Who owns words?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the article’s author Shannon Keating explained,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kids are alright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cuntroversy: On Samantha Bee and the C-word

On her show last week, as everyone now knows, Samantha Bee used a word which is Not To Be Uttered On TV. Addressing Ivanka Trump, who had posted a photo taken with her child on Instagram while her father’s administration was busy separating undocumented migrants from their children, Bee said:

Let me just say, one mother to another, do something about your dad’s immigration practices, you feckless cunt. He listens to you.

Later Bee apologised, saying that her use of the word ‘cunt’ had ‘crossed a line’: it was ‘inappropriate and inexcusable’. Plenty of people agreed: even if they shared Bee’s feelings about the President and his daughter, they thought her language overstepped the mark. Not everyone, however, took that view. There were some who defended Bee simply on the basis that they thought her target deserved the epithet; but there were others whose comments focused on the epithet itself, challenging the assumption that ‘cunt’ is, in the words of Grose’s much-quoted dictionary entry,  ‘a nasty name for a nasty thing’.

One high-profile example came from Sally Field, who tweeted:

I like Samantha Bee a lot, but she is flat wrong to call Ivanka a cunt. Cunts are powerful, beautiful, nurturing and honest.

Another popular riposte (I saw several variations of it on Twitter) was ‘I don’t think Samantha Bee should have called Ivanka a cunt: she has neither the warmth nor the depth’.

This isn’t a new take on ‘cunt’. Feminists over the past 50 years have regularly proposed to reclaim ‘the most offensive word in the English language’ and turn it into a positive symbol of female power.

Germaine Greer was an early advocate of reclamation: initially she thought the goal should be to make ‘cunt’ an ordinary, everyday word, but later she would say that on reflection she was glad efforts to tame it had failed. ‘Unlike other words for female genitals’ she observed, ‘this one sounds powerful. It demands to be taken seriously’. She also expounded a theory that has long been popular in some feminist circles–that the power of ‘cunt’ and its status as a forbidden word derive from the fact that ‘men identified female sexual energy as a dangerous force’.

These sentiments were echoed by Laurie Penny in a 2011 New Statesman column entitled ‘In defence of the C-word’. Repeating Greer’s point that ‘cunt’ is the only non-medical word for the female genitals that doesn’t domesticate or sanitise what it names, she exhorted women to ‘use it and love it’. ‘Cunt’, she rhapsodised, is

a wholesome word, an earthy, dank and lusty word, with the merest hint of horny threat…it’s fantastically difficult to pronounce without baring the teeth.

Unlike Greer, Penny defends not only the use of ‘cunt’ to name the female genitals, but also its use as an aggressive insult. In both senses, she says, it is a ‘word of power’.

I have always had a problem with this kind of cunt-talk, because it depends on what I would argue is a fundamentally patriarchal gesture—defining power, for women, in primarily sexual terms. Men may monopolise all other kinds of power, but sexual power—that magical ability to bend men to your will by provoking desires they cannot control or resist—is held out to women as a consolation prize. It is also used to vilify them and license various measures designed to control their ‘dangerous’ sexuality. The idea that women pose a sexual threat to men, rather than vice-versa, is the foundation for one of the commonest myths justifying rape (‘she aroused me, I couldn’t help myself’); it is part of the thinking behind every religious injunction telling women they must cover themselves to avoid leading men into temptation; it is also, as we have recently learnt, part of the creed of the men who call themselves incels. Why would feminists celebrate any of this?

Emma Rees, the author of  Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, seems rather more sympathetic to it than I am, but she too notes that there are problems with the idea of reclaiming a word which is both a name for the female genitals and a metonymic (part-for-whole) label meaning ‘woman’. Can this second usage ever be positive? Even in a culture that celebrated female sexuality, describing a woman as a cunt would still entail making her sexuality the defining feature of her identity as a person. And yes, you could argue that calling a man a ‘prick’ or a ‘dick’ does the same, but treating the two gestures as equivalent ignores the very different historical positioning of the two sexes: whereas men have never been valued primarily for their sexual utility to women, nor told that their only power is sexual power, that has been women’s experience for thousands of years.

Proposals to reclaim ‘cunt’ do not have to involve spouting mystical nonsense about ‘female sexual energy’. They could be based, and sometimes have been, on the more straightforward argument that if we see nothing wrong with either women or their genitals then we should see nothing wrong with the word ‘cunt’ either. But once again, this skips too lightly over the point that words have histories; the baggage they bring from the past continues to weigh them down in the present. When we ask what gives words like ‘cunt’ their peculiar power (a power that may be entirely lacking in their synonyms—you wouldn’t get the same effect by calling someone ‘a total vulva’ or ‘a bit of a vagina’), the answer lies less in what the words mean than in what they’ve historically been used to do.

There’s a good discussion of this point in a piece by the linguist Ana Deumert about a recent legal decision made by South African Constitutional Court. The case concerned a white man who was dismissed by his employer for using racially offensive language during a dispute about parking at work. Annoyed that another employee had parked too close to his own space, the white man had gone to the person in charge of parking and demanded the removal of ‘that Black man’s car’. He later made a claim of unfair dismissal on the grounds that referring to someone as ‘that Black man’ could not be considered racist; the phrase was purely descriptive, it contained no insulting or abusive terms, and he had not intended it to be offensive.

