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.



Call the fishwife: thoughts on sex, class and swearing

Do men find women who swear unattractive? This old chestnut of a question recently popped up on social media after it was posed by Britain’s leading litter supplier, the Metro.  On my own timeline, by far the commonest answer was ‘who gives a fuck?’ But outside the feminist bubble, there was no shortage of young men expressing more conventional opinions.  Men like Hugh, 25, who told the Metro:

I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears. I feel it makes them seem more masculine… I’m more used to men swearing more.

If you asked 100 randomly-selected English speakers which sex swears more, the great majority would probably say ‘men’. For most of the last 100 years that was also what linguists thought. Otto Jespersen commented in 1922 on women’s ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Half a century later Robin Lakoff suggested that the shrinking was not instinctive, but rather the result of social pressure. Women who expressed themselves forcefully were liable to be criticised for their ‘unladylike’ behaviour; among other things, this meant that they avoided ‘strong expletives’, and were more likely than men to use inoffensive substitutes like ‘fudge’.

But there was not much hard evidence to back up these claims. When researchers began to look more closely, they also began to suspect that, like many beliefs about the speech of men and women, this one had more to do with prescriptive gender norms than with the facts about our actual linguistic behaviour.

In 2005 the corpus linguist Tony McEnery published Swearing in English, a book whose first section, ‘How Brits Swear’, contains a systematic analysis of the use of swear words in the spoken component of the British National Corpus (BNC)—a sample of 10 million words transcribed from recordings made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Part of the sample consists of speech recorded at meetings or from radio discussions; the rest is informal conversation. Male and female speakers are represented in approximately equal numbers, and the corpus also includes speakers from a range of age groups and socioeconomic categories. This allowed McEnery to see how the frequency of swearing was affected by age, sex and social class.

So, what did he find? Well, age made a difference, along the lines you’d probably expect. The most prolific swearers were people under 25; after that age there was a steady decline. Class also had an influence, but it wasn’t a straightforward case of ‘the lower the class, the more people swear’. The highest frequencies were indeed found in the lowest socioeconomic strata, but the next most frequent swearers were the highest-status group, the professional middle class. (The BNC probably doesn’t include many representatives of the aristocracy, but they’ve never been shy about swearing either: some members of the Royal Family, like Prince Philip and Princess Anne, are famous for it.) In Britain it’s the people in the middle who swear the least.

What about sex? I’ve left it until last because unlike age and class, it turned out to have no effect on the overall frequency of swearing. If all types of swearing and all swear words were considered, there was no significant difference between men and women.

But if it isn’t true that men swear more, why do so many people insist that swearing is ‘unfeminine’? Hugh, 25, for instance, finds women who swear unattractive because ‘it makes them seem more masculine’. What’s the connection between swearing and masculinity?

One answer might be that we understand swearing as a form of aggression—a trait we think of as masculine, and find less acceptable in women. Recently, a book called Swearing is Good For You has popularised the theory that swearing evolved as a kind of safety valve, a way of ventilating negative emotions that stopped short of physical assault. I’m unconvinced by this argument. For one thing, swearing and physical violence often go together (the former may also precipitate the latter). But more importantly, a lot of swearing isn’t motivated by aggression. It’s common among friends (and particularly among same-sex friends) for the same reasons banter and gossip are common among friends: because the communal breaking of a social taboo (whether it’s gossiping about others’ business or uttering words you’re not supposed to say in public) is a symbol of intimacy and mutual trust.

Is it men who do the ‘aggressive’ swearing while women prefer the ‘solidary’ kind? Well, no, not really: the evidence shows that both sexes do both kinds. It may not match our preconceptions, but the historical record provides abundant evidence of female verbal aggression, very often directed against other women (and sometimes accompanied by physical violence).

The social historian Jonathan Healey describes an incident in Winchester in 1544, when two women started fighting in the street. According to witnesses, the first woman’s daughter came out of her house and subjected her mother’s adversary to a tirade of verbal abuse:

thow meseld faced [‘measle-faced’] hore, thow camest to towne with a lepers face & a skalled hed, And I defye thee utterly, for I wold thow knewist yt that the fowlest place of myn arse ys fayrer then thy face.

Another historian, Laura Gowing, cites a case from 1590, in which one London woman was heard to tell another,

thou art a whore an arrant whore a bitche yea worse than a bitche thou goest sawghting up and downe the towne after knaves and art such a whott tayled whore that neither one nor two nor ten nor twenty knaves will scarce serve thee.

This wasn’t just friendly joshing: the reason there’s a record of these altercations is that the parties ended up in court. We know from court documents that such aggressive exchanges between women were not rare.

Later on, though, the belief took hold that respectable women were incapable of swearing. In the early 1920s a Littlehampton woman named Edith Swan sent a large number of anonymous letters to her neighbours which were full of obscenities like ‘You bloody fucking flaming piss country whores go and fuck your cunt’. The first time she was prosecuted, the judge more or less directed the jury to acquit her because he could not believe that a woman of her appearance and demeanour would ever have used such indecent language. The person who got the blame was a less outwardly respectable woman, Rose Gooding, who was twice found guilty of libel before forensic evidence conclusively proved that Edith Swan was the author of all the letters.

This story points to another connection between swearing and masculinity. Recall Hugh’s assertion that ‘I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears’. The idea that swearing is ‘vulgar’ (in the modern sense of ‘impolite’ or ‘unrefined’) seems obvious enough, but etymologically ‘vulgar’ means ‘of the common people’—it has connotations of low social status. A similar concern was evident in the comments made by another man who was quoted in the Metro.  Jodel, 23, explained that he doesn’t swear himself, and doesn’t like anyone—male or female—swearing in his presence. However, he ‘doesn’t find it appealing when girls speak in certain dialects, for example, a colloquial regional slang’.

