The spinster returns?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics, by definition

That troublesome word ‘woman’ has been causing controversy again.

Last week, a Twitter user who goes by @ShoelessJoe1910 shared two responses from the makers of Collins Dictionaries to people who’d contacted them about the dictionary entry for ‘woman’. One correspondent had received a reply that looked like a standard piece of boilerplate:

As lexicographers, our duty is to report the language as it is used… Whilst we do welcome all feedback received from our users, any changes we make to our definitions are the result of a detailed review process and evidence-based linguistic research.

Another correspondent who raised the same subject got a different response:

Thanks again for contacting us about the definition of ‘woman’. …We are currently reviewing all our gender-related vocabulary to make sure that we accurately reflect the evolution in the vocabulary of gender and sexuality. This review will be completed in the coming months, and your comments will most certainly be taken into account. We always welcome feedback from our users, so do not hesitate to contact us if you notice any other inaccuracies and omissions.

The subject of both communications was whether a dictionary entry for ‘woman’ should define the word as meaning ‘an adult female human being’ (as Collins currently does), or whether it should (also) inform users that ‘woman’ denotes a person who identifies as a woman. The first correspondent wanted the lexicographers to maintain the traditional definition; the second wanted them to change it.

What initially bothered @ShoelessJoe1910 was the contrast between Collins’s dismissive treatment of the first correspondent, a woman, and the deferential manner in which they addressed the second, presumed to be a man (it was later clarified that this correspondent was actually a trans woman). But what drew people into the thread was the question about how ‘woman’ should be defined. Most comments endorsed the traditional definition, and criticised the dictionary for considering any other. Some thought this was an Orwellian plot to cut the cord which tethers language to reality. One was sufficiently incensed to call for a boycott of HarperCollins’s products.

And what, I hear you ask, does this blog think? I think I’m about to piss off both sides in this argument by explaining why I believe it’s pointless to pursue your political objectives by lobbying lexicographers about dictionary definitions.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts about dictionaries, you’ll know that I don’t regard them as just objective and apolitical works of reference. They have historically exhibited all kinds of biases, including androcentrism and casual sexism, and there are some traces of that history which I think it’s reasonable to ask them to get rid of—especially their unreflective use of sex-stereotyped examples illustrating the current usage of words, which is neither necessary nor helpful to their users.

Other kinds of sexism are more difficult for dictionaries to eliminate while still fulfilling their core functions. For instance, if you read Collins’s current online entry for ‘woman’  you’ll see not only some thoroughly sexist example-sentences in the illustration section, but also some secondary senses of ‘woman’ (e.g. ‘domestic servant’; ‘wife, mistress or girlfriend’) and some idioms containing the word (e.g. ‘little woman’, ‘woman of the streets’) which feminists might well find objectionable. But their inclusion is not a mark of the lexicographers’ own sexism, it’s a reflection of the sexism of the community whose usage they’re describing. We might query the range of idioms selected—they’re a pretty dated-looking set—but even if some of them are no longer in common use, they still appear in sources (like Victorian novels) which 21st century language-users encounter fairly frequently. Dictionaries have quite exacting criteria for declaring a usage obsolete, and one consequence is that they are rich sources of evidence about the prejudices of the past.

But whatever you think about the retention of old usages which offend modern sensibilities, one thing it’s not reasonable to ask lexicographers to do is ignore the development of new usages which express more contemporary attitudes. I’ve given this example before, but it bears repeating: what would we think of an entry for ‘marriage’ that defined it, in 2017, as ‘the union of a man and woman’ or ‘the relationship between a husband and a wife’? That’s what it used to mean, and it’s also what quite a lot of people think it should still mean. But theirs is no longer the majority view: in many parts of the English-speaking world the law has changed to permit same-sex marriage, and the usage of ‘marriage’ reflects that. Dictionaries have therefore felt the need to update their entries for the word. Collins’s, for instance, though it makes no explicit reference to same-sex marriage, is written in pointedly gender-neutral language.