The Appeal Court had accepted this argument, but the Constitutional Court applied a different test: its question was not what the speaker was thinking when he used the phrase ‘that Black man’, but whether ‘a reasonable, objective and informed person, on hearing the words, would perceive them to be racist or derogatory’. The Court decided that in South Africa, a society still deeply marked by its recent history as an apartheid state, an informed and reasonable person would indeed have grounds to perceive a reference to ‘that Black man’ as racist. Though ‘Black’ is not in itself a negative term, the decision of a white speaker to foreground his opponent’s status as ‘a Black man’ rather than just ‘a man’ during an argument is liable to be interpreted in relation to a whole history of interactions where that gesture was a clear assertion of racial superiority and white power. As Deumert explains:

The performative nature of language – its ability to cause effects – is rooted in its history, in the circulation and repetition of words and phrases across time… [W]ords mean because they have meant before, and, consequently, words also wound because they have wounded before. There is no escape from history, from the meanings we inherit.

This should not be taken to imply that the meanings we inherit are immutable, and will inevitably be transmitted intact to every subsequent generation until the end of time: word-meaning does change, along with the contexts in which words are repeated and circulated. Terms which were once offensive can lose their power to wound, or indeed fall out of use entirely. But people who talk blithely of reclaiming current insults and slur-terms very often underestimate the magnitude of the task, and the time it takes to accomplish.

Last year there was an interesting—and to some, perhaps, surprising—illustration of this point, in the findings of an online survey which investigated attitudes to the term ‘queer’ among members of the LGBT community. 60% of respondents reported that they found ‘queer’ offensive and inappropriate; among gay men the percentage rose to 93%. These are not the kind of figures you can generalise from, since they were compiled from the responses of a small, self-selected and thus unrepresentative sample; but they do suggest that attitudes to ‘queer’ remain more polarised–and more negative–than might have been expected in 2017. The rise of ‘queer‘–which increasing numbers of people are said to prefer to ‘stale and stodgy’ old labels like ‘lesbian‘–has been chronicled at length in pieces on Buzzfeed, Slate et al. Why are some LGBT people–especially gay men–still so resistant to it?

There are some answers in the comments made by survey respondents. In line with the principle Ana Deumert outlines—‘words wound because they have wounded before’—gay men who found ‘queer’ offensive often cited experiences of having it used to and about them in a clearly derogatory and sometimes threatening way. Some of the strongest objections came from men over the age of 60, but negative reactions were not confined to the oldest respondents. Even if they had been, that would still be a salutary reminder that the meanings we attach to words are slow to change: the movement to reclaim ‘queer’ has been going on for 30 years, i.e. for most of the adult life of anyone now in their 60s or 70s. That’s not to say nothing has changed since the 1980s—‘queer’ has certainly become less uniformly negative in its uses and connotations—but it is still far too soon to declare it ‘reclaimed’, or indeed to know whether its older use as a homophobic slur will ever be completely superseded.

‘Cunt’, at least when used to refer to a person rather than a body part, remains unequivocally pejorative, and that assessment is not undermined by the evidence (cited by numerous contributors to social media discussions of Samantha Bee) that in some circumstances it can be used without anyone either intending or taking offence. The comedian Mark Watson remarked on Twitter that he’d been called a cunt while playing Pictionary with friends—one of many comments whose underlying theme was the linguistic (over)sensitivity of Americans compared to Brits or Australians. A linguist I know recalled his surprise when he heard teenage girls in Wales greeting one another (in Welsh) with ‘what’s up, cunt?’ But what cases like these show is that, like other highly offensive words (most obviously the N-word), ‘cunt’ can be appropriated to serve as a marker of solidarity and mutual affection among intimates. This gesture works not in spite of the word’s taboo status in other contexts, but because of it.

Contributors to the social media debate also suggested that in many non-American varieties of English (Scots featured particularly strongly, and Australian English was mentioned too) ‘cunt’ is used so frequently and with so little animus, it has effectively become just another word for ‘person’. Some people referred to this usage as ‘gender neutral’. But the evidence, at least for Britain, suggests otherwise. To the extent that ‘cunt’ can function as a ‘neutral’ word, neither pejorative nor affectionate, its meaning appears to be gender-specific, referring to a male person rather than just a person. More generally, according to Tony McEnery’s analysis of swearing in the British National Corpus, ‘cunt’ is preferentially used by men, and they most often use it when addressing or referring to other men. Men do also use the word in reference to women, though much less frequently, and women sometimes use it in reference to men. But the corpus does not contain a single example of a woman using ‘cunt’ in the way Samantha Bee used it, to address or refer to another woman.

The finding that ‘cunt’ is a much commoner insult for men than for women might suggest that using it against a female target is perceived as aggravating the offence. If so, that would not be surprising: whatever else may be implied by calling a man a cunt, he is not being reminded of his historical or actual status as a commodity for male sexual use. This implication of the word may also help to explain why ‘cunt’ is so rarely a female-to-female insult. Not because women’s sisterly feelings prevent them from hurling sexist insults at one another, but because there are other sexist insults which are better suited to their needs.

As I noted in an earlier post about swearing, both historical evidence from court records and more recent sociolinguistic studies suggest that the words women have most often used to wound each other are terms like ‘whore’, ‘slut’ and ‘slag’, which make distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women on the basis of their (real or imagined) sexual conduct. In the context of verbal conflict between women, the problem with ‘cunt’ may be that it doesn’t make distinctions. When you call another woman a slag you are implying that she’s inferior, both to you and to anyone else who has eschewed the behaviour implied by the term; but if you call her a cunt you’re invoking a status which no one in possession of female genitals can easily disclaim. You’re not just expressing your opinion of her, you’re also recycling an old patriarchal belief about what all women essentially are.