What these comments show is that forms of language which are associated with working class speakers (including swearing, street slang and regional dialect), are also perceived as ‘masculine’. A ‘feminine’ woman keeps it classy: she doesn’t soil her mouth, or men’s ears, with ‘vulgar’, low-status and nonstandard speech.

This mapping from class to gender (working class = masculine, middle class = feminine)  doesn’t only work for language, as you’ll know if you ever watched the reality TV show Ladette to Lady, in which young working class women were sent to finishing school to learn to behave like upper-class ‘ladies’. ‘Unfeminine’ was a word their teachers used repeatedly to describe every aspect of their self-presentation, from their speech to their deportment to their fashion choices. This wasn’t because they looked or acted like men: it was just that their understanding of what a woman should look or act like was more Bet Lynch than Elizabeth II. And that doesn’t match our cultural template for ‘proper’ femininity, which is based on the upper- or middle-class ‘lady’.

By contrast, our template for ‘proper’ masculinity is not the effete upper-class gentleman, it’s the set of working-class male archetypes parodied by the Village People—the cowboy, the construction worker, the sailor. These ‘real men’ are tough, they don’t mind their manners (or their grammar) and they swear like the proverbial troopers. That’s why, when Donald Trump talks about ‘shithole countries’ and ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, his supporters don’t find it objectionable: like his baseball cap and his junk food diet, it’s seen as evidence that this over-privileged millionaire is really a man of the people. Female populist politicians have to be more careful, as Sarah Palin discovered in 2016 when she told an audience of Trump supporters that their candidate would ‘kick ISIS’s ass’–and was immediately criticised for her ‘profanity’.

Though the BNC data show women and men swearing with equal frequency, Tony McEnery (like Robin Lakoff) thinks the gendered double standard does have an effect, in that it leads women to avoid the ‘strongest’ words. His statistical analysis revealed that while both sexes had the same basic vocabulary, men were significantly more likely than women to say ‘fuck/fucking/fucker’, ‘jesus’ and ‘cunt’; women, by contrast, were significantly more likely than men to say ‘god’, ‘bloody’, ‘hell’, ‘shit’, ‘arsed’, ‘pig’, ‘piss/pissy’, ‘bugger’ and ‘bitch’. He also noted that some words were more frequently used to or about one sex than the other. For instance (and I’m guessing this won’t surprise you), it was women who got called ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’, while it was men who got called ‘wanker’ and ‘gay’. It was also men who were most often addressed or referred to as ‘cunts’. The word was sometimes applied to women, but its commonest use was from one man to another.

In more recent research with newly-collected data, McEnery has found that women no longer lag behind men in the frequency with which they use ‘fuck’. But in any case, the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘mild’ swearing is one that will bear closer examination. Can offensiveness be treated as a constant, an inherent property of individual words, or does it vary in different contexts and social groups?

The offensiveness ranking McEnery used, originally produced for the British Board of Film Classification, is a typical example of what you get if you give people a list of offensive words and ask them to rate them on a five-point scale. It classifies ‘cunt’ and ‘motherfucker’ as ‘very strong’, ‘fuck’ as ‘strong’, ‘whore’—along with ‘bastard’ and ‘wanker’—as ‘moderate’, ‘arse’ and ‘bitch’ as ‘mild’, and ‘bloody’, ‘crap’ and ‘damn’ as ‘very mild’. Other surveys of this type have produced similar results, suggesting a high degree of consensus among English-speakers on the relative strength of various words. But these surveys ask people to judge words in isolation, whereas in real life our judgments of offensiveness are affected by the specifics of the situation. It won’t be irrelevant who is using a word to whom, or what message they are using it to communicate.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s go back to the 16th century cases in which one woman called another a ‘whore’. According to the BBFC ranking, this would count as a ‘moderate’ insult rather than a ‘strong’ one. But in context there was nothing moderate about it. Historically, calling a woman unchaste was the way you impugned her honour: it was an attack on her reputation which could have serious social consequences. ‘Whore’ and its synonyms were therefore regarded by women as extremely offensive and provocative words. In some communities they still are. One study conducted with working class women in Salford in the 1990s found that they viewed ‘slag’ as the most serious insult, closely followed by ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’.

That wasn’t because they shied away from ‘strong expletives’. According to the researcher Susan Hughes, these were women who swore habitually and unapologetically: ‘their general conversation is peppered’, she reported, ‘with fuck, twat, bastard, and so on’. When she asked about the reasons for this, the women told her it was just ‘part of our way of talking’. They didn’t see it as anything special, and that’s consistent with the historical evidence that swearing has always been part of working class women’s linguistic repertoire. (Nor should we assume that it was totally absent from the repertoire of middle class women: while they may have avoided swearing in public, there is no reason to think they never swore among themselves.)

Yet it seems to be virtually an article of faith that women today swear more than previous generations. For those commentators who defend women’s right to swear (including both the writer of the Metro article and the author of Swearing is Good For You), this supposed change is a sign of progress—it shows how far women have come in the past half-century. Commentators who are critical of women swearing agree that it’s a sign of changing times, but they don’t think the change is for the better. Some argue that modern ideas of sex-equality have forced women to adopt ‘masculine’ behaviour in order to compete with or be accepted by men. Others suggest that women are doing it to shock, or because feminists have convinced them that it’s cool to be unfeminine and vulgar.

