Dissing the dictionary

This week the Guardian writer Emine Saner drew my attention to a petition on Change.org asking Oxford University Press, the publisher of the Oxford Dictionary, to change its entry for the word ‘woman’.

od def woman

The petition condemns this entry as ‘unacceptable in today’s society’, noting that many of the synonyms it gives for ‘woman’ are derogatory, and the illustrative examples are variations on old sexist themes:

A ‘woman’ is subordinate to men. Example: ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’, ‘one of his sophisticated London women’.

A ‘woman’ is a sex object. Many definitions are about sex. Example: ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’, ‘If that does not work, they can become women of the streets.’

‘Woman’ is not equal to ‘man’. The definition of ‘man’ is much more exhaustive than that of ‘woman’. Example: Oxford Dictionary’s definition for ‘man’ includes 25 ‘phrases’ (examples), ‘woman’ includes only 5 ‘phrases’ (examples).

The creator of the petition, Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, has found that Oxford’s entry is not an isolated case. In a piece entitled ‘Have you ever Googled “woman”?’ she examines the entries in several widely-used dictionaries and points out similar problems with all of them. Her petition targets Oxford, however, because as well as being, in her view, the worst offender, it’s also got a market advantage: it’s the dictionary you get with Apple’s products and the one that pops up first in searches on Google, Yahoo and Bing.  Her petition calls on the Press

  1. To eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women;
  2. to enlarge the definition of ‘woman’ and equal it to the definition of ‘man’;
  3. to include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc.

As I told Emine Saner (whose own piece you can read here), I’ve got mixed feelings about this campaign. I do think the entries Giovanardi reproduces are terrible, and I’ll come back to that later on. But the petition is based on ideas about dictionaries–how they’re made, what they aim to do, and how they’re used–which, to my mind, are also a problem. I’ve written about this before, but let’s just recap.

Modern dictionaries are descriptive: their purpose isn’t to tell people how words should be used, but rather to record how words actually are used by members of the relevant language community (or more exactly, in most cases, by ‘educated’ users of the standard written language). What’s in the Oxford Dictionary entry for ‘woman’ does not represent, as Giovanardi puts it, ‘what Oxford University Press thinks of women’. The dictionary is essentially a record of what the lexicographers have found out by analysing a large (nowadays, extremely large—we’re talking billions of words) corpus of authentic English texts, produced by many different writers over time.

I’m not trying to suggest that dictionaries compiled in this way are beyond criticism: they’re not, and that’s another point I’ll come back to. But a distinction needs to be made between the producers’ own biases and biases which are present in the source material they use as evidence. A lot of the sexism Giovanardi complains about is in the second category: it’s the result of recording patterns of usage that have evolved, and still persist, in a historically male-dominated and sexist culture.

For instance, one reason why the Oxford entry for ‘man’ is longer than the one for ‘woman’ is that men have been (and still are) treated as the human default. Men are both people and male people; women are only women. The historical reality of sexism also makes itself felt in the presence of so many degrading and dehumanizing terms on lists of synonyms for ‘woman’. These reflect the social fact that women have been sexually objectified in ways that men have not; they have also been treated, in life as well as language, as men’s appendages or possessions. It’s not even two centuries since that was their status in English law.

If the vocabulary of a language reflects its users’ cultural beliefs and preoccupations, then it’s no surprise that many English words and expressions denoting women highlight their dependence on and inferiority to men, their physical appearance and their sexual availability. (In an early feminist study of this phenomenon, the linguist Julia Penelope Stanley identified over 200 words for ‘woman’ that meant, or had come to mean, ‘prostitute’.)  It’s true dictionaries have a bias towards the usage of men from the most privileged social classes–the section of society that has historically had most access to the means of representation–but in this case it’s not obvious that a more balanced sample would paint a totally different picture. Sexism and misogyny have never been confined to a single class, or indeed a single sex.

The demand to eliminate ‘phrases and definitions that discriminate against or patronise women’ (or other subordinated groups: there have been similar campaigns in the past relating to entries where the issue was race, ethnicity or faith) implies that dictionaries should sanitise the reality of word-usage which is sexist, racist, anti-semitic or whatever, in the hope that this gesture will help to make a better world. Lexicographers tend to be wary of that suggestion, since it goes against their descriptivist principles. They also reject the popular belief that merely by including a certain word or definition they’re somehow endorsing it, giving it a degree of currency and acceptability which it would lack if it were not in the dictionary.

But while I agree this belief misunderstands the aims and methods of modern lexicography, I also think there’s something disingenuous about the standard ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ response. If the public at large treat dictionaries as arbiters of usage, then in practice, whether their producers like it or not, they do have authority, and therefore some responsibility to reflect on how it should be used.

In some areas it’s clear they have reflected, and concluded that some sanitising is justified. You may have noticed, for example, that Oxford’s entry for ‘woman’ doesn’t propose ‘cunt’ as a synonym: that can’t be because it isn’t used as one, so presumably it’s been excluded on the grounds of its offensiveness. In recent years there’s also been a move to eliminate the casual racism and homophobia which were features of some older dictionary entries (today you’ll find fewer references to ‘savages’ or ‘unnatural acts’). Casual sexism, by contrast, has mostly escaped the cull. I may not agree with Giovanardi’s proposed solution, but I think she’s right to raise this as a problem.

What solution would I be in favour of, then? Essentially, a more context-sensitive, ‘horses for courses’ approach. Different kinds of dictionaries serve different purposes and audiences: there are some cases where I think it would be wrong to sanitise the facts of usage, and others where nothing important would be lost by being a bit more selective.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—the massive historical dictionary which is Oxford’s flagship product—contains an entry for ‘woman’ which is an absolute horror-show of sexism: the senses listed include things like

3a. In plural. Women considered collectively in respect of their sexuality, esp. as a means of sexual gratification.
4. Frequently with preceding possessive adjective. A female slave or servant; a maid; esp. a lady’s maid or personal attendant (now chiefly hist.). In later use more generally: a female employee; esp. a woman who is employed to do domestic work.

Further down there’s a long list of delightful idioms containing ‘woman’ (‘woman of the night’, ‘woman of the streets’, ‘woman of easy virtue’) and a section full of even more delightful proverbs and sayings (‘a woman, a dog and a walnut tree/ the more you beat them the better they be’). And many of the illustrative examples, even some of the most recent ones (this entry was last updated in 2011), are as terrible as you’d expect. Any feminist who reads the entry from beginning to end will want to go out and burn the world down. But in this case I believe that’s as it should be. The OED is designed primarily for scholars, and it’s an invaluable repository of cultural as well as linguistic history. Hideous though the ‘woman’ entry is, cleaning it up would do feminism a disservice: it would erase evidence that needs to be preserved for our own and future generations.

The Oxford Dictionary, however, as accessed via iPhones and search engines, is (or should be) a completely different animal. I said earlier that I thought the entry reproduced in Giovanardi’s petition was terrible, and what I meant by that was not only that it’s terribly sexist, but also that it seems poorly designed to meet the needs of those who use this type of dictionary. The basic definition of ‘woman’ is unremarkable (albeit redundant, since this is a high-frequency word that English-speakers generally acquire before they can read), but the thesaurus section is stuffed with archaic terms which would hardly be usable in any contemporary context. Who, in 2019, calls women ‘besoms’, ‘petticoats’ or ‘fillies’?  And if you did encounter one of these expressions in a novel or period drama, the context would make clear what it meant. So what is this list of synonyms good for? What pay-off would its makers cite to justify its rank misogyny?