Similarly, the gender-identity-based definition of ‘woman’ now reflects the usage of at least some people in at least some contexts. Whether that usage merits recording in a general-purpose dictionary will depend on the criteria the dictionary uses to decide if something has entered ‘general’ or ‘common’ usage: I assume that’s what the Collins lexicographers will be looking at in their review of gender-related vocabulary. I also assume that if they do decide to record the identity-based sense of ‘woman’, what they’ll do is add this definition to their revised entry, not substitute it for the current one. I’m confident the evidence is not going to show that English-speakers have stopped using ‘woman’ to mean ‘adult female human being’.

In my view, what Collins told the first correspondent was right: ‘thanks for your input, this is a question that’s on our radar, but our decision will be based on analysing a large sample of relevant linguistic data, not on random emails from a few individuals who feel strongly enough to lobby us about it’. That’s also what they should have told the second correspondent. If your policy is to base definitions on corpus evidence about word-usage (and if it isn’t you’re basically just Urban Dictionary) then you should spell that out to everyone who contacts you—ideally without implying that you regard them as either out-of-touch, prescriptive bigots or oracles of wisdom. (Of course, that means that when you say ‘we welcome all feedback from our users’ you’ll be lying about 99% of the time, but such is life for lexicographers. Some of the feedback they get makes the comments in the Daily Mail look sensible.)

If I were in charge of all things linguistic, what I’d want to change with a wave of my magic wand would not be the principles of descriptive lexicography (even if some of its practices could be improved), but the popular attitude which makes dictionaries perennial targets for political lobbying. By treating lexicographers as linguistic quality controllers—if a word or sense makes it into the dictionary that’s taken as a stamp of approval, a vote of confidence, a Papal Bull proclaiming that we should all be using/understanding the word that way—we give them and their products more authority than they deserve.

The view that dictionaries are or should be arbiters rather than just recorders of usage has a long history (interestingly discussed in Anne Curzan’s book Fixing English), and you can still see it reflected in things like Merriam-Webster’s periodic reports on its most popular online ‘look-ups’. The words M-W’s users look up tend to reflect what’s currently in the news: this summer, for instance, the solar eclipse prompted a spike in look-ups for eclipse-related terms like ‘penumbra’, while the ongoing drama of the Trump presidency had people searching out words like ‘impanel’ and ‘recuse’. In these cases, involving technical terms drawn from the registers of science and law, we can imagine people who were previously unfamiliar with a word going to the dictionary’s website to find out what it meant, or maybe how it was pronounced or spelled. But in other cases that’s an unlikely scenario. It’s hardly plausible that all the people who looked up ‘science’ during the row about Trump’s policy on climate change, or those who looked up ‘fact’ after Kellyanne Conway’s infamous reference to ‘alternative facts’, were just trying to remedy their ignorance about the meaning, spelling or pronunciation of these common words. More likely they were engaged in some kind of argument about what ‘science’ did or didn’t cover, or whether ‘alternative facts’ was a contradiction in terms, and had turned to the dictionary for an authoritative ruling.

I’m sure we’ve all at some point been involved in a political argument which someone has proposed to settle by looking a word up in a dictionary. But this will never definitively settle it, because the meanings of words (or at least, the sorts of words that provoke arguments) are always variable and contested; and anyway what you’re arguing about isn’t ultimately the words themselves, it’s the differing ideologies which lie behind the competing senses. Lobbying lexicographers on behalf of your preferred definition is fighting a political battle by proxy. What you need to do to win the battle is change the real-world usage of the word in question (something that will usually go along with  other, nonlinguistic social changes). If the dictionary definition is the only thing that shifts, your victory will be purely symbolic.

You might be thinking: but if people with a political agenda manage to change the definition given in dictionaries, won’t that in itself have an impact on real-world usage? In some cases the answer may be ‘yes’, but only if we’re talking about the sort of obscure word which is typically acquired through instruction rather than through the experience of hearing words used in context. ‘Woman’ is not that kind of word. It’s a basic item of English vocabulary, one of the thousand most common words listed in Collins’s dictionary.

