of Virginia Woolf. Or phlogiston, an 18th century name for a chemical element that never actually existed. Learned discussions of phlogiston completely misrepresented reality, but the word was once in regular use, so the OED records it. It’s now doing the same for cisgender: even if you think the concept is to 21st century gender theory what phlogiston was to 18th century chemistry, there’s no good argument for not including it in a historical dictionary of English.

But if that last paragraph sounds like a straightforward defence of modern dictionary-making as an objective, value-free, scientific enterprise, let me clarify that I don’t think it’s that straightforward. That’s why I said I feel pulled in two directions. I’m a feminist as well as a linguist: I may not agree with those sisters who have complained about the OED’s inclusion of cisgender, but I have no doubt that mainstream dictionaries, including the OED, belong to an androcentric (male-centred) and sexist tradition. Since all major dictionaries rely heavily on past scholarship, the traces of earlier male bias are still highly visible; and some forms of bias have persisted into the present.

Criticizing the male bias of mainstream lexicography was a serious concern for feminists in the 1970s and 1980s, and so was making alternatives to what Mary Daly dubbed the ‘dick-tionary’:

Dick-tionary, n: any patriarchal dictionary: a derivative, tamed and muted lexicon compiled by dicks.

The source I’m quoting here was a product of this alternative tradition: Daly and Caputi’s Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, originally published in 1987. But while Daly’s reputation has kept the Wickedary visible to later generations of feminists, the fact that it was part of a flourishing enterprise of feminist dictionary-making is less well known, as are most of the other dictionaries second wave feminists produced (though many are still available, and I’ve added links where that’s the case).

In 2011, Lindsay Rose Russell published a scholarly article, ‘This is what a dictionary looks like’, which lists 18 examples of feminist dictionaries published between 1970 and 2006 (though the largest number appeared in the 1970s and 1980s). She was prompted to write by the appearance of a weighty tome about the history of lexicography which failed to mention a single feminist dictionary—though it did discuss specialist dictionaries of agriculture, botany, chemistry, law, medicine, seafaring and surnames. This struck Russell as a classic case of feminism being written out of history. Like her article, this post is an attempt to write it back in.

Serious feminist criticism of mainstream/malestream dictionaries began to appear in the early 1970s, when several kinds of systematic male bias were identified. These included

Selection of sources. The pre-existing source material from which lexicographers take their evidence about word-usage (which words are used, and with what range of meanings) has historically been heavily skewed towards texts written by male rather than female authors. While recently some attempt has been made to redress the balance, the overall bias remains an issue.

Androcentrism in selecting and defining words. As more dictionaries have moved online, the pressure to exclude words for reasons of space has been reduced, but in the past editors did have to make judgments on what was important or central and what was trivial or peripheral, and their decisions often reflected a male/masculist perspective. girls dictionarySo did some of their definitions: Alma Graham, who was involved in making a non-sexist school dictionary in the early 1970s, cites one dictionary that defined youth as ‘the part of life between childhood and manhood’.

One word the OED treated for decades as both too peripheral and, we might suspect, too distasteful to include, was lesbian. It has been used in print since the 18th century, so by the OED’s usual criteria it would certainly have merited an entry; but it was not only left out of the original edition (along with a number of other words the Victorian editors preferred to pass over in silence), it was also excluded from the supplement produced to update the dictionary in 1933, though the editor at that point did add the term homosexual. When lesbian finally got an entry, in a further supplement published in 1976, one of the quotations used to illustrate its use was this gem from the work of the writer Cecil Day Lewis:

I shall never write real poetry. Women never do, unless they’re invalids, or Lesbians, or something.

This brings us neatly to another kind of bias feminists criticized in the 1970s:

Sexism in illustrative quotations. The OED isn’t the only dictionary that gives examples (either real quotations or made-up sentences) to illustrate how words are used: this is also a feature of many pedagogic dictionaries, designed for schoolchildren or foreign language learners. And in some of the most popular learners’ dictionaries, reading the examples is like flicking through a catalogue of offensive gender stereotypes.