But in any case, does anyone in real life use their phone, or Google, to look up common words like ‘woman’? After speaking to Emine Saner, I rather belatedly began to wonder what people do use dictionary apps for, and I put out a call on Twitter asking people to tell me if they used them, what they did with them, and what the last word they’d looked up was. Leaving aside the people who replied that they only ever used either bilingual dictionaries or monolingual dictionaries for languages they weren’t native speakers of, the responses clustered in three main categories. In order of frequency, these were

  1. Checking the meaning and/or spelling of low-frequency words (examples included ‘obviate’, ‘noctilucent’ and ‘eschatology’)
  2. Using the thesaurus element of an entry—or an actual thesaurus app—to find synonyms to use when writing
  3. Searching for words while engaged in word-based leisure activities like doing crosswords or playing Scrabble.

One or two people mentioned other uses, like checking the pronunciation of a word they’d only ever met in writing, or looking into the history of a word, or decoding the slang terms used by their children (for this purpose Urban Dictionary was the go-to source). But no one reported looking up basic vocabulary items whose meaning, spelling and pronunciation they already knew. Of course you can’t draw general conclusions from what you’re told by a self-selected sample of your Twitter followers, but it seems possible the Oxford Dictionary entry for ‘woman’ isn’t exerting a malign influence on our attitudes to women, simply because so few of us will ever look at it.

I’m not saying that makes it OK to leave the entry as it is: I do think the dictionary makers should revisit their synonyms and illustrative examples (they could start by getting rid of any expression that no one under the age of 85 has ever uttered). But if I had to make them a to-do list, revising their ‘woman’ entry wouldn’t be at the top. Dictionaries reinforce sexism and gender stereotyping in other ways, which are arguably more pernicious because they’re not so immediately obvious.

An example is the persistent use of sex-stereotyped illustrative examples in entries for words that have nothing to do with sex or gender. I discussed this form of banal sexism in a previous post, prompted by the row that broke out when the anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan queried the use of ‘a rabid feminist’ in the Oxford Dictionary entry for ‘rabid’. We’ve also got dictionaries for learners of English in which men mop their brows while charwomen mop the floor, and men slip on their shoes while women slip off their dresses. How do these sexist clichés enhance anyone’s understanding of the words ‘slip’ and ‘mop’? Do the entry writers think learners are planning to practise their English on a coach tour of the 1950s?

As I’ve said before, though, my feelings about political activists lobbying dictionaries are mixed: I can see why you might want to put pressure on what are, whether they acknowledge it or not, influential cultural and linguistic institutions, but something that bothers me about this approach (that is, apart from the problems I’ve already mentioned) is its linguistic authoritarianism. It’s buying into the idea that dictionaries can and should lay down the law—that it’s fine for them to prescribe, so long as what they prescribe reflects our own preferences rather than those of our political opponents. I know I’ve used this example before, but let’s not forget that Christian conservatives lobbied dictionaries in an attempt to stop them changing their entries for ‘marriage’ to include the same-sex variety–and progressives applauded when the dictionaries took no notice. In that instance feminists were happy to endorse the principle that dictionaries just record the facts of usage. I don’t think we can reasonably demand that they should be descriptive when it suits us and prescriptive when it doesn’t.

But the deeper problem underlying these contradictory demands is the status we accord to ‘the dictionary’ as the ultimate authority on language. In the past that was something feminists questioned: they were less interested in harnessing the power of what Mary Daly called the ‘dick-tionary’, and more interested in challenging its patriarchal claims to ‘authoritative’ and ‘objective’ knowledge.

During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, a number of feminists produced alternative dictionaries that embodied this challenge in both their content and their form. The compilers of these texts didn’t deny that their selection of headwords, definitions and examples represented a non-neutral point of view; rather they maintained that this was covertly true of all dictionaries (Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary defined a dictionary as ‘a word book. Somebody’s words in somebody’s book’.) Their entries emphasised the variability of meaning—words can mean different things for different speakers—and the fact that it’s contested rather than consensual. Though admittedly they were not much use if what you needed was a definition of ‘noctilucent’.

In some ways, as Lindsay Rose Russell points out in her recent history of women’s contributions to dictionary-making, these late 20th century feminist dictionaries anticipated digital-era efforts to democratise and diversify knowledge, as exemplified by Wikipedia and Wiktionary, and (in a different way) Urban Dictionary. They were anarchic, utopian, and they often featured a multiplicity of voices which they made no attempt to homogenise. They used sources that conventional dictionaries neglected, and tried to amplify the voices those dictionaries had marginalised or muted.

In theory the digital revolution offered an opportunity to develop this tradition further, and perhaps to produce feminist alternatives to the mainstream online dictionaries which most people use today. But in practice that hasn’t happened. Digital knowledge-making communities have been dominated by men, and they can be hostile environments for women—witness the many female Wikipedians who say they’ve been bullied or sidelined by men who treat the site as their turf. Any attempt to create a feminist dictionary online would be a magnet for these mal(e)contents, who would either want to take it over or to take it down. Ironically, there may be less space for feminist lexicography in the limitless expanse of cyberspace than there was in the olden days when dictionaries were books.

But although I regret the fading of the more radical spirit that animated projects like A Feminist Dictionary, I’m not completely opposed to the reformist approach. As Lindsay Rose Russell told Emine Saner, ‘we ought to care what definitions are made most readily available and why’–and we have every right to bring our concerns to the attention of the people responsible for those definitions. Even if Oxford’s public response is defensive or dismissive, I suspect that Maria Beatrice Giovanardi’s petition might still prompt discussion behind the scenes. Its demands won’t be met in full: a descriptive dictionary can’t eliminate all sexism from the record of a language in which sexism is so pervasive. But if it makes the producers aware that a lot of people find their entries for ‘woman’ gratuitously offensive, outdated and useless, they may, eventually, make some changes. In this case I think they should, and I hope they will.

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It ain’t what you say…

Women/ Rabbit rabbit rabbit women/ Tattle and titter/ Women prattle/ Women waffle and witter/ Men talk. Men talk.

These are the opening lines of ‘Men Talk’, a rap poem by the incomparable Liz Lochhead (you can watch her performing the whole thing here). It’s built around the familiar lexicon of disparaging terms for women’s speech: words like ‘rabbit’, ‘prattle’ and ‘witter’, which represent women’s talk as excessive, trivial and inane; and words like ‘gossip’ and ‘nag’, which represent it as malign and spiteful.

But those words are only the tip of the iceberg. If you look at the way the act of speaking is described in everything from news reports to Great Literature, you’ll soon discover that it’s persistently represented in stereotypically gendered and sexist ways.

The most neutral way to describe the act of speaking is by using the generic verb ‘say’. ‘X said’ is the reported speech equivalent of Lochhead’s ‘men talk’: it conveys no more than ‘this person uttered these words’. But writers often add colour by choosing something a bit less basic. Here’s an example, from a political sketch that appeared in the Telegraph after the second TV debate of the 2015 General Election campaign.

“Ed Miliband is scared to be bold,” scowled Ms Sturgeon. “We don’t want a pretend alternative to austerity.” “Exactly right!” squeaked Ms Bennett.

“Labour are letting the Tories off the hook!” snapped Ms Wood. The audience applauded.

Desperately Mr Miliband tried to steer the debate back to his absent foe. “Let’s not pretend there’s no difference between me and David Cameron,” he said, rather pleadingly.  “There’s not a big enough difference!” barked Ms Sturgeon.

Notice that it’s the only male participant in this exchange, Ed Miliband, whose contribution is reported using the basic ‘said’ (though the writer does add some extra information with the adverbial ‘rather pleadingly’). The three women, by contrast, don’t just ‘say’ things, they ‘scowl’, ‘squeak’, ‘snap’ and ‘bark’.

These verbs aren’t literally describing how the women sounded. They’ve been chosen to help the writer tell a story, in which a hapless male is ganged up on and berated by three angry and aggressive females. If we only had the speakers’ own words to go on, we might not make that interpretation: we’re directed to it mainly by the writer’s choice of verbs (‘scowl’, ‘snap’, ‘bark’) and adverbs (‘desperately’, ‘pleadingly’). The verbs also say something about the power dynamic among the women. Whereas ‘squeaked’ casts Natalie Bennett as a small animal, ‘snapped’ and ‘barked’ suggest bigger beasts.