These arguments are (ironically) not new. Since the late 19th century, every increase in young women’s public visibility and independence has prompted comments on their alleged new enthusiasm for swearing (as well as for slang, smoking, drinking, ‘mannish’ clothes and ‘rowdy’ behaviour). The same observations were made about the ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s, the ‘munitionettes’ who worked in munitions factories during World War I, and the ‘flappers’ of the 1920s. And there were similar debates on whether these women’s prolific swearing symbolised a new era of female freedom, or whether it was simply vulgar, unfeminine and immoral.

cropped-billingsgate-eloquence-by-james-gillray-published-by-hannah-humphrey-26-may-1795-national-portrait-gallery1.jpgWhether her behaviour is judged positively or negatively, the woman who swears is always seen as behaving like a man: it’s assumed, in other words, that there is no authentically female tradition of swearing. But in that case, how do we understand the 16th century women yelling insults like ‘measle-faced whore’, or the 20th century Salford women whose conversation was ‘peppered with fuck, twat and bastard’? What do we say about the fishwives pictured in this post, whose swearing was so legendary, their occupational title acquired the secondary sense of ‘foul-mouthed woman’? These women weren’t competing with men, nor rebelling against middle-class norms of femininity (which, as Susan Hughes says in her discussion of the Salford women, were completely irrelevant to their lives). They were doing their own thing, and in the communities they belonged to it was a thing women had done for generations.

Asking whether women should swear is a bit like asking whether women should have children out of wedlock, or weigh more than seven stone: it’s a question designed for no other purpose than to allow people to air their prejudices. And those prejudices are, in most cases, socially selective. If a single mother on benefits peppers her discourse with ‘fuck, twat and bastard’, people say she’s ignorant, unable to express herself in any other way.  If a stand-up comedian who went to public school uses the same words in his act, people say it’s edgy and subversive. Men like the Metro’s Hugh take their selective prejudices into their personal relationships, reserving the right to swear themselves while saying it’s a turn-off when women do it.

It’s depressing to witness 25-year old men recycling opinions in 2018 that were already clichés in 1918. My message to them is simple: ‘yes, women swear. They always have and they always will. Get over it. Move on’.

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.




Politics, by definition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pride, prejudice and pedantry

Last year I discovered the perfect gift for the supercilious arse in your life: a mug emblazoned with the legend ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’. grammar-mug The existence of this item testifies to the widely-held belief that sneering at other people’s language-use is not just acceptable, it’s actually a virtue. When the subject is language, you can take pride in being a snob; you can even display your exquisite sensitivity by comparing yourself to a genocidal fascist (‘I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi: I can’t bear it when people use language incorrectly’).

On Twitter there’s a ‘Grammar Police’ bot whose mission is to belittle random strangers by tweeting unsolicited corrections of their ‘defective grammar’. Because, according to its profile, ‘publishing defective grammar abases oneself’.

‘Abases *oneself*’? Try ‘one’, or better, ‘you’. And maybe get your thesaurus out, because I don’t think ‘abase’ is the word you want.

What I’ve just done is an example of what I’m going to take issue with in this post: criticising the way someone has (mis)used language as a proxy for challenging their actual message. This strategy has featured prominently in critical commentary on Donald Trump: he’s been lambasted as often for his limited vocabulary, fractured syntax and inability to spell ‘hereby’ as he has for his bigotry, dishonesty and megalomania. Linguistically speaking, a lot of this commentary is wide of the mark (for a more illuminating take on Trump’s speech-style,  try this). But the strategy was common long before Trump came on the scene. One of the first things I noticed when I joined Twitter in 2014 was how often liberal progressive types used the grammar-sneer to call out bigots. Like this*:

We should round all you feminazi’s up and put you on an island away from society.

we’ll be moving on to punctuation later this afternoon.

And this:

As a straight male how would u feel about yr child having a homosexual school teacher?! Who their around for 8hrs of the day?

If a gay teacher teaches my child the difference between they’re, their and there, I’m good.

The conflict that accompanied last year’s EU referendum produced a bumper crop of examples like this:

Britain was once a proud nation, but is now afraid to speak it’s own name.

and restore our ancient birthright of putting apostrophes where they don’t belong!

In the wake of the referendum, which the Leave side won, there was an upsurge of public racism and xenophobia—threats, vandalism, harassment, verbal abuse and violence targeting people perceived as ‘foreign’.  Facebook pages were set up where people could report incidents they’d experienced or observed. A number of these reports followed the same formula: first they described a racist white Briton telling a non-white or non-British person to ‘start packing’ or ‘go home’, and then they commented that the racist couldn’t even speak English properly. One writer reported that she’d stood up to a white woman who harangued her in a shop, by telling her, among other things, that ‘I speak better English than you’. She explained that she’d heard the white woman speaking to someone else, and noticed that ‘her grammar was appalling’.

I’m not going to blame someone in this situation for defending herself with whatever weapons are to hand. My question is why claiming to speak better English than your adversary is so often a weapon people reach for. Why does it seem more apt, and less crass, than (for instance) ‘I’m better looking than you’ or ‘I’ve got more money than you’?  Maybe it’s because it chimes with the idea that bigots are ignorant and stupid. It allows their critics to feel intellectually and culturally as well as morally superior (‘I’d hate my child to be educated by a gay teacher’. ‘Pity no one bothered educating you. Gotcha’). But however satisfying that may be, it raises the question of whether you can claim the moral high ground by using one unjust prejudice against another.

If you describe someone you’ve heard speaking in a shop as using ‘appalling’ grammar, the only thing you can mean is that s/he speaks a nonstandard dialect. In Britain, speaking a nonstandard dialect generally means that (a) you grew up working class and (b) you didn’t spend enough quality time in formal education for your native dialect to be replaced in everyday speech by the more prestigious dialect of the middle class (though you’ll use that dialect when you write, and you’ll certainly be able to read it). So, criticising a racist’s nonstandard grammar is mobilising one form of privilege (based on class and/or education) to attack another (based on whiteness). As I said before, I’m not going to blame the person who uses this tactic in self-defence. But that doesn’t mean I have to applaud the tactic.