A student of mine who did a project on this topic found that one of the dictionaries she analysed had a pattern of alternating between male and female references in illustrative quotations: this may have been meant to ensure gender ‘balance’, but the effect was almost comically sexist, as though the examples had been chosen by Benny Hill. In its entry for the verb slip, for instance, the dictionary offered ‘he slipped on his shoes and went outside’ followed by ‘she slipped out of her dress’. Another classic, illustrating the verb mop, had ‘he took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow’ alongside ‘the charwoman had just mopped the linoleum that covered the stairs’. Though they compiled it in the 1990s, the makers of this dictionary apparently felt that what foreign learners needed was a good understanding of the gender roles that prevailed in Britain circa 1953 (also the class relations and the household technology—when did anyone last see a ‘charwoman’ wielding a mop?)

One feminist response to these shortcomings was to try to reform the dick-tionary from within (as with the nonsexist school dictionary discussed by Alma Graham), but there was also a flurry of explicitly oppositional feminist dictionary-making. Its products were varied in their form and political aims. Daly and Caputi’s Wickedary is part of a ‘utopian’ subgenre which also includes Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig’s earlier Lesbian Peoples: Material for A Dictionary (1979). Other feminists focused on recording and defining feminism’s own terminology (e.g. Joreen and Marleen Dixon’s Dictionary of Women’s Liberation (1970)), offering alternatives to sexist words (e.g. Rosalie Maggio’s The Nonsexist Wordfinder (1987)), or conversely listing and critically discussing them (e.g. Jane Mills’s Womanwords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Patriarchal Society (1989), which explores the history of misogyny by looking at the evolution of terms like frigid, hysteria and slut).

There were also examples like Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary (1985), which offered a direct challenge to the dick-tionary’s authority and its claims to objectivity. Kramarae and Treichler made no such claims. In some entries they defined a word (e.g. ‘powerlessness’) by simply juxtaposing quotations in which it had appeared, all taken from the speech and writing of feminist women. In other cases they offered a gloss which was designed to make visible the biases rendered invisible by the standard, supposedly neutral definition:

CUCKOLD. The husband of an unfaithful wife. The wife of an unfaithful husband is just called wife.

The first part of this does not differ greatly from what you might find in a non-feminist dictionary entry for cuckold, but the second part pointedly draws attention to the absence of any parallel term for a woman whose husband is unfaithful, and so makes a (non-neutral) comment on the underlying sex inequality.

In 1992 A Feminist Dictionary was reissued under the new title Amazons, Bluestockings and Crones. Lindsay Rose Russell calls this ‘a move from suffragist to supplement’: it makes the book sound less like a challenge to the conventions and the authority of the mainstream product, and more like ‘a harmless helpmate to the lexicographical tradition, a dictionary of boutique terms (Amazon, bluestocking, crone)’. Later examples continue the ‘harmless helpmate’ theme, bearing titles like From the Goddess to the Glass Ceiling (1996) and Wimmin, Wimps and Wallflowers (2001). There are also collections of words coined by and for a specific community or subculture, like the Chicago-based online Dyketionary. These are not aiming to talk back to the dick-tionary, to criticize its sexism or question its objectivity. They are, as Russell says, supplementary lists of ‘boutique terms’.

It could be argued that the function of the second-wave feminist dictionary has been superseded by more recent developments. On one hand, new technology has enabled mainstream dictionaries to expand their coverage and widen the range of sources they trawl through, thus reducing some of the old biases (it’s also worth pointing out that many mainstream lexicographers today are women: they may or may not be feminists, but they aren’t bearded Victorian patriarchs who find women alien and faintly repulsive). On the other hand, new media have democratised the process of recording and defining words, bringing us completely crowd-sourced examples of amateur/popular lexicography like Urban Dictionary, or Dyketionary.

But I wouldn’t make that argument myself, or at least not unreservedly. The response to Oxford’s announcement about cisgender shows that the authority of the established, mainstream dictionary has not been superseded. It also shows that there are still gaps in the public understanding of what lexicographers do, and how they go about it. If one consequence is that feminists sometimes make specific criticisms of dictionaries that (in my view) are misplaced, another is that they don’t make more general criticisms that are still highly pertinent.

That was one of the functions of feminist dictionaries. They were much more than boutique wordlists. Outdated though much of their content is, they offer, as Lindsay Rose Russell says, ‘a usable past’ for feminists reimagining the dictionary today.