This is why, ultimately, I do not agree with Laurie Penny’s assessment of ‘cunt’ as a ‘word of power’ for women. The power I see in it is largely the historical power of men to define women, to dominate them and to make them Other. (And also–given the evidence that ‘cunt’ is most commonly a male-on-male insult–to weaponise women’s bodies in their dealings with one another.)

So, am I saying we should treat ‘cunt’ in the way polite society has always treated it, as unspeakable? No: I don’t believe that any word is wholly unspeakable, nor am I in favour of banning words. I share the view set out by the African American legal scholar Randall Kennedy in his thought-provoking history of another ‘troublesome word’, the N-word. Though Kennedy has many qualms about its use, he argues that imposing a blanket prohibition just makes it into a fetish, and so does more to increase than to diminish its power. Instead he proposes that every case should be judged on its merits, giving careful consideration to the speaker’s aims, the effect of the word in context, and what alternatives the speaker could have chosen to use instead.

This last point, I think, is an important one for speakers themselves to take on board. In language there are almost always alternatives, and offensive words, words with the potential to wound because they have wounded before, should not be used either on autopilot or simply for their shock value: it’s always worth asking whether a word that carries less baggage might serve our purposes equally well.

In Samantha Bee’s case I think a well-chosen alternative to ‘cunt’, something scathing but not obscene, and more specific in its application to the person being criticised, would actually have served her purposes better. In a different context (like a live performance in a more intimate space) exploiting the shock value of ‘cunt’ might have been effective, but on a national TV show it was always liable to be heard as crass, flouting the rule so memorably stated by Michelle Obama in her own attack on Trump and his supporters: ‘you don’t stoop to their level … when they go low, we go high’. Perhaps what Bee will regret most, in hindsight, is not that she pissed off her sponsors and a large chunk of her audience by using the C-word on TV, but that by doing so she allowed Ivanka Trump to occupy, however briefly, the moral high ground.


This month I finally got round to reading Jessa Crispin’s much-hyped book Why I Am Not A Feminist. In fact, Crispin does consider herself a feminist: what her book takes aim at isn’t feminism as such, but a particular kind of ‘lifestyle’ feminism which she finds vacuous and self-absorbed. And one sign of this vacuity, she argues, is an obsession with linguistic minutiae:

…what becomes most important are the things on the surface. Like using the right words, rather than the wrong words. (The fact that the right words keep changing does nothing to quell the anger that builds in Internet feminism when you use the wrong words.)

This is an easy way to score political points, because the belief it mobilises—that if you’re worrying about mere words you must be neglecting the stuff that really matters—is deeply embedded in English-speaking culture. The idea that debating language is a trivial and ineffectual pursuit is expressed in a gazillion stock phrases and sayings: ‘Deeds, not words’. ‘Empty rhetoric’. ‘Just semantics.’ ‘He’s all mouth and no trousers’. ‘She talks the talk but can she walk the walk?’

By coincidence, while I was reading Jessa Crispin’s book I came across another piece making the same kind of argument, but from a very different political standpoint. This one appeared on a conservative website, the Daily Caller, under the title ‘Whiny and broken: the linguistic minefield of today’s politically correct tranny’. And it resembled Jessa Crispin’s text in another way too: just as Crispin is a feminist criticising other feminists, the author of ‘Whiny and broken’, Sophia Narwitz, is a trans woman criticising other trans people. ‘Each day’, she complains,

the habitually angry leftist LGBT “community” is creating semantic rules that are all but impossible to navigate unless you have helped lay the groundwork yourself.

She goes on to give examples:

I bet you didn’t know it’s wrong to say ‘transgendered’ now. Apparently the ‘ed’ at the end of the word is offensive. … They feel it invalidates a transgender person because people don’t become transgendered. They are born that way.

And later:

These people even cry depending on whether you put a space in transwoman or not. I am not joking. I think it’s not offensive if you say it as trans woman with a space, but honestly I don’t even care to check. I’m not going to waste my time googling nonsense, because — guess what — none of this fucking matters!

What Narwitz calls ‘googling nonsense’ was actually the first thing I did after reading her piece. This is because I remember the Great Political Correctness Furore of the 1990s, when it was common to discover, if you bothered to look, that the linguistic rules people were ridiculing as trivial, or denouncing as a sinister Orwellian plot to control people’s thoughts, had in fact been made up—not by the so-called ‘PC Brigade’ but by their opponents and/or people satirising the phenomenon. Thousands of primary school children were not, as the tabloids alleged, singing ‘Baa Baa Green Sheep’ because the thought police had decreed that any reference to a black sheep was racist. And absolutely nobody was seriously advocating the substitution of ‘vertically challenged’ for ‘short’. That was a joke. So, before I pondered Sophia Narwitz’s argument, I thought it would be prudent to check her facts.

