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.


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.