Radical notions

Occasionally on this blog I take a moment to look back at some of the feminists who concerned themselves with language in the past. I’ve written about Suzette Haden Elgin, the linguist and science fiction writer who created the women’s language Láadan, and about the feminists who produced alternatives to what Mary Daly dubbed the ‘dick-tionary’.  This post is about someone whose contribution I only discovered recently: the writer and editor Marie Shear, who died at the end of 2017.

You may not know her name, but you’re probably familiar with at least one thing she wrote: it was Shear who defined feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She came up with that definition in 1986, in a review of Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary. And for years it was Kramarae and Treichler who got the credit: people assumed Shear had just been quoting them, when in fact the words were her own. Such was her enthusiasm for the dictionary’s woman-centred approach, her review (which she herself described as a ‘toast’), took the form of a list of her own alternative definitions, including

men: people who think toilet paper grows on the roll.

overqualified: a job applicant who is not dumb enough for the work reserved for ‘girls’.

pocket envy: women’s unfulfilled yearning for practical clothes.

Though the error persists in some sources, others have now acknowledged Shear as the creator of one of the most memorable feminist slogans of the 20th century. Yet she remains, to use her own sardonic description, ‘a widely unheralded writer’. Much of her writing was done before the digital age, for ‘alternative’ publications like New Directions for Women, a New Jersey-based feminist newspaper whose ‘Media Watch’ feature she wrote for many years (this was also where her review of A Feminist Dictionary appeared). These pieces can still be found, but you have to know where to look: they won’t just pop up in a Google search*. Nor will much information about their author. While writing this post I was surprised to discover that the woman whose words have appeared on T-shirts, badges and bumper stickers around the English-speaking world had no entry in the English-language version of Wikipedia (though I’m happy to say that one has since been created by a reader of this blog).

My own quest to find out more about Marie Shear began when I quoted her definition of feminism in a book, and was therefore obliged by the laws of my profession to go hunting for the full bibliographical details (‘no, you can’t just cite a T-shirt, we need a page number’). As I searched through the records of her published work, I realized her review of A Feminist Dictionary wasn’t the only thing she’d written that I might be interested in. Language, and the problem of sexism in language, was a theme that recurred in her articles, book reviews and columns. It was also the subject of what her obituary singled out as the piece of writing many people would remember her for, ‘”Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language’.

Sexism in language first became an issue in the 1970s, and lot of early work on it was practical rather than academic: it aimed to define the problem and offer workable solutions, most commonly in the form of guidelines for writers. The first non-sexist writing guidelines were produced by publishers for in-house use (the pioneer was the educational publisher McGraw-Hill, which adopted guidelines in 1973), but over the next 15 years many examples of the same sort of advice were published in book form for a wider audience. In 1984 Marie Shear reviewed a selection of these publications for the Women’s Review of Books. The titles she discussed included one that is still in use today, Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, along with the same authors’ earlier book Words and Women, Bobbye Sorrels’s The Non-Sexist Communicator, and Merriellyn Kett and Virginia Underwood’s How To Avoid Sexism. Shear was well placed to assess these texts because of her own involvement, as an editor, in the enterprise they represented–though her influence was mainly exercised behind the scenes, in discussions with and writing for her fellow-professionals. But her interest in the problem–and her writing about it–went beyond the issues addressed by guidelines .

Most non-sexist writing guidelines published between the mid-1970s and the end of the millennium presented the issue of sexism in a bland, depoliticizing way. The goal was to persuade a mainstream audience of the benefits of adopting non-sexist language, and writers did so, in part, by emphasizing how moderate and unthreatening their proposals were. Really, they seemed to be saying, it was just a question of moving with the times. The problem was that English usage had not kept up with the onward march of progress: conventions that had served writers well enough in the past (like the generic use of ‘he’ and ‘man’) were now outdated, inaccurate, misleading and insensitive. Once this had been pointed out, people would immediately want to change their ways: their problem would be purely technical, a matter of not knowing exactly how to do it. Guideline-writers were there to help by suggesting accurate and unbiased alternatives to outmoded sexist terms.