This example isn’t unique. When Elisabeth Gidengil and Joanna Everitt examined TV coverage of the 1993 Canadian election campaign, in which two of the five parties were led by women,  they also found a tendency for men’s words to be reported with the plain and non-committal ‘he said’, while women’s were described in more elaborate, less neutral terms. Among the verbs which were only used about the women party leaders, and never about their male opponents, were ‘argue’, ‘blast’, ‘fire at’, ‘hammer away’ and ‘launch [an attack]’. There were also verbs, like ‘accuse’, which were sometimes applied to men, but occurred more frequently in relation to women. The women, in short, were systematically represented as more verbally aggressive than the men.

The researchers did consider the possibility that the women really were more aggressive, but when they analysed the five leaders’ actual speech they found no evidence to support that. The real difference, they argue, is in the way male and female speakers are judged: if women deviate from stereotypical expectations by presenting themselves as tough rather than gentle, combative rather than conciliatory, they are perceived as more aggressive than men who behave in exactly the same way. That perception, Gidengil and Everitt suggest, explains why female leaders’ speech is reported using more aggressive verbs of speaking. The contrast between ‘he said’ and ‘she blasted’ is an explicit encoding of the underlying double standard.

Do creative writers rise above these journalistic clichés? Not according to Ben Blatt, who analysed a large sample of literary and popular fiction for his book Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. His number-crunching revealed, among other things, that male fictional characters habitually ‘mutter’, ‘shout’ and ‘chuckle’, while female characters ‘murmur’, ‘scream’ and ‘weep’. Other patterns were influenced by the sex of the author as well as the character. Male authors were more reluctant than female ones to allow their male characters to ‘sob’; and in their books it was usually female characters, not male ones, who ‘interrupted’.

This particular finding caught many readers’ attention because it’s the opposite of ‘realistic’ in the everyday sense of the word (in real life women do not interrupt more than men). But gender stereotyping can function as a ‘realist’ device in the more technical sense. Even if a stereotype is factually inaccurate, if it fits with readers’ common-sense beliefs it can help to make a fictional world believable.

As feminists have often pointed out, though, our beliefs about men and women are not just things we bring from our real-life experience to our reading; they are also things we may get from our reading and take back into the non-fictional world. I was reminded of this recently when a colleague told a story about a conversation she’d had with her children, who were insisting that ‘mummies don’t go out to work’. ‘Where’, she asked them, ‘does daddy drop me off every day when he’s taking you to school?’ They answered without hesitation: ‘work’. But knowing their own mother went out to work hadn’t prevented them from absorbing the stereotype of mothers as stay-at-home parents.

Concern about what children might be absorbing from the books they read has prompted a number of feminist researchers to analyse the language used in children’s fiction—including the words used to describe characters’ speech. One researcher, Sally Hunt, analysed the verbs of speaking used in some of the most successful children’s book series of the last 75 years: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High series and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And despite the differences of period, genre and target audience, she found there were patterns which recurred across the sample.

One of these patterns related to the distribution of verbs which tell you what action an utterance is performing. Verbs suggesting authority were more typical of male characters, and verbs suggesting deference were more typical of female ones. ‘Ordered’, for instance, was 77% male, whereas ‘begged’ was 68% female. Some actions, like ‘giggling’, were off-limits to male characters, while others, like ‘boasting’, were virtually an all-male preserve.

Hunt also remarks on authors’ fondness for verbs which allude to the vocal qualities of speech. In her sample, male characters’ verbs often implied low pitch (e.g. ‘he bellowed/roared’) whereas female characters’ verbs emphasised high pitch (e.g. ‘she shrieked/screamed’). It’s interesting that this contrast features so prominently in books for and about children, because the physiological differences which produce it in adults do not develop until puberty. But like the ‘squeaking’ and ‘barking’ attributed to female politicians in the sketch I quoted earlier, words like ‘bellow’ and ‘scream’ are rarely intended just to evoke the sound of the speaker’s voice: they are also code for emotional responses like anger, surprise and fear. Associating these words with either male or female speakers is thus a covert way of telling readers which emotions are typical of each sex.

The representation of male and female speech in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books has been investigated further by Maeve Eberhardt, who approaches the question through a detailed comparison of two characters, Hermione and Ron. As Eberhardt notes, Hermione is widely considered a ‘strong’ female character: Rowling herself has described her as the ‘brightest’ of the three friends, and she is also portrayed as morally courageous. But are her intelligence, strength and courage reflected in descriptions of her verbal behaviour?

Eberhardt’s answer is ‘yes and no’. In some respects, she finds that Hermione and Ron are treated similarly. Across the series as a whole they are given approximately equal amounts of reported speech, and the neutral ‘said’ is by far the commonest verb of speaking for both of them. The number of other verbs used to describe their speech is also approximately the same.

But the verbs themselves are not the same. When Eberhardt examined ‘unique’ verbs—those which were only ever used about one character—she found that Hermione’s tended to imply strong emotions, especially fear and sadness (they included ‘screamed’, ‘squealed’, ‘shrieked’, ‘squeaked’, ‘wailed’ and ‘whimpered’). Ron’s unique verbs, conversely, included a number (such as ‘mumbled’, ‘grumbled’ and ‘grunted’) which suggested emotional disengagement. The two characters were also distinguished by the frequency with which certain verbs were used about them. Both of them ‘whisper’ and ‘gasp’, but Hermione does those things about three times more often than Ron. He, on the other hand, does five times as much ‘muttering’ as she does, and over fifteen times as much ‘yelling’.

Eberhardt also looked at the use of adverbials to modify verbs of speaking (as in ‘he said, rather pleadingly’). Since Hermione is meant to be the clever one, you might expect her adverbials to include a high proportion relating to intellectual or mental states (e.g. ‘thoughtfully’, ‘logically’, ‘sceptically’). But in fact most of them are about her feelings: her unique adverbs do include ‘seriously’, but that occurs less often than either ‘timidly’ or ‘sadly’. And the most frequent of the adverbial modifiers which are only applied to Hermione’s speech is that old sexist cliché ‘shrilly’.

Since this study only compares two characters, it might be argued that the patterns it uncovers have less to do with their gender than with their distinctive qualities as individuals. What the reported speech verbs tell us is simply that Ron is the kind of person who mutters and grumbles, while Hermione is the kind who wails and shrieks. But I don’t think that argument will wash, given that other studies, like Sally Hunt’s and Ben Blatt’s, have found the same general patterns, and even some of the same specific word-choices, in a range of other texts. Generations of male fictional characters have expressed themselves by muttering and bellowing, while their female counterparts have screamed and spoken ‘shrilly’. These verbal and vocal habits could not be less individual, or more gender-stereotyped.

They are also remarkably persistent. A children’s writer starting out today wouldn’t be able to build a successful career on stories like the ones I read as a child, in which boys had adventures and girls helped mummy make the sandwiches. That kind of sexism is much less common now. Yet successful writers can still present children with a linguistic division of labour –boys giving orders and girls asking questions, boys bellowing and roaring while girls scream, squeal and giggle—that doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1950s.

I’m not accusing these authors of deliberately reproducing stereotypes. I’d be surprised if they had any conscious awareness of the patterns revealed by analyses of their work. But if we accept that those patterns both reflect and perpetuate sexism, perhaps we should be challenging writers to make a conscious effort to break away from them.