Maybe you’re thinking: ‘but what you linguists call “nonstandard” is actually just bad English. Criticising that isn’t snobbery: anyone who goes to school for long enough to learn to read and write can learn what the correct forms are. If they haven’t learnt, it means they’re lazy. Plenty of working class people speak correctly: it’s an insult to suggest that bad grammar is good enough for them’.

Sorry, but no. Nonstandard English is not ‘bad’ by any objective criterion; it’s stigmatised because the people who use it have lower social status than the people who don’t. The actual linguistic forms used by nonstandard speakers (like, say, ‘we was’ instead of ‘we were’ or ‘she done it’ rather than ‘she did it’) are neither better nor worse than the forms we judge ‘correct’. The judgment is based on what class of person uses a particular form, and the form’s status can change as its class associations do. A hundred years ago, for instance, saying ‘aint’ was associated with upper-class Brits like Winston Churchill and the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey. Today it’s strictly for the lower orders, and it’s also become one of the most stigmatised of all English grammatical forms.

grammarpoliceAs for the apostrophe fetish (‘its’ and ‘it’s’, or ‘they’re’ versus ‘their’), that’s got nothing to do with grammar. The English apostrophe does mark grammatical distinctions, but the reason people make mistakes isn’t that they don’t know the difference between possessive pronouns and contracted verb forms: what they don’t know is which spelling goes with which form. The possessive form of nouns has an apostrophe (as in ‘the dog’s bowl’), so people often reason that the possessive pronoun ‘its’ should logically have one too. It’s also easy to pick the wrong option when writing in haste or on autopilot. On this one I’m with Jesus: ‘let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone’.

But there are other reasons for feminists (and other defenders of equality and social justice) to think twice before mocking a political opponent’s ‘incorrect’ use of language. Here are a few of them.

1. It’s a red herring

Earlier I mocked the creator of the Grammar Police bot for using ‘oneself’ incorrectly. It was a fine display of my superior linguistic knowledge, but it also completely missed the point. My quarrel with the bot-maker isn’t that he corrects other people’s grammar when his own is nothing to shout about. It’s that correcting strangers’ grammar in public is a shitty thing to do.

The same problem arises with the political examples I took from Twitter. In no case does the response engage directly with the tweeter’s prejudice. It says, in effect, ‘this mistake tells me you’re stupid, and if you’re stupid I can just dismiss your argument, which is also, by extension, stupid’. And the argument may indeed be stupid, but it wouldn’t be any less stupid if it were spelled correctly (just as Hitler wasn’t any less fascist because he could write a coherent sentence). Conversely, deviations from standard usage do not make a true fact less true or a just argument less just. The moral status of what someone says is about the content, not the grammar.

2. It cuts more than one way

On this blog I have complained frequently about the policing of women’s language, arguing that there’s no linguistic justification for the criticisms people make of uptalk and vocal fry, hedging, apologising, etc. What’s behind this is common or garden sexism: if a way of speaking is associated (accurately or otherwise) with women, it’s judged inferior to the male alternative. Not because it objectively is inferior, but just because women are the lower status group.

Judgments on nonstandard language work in exactly the same way, the difference being that the relevant status hierarchy is based on class and education rather than gender.  So, when feminists engage in grammar policing they’re undermining their own objection to the gendered equivalent. If you dismiss someone’s argument because of a misplaced apostrophe, what do you say to the people who claim they can’t take women seriously because of their ‘shrill’ voices and annoying ‘verbal tics’?

3. It’s a vote for the status quo

People sometimes say: ‘OK, I get that what’s “correct” is arbitrary, but if you want to get your point across you have to play by the rules’. But this is not a progressive argument, because it treats ‘the rules’ as neutral rather than asking whose interests they serve. If someone defends a workplace dress-code requiring women to wear high heels as just ‘reflecting the prevailing standard for appropriate female business attire’, we don’t say, ‘oh, OK then’, we say it’s time the standard was changed.

In the case of linguistic standards, we should question why we’re so obsessed with shibboleths like ‘aint’ and ‘we was’ and the apostrophe, which say a lot about a person’s social background and education, but very little about how well they can actually communicate. Would any feminist suggest that the nonstandard grammar of the phrase attributed to Sojourner Truth, ‘and aint I a woman?’ detracts from the clarity, coherence or persuasiveness of her speech?

4. In other contexts you’d call it ‘shaming’

If you don’t think it’s acceptable to make people feel ashamed (or exploit the fact that they already feel ashamed) of their bodies, their clothes, what they eat or who they have sex with, you’re going to have to explain to me why shaming them for the way they speak or write is different.

5. Modesty becomes you

If your own grammar and spelling are 100% standard, that’s probably because you served a long apprenticeship in a series of educational institutions where, through constant practice and feedback, you acquired a set of socially-valued linguistic skills which eventually became ingrained habits. Well, good for you, but let’s not get carried away. Other people have gone through a similar process to master a craft like carpentry or hairdressing. They also take pride in their skills, but they don’t mistake them for proof of superior intelligence. They don’t come to your house and laugh at the wonky shelf you made, or stop you on the street to offer unsolicited advice on blow-drying. If they did, how would you react?  Which brings me to…

6. It’s counterproductive

This point is well made in a post Nic Subtirelu wrote in 2015 after Grammarly (a major player in the online culture of language pedantry) drew attention to the poor grammar and spelling it had found on Facebook pages for supporters of Donald Trump. grammar-crackersWhat are the angry white working class men who came out in force for Trump in 2016 going to think about liberals making fun of him because he doesn’t use big words or complicated sentence structure? Might that not reinforce their conviction that supporting Trump is striking a blow against ‘the elite’, aka snobs who look down on anyone less educated than themselves?