As an editor who both dealt with and sometimes wrote about the technical challenges of avoiding sexism, Marie Shear also had a foot in this liberal camp. But when she wrote about language for a feminist audience her analysis of the problem was much more radical. She wrote vividly, often angrily and sometimes very personally about what lurked beneath the surface of linguistic sexism, and about the damage she believed it did to women.

It’s these qualities that make the piece I mentioned earlier, ‘“Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language’, so memorable. It was published in 2010, when Shear was 70, and it begins with this arresting vignette:

I am lying on a gurney in a hospital hallway, alone, waiting to be rolled into the O.R. for the first of two operations. The surgeon approaches and greets me: “It’s Little Marie!” he exclaims. …Fortunately, I don’t realize until later that a man named Richard who calls a woman “little” invites a reply that minimizes his most cherished protuberance: It would have been imprudent to say, “Hello, Little Dick!” moments before he stuck a sharp knife into my carcass.

Eventually, the same surgeon will address me as “kiddo” and “the little chippie.” A chippie, of course, is a prostitute. He tells the friend who has accompanied me to the exam that he is using the phrase “to bait her (– meaning me –) because I know it gets her goat.”

What’s striking about this is the contrast Shear makes us see between the person she is to herself–an intelligent adult who considers herself the surgeon’s equal–and the inferior, powerless child he turns her into with his familiar use of her first name and his insistence on infantilizing her further by calling her ‘little’ Marie (an unmistakable sign of sexism, since it’s impossible to imagine him greeting an adult male patient as ‘little Donny’). This vignette gives the lie to the liberal account in which well-meaning people inadvertently use sexist language because they don’t understand why it’s offensive. As the surgeon later confirms, there is nothing inadvertent about it. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he’s doing, by his own admission, is baiting her. She refuses to interpret this as just light-hearted ‘banter’ or friendly ‘joshing’. For her, this way of speaking to women can never be taken lightly:

Examined with an analytic eye and a diagnostic ear, sexist language reveals an underlying social disease — contempt for and fury at women. Being literally communicable, the disease both reflects and perpetuates our degradation.

It’s this ‘communicable’ quality which leads Shear to treat sexist language as a serious, even a fundamental, political issue. The words are like the rats that carry the fleas that spread the plague: they may not be the cause of sexism, but they are its privileged vehicles, and their ubiquity ensures that we will all become infected.

Everywhere we turn on an ordinary day — to politics, greeting cards, stand-up comedy, New York Times crossword puzzles, the dentist, the mail, the florist’s messenger and the TV pontificators — we meet words that demoralize and flay us.

These continual verbal reminders of the contempt with which the world regards women have not only an immediate effect, but also, and more insidiously, a cumulative one. Though many individual instances may be minor, the constant, relentless exposure wears women’s resistance down, inducing shame, self-consciousness and self-policing. Even—or perhaps especially—when it’s presented as a joke. ‘As a means of social control’, Shear remarks, ‘ridicule is second only to rape’.

‘Little Marie’ illustrates something else I appreciate about Shear’s analysis. She understands sexist language as a weapon used against all women, but she also recognizes that it is used differently against different groups of women:

Bigots switch instantly from one category of bias to another, compounding sexist condescension with ageist usage … Misogyny also interlocks with usage disparaging people who aren’t thin or physically decorative and parallels usage that insults people who aren’t white.