For those who want to avoid sexist clichés, whether in fiction or journalism, the research I’ve discussed suggests several top tips:

  1. Check you’re not consistently pairing minimal descriptions of male speech (‘he said’) with highly elaborate descriptions of female speech (‘she enunciated crisply’/ ‘she gasped in horror’).
  2. Go easy on the vocalisation verbs (like ‘growled’ or ‘squeaked’) which differentiate male and female speakers overtly by pitch and covertly by emotional state. And you’re going to use them, don’t make a habit of picking more ‘extreme’ ones for female speakers (if a boy ‘shouts’ or ‘yells’, why does a girl have to ‘shriek’?)
  3. Try not to give all the ‘thinky’ verbs to male speakers and all the ‘feely’ verbs to female ones.
  4. Watch out for the speech act trap–don’t let conversations be all about male speakers ‘asserting’, ‘instructing’ and ‘explaining’ while female ones ‘ask’, ‘suggest’ and ‘agree’.

The way I’ve phrased these points (‘go easy on X’, ‘don’t make a habit of Y’) is deliberate: they aren’t meant to be blanket prohibitions. As I’ve said a million times on this blog, context is all: any word–even ‘shrilly’–can be the right word if the context calls for it.  What you want to avoid is not specific words, it’s the kind of regular pattern that results from the habitual, unthinking repetition of the same stereotypical formulas.

Precisely because we’ve encountered them so often, phrases like ‘he muttered’ and ‘she murmured’ or ‘he yelled’ and ‘she screamed’ may seem obvious and ‘natural’; but really there’s nothing natural about them. On the contrary, they are products of our cultural obsession with magnifying gender differences, or imposing them where they don’t exist. In reality, men and women use language to perform the same acts and express the same emotions. Girls give orders and boys make suggestions; women chuckle and men have been known to scream. If we can cope with this complexity in our face-to-face encounters, why can’t it be reflected in our descriptions of the way people talk?

 

One word, two words, pink words, blue words

girl words

Once upon a time, someone had the bright idea of making sets of fridge magnets for young children learning to read and write. All the children were following the same school curriculum, but since the designers knew they came in two distinct varieties–some were girls and some were boys–they decided to make two different versions of the product. The girls’ version featured words like ‘make-up’, ‘bunnies’ and ‘love’, while boys were given words like ‘money’, ‘car’ and ‘dirt’.  boy wordsTo make sure everyone would know which words were suitable for which children, the designers mounted the magnets on colour-coded pink and blue card.

Parents expressed their gratitude in the reviews they posted on Amazon. ‘Thank goodness for this product!’ wrote one:

For a while now I’ve been concerned about my little girl – she has been showing an increased interest in things which are clearly just for boys, such as monsters and climbing. I have even seen her on occasion use money, ride a bike or go swimming. This product has been a godsend as it has allowed me to say to her once and for all: “These are boys’ things and they do not concern you.”

Another declared himself ‘relieved that the [boys’] set excludes any words that might relate to any form of intellectual pursuit or emotion (other than fear)’.

Not all the reviews were so sarcastic, but almost none of them were positive: most people who left comments were critical of the magnets, and some called on Amazon to stop selling them. The crude stereotyping struck many as particularly out of place in a product that was meant to be educational. As one commenter put it, ‘Words are universal. Vocabulary is not gender-specific unless we make it so’.

But in reality, of course, we do make it so. By repeatedly using certain words about certain kinds of people, we create patterns which are more or less strongly gender-marked. The words are not ‘gender-specific’ in the sense that they can only be used by or about girls and women or boys and men. It’s more that we’ve learned to associate them with either femininity or masculinity. The adjectives ‘feisty’, ‘petite’ and ‘shrill’, for instance, are so strongly coded as ‘feminine’ words, applying them to a male may be taken as a comment on his (lack of) masculinity. In most cases the gender-coding is subtler, but it’s still part of our tacit knowledge.

You can test this out for yourself by looking at the wordlists I’ve reproduced below:

List 1

active, adventurous, analytic, assertive, battle, boast, challenge, champion, confident, courage, decision, decisive, defend, determine, dominant, driven, fearless, fight, force, greedy, headstrong, impulsive, independent, individual, intellect, lead, logic, objective, opinion, outspoken, persist, principle, reckless, self-confident, self-reliant, self-sufficient

List 2

agree, affectionate, collaborate, commit, communal, compassion, connect, considerate, cooperate, depend, emotional, empathy, enthusiasm, feel, gentle, honest, inclusive, interpersonal, interdependent, kind, kinship, loyal, modesty, nurturing, pleasant, polite, quiet, responsible, sensitive, submissive, support, sympathetic, tender, together, trust, understand, warm

There are no words on either of these lists which could not, in principle, be used in reference to either sex. But the words on List 1 have more masculine associations, while the ones on List 2 are more associated with femininity. If I described some gender-unspecified person as ‘dominant, driven and fearless’ you would be likely to imagine a man; if I described them as ‘nurturing, pleasant and polite’ you would be likely to imagine a woman.

One striking difference between the two lists is that a lot of the ‘masculine’ words seem to be describing leaders, achievers and rugged individualists, whereas most of the ‘feminine’ words describe helpers, supporters and carers. This contrast figures so prominently, you might suspect me of taking the words straight from the pages of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. But in fact, I took them from a webpage explaining a piece of software called the Gender Decoder for Job Ads. And the source from which the software designer took them was a 2011 article in a psychology journal, entitled ‘Evidence that gendered wording in job advertisements exists and sustains gender inequality’.

The authors of this study began by looking for gender-marked vocabulary in the job ads on two popular Canadian listings sites. Their sample included ads for both male-dominated occupations like plumbing, engineering and computing ,and female-dominated occupations like nursing, early childhood education and HR. Their analysis showed that the male-field ads used significantly more masculine-coded words.

So far, you might think, so unsurprising: but the kicker is in the second stage of the research, which involved presenting male and female subjects with ads for various positions (they included male-dominated, female-dominated and ‘neutral’ fields) which had been manipulated to make the wording either strongly ‘masculine’ or strongly ‘feminine’. For instance, one version of an ad for an administrative assistant stated that the company was looking for someone ‘dependable and reliable’, while the other specified that the applicant should be ‘independent and self-reliant’. Subjects were asked to say how appealing they found each position, and whether they felt they belonged in the role.

The main finding was that women saw jobs as less appealing, and were less likely to think they belonged, when an ad relied heavily on masculine-coded vocabulary. (Men’s perceptions were less affected by the choice of words: they did find ‘feminine’ ads less appealing than ‘masculine’ ones, but the effect was very slight.) The researchers concluded that the wording of job ads is a factor affecting women’s willingness to apply. The issue isn’t just that women see themselves as unsuited to particular kinds of work: even when they have the right qualifications, the perception that they won’t fit in cropped-c47620c5e92a01104c2e9b60258cc3fb.gif is reinforced by ads that use masculine-coded language (e.g. ‘we are looking for a self-reliant individual who is driven to achieve results’), and can be countered by ads that substitute more ‘feminine’ terms (e.g., we are looking for a committed, responsible team-member who is sensitive to clients’ needs)

This finding prompted the development of the Gender Decoder for Job Ads, a tool designed to help organisations avoid gender bias in recruiting. It works rather like the Gender Genie, which I discussed in an earlier post: if you paste the text of a job ad into it, it will calculate the relative proportions of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ words, and on that basis tell you whether your ad has an overall bias. I came across it on a blog maintained by the UK Parliamentary Digital Service, which published a guest-post earlier this year entitled ‘Breaking the bro code‘. The writer argued that ‘removing masculine words from job adverts is a quick and easy step to attract more women’. This view seems to be gaining ground: Iris Bohnet, for instance, the author of an influential book called What Works: Gender Equality By Design, describes the wording of job ads as ‘low-hanging fruit’ for those who want to reduce bias and build diverse, inclusive workplaces.