Maybe your answer is that you don’t care what a bunch of racists, misogynists and homophobes think. Fine, I’m not asking you to (though I do think a commitment to social justice requires you to care about the economic inequality which is clearly a factor in the rise of right-wing populism). By all means take issue with bigots–but for their politics, not their punctuation. Criticise their views, not the size of their vocabulary. Stop using their grammar as a measure of their moral worth.

Language pedantry is snobbery and snobbery is prejudice. And that, IMHO, is nothing to be proud of.

*The examples used in this post are real, but I’m not supplying links, names, handles or screenshots because I’m not trying to single these particular authors out, I’m just illustrating something that’s very common.

‘Language changes, deal with it’

Last October the writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett told her followers on Twitter how her boyfriend had reacted to her new Georgia O’Keeffe print—by complaining that ‘you’ve put a big vagina on our wall’. Then she added:

Ten points for the first pedant who tweets me “it’s a vulva”. Language changes, deal with it.

As you’ll know if you read my post lamenting the state of most people’s female genital vocabulary, when it comes to ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ my feminist heart is with the pedants. But in my linguist’s head I know that Cosslett is right. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. If enough people understand a word to mean X, then X is what it means.

Even pedants, if pressed, will generally acknowledge that language changes, and that the meanings of words are no exception. ‘Silly’ no longer means ‘holy’. ‘Vagina’ no longer means ‘sheath’. But there’s still a strong folk-belief that change (along with its precursor, variation) is undesirable, dysfunctional, a threat to communication. If words mean different things to different people, and if their meanings are constantly shifting, how can we understand each other, or have rational, meaningful dialogue?

In modern liberal democracies there’s a particular fear that the tendency for meaning to change as words are used will be exploited deliberately by the powerful and the unscrupulous. If we don’t stand firm, we’ll be at the mercy of dictators who use language not to communicate, but to obfuscate and manipulate. Since Trump and his gang took office, there’s been a deluge of commentary on this theme. You can hardly open a newspaper or scroll through Facebook without encountering some new complaint about the ‘abuse’ or ‘perversion’ of language.

The case that’s attracted most attention so far is Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase ‘alternative facts’, referring to the false claims made by the White House press secretary about how many people attended Trump’s inauguration. Conway’s lame attempt to defend the indefensible prompted scores of commentators to accuse her of trying to redefine the meaning of the word ‘fact’. In the words of one Huffington Post contributor:

Alternative facts are not facts. They are untruths. They are LIES. Here, look, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary kindly sent you a definition of what a fact is: “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality”.

Merriam-Webster’s intervention (tweeting out the definition of ‘fact’) was widely applauded: the Guardian even hailed the birth of a new superhero, ‘Dictionary Guy’, fighting lies and demagoguery by simply restating the ‘basic idea that words have non-negotiable meanings’. Other critics invoked Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, with his absurd delusions of semantic grandeur (‘when I use a word, it means whatever I choose it to mean’), or compared Conway’s rhetoric to George Orwell’s fictional Newspeak, a language designed not merely to restrict the public utterance of inconvenient truths, but to stifle dissent at source by making it literally unthinkable.

The criticism aimed at Conway was richly deserved (ditto the ridicule, in the form of jokes like ‘I’m not drunk, officer, I’m alternative sober’). But there’s a problem with the ‘basic idea that words have non-negotiable meanings’. They don’t. If they did, their meanings would never change, and there would never be any argument about them.

It’s true, of course, that some words provoke more argument than others. I’ve never witnessed a heated debate about the meaning of ‘cat’ or ‘trombone’. By contrast, I imagine that most people reading this have at some time been involved in an argument about the meaning of ‘feminism’, or ‘sexism’, or any number of other ‘hot-button’ terms, from ‘abortion’ to ‘Zionism’, which people with opposing political views define in different and conflicting ways. As the linguist Philip Seargeant recently observed, ‘disputing the meanings of words is always part of political debate’. And it isn’t just the ‘hot-button’ terms:  one current court case, about the the right of parents to take their children on holiday during the school term, has involved hours of legal argument about what ‘regular’ means. Wherever there are conflicts of interest, there will also be conflicts about the meanings of key terms.

Insisting that ‘words have non-negotiable meanings’–and that your meaning is the true meaning whereas your opponent’s is a ‘perversion of language’–is a time-honoured rhetorical move in arguments about disputed terms. But it’s a move that tends to favour  conservatives, because it’s most effective when deployed in defence of an older usage against a newer one. And typically what’s behind that defence is not just resistance to linguistic change, but opposition to whatever social change has produced a new way of using words.

When I first read the complaint about ‘alternative facts’ which I quoted earlier from the Huffington Post, I had a feeling of déjà vu, as if I’d seen it somewhere before. Eventually I realised what it reminded me of:

A same-sex marriage is not a marriage. It’s a parody of a marriage. It’s GROTESQUE. Here, the dictionary kindly sent you a definition of what marriage is. ‘Marriage is the union of a man and a woman’.

This phraseology is mine, but I didn’t invent the argument. Opponents of marriage equality really did say all these things. They repeatedly invoked the non-negotiable meaning of the word ‘marriage’ as a reason why the law could not be changed, citing the dictionary almost as often as the Bible.

If you’re as old as I am you may also remember when conservatives routinely appealed to the ‘real’ meanings of words to resist feminist demands for non-sexist or gender-inclusive terminology (‘etymologically, “man” just means “person”’), and to protest against the ‘hijacking’ of ‘gay’ (‘don’t let sexual deviants deprive us of a word which—according to my dictionary—means “cheerful or brightly coloured”’). These doughty defenders of the language were also fond of invoking Orwell: they rarely missed an opportunity to equate the linguistic innovations they labelled ‘political correctness gone mad’ with Newspeak, or to describe the ‘PC brigade’ as a new thought police, intent on eliminating not just the words they found offensive, but any worldview opposed to their own.