Though many second-wave writers on sexist language made analogies with other kinds of bias, few took the further step of drawing attention to problematic patterns of usage that resulted from the combination of sexism and other prejudices. (For instance, it was common for guidelines to warn against stereotyping (white) women with hair-colour terms like ‘blonde/ brunette/ redhead’, but I can’t remember any analogous discussion of the skin-colour clichés (‘her skin was like ‘ebony/ mahogany/ rich chocolate’) that pervade descriptions of Black women). Shear was aware of this gap: in the 1984 book review mentioned earlier she discussed not only a selection of non-sexist guidelines but also some addressing other problems like ableism, ageism, heterosexism and racism. ‘Literature like this’, she commented, ‘ought to grow’:

More extensive, authoritative guides to all kinds of stereotypes are needed. A thorough treatment of anti-lesbian gibes, for example, would point out that they often do double duty, simultaneously slandering the lesbian and the uppity straight woman for their wit and grit. Indeed, every group whose members are habitually derided can benefit by instructing the public at large about biased words and images.

This was also a theme in the media columns she wrote for New Directions for Women, where she frequently criticized representations that excluded, stereotyped or insulted Black women, lesbians, older women and women with disabilities.

By the time she wrote ‘Little Marie’ Shear herself was old enough to have become acutely aware of the particular forms of condescension that are routinely directed to older women:

A bus driver watching me haul myself laboriously up his stairs says, “Take big-girl steps.” (Kiss my big-girl Aunt Fanny.) …The sidewalk coffee vendor calls me “dear” twice and calls the male customer behind me “sir.” Reporting for jury duty, I hear a guard at a metal detector greeting every female who arrives with “young lady”; he welcomes no male with “young gentleman.” …The moment I enter a magazine shop in Manhattan, a customer asks, “What are you looking for, darlin’?” I turn and look at him, speechless. Mistaking my incredulity for incomprehension, he rephrases his question: “What are you looking for, sweetheart?” I draw myself up to my full, if negligible, height, assume my 5’10” voice, and tell him sternly, “Don’t call me ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’! It’s patronizing!” Without missing a beat, he replies, “I was just trying to be nice to an old lady.”

The older a woman gets, the more she will be addressed by men in a way that reflects not only the usual sexist presumption of familiarity (any man in any situation may address any woman as if the two of them were intimate, or at least sufficiently well-acquainted to give him an automatic claim to her attention) but also the idea that older women are mentally incompetent, requiring the same verbal accommodations as small children. All women past the first flush of youth are expected to regard ageing as a source of shame, from which it follows that you can always brighten their day with some jocular, faux-gallant comment on how young they look. Age may have withered their bodies, but their vanity is assumed to be indestructible. And any complaint about any of this will be met with that familiar refrain, an aggrieved ‘but I was only being NICE’. (Or that other familiar refrain, ‘no need to be such a bitch’.)

Marie Shear didn’t mince words, and she wasn’t afraid to direct the un-minced kind towards the most exalted of gatekeepers. In her 1984 book review she contrasted the various guidelines she was reviewing with the hopelessly muddled and inconsistent approach that still prevailed in most sections of the press. She saved her finest display of her signature snark for this assessment of the New York Times:

Its stylebook is laden with mugwumpery: elaborate distinctions between “comedian” and “comedienne”; a requirement that ships, but not countries, be called “she”; confusing directives about “coed”; the acceptance of “councilwoman” and the rejection of “chairwoman.” Best of all, there are 24 paragraphs on “Mrs.” and “Miss” –a remarkable tangle of Byzantine niceties and exceptions to exceptions.

Another thing Shear didn’t do was let things drop. She mentions in ‘Little Marie’ that she wrote to the NYPD seven times over a period of five years to demand an apology for an incident in which an officer addressed her as ‘babe’ (it seems she got one in the end). She didn’t stop talking about sexist language when it became unfashionable in the 1990s, and she made no apology for repeating herself, though she was evidently exasperated by the need for repetition:

Women spend our lives explaining the obvious to the uneducable. In the face of daily indignities and humiliations, why must we explain that we are neither prigs nor prunes — just people?

A radical notion, indeed.