If every dictionary in the world changed its definition of ‘woman’ tomorrow, that still wouldn’t stop future generations from understanding and using it to mean ‘adult female human’. That meaning, still the dominant one, will survive because it will continue to be acquired by children in the course of their everyday interactions. Whether they will also acquire the identity-based meaning is another question, and the answer to it doesn’t depend on the dictionary definition of ‘woman’ either: they’re more likely to be taught it in school, or to encounter it in the media, than to learn it by looking up ‘woman’ in a dictionary.  And if kids are learning the new sense from other sources, keeping it out of the dictionary will do nothing to halt its spread.

I’m not suggesting that all arguments about word-meaning are pointless (if I thought that I’d be in the wrong line of work); what I’m questioning is the equation of a word’s meaning with its dictionary definition, and the associated belief that if you can persuade a dictionary to change (or not change) a definition, you have thereby changed (or safeguarded) the language itself. This attitude to dictionaries is another interesting example of how conservative, when it comes to language, political radicals can be. It’s no good petitioning the King (especially as he abdicated long ago). The struggle for meaning is a grassroots campaign.

What makes a word a slur?

Content note: this post contains examples of offensive slur-terms. 

Last week, the British edition of Glamour magazine published a column in which Juno Dawson used the term ‘TERF’ to describe feminists (the example she named was Germaine Greer) who ‘steadfastly believe that me—and other trans women—are not women’.  When some readers complained about the use of derogatory language, a spokeswoman for the magazine replied on Twitter that TERF is not derogatory:

Trans-exclusionary radical feminist is a description, and not a misogynistic slur.

Arguments about whether TERF is a neutral descriptive term or a derogatory slur have been rumbling on ever since. They raise a question which linguists and philosophers have found quite tricky to answer (and which they haven’t reached a consensus on): what makes a word a slur?

Before I consider that general question, let’s take a closer look at the meaning and history of TERF. As the Glamour spokeswoman said, it’s an abbreviated form of the phrase ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’; more specifically it’s an acronym, constructed from the initial letters of the words that make up the phrase. Some people have suggested this means it can’t be a slur. I find that argument puzzling, since numerous terms which everyone agrees are slurs are abbreviated forms (examples include ‘Paki’, ‘Jap’, ‘paedo’ and ‘tranny’). But in any case, there’s a question about the status of TERF as an acronym. Clearly it started out as one, but is it still behaving like one now?

To see what I’m getting at, consider an acronym from the 1940s: ‘radar’. Do you know what all the letters stand for? I do, but only because I’ve just looked it up. I’ve been using the word for 50-odd years without realising it meant ‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’—a feat made possible by the fact that ‘radio detection and ranging’ isn’t really what it means any longer. Over time it’s become just an ordinary word, which is used without reference to its origins as an acronym. No one mentally expands the letters R-A-D-A-R into words; no one imagines that ‘gaydar’ must be short for ‘gay detection and ranging’. Also (a trivial but telling sign) no one now writes ‘radar’ in all caps.

I’ve been writing TERF in all caps, but these days you also see it written ‘Terf’ or ‘terf’. That’s one sign it’s going the same way as ‘radar’, becoming a word which can be used without knowing what the letters of the original acronym stand for. Another sign is the way it’s now used to describe people (e.g., men) who don’t fit the original specification, in that they aren’t radical feminists. It looks as if at least some users of the term don’t define it strictly as meaning ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, but use it with a more generic meaning like ‘transphobic person’.

This kind of change is common in the history of words. Word-meaning is inherently unstable, liable to vary among different groups of users and to change over time, because we don’t learn the meanings of most words by looking them up in some authoritative reference book, we figure them out from our experience of hearing or seeing words used in context.

It’s easy to see how that might shift the meaning of TERF in the way I’ve just suggested. Imagine you hear two of your friends discussing a mutual acquaintance who they refer to as a TERF. You’ve never encountered the term before and you have no way of knowing it’s a short form of a longer phrase (because it’s a true acronym, pronounced not as a series of letters but as a single syllable that rhymes with ‘smurf’).  So you listen to what’s being said about the TERF in question and make the simplest inference compatible with what you’re hearing: that TERF means a transphobic person.