She wasn’t making her examples up. The ‘transgender not transgendered’ rule is now a highly codified norm, appearing in, among other sources, the reference guide to LGBT terminology produced for media professionals by GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation);  it has been explained for a general audience in such mainstream publications as Time magazine. There are also many sources for the other rule Narwitz mentions, prescribing the two-word form ‘trans woman’ rather than ‘transwoman’. In each case the prescribed form is presented as what ‘the community’ prefers, whereas the proscribed form is associated with ignorant or malicious outsiders. But in fact that’s an oversimplification: there isn’t only one ‘insider’ view. Some community members dissent from the current orthodoxy—and they aren’t all right-wing zealots who would be happy to write for the Daily Caller.

In 2013 the trans blogger Cristan Williams devoted a post to the ‘trans woman v. transwoman’ issue. She began by reproducing part of an email she had received objecting to her ‘cissexist’ use of ‘transwoman’ to describe herself.

“Trans” should be used as an adjective to describe “woman.” When the two are linked together, it becomes a noun all its own, distinctly separating it from other groups of women, acting as a qualifier instead of a mere description. Conjoining the words together denotes that the two ideas can’t be separated, that being trans is somehow fundamentally different from any other characteristic a woman can have.

Then she explained why she disagreed with her correspondent. First, she argued that the proscription of ‘transwoman’ as transphobic or cissexist misrepresented trans history. It implied that the one-word form had been invented by outsiders as an insult, when in fact it originated among trans people themselves, and had a long history of being used in some trans communities. Second, she rejected the ‘adjective good, noun bad’ argument. ‘Businesswoman’ and ‘congresswoman’, she pointed out, are nouns: do they imply that the person so labelled is fundamentally different from all other women? Would their meaning be totally changed if they were written as two words rather than one?

Williams also offered a more general thought about what’s ultimately behind this kind of dispute:

I sometimes feel that the language polemics we so enjoy are created in part to support an environment which chases the ghost of empowerment through the reactionary policing of highly nuanced lexical epistemologies that inevitably privilege certain segments of the trans community over others.

Although I’m not included in Williams’s  ‘we’, when I read this observation it really resonated with me. What she feels is pretty much what I feel myself whenever I witness yet another Twitter spat about whether such-and-such a word is ‘problematic’, or contemplate the endless proliferation of ‘things not to say’ pieces with titles like ‘The Ten Words You Should Never Use to a Lesbian’, or ‘Five Ways Your Punctuation Could Be Making People Feel Excluded’.  But my problem with this sort of thing isn’t the same as Jessa Crispin’s: it’s not simply the fact that people are wasting energy on disagreements about ‘mere’ words. It’s more the way they’re going about it—by creating arbitrary shibboleths which are then used to police the boundaries of acceptable discourse within an already small and select community of the like-minded. It’s an example of Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’, or the sectarianism satirised in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (where the People’s Front of Judea hate the Judean People’s Front even more than they hate their Roman imperialist oppressors). And it can get very ugly.

The word ‘shibboleth’—Hebrew for an ear of corn—features in the account given in the Book of Judges of the behaviour of the Gileadites towards their defeated enemies the Ephraimites. When the surviving Ephraimites tried to flee, they found their access to a ford across the river Jordan cut off by Gileadites who would only let them cross if they could prove they weren’t members of the enemy group by pronouncing the word ‘shibboleth’ in the Gileadite way, with an initial ‘sh’ sound. If the Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked the ‘sh’, pronounced it ‘sibboleth’, they were slaughtered. This use of a small and otherwise meaningless distinction (‘shibboleth’ and ‘sibboleth’ are just variants of the same word) as a test of in-group versus out-group identity is the source of the word’s meaning in English, where it can denote a custom or practice that marks membership of a group or sect, a minor detail that is accorded disproportionate weight, or a rule which is fetishized, so that the letter of the law becomes more important than the spirit. The linguistic rules I am calling shibboleths have all these characteristics.

The most obvious sign that a rule functions as a shibboleth is that its observance or non-observance becomes an acid test of whether someone is friend or foe. The use of a prescribed form means the writer is ‘one of us’, a political ally on the right side of whatever the argument is, whereas failure to observe the rule indicates that the writer is an adversary, on the wrong side of the same argument. That, in turn, may be taken to license punitive action—pile-ons, name-calling, personal abuse and threats. This is particularly likely to happen in public forums online, where people’s words will often be the only thing you have to judge them by. But in that setting it is also likely to catch cases where non-compliance does not reflect hostility or bigotry, but merely the unfamiliarity or opacity of the rule to people who don’t belong to whatever network it emerged from.

Another sign of a shibboleth is that you can’t question either the rule or the argument that justifies it without being assumed to have the ‘wrong’ political beliefs—even if, like Cristan Williams, you are a member of the group in whose interests the rule is ostensibly being advocated. This isn’t just an issue with gender identity labels. Consider the recently influential argument that the formula ‘commit suicide’ should be avoided because it stigmatises people who take or attempt to take their own lives. The linguistic point is that the verb ‘commit’ has a strong association with criminal or sinful acts (other words that commonly follow ‘commit’ include ‘crime’, ‘murder’ and ‘adultery’): its use in relation to suicide reflects the historical definition of that act as both a crime and a sin. Since that is no longer how we think about suicide, we should stop using an expression that recycles the attitudes of a less enlightened time.

But it is possible to be 100% committed (sic) to the goal of de-stigmatising suicide while still thinking that the linguistic argument is based on inaccurate and simplistic assumptions. It assumes that anyone who hears or utters ‘commit suicide’ must be mentally accessing the negative meaning of ‘commit’ and the associated understanding of suicide as a crime/sin. But that isn’t necessarily the case. We still talk about the sun ‘rising’, but that doesn’t mean we think it actually ‘rises’. In the context of the formula ‘sun + rise’ we rarely think about the meaning of the word ‘rise’ at all.