My own feelings about this approach are mixed. I certainly don’t dispute that there are bits of the ‘bro code’ which we could and should dispense with: they hang so low their knuckles are dragging on the ground. For instance, according to the Harvard Business School’s recruitment blog, the use of ‘ninja’ as a job title in the tech sector increased by 400% between 2012 and 2016.  By all means let’s stop advertising for ‘ninjas’ (unless they’re being employed as role-players in an exhibit about feudal Japan). And while we’re at it, we could cut out the kind of meaningless guff which so many job ads are full of–corporate clichés like ‘we strive to be competitive in a demanding global marketplace’, which increase the masculine vocabulary quotient without adding anything of substance. cropped-job_ad_buzzwords2.jpg

But while I’m all for getting rid of what’s unnecessary and offputting (or in the case of ‘ninja’, idiotic), I’m always wary of approaches to sexism which treat changing language as a panacea. Language is rarely the root cause of the problem: it’s the outward and visible symptom of a deeper cultural disease. In this case, for instance, the problem that has to be tackled isn’t just that the language of job ads is inadvertently alienating women. The deeper problem is the gender-code itself: it’s the fact that words like ‘analytic’ and ‘logical’ are generally understood (by women as much as men) to denote ‘masculine’ qualities. That’s got nothing to do with the words themselves, and everything to do with our cultural beliefs about what men and women are like (‘these are boys’ things and they do not concern you’).

Just substituting ‘feminine’ for ‘masculine’ words in job ads does nothing to address this deeper problem. Even if it persuades more women to apply for jobs in male-dominated fields, it does so in a way that leaves the codes themselves intact. It says to women, in effect, ‘you may think you don’t belong in this job, but actually you do, because it isn’t really about leadership and competition, it’s about stuff women are good at, like teamwork and collaboration’. Is that challenging gender stereotypes or is it pandering to them?

Iris Bohnet, the author of What Works, might respond that I’m missing the point here. The evidence suggests that changing the language of job ads ‘works’: it helps to diversify the applicant pool for jobs. So what if people still mentally put words, and the attributes they denote, into pink and blue boxes? ‘It’s easier’, Bohnet says, ‘to de-bias organizations’ practices and procedures than to de-bias mindsets’.

As I said before, my feelings about this are mixed: it’s not that I can’t see the force of Bohnet’s argument. But in the end I think feminism does have to be about changing mindsets rather than just devising procedures to work around them. And while I realise there’s no quick fix for sexist thinking, I’ve been alive for long enough to know that change is possible. Back in 1962, when I was learning to read, no parent would have objected to those pink and blue fridge magnet sets. Today, many parents find them objectionable. It’s been a long, slow process, and it isn’t finished yet. But if researchers 100 years from now discover that ‘logical’ is still a blue word and ‘compassionate’ is still a pink word, my ghost will be seriously disappointed.

 

 

 

Getting real about bad advice

It’s been a while since I posted anything about the policing of women’s language, but that’s not because the police have been idle: while I’ve been concerning myself with other matters, it’s been business as usual for the finger-wagging advicemongers. Here’s a recent example which I wouldn’t bother clicking on, since it’s just a rehash of the generic Bullshit Article About Women’s Language that’s been doing the rounds for the last two years. And here’s a piece about uptalk and vocal fry, which does contain one novel feature–a link to this blog, which the author cites to show she considered both sides of the argument before deciding to go with the ever-popular ‘stop it, you’re annoying people’.

Both these pieces use what I’m going to call the ‘let’s get real’ argument, which goes something like this: ‘it’s all very well to call out prejudice/preach tolerance, but the world is the way it is; the faster you adjust the more successful you’ll be’. My function, where a writer brings me into the discussion, is to represent the naive idealist whose extreme and unworldly opinions no true supporter of women should be distracted by.

Along those lines, yet another advicemonger recently informed her readers:

Deborah Cameron argues that it’s basically sexist to examine how women speak at all — they should be allowed to say whatever they want (however doormat they sound)

I’m not sure what she thinks the alternative is. Language wardens patrolling the offices of the nation, and fining women on the spot for saying ‘sorry’ or ‘just’? But the laissez faire attitude she attributes to me is not what I’ve argued for either. No one has total freedom to speak however they want, at least if they want to be (a) intelligible to others and (b) considered a competent member of society. My aspirations for women are more modest: I’d just like them to be able to speak without constantly being told they’re doing it wrong.

But to my critics this is shockingly irresponsible, and does women no favours at all. As they see it, telling women to mind their ‘justs‘ and ‘sorries‘ is like telling a stranger in the toilets she’s accidentally tucked her skirt into her knickers–she might be embarrassed, but she’ll also be grateful.

Some women evidently are grateful. Whenever I criticise some egregious piece of sexist language policing, I get a couple of emails from women who protest that they have personally found it helpful. I don’t argue with them: obviously only they can say whether or not they found something helpful. But in the spirit of ‘let’s get real’, I do have a question about how the advice has helped them.

You might think the answer is obvious: it’s helped them by prompting them to change the way they speak, cutting out the bad habits that make them ‘sound doormat’. But in reality that’s not very likely. All the evidence suggests that criticism of a linguistic feature does a good job of making people aware of it, but has little effect on the way they actually use it. Think of all the grammar, spelling and pronunciation shibboleths (double negatives, ‘aint’, ‘we was’, h-dropping, t-glottalling, saying ‘somefink’, writing ‘it’s’ when it should be ‘its’, etc.) which have been relentlessly criticised for decades or even centuries. Most English-speakers are well aware that these features are stigmatised, and most believe the stigma is deserved. Yet that hasn’t led to a decline in their use: in some cases they’ve spread rapidly since the criticism started.

This isn’t as paradoxical as it sounds. Our ideas about good and bad language may be derived from the pronouncements of authorities (like parents, teachers, or the people who write opinion pieces in the media), but our actual behaviour is much more strongly influenced by the speech of the people we converse with directly. When we talk to someone, we have a tendency to ‘accommodate’ to them, usually by (subconsciously) making our speech more similar to theirs. This is one way speech-patterns like uptalk spread. More generally, a lot of our spoken output is produced without much conscious reflection. It’s habitual, automatic, below-the-radar behaviour, and as such quite difficult to modify.

Of course, there are people who’ve succeeded in altering their habitual speech-patterns, either permanently (like Margaret Thatcher, who lowered her voice-pitch in a bid to sound more authoritative), or temporarily (like the actors and impressionists who can perform in various different accents and vocal personae). But these cases are notable precisely because they’re unusual. Success depends on a combination of aptitude, motivation, structured training and intensive practice; failure is not unusual.

Yet most critics of women’s speech seem to think there’s nothing to it. They have plenty to say about why you should stop saying X, Y and Z, but nothing to say about how you’re meant to do it. The implication is that once you’ve become aware of what you’re doing wrong, you can simply decide to stop. It’s ironic that these critics so often describe the features they want women to stop using as ‘verbal tics’. As much as I hate this inaccurate and trivialising use of the phrase, you’d think the word ‘tic’, meaning an involuntary response which the subject cannot control, might be a clue to the fact that changing your speech-habits isn’t easy.

Occasionally advice-writers do pay attention to the ‘how’ question. One of my favourite examples is a WikiHow entry headed ‘How to stop saying the word “like”’.

LIKE 3

The reader’s mission, should she choose to accept it, is to train herself (I’m using feminine pronouns advisedly: all the visual illustrations depict young women) to use ‘like’ only in its two ‘proper’ meanings, which are ‘enjoy’ (as in ‘I like chocolate’) and ‘similar to’ (as in ‘that tastes like chocolate’), while breaking the bad habit of using ‘like’ as a quotative (‘she was like, who cares?’), an approximator (‘she’s like, five feet tall’) or just an all-purpose filler. The author recognises that this is a challenging task, and offers strategies for approaching it in a systematic way. For instance:

  • Whenever you realise you’re about to say ‘like’, pause. If your ‘like’ was going to be a filler, you’ll have dodged the bullet. If it wasn’t, you’ll have time to think of a suitable substitute.
  • Arm yourself in advance with a selection of potential alternatives to ‘like’. For instance, you could replace quotative ‘be like’ with a more ‘descriptive’ verb like ‘yell’, ‘whisper’ or ‘exclaim’.
  • If the ‘likes’ are still creeping in, slow your speech down to a speed which allows you to consider each word before you utter it.
  • If you’re really struggling, go cold turkey: ban ‘like’ from your speech entirely, even in its legitimate senses. Say ‘I enjoy chocolate’ and ‘it tastes similar to chocolate’.