For decades, the argument that words have non-negotiable meanings has been used by the Right as a stick to beat the Left with. Feminists, anti-racists and campaigners for LGBT rights have all been accused of perverting language and destroying meaning. Now it’s the Left that levels these charges against the Right. Of course it’s important–and urgent–to  resist the new regime in the US, and the rise of the far right elsewhere. But is using the Right’s own (bad) arguments the best way to go about it?

You might answer that question with another: what is the alternative? Am I suggesting we should just shrug our shoulders, and say ‘language changes, deal with it’? The short answer to that is ‘no’. We do have to deal with the fact that language changes–meaning is always in the process of being negotiated–but we should also remember that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The things which can influence the way words are used, and therefore what people will take them to mean, include social changes, technological changes, and–sometimes–political interventions.

As a concrete historical example, consider the word ‘rape’. The earliest meaning of ‘rape’ recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘the act of taking by force, especially the seizure of property by violent means’. It subsequently developed a more specialised use, referring specifically to the taking of women by force: it was applied to the practice of bride abduction, as well as to sexual assaults committed without the intention to marry the victim. The framing of rape as a crime, in either case, was still about taking what did not belong to you: a woman could not be raped by her husband (or in the case of an enslaved woman, her master), since he was already her legal owner.

There are still places in the world where rape is treated as a crime of property, but in the part of the world where I live this has changed. Today, English law defines ‘rape’ as an act of penile penetration to which consent has not been given (or to which it cannot validly be given because the person concerned is underage or incapacitated). There are still, as we know, many arguments (and myths) about what constitutes consent, but it’s generally agreed that consent is what’s at issue. And while this shift in the meaning of ‘rape’ reflects a long term historical shift, both in attitudes to violence and in the legal status of women, it also reflects the more specific influence of feminist campaigns, which explicitly challenged the definitions found both in expert (e.g. legal) sources and in everyday talk.

Another form of political intervention that can influence the way words are used involves appropriating your opponent’s words, reinflecting them to express a meaning that’s at odds with the original intention, and circulating the result as widely as possible. The ‘alternative X’ jokes mentioned earlier, which ridicule Kellyanne Conway’s attempt to rebrand lies as ‘alternative facts’, are one example; another is the way some of the government agencies Trump has gagged have adopted ‘alt’, as in ‘alt-right’, in naming the unofficial social media accounts they’ve set up in defiance of the gag (for instance, the National Park Service’s new Twitter handle is @AltNatParSer).

Most recently there’s been a feminist intervention, reacting to reports that women working for the Trump administration had been ordered to ‘dress like women’. The illustration at the top of the post is an example of the most common response: posting photos of yourself, or other women, wearing anything from a tux to a spacesuit. Other responses employed words to undermine the intended meaning (‘dress in a feminine manner’) by refusing to accept its sexist premise (‘there’s a certain way women should dress’) and recasting it as a vacuous tautology. Several tweets offered step-by-step instructions like (1) Be a woman. (2) Put on any clothes you like. (3) That’s it.

This kind of ‘rapid response’ intervention differs from a campaign to change the way people understand the word ‘rape’. The stakes are lower, and the effects will be more limited. It’s unlikely, for instance, that being ridiculed on Twitter will make the people responsible for the ‘dress like a woman’ edict feel obliged to reverse their policy (though I do think humour has its uses when you’re dealing with people this self-regarding–they’d almost certainly prefer fear and anger, which make them feel powerful, to mockery and disrespect). But the trick is to keep doing it: keep contesting the credibility of what they say, keep disputing their assumptions and their logic, keep showing that there’s more than one way to define what’s ‘alternative’ or what it means to ‘dress like a woman’. Keep puncturing the illusion–because it is an illusion–that the powerful, like Humpty Dumpty, can just decide what words will mean for everyone.

Feminism has a long history of trying to change the way words are used. We’ve invented new words and we’ve redefined old ones. We’ve argued about what words mean, both with our opponents and among ourselves. Arguments about meaning–and attempts to influence it–play a role in every kind of politics. If that’s an abuse of language, then all of us are guilty.


A brief history of ‘gender’

In New York City in 1999, I heard a talk in which Riki Anne Wilchins (self-styled ‘transexual menace’, and described in the Gender Variance Who’s Who as ‘one of the iconic transgender persons of the 1990s’) declared that feminists had no theory of gender. I thought: ‘what is she talking about? Surely feminists invented the concept of gender!’

Fast forward ten years to 2009, when I went to a bookfair in Edinburgh to speak about The Trouble & Strife Reader, a collection of writing from a feminist magazine I’d been involved with since the 1980s. Afterwards, two young women came up to chat. Interesting book, they said, but why is there nothing in it about gender?

From my perspective the book was all about gender—by which I meant, to use Gayle Rubin’s 1975 formulation, ‘the socially-imposed division of the sexes’. Feminists of my generation understood gender as part of the apparatus of patriarchy: a social system, built on the biological foundation of human sexual dimorphism, which allocated different roles, rights and responsibilities to male and female humans. But by 2009 I knew this was no longer what ‘gender’ meant to everyone. To the young women at the bookfair, ‘gender’ meant a form of identity, located in and asserted by individuals rather than imposed on them from outside. It wasn’t just distinct from sex, it had no necessary connection to sex. And it wasn’t a binary division: there were many genders, not just two.