This example is given in a blog post by Dariusz Galasiński, a linguist who has written extensively on the language of suicide. In addition to noting that we have little evidence about what ordinary language-users make of the expression ‘commit suicide’, Galasiński makes the important point that it’s unlikely to have the same meaning for everyone.  Arguments that ‘we should use X and avoid Y because X means this whereas Y means that’ consistently overlook how much variation there is in the way words are used and understood. There is also variation in the way people think about the issues behind the words. Some people who have contemplated or attempted suicide tell researchers they find the agentive language of ‘committing’ less stigmatising and disempowering than alternative formulas which suggest a lack of control over one’s own actions and decisions (e.g. ‘die by suicide’ or ‘lost to suicide’). Other research has found that being highly conscious of the stigma attached to suicide may deter people, especially men, from acting on suicidal impulses. Does that mean avoiding ‘commit’ might actually harm some members of the group it’s meant to help?

What Galasiński is questioning here is not just the rule proscribing ‘commit suicide’, but the idea that any argument for prescribing one form of words while proscribing another could be applicable in every context and to every case. Language is rarely that simple. But the power of the shibboleth depends on the conviction that some ways of using language are always right and others are always wrong—that it can never be OK, for instance, to refer to an adult woman as a ‘girl’, or to prefer the passive to the active voice. What this encourages is self-policing and bad faith: ‘I don’t understand why X is wrong/I don’t really believe that X is wrong, but if I’m going to be attacked for using it I’d better just steer clear’.

I see engaging in arguments about language as an integral part of doing any kind of politics. I can’t imagine a serious political movement that wouldn’t ask questions like ‘what does this term mean?’ or ‘how should we talk about this problem?’ In that sense I disagree with commentators like Jessa Crispin who say that arguments about language are just a trivial distraction from ‘real’ politics. But I do think there’s a problem with the way some of those arguments are conducted. If language matters, then we need to be able to reflect critically on the way we use it. And there is nothing reflective, or self-reflexive, about the shouty, judgy, self-righteous policing of anyone who doesn’t sound just like you.

The image shows a detail from Doris Salcedo’s artwork Shibboleth I (2007)

Is ‘terrorism’ the right word?

Since the self-styled ‘incel’ Alek Minassian killed ten people in Toronto last week, deliberately mowing them down with a van he had rented for the purpose, a number of writers have suggested that it is time to start calling this kind of violence ‘terrorism’. These commentators have also called attention to the role of online ‘hate-groups’ (meaning the various misogynist subcultures whose home-base is the ‘manosphere’) in ‘radicalising’ men like Minassian, exposing them to extreme beliefs and inciting them to commit acts of violence.

One feminist writer who made this argument was Jessica Valenti, who wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that 

despite a great deal of evidence that connects the dots between these mass killers and radical misogynist groups, we still largely refer to the attackers as “lone wolves” — a mistake that ignores the preventable way these men’s fear and anger are deliberately cultivated and fed online.

Here’s the term we should all use instead: misogynist terrorism.

David Futrelle, who has spent years tracking online misogynist groups on his blog We Hunted the Mammoth, concurred. In a piece written for Elle magazine he described the incel worldview as ‘a poisonous and hateful ideology’, adding that 

killings carried out in its name should be considered deliberate terrorism just as ISIS bombings or KKK lynchings are.

This suggestion was echoed by Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedman, a mainstream liberal who confessed that until last week he had never even heard of incels:  

terrorism is precisely the right word for what happened in Toronto, right down to the online radicalisation that preceded it.

All three writers are making a more or less explicit analogy between Minassian’s acts and the acts of people we have no hesitation in calling terrorists, like radical Islamists and white supremacists. And it is not difficult to see the basis for that analogy. Islamist terror groups have used the internet for recruitment and propaganda purposes: the concept of ‘online radicalisation’ entered public consciousness via discussions of so-called ‘home grown’ terrorists like the London 7/7 bombers, who were said to have been inspired by the online preaching of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-based recruiter for al-Qaeda. Minassian’s method of killing, using a vehicle as a weapon, has been used in some recent attacks claimed by ISIS, as well as in the attack on anti-fascist protesters in Charlottesville last year.

It’s also clear that misogynist killers see themselves as making a political statement. On Facebook Minassian referred to the attack he planned as an ‘incel rebellion’, and referenced the earlier incel killer Elliot Rodger, who composed a rambling ‘manifesto’ explaining/justifying his actions before murdering six people in 2014. Responses to these events on incel forums suggest that other members of the subculture have understood them as terrorist acts, in the textbook definition of terrorism as ‘the politically-motivated use of violence for the purpose of instilling fear’. After Toronto, one commenter wrote that    

normies must now live with fear for the rest of their lives, they can’t go to school, the mall, or on a date without having to fear another incel attack.

The argument that we should adopt the language of terrorism to talk about this phenomenon is essentially a proposal for what the linguist George Lakoff would call ‘reframing’—changing the language we use about something in order to change people’s perceptions of it. And what’s behind that proposal is the frustration felt by feminists like Valenti, and knowledgeable allies like Futrelle, about the failure of the authorities, mainstream commentators and the public at large to take misogyny seriously. As Valenti points out, the frame which has dominated previous discussions downplays the connection of mass killing with misogyny and the online groups which promote it: it has presented killers like Elliot Rodger as isolated ‘lone wolves’, driven to destroy others, and sometimes themselves, by their personal inadequacies and/or mental health problems. Reframing such acts as ‘misogynist terrorism’ is an attempt to make their political dimension visible.  