*************

 

* Marie Shear’s writing for New Directions for Women can be found by searching Independent Voices, an open access digital collection featuring ‘periodicals produced by feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Hispanics, LGBT activists, the extreme right-wing press and alternative literary magazines during the latter half of the 20th century’. Thanks to the linguist Alice Freed and the reference librarian Fran Kaufmann at Montclair State University for tracking down this excellent, publicly accessible and free resource. The Women’s Review of Books, another publication Shear contributed to regularly from the 1980s on, has its own digital archive, but to use it you will probably need access to an academic library.  

 

The kids are alright

When I was a kid, I sometimes encountered adults who disapproved of the way I’ve just used the word ‘kid’. ‘A kid’, they would say, repressively, ‘is a baby goat’. They weren’t really objecting to the substitution of animal for human vocabulary. They just thought ‘kid’ was vulgar, a sign that the person who uttered it was uneducated and unwashed. They were using a spurious argument about language to proclaim their superiority to the common herd. They were also asserting their power, as adults, to hold young people to their standards of acceptable speech.

I was reminded of this last week when I read an article in Teen Vogue about the importance of using gender-neutral language. Clearly, I am not in the target audience for this publication, being neither a teen nor in any way voguish, and I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it before. But my interest in this particular piece was piqued after a number of people shared it on Twitter and commented on the absurdity of some of the terms it suggested—like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’ as gender-neutral substitutes for ‘uncle/aunt’ and ‘nephew/niece’.

I thought this was a bit unfair. I’d never come across ‘pibling’ or ‘nibling’ before, but it’s not hard to discern the logic behind them: they’re obviously modelled on ‘sibling’, a long-established word meaning ‘brother/sister’. Your ‘pibling’ is your parental sibling. I don’t know if it’ll catch on, but I don’t find it self-evidently ridiculous.

Anyway, I decided to read the Teen Vogue article for myself. And it got me thinking, not only about the perennially fraught relationship between activists of different generations, but also about the history of this type of verbal hygiene. Advice on using gender-neutral language has been around for over 40 years: the earliest English examples date back to the 1970s when I was still a teenager. So, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and what does it all mean?

What surprised me most was how much of the article could have been lifted from something written 40 years ago. Both the selection of ‘problematic’ forms and the suggested gender-neutral alternatives reminded me of classic second-wave feminist texts like Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s 1976 book Words and Women and their later Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, which was first published in 1980 (there’s a fuller account of the two women’s work in this 1990s interview). Teen Vogue suggests a number of substitutions which I’m sure English-speaking feminists of my vintage will recognise:

• Humankind instead of mankind
• People instead of man/men
• First-year student instead of freshman
• Machine-made, synthetic, or artificial instead of man-made
• Flight attendant instead of steward/stewardess
• Salesperson or sales representative instead of salesman/saleswoman
• Server instead of waiter/waitress
• Firefighter instead of fireman

This list echoes the preoccupations of the earliest nonsexist language guidelines, which put particular emphasis on avoiding (a) terms like ‘fireman’ and ‘mankind’, which  incorporated ‘-man’ (thus excluding women or implying that men were the norm); and (b) terms like ‘waitress’ that were formed by adding a feminine suffix to the generic/masculine form (this explicit gender-marking was considered both gratuitous and demeaning). Many of these terms were occupational labels, and that reflected one of the key feminist concerns of the time: combatting discrimination in employment. In Britain, where sex-discrimination became illegal in the mid-1970s, the new law required employers to use nonsexist terms in job ads. You couldn’t just advertise for a ‘salesman’ on the basis that ‘man’ included everyone, you had to spell out that women were welcome to apply by using either paired terms (‘salesman/woman’) or a neutral alternative (like ‘salesperson’). But it’s odd to see some of the old advice on job-titles being recycled in 2018. When did anyone last call a member of the cabin crew on an aeroplane a ‘stewardess’? Who still thinks of ‘firefighter’ as one of those newfangled PC terms?