If TERF’s meaning has started to shift that’s actually a sign of its success (words evolve as they spread to new users and contexts). But it makes the argument that TERF is just a neutral descriptive label for a specific group of people less convincing. That argument either takes no account of the way usage has changed over time, or else it’s a version of the etymological fallacy (‘however people actually use a word, its original meaning is the true meaning’).

But the fact that a word isn’t a neutral description doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a slur. We’re back to the question philosophers and semanticists have found so tricky: on what basis can we say that a word is a slur?

As I’ve already mentioned, the people who’ve written on this subject don’t agree on what the answer is. And after reading their various accounts, I’m not sure I believe there’s a single right answer. Rather, I think there are a number of criteria which need to be considered. If we’re in doubt about a word’s status as a slur, we can try asking the following questions, and then looking at the overall balance of the answers.

My first two questions are based on what the philosopher Jennifer Hornsby proposes as the two fundamental features of a derogatory term or slur.

Is the word commonly understood to convey hatred or contempt?

Does the word have a neutral counterpart which denotes the same group without conveying hatred/contempt?

This definition seems to have been constructed using racial/ethnic slurs as a prototype. In these cases it’s generally understood that the slur term, used in preference to a neutral term which denotes the same group of people, communicates hatred/contempt as part of its meaning (that’s the difference between, say, ‘Jew’ and ‘kike’). This doesn’t help us much with terms like TERF whose status as slurs is disputed. TERF is certainly understood by some people to convey hatred and contempt, but others deny it conveys those things.

It’s also unclear whether there’s a neutral term which TERF contrasts with. TERF doesn’t so much refer to a pre-existing group as bring a new category into existence (there was a pre-existing group of radical feminists, but they weren’t defined as a category by the belief that trans women are not women, and in fact they still aren’t, since not all radical feminists hold that belief). So, to decide whether TERF is a slur we need to ask some other questions.

Do the people the word is applied to either use it to describe themselves or accept it when others use it to describe them?

Both parts of this question are important. If a group of people voluntarily use a word to describe themselves, then—on the assumption that people don’t generally slur their own group—you might conclude the word isn’t a slur. However, this does not allow for the possibility that a term might be a marker of identity and solidarity when used within the group, while remaining a slur if it’s used to/about the group by outsiders. (The classic example is the solidary use of the N-word among (some) Black people: it doesn’t make it OK for white people to use it. ‘Dyke’ for ‘lesbian’ is another example: fine if you are a lesbian, suspect if you aren’t. ) There are also jocular, ironic and self-mocking uses which don’t undermine the status of a word as a slur (women friends might refer to themselves in private as ‘sluts’ or ‘bitches’, but they wouldn’t accept being described in those terms in public or by non-intimates).

With TERF, I’d say the answer to both parts of the question is ‘no’. There may be people who use TERF ironically/self-mockingly in private, but I’m not aware of any who publicly define themselves as TERFs, and it’s common for those who are called TERFs by others to reject the label. Note that these observations concern attitudes to the word: there are certainly some feminists who publicly affirm the belief mentioned by Juno Dawson, that trans women are not women, but they may still deny being TERFs. This suggests they see TERF in the same way members of a certain ethnic group might see an ethnic slur: ‘yes, I am a member of the group you mean, but no, I do not accept the implications of the name you’re calling it by’.  Which brings me to the next question:

Do the people the word is applied to regard it as a slur (e.g. do they describe it explicitly as a slur, protest against its use, display offence/distress when it is used)?

For some writers, a ‘yes’ to this question is enough on its own to make a word a slur.  Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore argue that

…no matter what its history, no matter what it means or communicates, no matter who introduces it, regardless of its past associations, once relevant individuals declare a word a slur, it becomes one [emphasis in original]

What these writers are trying to account for is the fact that labels which were previously considered acceptable, or even polite, can get redefined as slurs (examples include ‘Negro’ and ‘coloured’), and the reverse may also happen (‘Black’ was not always acceptable, and ‘queer’ used to be unambiguously a slur). This isn’t a matter of what the term means (the literal meaning of ‘Black’ and ‘Negro’ is the same), but rather depends on the perceptions of ‘relevant individuals’ (members of the target group) at a particular point in time. If they declare a term offensive, then it’s offensive: it’s idle for non-members of the group to tell them they have no business taking offence.