It is also an attempt to promote the idea that misogynist violence is preventable. The ‘lone wolf’ frame implies that nothing can be done: you can’t stop disturbed individuals from going off the rails and causing mayhem. But if what those individuals do is reframed as the result of being ‘radicalised’ by online ‘hate-groups’, the implication is that we could and should take action against those groups. We could, for instance, try to take away their platform by lobbying the companies that host their sites to shut them down (David Futrelle has argued for this). Or we could consider the kinds of counter-terrorism strategies that have been used in other contexts, like proscribing certain organisations or setting up programmes to help susceptible men resist their message.    

But while I agree with the writers I’ve quoted about the need to take misogyny seriously, and also with their criticisms of the ‘lone wolf’ frame, I have very mixed feelings about their proposed reframing. In the rest of this post I want to try to explain why I think we should be cautious about adopting the language of terrorism.    

The idea that we should combat misogynist terrorism by taking action against the online extremists who are radicalising men like Alek Minassian borrows not only the terminology but also the strategy of the post-9/11 ‘war on terror’. The western governments which have been fighting this ‘war’ since 2001 have devoted considerable effort to preventing radicalisation, but they have not been particularly successful; they may even have exacerbated the problem, by sharpening the sense of grievance felt by young Muslim men, and by sending the message that embracing radical Islamism is the ultimate act of rebellion against authority. Defining misogynist groups as terrorist organisations could have a similarly counterproductive effect. The problem is, as the old cliché has it, that ‘one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter’. That’s exactly how the manosphere misogynists like to think of themselves—as a radical resistance movement rising  up against feminist tyranny. Do we really want to adopt a frame that will reinforce their own preferred narrative?  

Another thing we need to think about is what the ‘terrorism’ frame leaves out. All frames have the effect of bringing some aspects of the phenomenon being represented into the foreground, while relegating others to the background or obscuring them entirely, and this one is no exception. It foregrounds a particular kind of misogynist violence, the kind perpetrated by Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger, and it focuses attention on certain features of those killings. For instance, they were public and intended to be spectacular; they targeted strangers en masse, choosing weapons like vehicles or firearms, which can kill large numbers of people quickly and efficiently; their perpetrators subscribed to an identifiable ideology and claimed to have a political motive. What we see in this frame is the similarity with other forms of terrorism. What we don’t see is the connection with other forms of male violence against women and girls.

Most violence against women and girls has none of the characteristics just listed. It most often takes place in private, and is rarely intended to be spectacular. Its targets are not usually strangers: most women and girls who die or suffer serious harm at the hands of violent men are attacked by men they know, especially intimate partners or ex-partners and family members. They are typically attacked individually, and the commonest methods are ‘personal’ ones requiring direct physical contact, like beating, kicking and strangling. Some attacks have a sexual element: they are, or include, acts of rape or sexual assault. The vast majority of perpetrators have not been ‘radicalised’ and do not think of their actions as political.

From this long list of differences it would be easy to conclude that misogynist mass killings have nothing in common with more ‘everyday’ forms of male violence. But that would be a mistake. 

Killings perpetrated by incels are intended as acts of revenge against the women who refuse to consider them as sexual or romantic partners. This is their signature feature, and it is generally taken as the expression of an extreme and deluded belief system. But many acts of violence committed by non-incel men have a similar rationale. The man who kills his wife or girlfriend because she has left him, or is planning to leave him, has the same grievance against her that the incel has against ‘Stacys’. He cannot tolerate being rejected: it is a slight that must be avenged. Men who stalk women–often women who either rejected or left them–feel the same. These are different expressions of the same impulse, rooted in what has been labelled ‘aggrieved male entitlement’. 

The philosopher Kate Manne has argued that this is how misogyny works. Unlike, say, anti-semitism or homophobia, misogyny is not usually a generalized hatred of the kind that prompts calls for the entire group to be exterminated. Rather, misogyny is the enforcement arm of patriarchy: it’s about punishing any woman who does not fulfil what men consider to be her obligations to them. Misogynists become enraged when women either take something men think is theirs by right (like a position of power), or else withhold something men assume they are entitled to (like the sex, love and admiration which incels believe they are owed).  

Jessica Valenti complains that the ‘lone wolf’ frame does not join the dots that connect mass killers to radical misogynist groups; I am suggesting that the ‘terrorism’ frame does not join the dots that connect mass killers to the perpetrators of everyday violence against women and girls. For feminists I think that’s a serious drawback. We can’t tackle misogyny if we limit our focus to a handful of spectacular but untypical cases.

Nor do I think we can tackle it effectively by concentrating our efforts on the forums which are said to be ‘radicalising’ men online. The manosphere is certainly a magnet (and a megaphone) for the aggrieved and entitled, but I don’t think it’s where most men learn to be misogynists. Take away the in-group jargon and what you’re left with is ideas and attitudes (like ‘women owe men sex’, or ‘a “hot” girlfriend enhances a man’s status among his peers’) which are also ubiquitous in the surrounding culture, and are shared by millions of men with no connection to any online group. What produces these beliefs in most men who hold them isn’t ‘radicalisation’, it’s just everyday patriarchal socialisation.  