The world and his or her wife

I’m talking to a young woman I’ve just met at an academic event. We stand around for a few minutes chatting, until eventually she glances at her phone and says, ‘I should go, my wife’s waiting’.

My wife. Only a few months earlier, no British woman could have uttered those words and meant ‘the woman to whom I am legally married’. But the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has changed the language along with the law. Along with the legal and financial benefits that come with being married, lesbians and gay men have acquired the ability to do something heterosexuals do without a second thought: refer casually to their spouses in everyday conversation.

But I’m not the only feminist I know who feels ambivalent about these references. That isn’t because I’m opposed to same-sex marriage (or at least, no more opposed than I am to marriage in general). It’s because for feminists, wife is a word that carries a lot of ideological baggage.

The issue isn’t the basic dictionary definition, ‘a married woman’. Where marriage exists, there will be a need for terms denoting the parties to it. But if you close the dictionary and open a thesaurus, the problem becomes more apparent. In my thesaurus, the entry for wife contains the following list of synonyms:

Mate, helpmeet, spouse, bride, better half, little woman, the missus, old lady, ball and chain, trouble and strife.

By contrast, the entry for husband reads

Mate, spouse, groom, bridegroom, partner, old man, hubby.

Evidently wife is not just a neutral term for a married woman, nor is it exactly parallel to husband. There are more synonyms for wife, and many of them are negative, expressing hostility or condescension. This is what I mean by ‘ideological baggage’. The associations of words are a product of the way they have been used over time. And wife is a word whose use has been shaped by the history of marriage as a patriarchal institution.

For most of that history it was wives who wore the ball and chain. When the Normans conquered England in 1066, one of the things they brought with them was the legal doctrine of ‘coverture’, which decreed that when a woman married she ceased to exist as an independent person. She was subsumed into the person of her husband, which in essence reduced her to his possession. As the jurist William Blackstone explained in 1765:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.

Whereas an unmarried woman (‘feme sole’) could own property, make contracts and keep her own earnings, a wife (‘feme covert’) could do none of those things. Her husband controlled her person, her property, and any wages she earned.

Coverture in its ‘pure’ form ended in the 19th century, when Parliament passed legislation granting property rights to married women. But many of the beliefs and practices associated with it persisted. One common argument against giving women the right to vote was that their husbands already voted on their behalf. In the 1960s married women could not enter into financial agreements without their husband’s permission. And until the 1980s a wife had no legal right to refuse her husband sex.

One obvious linguistic hangover from the days of coverture is the custom of married women taking their husbands’ names. The most extreme form of this practice, in which the woman is known publicly not just as ‘Mrs Smith’ but as ‘Mrs John Smith’, is now largely confined to the aristocracy and the super-rich (you often see it in the lists of wealthy donors that appear on the walls of museums), but it used to be more widely prized as a mark of a woman’s status. I learned this the hard way in 1977, when I was working in a high street bank. Noticing that a customer’s cheque book identified her as ‘Mrs David Graham’ (and assuming the account must have been opened in the dark ages), I asked her if I could change it to ‘Mrs Helen Graham’. I have never forgotten her furious response. ‘Of course not, you stupid girl’, she hissed, ‘there is no such person as Mrs Helen Graham. The wife of Mr David Graham is Mrs David Graham. How could I be married to myself?’

At the time I’d never heard of coverture, and I don’t suppose Mrs Graham had either. But her words distilled its essence. ‘The very being…of the woman is incorporated…into that of the husband’. There is no such person as Mrs Helen Graham.

The idea that a woman’s status is defined by who she marries is implied in many common phrases and sayings. We meet it at an early age: ‘the farmer has a wife’. ‘Mr Bread the baker and Mrs Bread the baker’s wife’. We run into it whenever we hear the phrase ‘the world and his wife’, which implies that ‘the world’ consists of men, while women exist only as men’s appendages. And we encounter it continually in media reports about women. Whatever a woman is in the news for, from climbing Mount Everest to assaulting her next door neighbour, if she’s married that will always be treated as relevant information.