The last tip is to persevere, since your efforts may not bear fruit immediately. No kidding: it’s hard to imagine anything more fruitless than trying to follow this advice. Whoever was unlucky enough to engage you in conversation would be baffled, if not maddened, by your strange inability to talk at a normal speed, your sudden unexplained silences, your weirdly formal vocabulary and your peculiar habit of reporting others’ speech as though you were writing the dialogue in a bad novel (she quipped, sarcastically). It’s heartbreakingly earnest, and about as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot.

In that it is not unusual: the world is full of useless advice. Some people have argued that the uselessness of the advice it offers is the secret of the self-improvement industry’s success: if the advice really worked, people wouldn’t keep coming back for more. But some research has raised the question, is it actually advice that people are after?

Research done with people who regularly read self-help books has found that the advice element of the genre is not very important to them. The books are generally marketed on the promise of solving readers’ problems, but readers themselves say that isn’t what they read them for: rather their goal is to understand themselves better. A ‘good’ book, as they see it, provides a description of the problem which they can recognise themselves in, along with an explanation of what’s behind the problem that resonates with their own experience. The benefits they say they get from this include feeling validated (‘this writer understands me’) and feeling more able to cope with their situation. As one woman explained to the researcher Wendy Simonds, ‘if I understand something, I feel a little bit better about it; I don’t feel so overwhelmed and so helpless’.

This may also be what my correspondents mean when they tell me they find advice on speaking helpful. Not that it’s transformed their behaviour, but that it’s given them a valuable insight into their problems. Their situation may not have changed, but at least someone has explained it in a way that seems to make sense (‘you aren’t getting respect because your tentative and apologetic way of speaking undermines your authority’).

There are parallels here with the experience of feminists. If you’re a feminist, it’s because, among other things, you think feminism explains women’s situation and their problems in a way that makes sense. Most feminists can recall moments when their understanding was changed by a conversation in a group, or by something they read in a book; and most would probably agree that this felt like a positive experience, even though on its own it didn’t solve anything. To change your situation you first need to understand it: that’s one belief feminism shares with self-help.

But there are also important differences. Feminist consciousness raising—the process of reflecting on experience and coming to understand it differently—is meant to lead to collective political action, the goal of which is to change the social structures that are ultimately responsible for women’s situation. Self-help, on the other hand, is committed to an ideology of hyper-individualism, whose two core tenets are (1) you’re in control of your own destiny, and (2) the only thing you have the power to change is yourself.

Not only does this mean that changing yourself has to be the solution to every problem, it also means that self-help has to downplay the social dimension of the problems that confront its readers. Women’s experiences of sexism in all its forms, from being ignored in meetings to being trapped in abusive relationships, are persistently presented as avoidable consequences of their own bad choices or self-destructive behaviour-patterns. The good news, however, is that women can solve their problems by making better choices and adopting different patterns of behaviour. You don’t have to ‘sound doormat’ forever: the remedy is in your own hands.

It’s not hard to understand why many women might find this message of individual empowerment more appealing than some old sourpuss like me banging on about structural inequality. But let’s just get real here. If you believe there is such a thing as society, and that one of its organising principles is gender hierarchy–male dominance and female subordination– then suggesting that women should deal with problems like workplace discrimination by changing their way of speaking will look less like empowerment and more like victim-blaming. It will also look like a mystification: not something that helps women to understand their situation, but something that stops them from seeing it clearly and working together to change it.

Lekkers and losers

It will not be news to readers of this blog that I take a keen interest in popular literature on the subject of gender and communication. In my house there’s a whole shelf of old books I can’t keep in my office because they’re too embarrassing: they include Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and several examples of vintage neurobollocks. Fortunately, the internet now allows me to sample this kind of material more discreetly (and usually for free). Really, I’ve no excuse not to stay current.

Yet until two days ago I’d never heard of Dan Bacon, a self-described ‘dating and relationship expert’ and the proprietor of a website called The Modern Man (‘if you have a problem with women, I have the perfect solution for you’). Dan has recently become infamous for writing a piece entitled ‘How to talk to a woman who is wearing headphones’. Or, put another way, ‘how to make a woman take her headphones off and pay attention while you try to pick her up’.

From what I could see on Twitter, the general consensus was that the premise wasn’t just sexist, it was creepy and borderline rapey. I don’t disagree. According to Fiona Vera-Grey, who has done research on women’s experiences of being harassed by men in public places, wearing headphones is one of several tactics women use specifically to protect themselves from unwanted male attention. Like looking down at your phone to avoid eye contact and sitting near the door on the tube, it’s a form of everyday ‘safety work’.

But to men like Dan it is a truism that a woman’s apparent lack of interest in you is not to be taken at face value. It’s a challenge. Reading his piece reminded me of when I was in my early 20s (before anyone had a mobile phone or routinely wore headphones when out and about), backpacking around Spain with my then-girlfriend. After days of being hassled by men, we went into a bookshop and bought large badges adorned with lesbian symbols and the sentence (in Spanish) ‘we want to walk in peace’. Which we soon stopped wearing, because they proved to be the opposite of a deterrent. The more clearly we broadcast the message WE’RE NOT INTERESTED IN YOU, the more of a challenge we were, and the more persistent the men became.

In those days we had no idea how men rationalised this kind of behaviour to themselves. Today we have the benefit of websites like Dan’s, where practical tips on picking up women are often padded out with more philosophical reflections on masculinity and gender difference.

Dan’s views are perhaps most clearly summarised in his concluding paragraph.

As you may have noticed, women don’t usually go around approaching men. Women know that it’s the man’s role to be confident enough to walk over and talk to women he finds attractive. Women, on the other hand, have to look their best and try to attract the attention of the confident alpha males who approach.

From this we learn that in Dan’s imagination, nothing is what it seems. Deliberately ignoring a woman’s ‘leave me alone’ signals isn’t proof that you’re a jerk, it’s proof that you’re an ‘alpha male’. The woman’s headphones aren’t saying ‘I’m not available to talk’, they’re a test she’s set for the men who cross her path, and the losers who take her literally will fail. The man she’s actually attracted to is the one who disregards what she appears to want–who knows that her resistance is token, only there to be overcome. In this Mills & Boon theory of male-female relationships, no woman wants her man to be a wimp, or indeed an equal: he needs to make his dominance felt.

In an earlier post about lists of ‘things not to say’ to the opposite sex, I pointed out that women are told not to say things that men might perceive as criticisms or demands, whereas men are told not to say things that women might perceive as concessions or indications of weakness.  Dan Bacon observes this convention: his piece includes a list of mistakes men make which includes ‘allowing her to take control of the interaction’.

No matter how confident or challenging a woman might behave, she still dreams of meeting a guy who is more confident than her. A woman doesn’t want to be forced to control an interaction with a guy.

He goes on to point out that just getting the woman to take her headphones off is only the first step: now you’ve got her attention, you need to deliver on the promise of having something to say.

Engaging conversation skills are essential in keeping a woman’s attention at the best of times and even more so when she can switch herself off with a click of the “play” button.

Obvious? Banal? Well, yes, but it’s also an illustration of something that’s puzzled me for quite a while. Advice on communicating with the opposite sex presents men in two distinct and apparently contradictory ways. When the subject is dating, men—or at least, the alpha males the reader is encouraged to emulate—are depicted as articulate, smooth-talking charmers who ‘take control’ of interactions and use their ‘engaging conversation skills’ to keep women hanging on their every word.  But when the subject is marital relationships, men are most often presented as verbally-challenged idiots who can barely string a sentence together. They are said to prefer action to words, to be incapable of expressing their feelings, and to have great difficulty understanding what women say to them.