On this criterion, TERF is indisputably a slur.  Many individuals who have been described as TERFs have called it a slur, protested against its use (witness the complaints about Juno Dawson’s column) and explicitly said that it offends them. But I’m reluctant to make that the sole criterion. I agree that for something to be a slur it’s necessary for members of the target group to regard it as offensive, but I’m not sure that’s a sufficient condition (and what do you do about cases where the target group is split? ‘Queer’, for instance, divides opinion in the LGBT community).

As a sociolinguist (unlike the writers I’ve been referencing), I’m also dissatisfied with the implication that members of a group just arbitrarily and randomly decide that, for instance, ‘queer’ has ceased to be a slur or ‘Negro’ has now become one. I think these developments can be related to the changing social and political contexts in which words are used (for instance, the context for the ‘unslurring’ of ‘queer’ was the surge of radical activism prompted by the HIV-AIDS epidemic). Perceptions of words have to be seen in relation to what the words are being used to do, either by the group itself or by its opponents. So another question I would want to ask is,

What speech acts is the word used to perform?

If a word is just a neutral description, you might expect it to be used mainly for the purpose of describing or making claims about states of affairs. If it’s a slur, you’d also expect it to be used for those purposes, but in addition you might expect to see it being used in speech acts expressing hatred and contempt, such as insults, threats and incitements to violence. (By ‘insults’ here, incidentally, I don’t mean statements which are insulting simply because they use the word in question, but statements which say something insulting about the group, e.g. ‘they’re all dirty thieves’.)  

There’s evidence that TERF does appear in insults, threats and incitements. You can read a selection of examples (mostly taken from Twitter, so these were public communications) on this website, which was set up to document the phenomenon. Here are a small number of items from the site to give you a sense of what this discourse looks like:

you vile dirty terf cunts must be fuming you have no power to mess with transfolk any more!

I smell a TERF and they fucking stink

if i ever find out you are a TERF i will fucking kill you every single TERF out there needs to die

why are terfs even allowed to exist round up every terf and all their friends for good measure and slit their throats one by one

if you encounter a terf in the wild deposit them in the nearest dumpster. Remember: Keeping our streets clean is everyone’s responsibility

Precisely because it was set up to document uses of TERF as a slur, this site does not offer a representative sample of all uses of the term, so it can’t tell us whether insulting/threatening/inciting are its dominant functions. It does, however, show that they are among its current functions.  It also points to another relevant question:

What other words does the word tend to co-occur with? 

It’s noticeable that on the website I’ve linked to, TERF quite often shows up in the same tweet as other words whose status as slurs is not disputed, like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. Other words that occur more than once or twice in these tweets include ‘disgusting’, ‘ugly’, ‘scum’ and a cluster of words implying uncleanness (‘smell’, ‘stink’, ‘garbage’, ‘filth’)—which is also a well-worn theme in racist and anti-Semitic discourse.

One of the clues we use to infer an unfamiliar word’s meaning in context is our understanding of the adjacent, familar words; the result is that over time, recurring patterns of collocation (i.e. the tendency for certain words to appear in proximity to one another) have an influence on the way the word’s meaning evolves. The examples on the website are too small and unrepresentative a sample to generalise from, but if the collocations we see there are common in current uses of TERF, that would not only support the contention that it’s a slur, it might also suggest that the word could become increasingly pejorative.

In summary: TERF does not meet all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, but it does meet most of them at least partially. My personal judgment on the slur question has been particularly influenced by the evidence that TERF is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution). Granted, this isn’t the only kind of discourse TERF is used in, and it may not be the main kind. But if a term features in that kind of discourse at all, it seems to me impossible to maintain that it is ‘just a neutral description’.

I believe in open debate on politically controversial issues, so I’m not suggesting the views of either side should be either censored or protected from criticism. My point is that when one of the key terms used in the argument has become a slur, it is no longer fit for any other purpose, and the time has come to look for a replacement.

 

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.