In December 2014, the Church of England announced that it had chosen the Reverend Libby Lane to be its first female bishop—a historic decision which was reported by the Daily Mail under the headline ‘Saxophone playing vicar’s wife is C of E’s first woman bishop’. This reference to Rev. Lane’273s marital status was particularly confusing, because she herself was also a vicar. If she had not been ordained a priest, she would not have been eligible to become a bishop. By referring to her as a ‘vicar’s wife’, the Mail implied that the role from which she had been elevated was confined to such ancillary functions as teaching Sunday school and pouring tea.

Is it possible to use the word wife without implying that its referent is an appendage, an encumbrance, a servant, a possession? As always, context matters: there is a difference between the stand-up comedian who opens his routine with ‘take my wife—please!’ and the young woman who makes her excuses by saying ‘I should go, my wife’s waiting’. But while the specifics of context make every utterance unique, the words that compose an utterance cannot be freshly minted each time they are used. When I hear a woman say ‘my wife’s waiting’, I cannot help hearing an echo, however faint, of the misogyny of the ‘take my wife’ joke, and the casual sexism of ‘the world and his wife’. I feel the ghostly presence of a gallery of stereotypes: the nagging wife, the wife who ‘doesn’t understand me’, the wife whose selfless dedication to her husband’s career is acknowledged in books and at award ceremonies.

But many lesbians—not, by and large, great apologists for male supremacy—have embraced the word wife with pride. I don’t remember terminology being an issue during the campaign for equal marriage: it seemed to be taken for granted that same-sex spouses would be referred to as ‘wives’ and ‘husbands’. And there is logic in that. If, as a minority, what you want is not just legal but also social recognition—having the legitimacy and value of your relationships affirmed by society at large—then there are good reasons to prefer the words that are already used by and about the majority group. Symbolically those words say, ‘we are just like you; our relationships are no different from yours’.

I said earlier that displaying your married status via casual references to your spouse (like ‘I should go, my wife’s waiting’) is something heterosexuals do all the time. According to the conversation analyst Celia Kitzinger, who has studied this phenomenon, when heterosexuals say ‘my wife’ or ‘my husband’ (which it turns out they do very frequently, most often in contexts where their marital status has no bearing on the matter at hand), the message it conveys is one of ordinariness. Letting people know you’re married, without making a song and dance about it, is a way of presenting yourself as a normal, unremarkable, responsible adult.

In the past, non-heterosexuals couldn’t do that. Unlike ‘my wife/my husband’, formulas like ‘my partner’ or ‘my girl/boyfriend’ didn’t say unambiguously, ‘I’m in a grown-up, stable, committed relationship’. Though those who have it may not notice it, being treated as unremarkable is a form of privilege. From that perspective, it’s not surprising if campaigners saw being able to use the traditional spousal terms as one aspect of the equality they were fighting for.

But the traditional terms have different implications for lesbians and gay men. For lesbians, wife has costs as well as benefits: it allows them to claim greater social legitimacy for their relationships, but it also has uses which are demeaning to their sex. There’s a trade-off, in other words, between two kinds of social status. Gay men who adopt the label husband do not face that dilemma. Husband is not demeaning to men: marriage has never reduced men to non-persons, or required them to submit to the authority of a spouse.

Of course it’s true that the meanings of words change, and this happens because they start to be used in new contexts. Perhaps the extension of wife to lesbians, whose marriages are (at least in gender terms) reciprocal arrangements between equals, will help to shift the old view of married women as subordinates. Perhaps in future wife will mean no more than ‘a female person who is married to some other person’.

Or perhaps—since most marriages will continue to be heterosexual—the old ways of using wife will simply be carried over into the new context of lesbian marriage. Women married to women will be talked about in the same ways as women married to men; perhaps we’ll hear lesbians making jocular allusions to ‘the wife’ and her ‘wifely duties’.

Some queer theorists might see this as subversive, a challenge to heteronormative assumptions about marriage. For feminists, however, the problem is that it does not challenge patriarchal assumptions about women. The phrase ‘wifely duties’, whoever uses it, still suggests that a wife exists to serve. An ‘inclusive’ version of an old cliché like ‘the world and his or her wife’ still implies that a wife is an appendage.

For as long as these expressions remain in common use, it will be hard to argue that wife has shed the baggage of its patriarchal history. But with language, you’re never starting from scratch. What Marx said about history is also true about meaning: we make it ourselves, but ‘under circumstances existing already , given and transmitted from the past’.