The introduction of the ‘terrorism’ frame (which has quickly gained traction in the media) has had some positive effects. The ‘lone wolf’ frame has not dominated commentary on the Toronto killings in the way it dominated discussion of earlier cases; there has been less interest in the individual killer and more in the misogynist subculture he belonged to. But I find it depressing if the only way to make people take misogyny seriously is to compare it to other forms of violence and hatred which it only resembles up to a point. And if the effect is to obscure the connections between the spectacular misogyny of incel killings and the misogyny expressed in more ‘everyday’ acts of violence, I think that’s a high price to pay. Let’s not forget that from a feminist perspective, all violence against women is political.







There go the girls

Until they were officially abolished last month, I had never heard of the ‘walk-on girls’ who accompanied professional darts players onstage at tournaments. Nor did I know that Formula 1 featured ‘grid girls’ (who have also been axed), that cycling has ‘podium girls’, and that boxing employs ‘ring card girls’ to do the vital job (according to promoter Eddie Hearn) of ‘letting people know what round is coming up’. The issue which has suddenly made these ‘girls’ controversial is not primarily about language (it’s more about broadcasters’ #metoo-fuelled unease with overt displays of sexism). But it does, arguably, have a linguistic dimension.

In 2013 the darts blogger Rich Nank devoted a post to what he called ‘the walk-on girls phenomenon’, in which he defended this invented tradition (born in Blackpool in 1994) against the charge of sexism. Queen_Mum_900As he saw it, the introduction of ‘walking on’ marked a softening of the traditional view that darts was strictly for the working man, and there was no place in the sport for women (a somewhat unconvincing argument, given that women had been playing darts competitively since the late 1950s). The walk-on girls made good money, they were popular with fans of both sexes, and some of them had become as famous as the players. Why, they were practically feminist role models! But there was one thing about them that even Mr Nank found slightly dodgy:

I’ve never been comfortable with calling them ‘girls’ mainly because they are grown women, but maybe that’s just me.

Actually, Rich, it’s not just you. Well, it might be just you if we’re talking about darts (along with F1, cycling, boxing, and possibly other sports too niche to have surfaced in recent media reports—are there, perhaps, ‘lawn girls’ in croquet? ‘Octagon girls’ in cage fighting?) But in the wider world this ‘girls’ thing has been a bone of contention for at least the last 45 years. And recently the debate has become more polarised.

In 2011, for instance, a contributor to Radio Times complained about the media’s relentless use of the Ernie K Doe track ‘Here Come the Girls’ (along with the Sugababes cover ‘Girls’):

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever women unite in television observational documentaries or entertainment shows to achieve a purpose, their steps will be dogged by Here Come the Girls… a suppurating bubo of a song, made famous by a series of witless television adverts for Boots.

Does your programme feature more than one woman doing something positive? Then play Here Come the Girls on the soundtrack as lazy shorthand aimed at pin-brains who can’t cope with the fact that women can be serious and grown-up and have purpose and enthusiasms. Or can be called “women”.

This comment references the classic feminist argument against calling adult women ‘girls’: that it belittles, demeans and insults them by reducing them to the status of children. Some feminists will tell you that since ‘girl’ means ‘female child’, it should be reserved exclusively for people under the age of 16 (or 15, or 18–whenever the writer thinks childhood ends). But the reason I’m posting on this subject is because (with apologies to regular readers who’ve heard this line before) I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

If it were really that simple, it would be hard to explain why ‘girls’ is favoured over ‘women’ in contexts like those Boots adverts, where the intention clearly wasn’t to demean women (how would insulting the customer help to shift the product?) but on the contrary, to present them as strong, capable and ‘empowered’. Boots was actually trading on the development which has reignited this long-running controversy: in recent decades ‘girl’, once a reliable indicator of unreconstructed male chauvinism, has come to be associated with a certain kind of feminism.

This may have begun with the Riot Grrrl movement, with its slogan ‘girls to the front’. But while that was very much a young women’s thing, today’s ‘girls’ can be of any age. Think of Oprah’s use of ‘you go, girl!’ and Beyoncé’s ‘who run the world? Girls!’ Think of the recent rash of female-authored bestsellers with ‘girl’ in their titles (like Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train), or TV series like Lena Dunham’s Girls (in which the characters are young, but no longer children) and ITV’s current Kay Mellor drama Girlfriends (whose protagonists are considerably older). These are not cases of men patronising women: the new ‘girl’-users are women, and often they are self-identified feminists. So what are they doing with ‘girl’? Or, to put it another way, what is ‘girl’ doing for them that ‘woman’ can’t?

To answer that question we will need to let go of the idea that ‘girl’ is automatically demeaning because it infantilises women. Some uses of ‘girl’ may do that, and many uses of ‘girl’ are demeaning whether or not they do it (a point I’ll elaborate on later). But as a general explanation of how ‘girl’ works, the ‘it treats adult women as children’ argument is flawed and always has been, because it’s based on an overly literal account of what and how words mean.

Suggesting that ‘girl’ should only be used in reference to actual children is a bit like suggesting that ‘cold fish’ and ‘fish out of water’ should only be used in reference to actual fish. It misses the point that these are metaphors, figures of speech that work by transferring some of the qualities of one thing (a girl, or a fish) to another thing (a woman, or a human). The question is what aspects of the meaning of ‘girl’ are being transferred when the word is used in reference to adult women. The answer may be different in different contexts, and that may help to explain why some uses of ‘girl’ are perceived as demeaning, while others are positively embraced by women themselves.