On the other hand, this recycled list is a reminder that the old project of replacing male-centred with neutral terms was only partially successful. Four decades of complaints haven’t made ‘freshman’ obsolete, for instance, or ‘man/mankind’.  The list also made me think of the failed experiments which are always part of the history of any kind of verbal hygiene–all the proposed replacements for traditional sexist terms which didn’t make it into the mainstream, and are now largely forgotten. ‘Genkind’, anyone? How about ‘waitron’?

But while a lot of the actual terms on Teen Vogue‘s list are the same ones feminists discussed 40 years ago, the article’s framing of the issue is very different. Gender-neutral language is not presented as a specifically feminist concern, and the problem it’s meant to solve is not defined primarily as one of sexism. Instead, the main reason given for adopting neutral terms is, in the words of gender therapist Dara Hoffman-Fox, that

Using gendered terms […] is highly presumptuous, especially in today’s society, in which many persons are aware that they don’t identify as male or female and therefore are uncomfortable with this type of language.

In the past, feminists who advocated neutral terms weren’t trying to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about the gender of individuals.  Their aim was to challenge the more general presumption of maleness as the human default. That presumption has not yet withered away, but for readers of the Teen Vogue generation concern about it has been at least partially displaced by newer concerns about respecting individuals’ identities and making those outside the conventional male/female binary feel ‘more included and safe among us’.

This explains the presence in the article of some less familiar terms, like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’. Kinship terms in general didn’t feature prominently in old-style nonsexist language guidelines, since although they are gender-differentiated, they do not invite the objection feminists had to pairings like ‘waiter/waitress’, that the masculine term is unmarked and the feminine by implication a deviation from the norm. The only difference between ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, or ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’, is that one denotes a female relative and the other a male one. But if your main concern is to include people who identify with neither of those possibilities, it becomes a problem that there is no term you can use that doesn’t specify the relative’s sex. What do you call your mother’s nonbinary sibling or your brother’s agender child?

This is the gap neologisms like ‘pibling’ are meant to fill. At the moment the inventory of gender-neutral kinship terms is still a work in progress, a matter of people independently constructing wordlists and putting them online. Their proposals are many and varied, and some of them are clearly destined to join the list of failed experiments I mentioned earlier (if you find yourself adding a note like ‘also the name of a musical instrument’ or ‘cute term for penis in French’ you probably haven’t got a viable candidate). But if enough people have a use for terms that do this job, a consensus will begin to emerge on which forms are best suited to the task.

For me, though, the most interesting question the Teen Vogue piece raised about continuity and change in gender-related verbal hygiene was not about the words themselves, nor even about the arguments for using or not using neutral terms. It was more about attitudes to linguistic authority—about who can prescribe to whom, and how they should go about it.

Casey Miller and Kate Swift were initially very reluctant to embark on what became the Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. They didn’t want to be seen as the ‘word police’, telling people ‘Do This or Don’t Do That!’ This attitude was not unusual: the authors of non-sexist language guidelines often disclaimed any intention to be prescriptive. Their aim, they said, was not to impose new standards, but only to help writers achieve in practice the kind of accurate and unbiased writing they already believed to be desirable in theory. What could be more inaccurate and biased than the erasure of half the population? Drawing attention to the problem and giving advice on how to avoid it was just removing an obstacle in the path of good writing. I always found this rhetoric disingenuous–of course writing guidelines are prescriptive, what would be the use of them otherwise? But it needs to be understood in the context of the time.

Before the digital revolution, it was not possible to experiment with new conventions or terminology in the ways people routinely do now. Today you can (literally) spread the word via tumblr or Urban Dictionary, but in the print era, if you wanted innovations to acquire mainstream currency, you needed the support of gatekeepers like publishers, newspaper editors, and the producers of educational materials like school textbooks or college writing handbooks. These gatekeepers were predominantly men, many were linguistically conservative, and at a time (the 1970s) when second-wave feminist militancy was at its peak, they were inclined (though there were exceptions) to view demands for nonsexist language as threatening and ‘extreme’. In those circumstances it was politic for feminists to tread lightly. And of course, there is always a reason for women to be cautious about claiming authority. When they don’t downplay their expertise, as we saw in the #immodestwomen row earlier this year, they are liable to provoke hostility and resentment.