Fast forward again to October 2016, when Pope Francis, during a pastoral visit to Georgia, denounced ‘gender theory’ as a threat to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The correspondent who reported his comments explained:

Gender theory is broadly the concept that while a person may be biologically male or female, they have the right to identify themselves as male, female, both or neither.

I thought: ‘I remember when gender theory threatened the teachings of the Church by suggesting that women’s traditional roles were not ordained by God and nature’. I also thought: ‘OK, this is the tipping point’.

I’m not going to lament the fact that ‘gender’ means different things to different people (though clearly it does, and one consequence is a lot of arguing and talking at cross-purposes). Like everything else in language, word-meaning varies and changes: always has, always will. The question I’m interested in is how we got to where we are. Where did the two competing senses of ‘gender’ come from? When did they start to be used, by whom and in what contexts?

I’ve had many conversations about this, and I’ve often felt as if the world is divided between people who think gender as a theoretical concept was basically invented by Judith Butler in 1990, and people who hold Butler (or queer theorists) responsible for undermining the feminist analysis of gender and distorting the ‘real’ meaning of the word. I’ve never been satisfied with either of these views, and I wanted to see what light I could shed on them, using various sources of information about the history and usage of English words.

One key source I used is the Oxford English Dictionary: fortunately for me, its entry for ‘gender’ has been revised very recently, so it’s as close to fully up to date as historical dictionaries get. I also made use of large text corpora–in this case, collections of American English texts, because the usages I’m interested in were first recorded in the US. I used COHA, a historical corpus which covers the period from 1810 to 2010, and COCA, a contemporary corpus which covers 1990-2015. Dictionaries and corpora typically aim to represent ‘general’ usage, and their coverage of non-mainstream sources can be sparse. So, I also used some 20th century feminist texts to provide supplementary evidence about the way feminists used ‘gender’.

I discovered some things I was expecting, and others that surprised me. For instance: it wasn’t feminists who first made the sex/gender distinction (actually it took a while for them to adopt the term ‘gender’ consistently), and it wasn’t queer theorists who first defined the concept of gender identity. The ‘identity’ meaning of ‘gender’ has only recently become mainstream, but it isn’t new: it’s been around for approximately the same amount of time as the one it now competes with, and both of them were in use well before the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s.

I’ll come back to these points, but first let’s take a very quick look at the earlier history of the English word ‘gender’. You may have heard that it started out as a grammatical term, used in the description of languages where nouns are classified as masculine, feminine and neuter. The usual story is that this grammatical sense got extended later to talk about the distinction between male and female persons. ‘Later’, however, is a relative term: in Norman French, which was where English got the word from, gendre was already being used to mean ‘the quality of being male or female’ by the second half of the 12th century. The first record in the OED of the English form ‘gender’ being used with the ‘male or female’ meaning is dated 1474—a reference to ‘his heirs of the masculine gender’. In short: the ‘male or female’ meaning of ‘gender’ goes back a long way. People have been using it in a way feminists often complain about–that is, as just a fancy word for ‘sex’–for more than 500 years.

When did the sex/gender distinction first get made in English, and who made it? You might imagine its first appearance would be in some feminist text from the late 1960s or the 1970s. But in fact the OED’s earliest illustrative quotation for the relevant sense (‘the state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones’) comes from an article published in 1945 in an academic psychology journal:

in the grade school years, too, gender (which is the socialised obverse of sex) is a fixed line of demarcation, the qualifying terms being ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.

The same journal is the source of the next quotation [1], dated 1950:

it informs the reader upon ‘gender’ as well as ‘sex’, upon masculine and feminine roles as well as upon male and female and their reproductive functions.

As these examples illustrate, the meaning of ‘gender’ which depends on an explicit or implicit contrast with biological sex was first used by academics in social science disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology. The quotations I’ve reproduced suggest that this usage was initially confined to a fairly narrow group of specialists: even when writing for their fellow-academics, the authors evidently didn’t expect all readers to be familiar with it (hence the parenthesis in the first example and the inverted commas in the second).

The earliest quotation in the OED which doesn’t come from an academic source, or treat ‘gender’ as a piece of obscure jargon, is from a 1968 issue of Time magazine. That might imply that by the late 1960s the social scientific concept of gender was beginning to move into the mainstream. But the historical corpus data show that even in the 1960s ‘gender’ (used in any sense) was still an uncommon word. In COHA it is recorded from the 1830s, but until the end of the 1950s its frequency remains low—under one occurrence per million words of text. In the 1960s the frequency rises to (just) over one use per million words, and there’s a further very slight increase in the 1970s. It isn’t until the 1980s that there’s a larger jump to more than five uses per million words.

Does this mean that the story about feminists before 1990 having no theoretical concept of gender might be true after all? That question raises the somewhat tricky issue of what the relationship is between theory and terminology. My reading of early second-wave feminist texts suggests that ‘gender’ during this period (that is, the late 1960s and 1970s) was still largely an academic term: it’s common in feminist academic writing (Gayle Rubin’s 1975 article ‘The traffic in women’, which I quoted earlier, is one example), but it seldom appears in writing by feminists who were politically active outside the academy [2]. However, that doesn’t mean the activists made no distinction between biology and culture: often it’s clear they had the concept of gender, they just expressed it using other terms.

Here’s an example taken from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970):

Just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

Firestone doesn’t use the term ‘gender’, but she does differentiate between the biological markers of sex and what she calls ‘the sex distinction’, by which she evidently means something like Rubin’s ‘socially-imposed division of the sexes’. It’s this, she argues, that feminism aims to eliminate. After the revolution there will still be ‘genital differences between human beings’, but they will ‘no longer matter culturally’.