One element of the context that can affect the meaning of a linguistic form is related to that hardy perennial of sociolinguistics, the distinction between status and solidarity. As I explained in a previous post, it’s not uncommon for the same linguistic form to communicate a different meaning depending on whether it’s being used ‘vertically’, to mark the speakers’ relative positions in a status hierarchy, or ‘horizontally’, as a mark of solidarity, intimacy or mutual respect between equals. For instance, if two people are in an intimate relationship, each may address the other with endearment terms like ‘darling’ and ‘sweetheart’, and in that context the terms are unobjectionable; but it’s another story when the same words are used non-reciprocally, by men harassing female strangers in the street, or by a boss to a female underling who is obliged to call him ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Smith’. The first usage says ‘we love each other’; the second says ‘I have power over you’.

‘Girl’ can be used in both ways. British readers may remember the outcry last year after the Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale referred to his female office staff as ‘girls’ during an interview on national radio. This was a good example of the vertical, non-reciprocal usage: the staff members in question, all women of mature years, could hardly refer to Sir Roger as ‘the boy we work for’ (just as he wouldn’t feel able to refer to his own boss, prime minister Theresa May, as ‘the girl in number 10’). Another, notorious historical example is the way white Americans in the era of racial segregation (and before that, slavery) addressed African Americans as ‘girl’ and ‘boy’. This racist convention underlined the subordinate status of Black people, and was accordingly resented by them. But that hasn’t stopped African American women from adopting ‘girl’ as a solidary term among themselves. When it’s used horizontally it communicates something different—it’s about female bonding and mutual support.

For solidary purposes, ‘girl’ may seem preferable to ‘woman’ because it’s warmer and more intimate. It works in the same way as endearment terms, or the diminutives we often use as nicknames for the people we’re close to: between intimates, a name that metaphorically makes you ‘smaller’ is a mark of affection. But when it comes from someone with socially-sanctioned power over you, the same metaphor becomes a putdown, a reminder that you are seen as a lesser being.

If the horizontal use of ‘girl’ conveys warmth, closeness and female solidarity, that might explain why ‘girlfriend’ is so often preferred to the more distant-sounding ‘woman friend’. But the closeness/distance contrast doesn’t seem so relevant to cases like The Girl On The Train, or the various bits of mainstream media output which have been soundtracked with ‘Here Come the Girls’. In those cases we might think that ‘girl’ is preferred to ‘woman’ for other reasons–reasons which feminists might find more problematic.

One obvious difference between ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ is that ‘girl’ emphasises the quality of youthfulness and ‘woman’ the quality of maturity. In societies which are both sexist and ageist, however, maturity isn’t always seen as positive. So, when adult women refer to themselves and one another as ‘girls’, this may function as a form of avoidance, an attempt to block the less desirable associations of ‘woman’. A ‘girl’ is not, for instance, staid, careworn, ‘mumsy’, a domestic tyrant or a grim old battleaxe. She sounds less threatening than a ‘woman’, and more attractive—not only because of her imagined youthful looks, but also because of her supposed carefree attitude and her implied sexual availability. (It’s not a coincidence that we have walk-on, grid, podium and ring card ‘girls’ rather than ‘women’: women whose job is to project sexual availability are almost invariably referred to as ‘girls’.) Embracing ‘girl’, in short, is one way of dealing with the social fact that women’s value in modern western cultures is reduced rather than enhanced by age and experience.

Though ageism does not affect men in exactly the same way (getting older is not thought to render men sexually undesirable and therefore worthless), there are contexts where terms connoting youthfulness or juvenility are used by/about men as well as women, and often for similar reasons. For instance, we have paired expressions like ‘boys’/girls’ night out’, where the most relevant association of the juvenile term is with being carefree—participants are ‘boys/girls’ rather than ‘men/women’ because they’re putting aside adult responsibilities to concentrate on the pursuit of pleasure. (In that context, as the Radio Times writer pointed out, ‘Here Come the Girls’ has an equally clichéd male equivalent, ‘The Boys Are Back in Town’.) ‘Boys’ can also have the same solidary function as ‘girls’: both terms are frequently deployed as expressions of camaraderie among same-sex workmates or members of the same sports team.

‘Girl’ is a more complicated word than it might seem. A blanket prohibition on using it to refer to anyone older than 15 would be a very blunt instrument, capturing not only the cases which are offensive, but also many which are innocuous, or even positive. Broadly speaking, ‘girl’ is suspect when it meets one or more of the following criteria:

  1. it is used non-reciprocally by a more powerful person to or about someone less powerful;
  2. a reference to an equivalent male person would not contain a word suggesting juvenility, e.g. ‘boy’ or ‘lad’;
  3. subservience and/or sexual availability are important elements of the meaning it is being used to convey.

It’s not surprising that the ‘girl’ terms which inspired this post—‘walk-on girl’, ‘grid girl’, ‘podium girl’, ‘ring card girl’—meet all these criteria: they are labels for women fulfilling a function whose very existence would be inconceivable without sexism. But if ‘girl’ doesn’t tick any of these boxes then I don’t think feminists should have a problem with it. We don’t do ourselves any favours by policing language for no good reason.