Teen Vogue, however, does not tread lightly. Channelling the spirit of our contemporary online call-out culture, it actively encourages word-policing:

Don’t be afraid to correct those around you, such as your classmates and even teachers, about using exclusive, gendered language… Depending on the situation, you can address the situation with the person publicly or privately, in person or through a message.

You could see this as a positive development–young women being exhorted to exercise authority directly and unapologetically–but in this context I don’t think it’s good advice. There may be cases where something does need to be challenged on the spot (if it was not only highly offensive but also clearly deliberate and malicious), but in most situations I think you should resist the urge to ‘correct those around you’. Not only is this interpersonally risky, it’s also very often counterproductive. Nothing is less likely to make a speaker change their attitudes than being scolded or publicly shamed for using ‘forbidden’ words. I learned that long before I was a linguist, from every adult who ever told me that ‘a kid is a baby goat’.

Teen Vogue, of course, is imagining the opposite scenario, in which an adult takes instruction from a teenager. I think this speaks to a more general cultural shift since my own teenage years. The authority to set linguistic standards is no longer seen to lie exclusively with parents, teachers and other adults: on some questions, including questions about what terms are politically acceptable or progressive in relation to subjects like gender, it’s now widely assumed that the old should defer to the young.

It’s also widely assumed that since the young will outlive their elders, their standards will eventually prevail. But one thing this glosses over is that you can’t generalise about what young people think, about language or gender or anything else. There are political differences and disagreements within as well as between generations. An example is the ongoing conflict about whether it’s exclusionary to use the term ‘women’ in discussions of abortion, pregnancy or menstruation. It wouldn’t be true to say that gender-neutral alternatives like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ are uniformly favoured by younger feminists and uniformly opposed by older ones: the issue divides opinion across generations. That was also true for some of the reforms feminists proposed in the past. I said before that the history of verbal hygiene is full of failed experiments; it’s also full of  unfinished arguments and unresolved conflicts.

Teen Vogue’s brand of verbal hygiene isn’t identical to what preceded it, but nor is it so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I may not love everything about it, I do think this article is doing something worthwhile: introducing a new generation to the idea that thinking critically about language is part of the larger project of creating ‘a society in which all people — regardless of gender, sexuality or race — have equal opportunities and freedoms’. The route may have changed, but the destination is the same.

Ette-ymology

Boy: hey dude!
Girl: I’m not a dude, I’m a girl.
Boy: OK, dudETTE!

The feminine suffix –ette is alive and well in the 21st century. It has several entries on Urban Dictionary (I’ve quoted one of them above), and I keep stumbling across it in unexpected places. Like the online magazine Gadgette,  ‘the smart woman’s guide to tech, style and life’. (‘Have you ever been talked down to about tech?’ the editors ask. ‘Offered the pink version of a laptop, or asked to flash your breasts to try a new smartwatch? We have’.) Or Stemettes, an organization dedicated to ‘showing the next generation that girls do Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths too’.

These are both feminist enterprises (though only Gadgette actually uses the f-word), and both deserve credit for tackling the problem of sexism in science and technology. But what are they doing with these twee, girly, patronizing –ette names?

Back in the day (in my case, the 1980s), I was among the English-speaking feminists who argued for getting rid of feminine endings like –ess, -ette, -ine and –trix,  on the grounds that they were unnecessary and demeaning. Unnecessary, because in most cases there’s no need to make gender distinctions. If a man and a woman both write books, why call one an author and the other an authoress? Demeaning, because the way gender is marked—by taking the masculine/generic form and adding a feminine suffix—suggests that men are the default for the human species while women are a special case or an afterthought, like Eves fashioned from Adam’s rib.