Shulamith Firestone acknowledged a debt to Simone de Beauvoir, whose observation that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’ has often been hailed as the founding statement of modern anti-essentialist feminism. Beauvoir didn’t use the word ‘gender’ either. In 1949 when The Second Sex first appeared, and indeed for some decades afterwards, French-speakers did not make a linguistic distinction equivalent to the English one between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (though some have recently adopted the term genre to fill the gap). But that obviously didn’t stop French feminists (or feminist speakers of other languages that lacked the distinction) from rejecting biological determinism and developing an analysis of women’s subordination as the product of social forces.

What about the ‘identity’ sense of ‘gender’? When does that start to turn up in the texts sampled for dictionaries and corpora, and what kinds of texts do you find it in? The answer is that it first appears in the 1950s, in texts dealing with the clinical treatment of what were then called ‘hermaphrodites’ (i.e., people with intersex conditions) and ‘transsexuals’. It isn’t entirely clear whether this medical usage developed in parallel with the social science usage or directly from it, but in any case the clinicians soon began to produce a distinctive body of knowledge, which included proposals about the definition of ‘gender’.

There are two names which turn up repeatedly on quotations illustrating the medical usage of ‘gender’ in the mid-20th century. One is that of Robert Stoller, a psychiatrist who was associated from the mid-1950s with the Gender Identity Clinic at UCLA. He was the author of a 1968 book called Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity, and he is often credited with introducing the term ‘gender identity’, meaning more or less what it means in current usage.

I say ‘more or less’ because Stoller’s ideas about gender identity weren’t exactly the ones we’re most familiar with today. He believed there was a biological basis for what he called ‘core gender identity’—defined as an innate sense of being male or female which is normally fixed by the second year of life—but he also wrote extensively about the influence of nurture. As well as having a medical degree, he was trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, and he was interested in the idea that an individual’s sexual desires and behaviours, particularly those defined at the time as ‘perversions’ (including homosexuality, sadomasochism and transvestism), develop in response to childhood events which threaten the individual’s core gender identity.

The other name is that of John Money, the psychologist who founded the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Money was an influential proponent of the view that gender is learned rather than innate: his clinical observations showed, he claimed, that children acquire the gender they’re raised in, even when it’s incongruent with their natal sex. The case study he relied on most heavily to support this claim was later discredited, damaging Money’s reputation and the credibility of his theories. But the work done at Johns Hopkins made a significant contribution to the history of gender—both the concept and the word.

In a 1955 research report, Money and two of his colleagues explained their concept of ‘gender role’, which they defined as

all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. …Gender role is appraised in relation to: general mannerisms, deportment and demeanor; play preferences and recreational interests; spontaneous topics of talk in unprompted conversation and casual comment; content of dreams, daydreams and fantasies; replies to oblique inquiries and projective tests; evidence of erotic practices, and, finally, the person’s own replies to direct inquiry.

‘Gender role’ is conceptualised here in a similar way to gender identity today–as an internal characteristic of individuals, ‘disclosed’ in their behaviour and what they say about themselves. The missing element of the current meaning is the idea that gender isn’t a binary division: this early definition acknowledges only two categories (‘boy or man, girl or woman’). Stoller, too, assumed that a person’s ‘core gender identity’ must be either male or female. The more recent emergence of alternative categories (including ‘nonbinary’ and ‘genderfluid’ identities) may reflect the influence of queer theory; but in all other respects, arguably, today’s understanding of gender as a form of identity owes more to the medical model elaborated by people like Money and Stoller.

I can’t claim to have produced an exhaustive account of the history of ‘gender’, but I’ve still found the exercise revealing. Knowing that the two competing senses have developed from different intellectual traditions (one sense has its roots in the social scientific study of human culture and behaviour, while the other is rooted in the theory and practice of clinicians working with gender-variant individuals) makes it easier to understand why they conflict in the ways they do. And the conflict is profound: if I use ‘gender’ to mean ‘a social status imposed on people by virtue of their sex’, and you use it to mean ‘an innate sense of identity linked to the sex of a person’s brain’ (a now-common understanding which derives from the medical tradition), we may be using the same word, but our conceptual frameworks have almost nothing in common (for instance, your ‘gender’ has a biological basis, whereas the defining feature of my ‘gender’ is that it doesn’t).

This situation particularly annoys those feminists who feel they’ve lost ‘their’ word. But it might be asked how much we really need that word. It didn’t originate in feminist political analysis or grassroots activism: it belonged to an academic register (and is still, according to the corpus evidence, used predominantly in academic contexts). Many classic feminist analyses of the social condition of women (like Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex and Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class) do not use it at all.

In recent years I’ve become more careful about when and how I use ‘gender’, since in some contexts and for some audiences I know it might not be clear which sense I’m using it in. Now I’m asking myself if there are any contexts where I really couldn’t manage without it. As I’ve said, plenty of feminists in the past did manage without it. Maybe what was good enough for Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis should be good enough for me.



[1] The ‘it’ referred to in this quotation is the work of the US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead herself did not use the term ‘gender’, but in her books Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and Male and Female (1949) she gave an account of the variability of men’s and women’s qualities and social roles across cultures which prefigured, and in some cases directly influenced, later discussions of gender among social scientists and feminists. (If you read French, there’s a good short account of Mead’s contribution to this history here).

[2] One academic book which examined both the concepts of sex and gender and the associated terminology in some detail was the sociologist Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society, first published in 1972 and now considered a feminist classic (this year it was reissued in a new edition with a retrospective introduction by the author). The book discusses Margaret Mead’s work, as well as the work of Robert Stoller and John Money. Oakley’s new introduction also briefly alludes to Mathilde Vaerting, a German near-contemporary of Mead who was writing about the way societies constructed men and women as both different and unequal as early as 1921. (There’s some information on Vaerting here.)