What unites these two accounts at a more abstract level is that each contains an inbuilt justification for problematic male behaviour. In the first case it’s ‘women want men to dominate them’, and in the second it’s ‘men care about women really, they’re just Martians with poor communication skills’. But it still seems odd that they can exist side by side. Maybe it’s a case of telling the target audience what it wants to hear: the smooth-talking charmer appears mainly in dating advice addressed to men, whereas the idiot appears in advice for heterosexual couples which is probably read more often by women.

The same two characters also turn up in scientific discussions of the evolution of language. Here there’s more explicit awareness of the contradiction: it’s a topic of debate among evolutionary scientists with an interest in how and why the human language faculty evolved. The question that’s relevant here is the ‘why’ one: our linguistic abilities are costly (because they require such a big brain), and other primates have done fine without them, so what survival advantage did they confer on us?  One early theory about this was that language enabled humans to co-ordinate joint activities that contributed to survival, like hunting. But more recently attention has turned to two other stories.

I’ll call the first one the ‘social networking’ theory. It says that the essential advantage conferred on humans by their ability to speak was to do with forging social bonds and transmitting social knowledge: talking helps individuals keep track of what’s going on in the group and maintain social relationships with other members. This produces a more cohesive (and therefore more successful) group. One prominent advocate of this theory, Robin Dunbar, argues that gossip—by which he means everyday talk about what’s happening and who’s doing what with whom—has a similar function in human groups to physical grooming among non-human primates. Dunbar thinks early human females would have been central in the development of language. Females play a key role in the organisation of primate groups, and females caring for infants would have had a particular interest in building networks of mutual co-operation.

Supporters of this theory often claim that it’s in line with contemporary observations about sex-differences in linguistic behaviour. Everyone agrees that women are the ‘more verbal’ sex, more talkative and more verbally skilled than the action-oriented male. What’s happening here is that the verbally-challenged idiot who appears in books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (and the unspeakable neurobollocks classic Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps) is being projected back into pre-history.

But as you’ll know if you read another of my early posts, it isn’t actually true that women talk more than men: most evidence points in the opposite direction. And while women do, on average, do slightly better on certain tests of verbal ability, the abilities being tested are not things that would have helped our preliterate ancestors as they foraged on the African savannah. These points have been seized on by supporters of the second story about what language did for humans, which I’ll call the ‘lekking theory’.

A ‘lek’ is what students of animal behaviour call a type of courtship ritual seen among, for instance, peacocks, where males display themselves in groups to an audience of females, and the females make judgments on their reproductive fitness. The peacock’s tail is the example famously given by Darwin to illustrate the concept of ‘sexual selection’, where a trait that may confer no practical advantage is selected because it makes its carrier more attractive as a mate. Some evolutionary scientists suggest that the human capacity for language was selected in the same way and for much the same reason: speaking offered an excellent way for early human males to show off to females, and for females to judge the males’ fitness, given that verbal behaviour is a clue to both intellectual abilities and social skills.

Supporters of this theory, like the behavioural scientist John Locke, also claim that it receives support from contemporary observations about sex-differences in linguistic behaviour. Women may have the edge in lab tests of verbal skill, but who dominates—in virtually all the cultures where the question has been studied—the oral performance genres that display most skill and creativity? Who are the most accomplished orators, debaters, poets, rappers, preachers, stand-up comedians? Who fights verbal duels to assert their superiority over their rivals?

In this account it’s the smooth-tongued charmer who gets projected back into prehistory—conveniently ignoring the more recent evidence (by which I mean evidence from the past thousand years or so) that women’s non-participation in various kinds of oral performance reflected neither lack of skill nor lack of interest, but had more to do with men’s strenuous efforts to exclude them. (Which have not entirely ceased, but they’re becoming steadily less effective.)

I’ve got nothing good to say about either of these competing accounts of gendered linguistic behaviour: both are thoroughly sexist, as well as being unconvincing for other reasons. They also illustrate that sex-difference science and folk-wisdom aren’t always as far apart as we might think. Sometimes one is just a scienced-up version of the other. It’s possible Dan Bacon got his ideas from a book about evolutionary psychology, but it’s more likely he’s just channelling the wisdom of the ages. Either way, the effect is to reinforce the belief that women have no right to withhold their favours from men. Sorry, Dan, but the headphones stay on. If you don’t like it, lek off.

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.

Sorry, but it’s complicated

‘Sorry’ may have been the hardest word for Elton John, but to women it comes as naturally as breathing. Women, as everyone knows, apologise. They apologise constantly. They apologise unnecessarily. They apologise for things that aren’t their fault, and for things that require no apology from anyone. They’re like the proverbial cracked records with their ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’.

Recently we’ve become obsessed with the problem of the over-apologetic woman. She seems to pop up everywhere—not just where you’d expect to find her, in listicles with titles like ‘The Seven Ways Women Undermine Themselves At Work’ and products like the ‘Just Not Sorry’ plug-in which I wrote about last year, but also in shampoo adverts, comedy sketches and various other forms of humour (check out #7 in this set of cartoons).

The advice and coaching industry has an obvious interest in endlessly recirculating the idea that women apologise too much (it’s in the same category of female verbal misdemeanours as uptalk and ‘just‘ and ‘I feel like‘–all of them gifts that keep on giving if your business is creating problems that people will then pay you to solve). It’s not so obvious why it also gets uncritically recycled by feminists (there’s an example in this Woman’s Hour interview with the historian Amanda Foreman). It might seem that feminists have nothing to gain by repeating what is, after all, a negative stereotype; but some evidently see it as proving a point about the harmful effects of female socialisation. Excessive apologising, they say, is the behaviour of a person who’s been trained from early childhood to think of herself as a lesser being: to devalue and efface herself, put others’ needs before her own, take up as little space in the world as possible, and defer, in particular, to men.

As a feminist myself I don’t doubt that female socialisation has many damaging consequences for girls and women. But I still don’t buy the argument that women over-apologise because they’ve been socialised to be self-effacing and deferential. It may sound plausible, but here’s why I don’t think it’s true.

First, let’s just go back a step. So far I’ve been taking it for granted that women really are the more apologetic sex. But that shouldn’t be accepted without question: the evidence from research is mixed. Some studies have found women apologizing more than men, but others have found no difference. Which findings you give more weight to is a judgment call, and researchers have different views.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there probably is a tendency for women to apologise more frequently than men (though the usual caveats apply: this generalisation may not be valid for every group of women in every context, and it certainly won’t be valid for every individual woman). However, there’s a difference between description and interpretation: even if we accept that this tendency exists, it doesn’t follow that women apologise ‘too much’ (too much in relation to what?), nor that the reason must be their socialised unassertiveness and deference. In fact, if you dig a bit deeper into the research, you discover there are other patterns which don’t fit with that assumption.

One of the most detailed investigations of gender differences in apologising was done in the 1990s by the New Zealand linguist Janet Holmes. Holmes recorded naturally-occurring talk in a range of social situations, and extracted all the sequences that included apologies (183 in total). As well as counting the frequency with which men and women apologised, she looked at who they apologised to, what they apologised for, how they formulated their apologies and how those apologies were received.

Holmes’s is one of the studies I mentioned earlier which did find women apologising more than men. A lot more, in fact: women produced nearly three quarters of all apologies. But there was another, equally striking pattern: the majority of female apologies, accounting for 55% of all the apologies in the data, were cases of women apologising to other women. Apologies from women to men accounted for about 18% of cases, apologies from men to women for about 17%, and apologies from men to other men for just 8.5%.

These figures are hard to reconcile with the belief that women’s apologies are displays of deference and subordinate status. If that were the issue, you’d expect women to apologise more frequently to men than to other women; you might also expect women, as the subordinate sex, to receive fewer apologies from men than they give to men. In this study, however, cross-sex apologies occurred with more or less equal frequency in both directions. Almost the whole of the overall gender difference was the result of the very large difference between women’s behaviour towards other women and men’s towards other men.