By the 1980s feminine suffixes were already less common than they had been 30 years earlier, and in the last 30 years their decline has continued. They survive in older words which are still frequently used, like actress, princess and heroine (and also in some less frequently used, ‘exotic’ items like dominatrix), but they aren’t generally added to new terms: there’s no such thing as a coderess, for instance, or an online moderatrix. Yet –ette seems to be bucking the trend, appearing in new coinages like stemette and at the end of words it didn’t get added to in the past (another –ette entry on Urban Dictionary lists not only dudette but also friendette). This is galling, because –ette was often perceived by feminists as the most objectionable of the sexist suffixes.

The reasons for that are to do with the historical meanings of –ette. Though it’s grammatically feminine in its original language, French, -ette did not begin its career in English as a feminine gender-marker. In French it’s a diminutive ending, and that’s also how it functions in most of the English words containing it. You add -ette to a noun to make a word that means ‘a small version of (noun)’, as in cigarette, kitchenette, novelette and vanette.

In use, these –ette words sometimes implied that a thing was small in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense—slight, trivial, of lesser value. In some cases the metaphorical meaning became the primary one: poetette, for instance, meant ‘a young or minor poet’. In the late 19th century this ‘lesser value’ sense gave –ette a new use in names for cheap imitations of expensive materials—like beaverette (a type of fake fur), leatherette, satinette and silkette.

Between the 17th and 19th century English imported a few –ette words that denoted women, including coquette (‘flirt’), brunette, and the theatrical term soubrette. But these were foreign words, borrowed directly from French: it wasn’t until the early 20th century that –ette was used to form a new English word referring to a category of women.

The word in question, first seen in print in 1906 in the Daily Mail, was suffragette. It was not invented by the women it was used to name. Rather it was coined by their political opponents as a response to the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of conventional political tactics, the WSPU’s founder Emmeline Pankhurst had announced that the new organization’s motto would be ‘deeds not words’. Its members engaged in direct action: they threw bricks, set fires and sometimes assaulted the police. The label suffragette was meant to distinguish these militant campaigners from the more moderate suffragists, who confined themselves to lobbying and peaceful protest. It was intended to be divisive, and it was also intended to be derogatory.

Choosing an –ette word for this purpose was strategic, because it allowed the existing meanings of –ette to be exploited for negative effect. Because –ette was a diminutive, substituting it for –ist was a way of belittling the WPSU women and suggesting that their activities were of little consequence. Because –ette appeared in the names of artificial materials, the new term subtly underscored a common criticism of the militants—that a woman who engaged in criminal violence was so unnatural, she could not be considered truly female.

So, suffragette was meant as an insult. But the women who were its targets refused to be insulted. Instead they embraced the word with pride (later they even named their magazine The Suffragette), and found ingenious ways to put a positive spin on the problematic –ette ending. As the historian of English Lynda Mugglestone recounts:

The Pankhursts suggested another version by which –gette was to be pronounced ‘get’ — succinctly indicating the suffragettes’ determination to ‘get the vote’ on equal terms with men.

This is a rare example of feminists successfully ‘reclaiming’ a derogatory label. Suffragette was, from the first, a contested term, with supporters of the WSPU using it positively while their opponents continued to use it negatively. But it’s the positive meaning which has ultimately prevailed. After the battle for the vote was finally won, the word began to lose its negative associations. Today, when almost no one disputes that the cause was just, suffragette is not generally regarded as insulting or demeaning. It has eclipsed suffragist as the commonest descriptive label for the women involved in the struggle, and for many people it is a positive term, associated with qualities like courage, passion and perseverance.

But the same cannot be said of the other feminine –ette words which followed it.

These got off to an unpromising start when, almost a decade after failing to establish suffragette as an unequivocally negative label, their opponents made another, more successful attempt at using -ette to belittle feminists. In 1915, when a group of feminist anti-war activists set out to attend the Women’s International Congress for Permanent Peace which was taking place in The Hague, the Daily Express commented:

All Tilbury is laughing at the Peacettes, the misguided Englishwomen who, baggage in hand, are waiting at Tilbury for a boat to take them to Holland, where they are anxious to talk peace with German fraus over a teapot.

In the course of the 20th century, more –ette terms denoting women made their way into English. The earliest, which like peacette were coined during World War I, were munitionette and farmerette. Undergraduette appeared in 1919, (drum) majorette and (cinema) usherette during the 1920s, purserette in 1931, bachelorette in 1943 and proette (‘a female professional golfer’) in 1955. The 1960s gave us nymphette and jockette as well as patrolette (a title apparently used for women employed by certain motoring organizations). The 1970s produced hackette (‘female journalist’), in the 1980s we had bimbette and modette, and ladette emerged in the 1990s.

Most of these words are not overtly insulting, but they could certainly be called patronizing and trivializing. Many of them are labels for women who either took traditionally male roles (undergraduette, farmerette, purserette, proette) or else adopted ‘masculine’ forms of behaviour (bachelorette, ladette). In these contexts the use of any feminine suffix implies that women are deviations from an assumed male norm; the use of the –ette suffix, in particular, suggests their efforts to emulate men are not to be taken seriously.

It’s also noticeable that in most cases (the exceptions being the wartime job titles) these are labels specifically for young women—another metaphorical extension of the diminutive meaning, ‘little’. The femininity they evoke is immature and unthreatening: more cute, bubbly and fun-loving than competent, serious and powerful.

It’s the combination of cutesy girliness with the idea of women aping men that makes –ette words, so far as I’m concerned, a feminist no-go area. To me, there’s something paradoxical about referring to women scientists as ‘stemettes’ (which implies they are trespassing on male turf, whereas the organization’s message is that STEM fields aren’t just for men), or calling a magazine for female tech enthusiasts Gadgette (isn’t that the linguistic equivalent of offering women ‘the pink version of a laptop’? OK, I know, irony, but there’s a fine line between ironizing sexism and just repeating it, producing what the cultural critic Judith Williamson dubbed ‘sexism with an alibi’).

But you might be thinking: how relevant are the judgments of someone who is (a) a linguist and (b) over 50? It’s a legitimate question. My reaction to –ette words is undoubtedly coloured both by my knowledge of their history and by my own history as a feminist. The women who came up with stemette and Gadgette are younger, and it’s possible their understanding of –ette has little to do with the historical meanings which I find it so difficult to get past. Linguistic change is generational: a key reason why the meanings of words change over time is that each new generation of speakers, encountering the words in their own historical context, may draw conclusions about their meaning which do not exactly coincide with the conclusions that were drawn by a previous generation. If you track this process over a long enough time-period, you’ll find plenty of cases where a word’s meaning has shifted from negative to positive, or vice-versa. For instance, sophisticated was once an insult (meaning ‘dishonest, deceitful’), and complacent was once a compliment (meaning ‘pleasant, obliging’).

Could –ette be making the same kind of journey? It’s not inconceivable, but on balance I don’t think so. Present-day English speakers may not make the old connection with cheap imitation materials, because most of those words have fallen out of use. But –ette remains common in its diminutive sense, so there’s still a basis for younger speakers to deduce that female-referring terms of the form X + ette imply ‘little X’ as well as ‘female X’—and potentially to find that insulting, just as feminists of my generation did.

Time will tell. But meanwhile, if you don’t want a brick through your window, don’t ever address me as ‘dudette’.

This post was partly inspired by Lynda Mugglestone’s English Words in Wartime project. The illustration shows some World War I munitionettes in a factory near Luton.