What Holmes actually found, then, was not a general tendency for men and women to behave differently, but a more specific tendency for them to behave very differently with members of their own sex. The standard story about unassertive and deferential women doesn’t explain that. Why would women become less deferential when addressing their social superiors, men, and conversely why would men defer to their subordinates, women, twice as often as they defer to their male peers?

But if it isn’t about deference, what is the gender difference about? Holmes offers two suggestions.

The first is that men and women may understand the act of apologising differently, with women seeing it primarily as a way of maintaining good relationships by displaying concern for others, whereas men see it primarily as an admission of inadequacy or guilt. This second interpretation is more negative, and that may explain why men avoid apologising (or dare I say, ‘under-apologise’?) with other men who share their understanding of it as demeaning. (Though it doesn’t really explain why men are more willing to apologise to women: perhaps they think women won’t judge them in the same way, or perhaps they don’t care so much what women think.) Among women, on the other hand, apologising is interpreted more positively: it need not diminish your status, and it may even earn you credit for being a nice person.

Holmes’s second suggestion is that men and women may have different perceptions of what’s offensive enough to require an apology. In her data, a higher proportion of men’s apologies were for relatively serious offences (like forgetting a date with someone or damaging one of their possessions). This led her to wonder if women apologised more because they felt the need to apologise for things men would dismiss as trivial. (Interestingly, she found women were more likely than men to apologise for what she calls ‘space and talk offences’—things like inadvertently touching or interrupting another person. She suggests that women may be more sensitive to these transgressions because they’re so often committed against women–most typically, of course, by men.)

The idea that men have a higher threshold for perceiving behaviour as offensive has received some support from other research. The psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross  got research subjects to keep a diary of all their offensive acts, and to say, in each case, whether they had apologised. They found that women and men reported apologising for a similar proportion of the offences they’d committed, but the raw numbers—of both offensive acts and apologies—were higher for the women than the men. This suggested that women had considered more acts offensive enough to need redress. To test this hypothesis, the researchers designed an experimental task where subjects had to rate the seriousness of various offences. They found, as they expected, that their female subjects gave higher ratings.

Readers who know something about the study of language and gender may think that Holmes’s arguments are somewhat reminiscent of what’s been labelled the ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, because it treats differing patterns of language-use among men and women as the product of quasi-cultural differences. The idea is that the sexes behave differently because they understand things differently, and they understand things differently because their experiences and values are different. But you can’t say that one sex’s way of doing things is better or worse than the other’s, any more than you would say Japanese culture is better or worse than Greek culture. They’re just different: ‘different but equal’. The classic statement of this position is Deborah Tannen’s popular bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, which has been criticised by other scholars (full disclosure: I’m one of them) for glossing over the issue of structural sexual inequality. Does Holmes’s explanation of gender differences in apologising invite the same criticism? Is she saying that women’s tendency to apologise more than men has nothing to do with power and inequality?

The short answer is no: Holmes’s position is not the same as Tannen’s. She believes that ultimately, ‘power is the issue’:

Women’s ways of talking differ from men’s because each group has developed interactional strategies which reflect their societal position. The different patterns of interaction into which girls and boys are socialised are not randomly different. Their features are attuned to the requirements of the society.

As a general observation this is not, of course, incompatible with the popular story about over-apologetic women (which says that women’s societal position requires them to be unassertive and deferential). The trouble with that story is that it leaves some patterns unexplained (in particular, the difference Holmes observed between cross-sex and same-sex behaviour). The relationship it posits between apologising and subordinate status is too simple and general to account for the reality of women’s (or men’s) behaviour. But there’s another way to relate apologising to the requirements of an unequal, male dominated society. Rather than treat it as a general expression of female powerlessness, we could connect it to a more specific feature of social structure which is directly linked to women’s subordinate status: the division of labour which makes caring for others a female responsibility.

The aim of an apology is to maintain or restore harmony. Apologising says: ‘I accept that I have given (or might give) offence, I regret that and I ask for your forgiveness’.  By implication it also says: ‘your feelings matter to me: I understand that you may feel bad and I want you to feel better’. In that sense apologising can be seen as a form of emotional labour, part of the work of managing your own and others’ feelings. And willingness to perform emotional labour is one of the most basic things that’s expected of women just because they are women. Even when they’re not explicitly cast in a caring role (like ‘mother’), women are routinely expected to pay attention to others’ feelings, and pour oil on troubled waters when harmony is threatened. They’re expected both to apologise when others are or could be offended, and to forgive when others have offended them (Holmes found that women were less likely than men to reject an apology and more likely to accept one).

I would argue that women’s apologising behaviour has more to do with these gendered expectations than it does with lack of confidence and self-esteem. In fact, I suspect that for some women, this behaviour may actually be a source of self-esteem. Not all women embrace their prescribed role with joy, but even if we don’t much like our jobs, most of us derive some satisfaction from being good at them. And while selflessness and nurturance may be poorly rewarded in material terms, they do come with moral and social benefits.

In this case one key benefit may be the approval of your female peers. Although you often hear women castigating themselves publicly for the sin of ‘over-apologising’ (a term  which covertly treats what men do as the norm), the high frequency of apologies between women suggests that privately they may not regard men’s behaviour as the gold standard. And indeed, why should they? What’s wrong with showing concern for others? From a feminist perspective, nothing: the problem isn’t that caring is inherently worthless or degrading, it’s that the responsibility for caring is unfairly distributed, obliging most women to do too much while most men do far too little.

This already unfair distribution of rights and obligations can give rise to a further injustice, with men getting more credit than women when they do show consideration for others. In a study conducted by a group of researchers in Israel, subjects were asked to imagine that a work colleague had scheduled a meeting and then failed to turn up for it. They were then given a letter which the colleague had supposedly written, apologising for the inconvenience and promising it would not happen again. The letter was always the same, but some subjects were told that the writer was their boss, others that the writer was their subordinate. In addition, the writer was presented to some subjects as male (‘David’) and to others as female (‘Rachel’). After reading the letter, the subjects were asked to judge the sincerity of the apology and to say how willing they were to forgive the writer.

The researchers found that people’s judgments were influenced by both status and gender:

the most effective apology was by a male manager, followed by a female manager, a male subordinate and finally a female subordinate.

They explain:

The less expected an apology, the more effective it is.  …When an apology is not socially obligatory, [it] will be more accepted and more highly esteemed.

A subordinate who apologises to the boss is merely doing what’s expected, whereas a boss who apologises to a subordinate is perceived as displaying unusual magnanimity. Gender has a similar (though slightly weaker) effect. A woman who apologises is meeting others’ expectations, whereas a man is exceeding them, and the response is therefore more positive. The researchers conclude by suggesting that managers shouldn’t treat apologising as a ‘powerless’ and therefore risky move: done strategically, it can actually enhance your reputation. Especially, it seems, if you’re a man.

Where does this leave us? Again, I’d say it’s complicated. On one hand, I think we should reject the popular stereotype of the over-apologetic woman, along with the language-policing it’s used to justify. It isn’t true that women ‘over-apologise’ because they are timid, deferential creatures: the fact (if it is one) that they apologise more than men seems to have more to do with showing concern for others’ feelings. Do feminists really want to disparage that as a weakness?

On the other hand, as Janet Holmes points out, women and men don’t make linguistic choices in a vacuum: they are expected to behave in certain ways, and if they choose not to they will pay a price. Maintaining harmonious relationships is an obligation imposed on women rather than something that just comes naturally; it is one of the many unjust burdens women carry in this world, and as such there is every reason for feminists to criticise it. The question is whether we can find a way to do that without ridiculing, shaming or bullying women for the way they do or don’t speak.