A short history of lads in (British) English

Back when universities were still teaching face-to-face, the Times Higher reported on a research project which found that on some courses lecturing had been abandoned because of the ‘laddish’ behaviour of certain students, who disrupted the proceedings by heckling and interrupting. I found I had some questions about this. One was why universities were dealing with this problem by changing their teaching methods, rather than warning the offenders that if they persisted they’d be kicked out. Another, however, was about the language we use to discuss this kind of behaviour.

The Higher called it ‘laddish’, as did the researchers whose work was being reported. In Britain, the word ‘lad’ and its derivatives (e.g. ‘laddish’, ‘laddism’ and ‘lad culture’) are now well-established labels for what a 2012 report on sexual violence in universities described as ‘a group or “pack” mentality’ among young men, expressed in practices like heavy alcohol consumption and our old friend ‘banter’ (much of it, according to the report, sexist, misogynist and homophobic). But are these ‘lad’ terms helpful from a feminist point of view? Where do they come from and what do they imply?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the English noun ‘lad’ has been in use since the 14th century. Originally it had two main senses: the first, now obsolete, was ‘serving man or attendant, man of low birth’, while the second was ‘boy, youth, young man’. In some regional varieties of English (and Scots) ‘lad’ is still a straightforward synonym for ‘boy/young man’. But in the standard language it’s now more commonly used in another way: ‘familiarly’, to or about a male of any age, as either a term of endearment or a marker of solidarity among men who share ‘common working, recreational, or other interests’.

This non-age-specific usage is something ‘lad’ has in common with ‘girl’. As I pointed out in an earlier post, the argument that calling an adult woman a girl automatically demeans her by reducing her to the status of a child doesn’t work for all cases and contexts. ‘Girl’ can certainly be demeaning when it’s used by a person of higher status (e.g. by a boss about his secretary or a mistress about her servant), but among equals what it expresses is solidarity or camaraderie. It can also be a way of metaphorically attributing the positive qualities we associate with youth–like being carefree, fun-loving and sexually attractive–to someone who isn’t literally young. No doubt that reflects our culture’s ageism, but it isn’t necessarily an insult.

‘Lad’ works in a similar way. The plural form ‘lads’ most often appears in contexts where the emphasis is on solidarity and male bonding: ‘the lads’ may refer to the male friends a man goes out drinking with, the teammates he plays sport with, or—as the OED’s 20th century examples reminded me—his brothers in a union where the trade is working-class and male (‘I’ll have to take this offer back to the lads’). Like ‘girls’, ‘lads’ also turns up in expressions like ‘a night out with the ___’, where the implication is that those involved are temporarily putting adult cares aside and recapturing the pleasures of youth.

But there are also some differences between ‘lad’ and ‘girl’, reflecting the differing norms of masculinity and femininity. One of the senses listed for ‘lad’ in the OED is ‘a man of spirit and vigour’, as in ‘Jack the lad’ and ‘a bit of a lad’. These idioms suggest a general propensity for mischief or bad behaviour, but they can also take on a more specifically sexual meaning. One of the OED’s examples, from a text published in 1960, is ‘A bit of a lad, Mr Alan Clark, going around fancy-free for years’.

If you’re thinking, ‘but don’t girls also misbehave, sexually and otherwise?’, the short answer is yes, of course–but that isn’t part of the meaning of the word ‘girl’, nor indeed of ‘lass’, the female-specific term that directly parallels ‘lad’: we wouldn’t refer to a woman as ‘Jill the lass’ or ‘a bit of a lass’. So what do we call women who behave like ‘Jack’? Historically, they have also been ‘lads’: the OED notes that in the past ‘lad’ was sometimes used to mean ‘a spirited girl’ (the example it offers is dated 1935). More recently, young women who engage in ‘laddish’ behaviour–being loud and disruptive, getting drunk and having sex–have been referred to, belittlingly, as ‘ladettes’. This language suggests that female lad(ette)s are seen as gender-deviant: they’re assumed to be aping the boys rather than expressing their own authentic ‘spirit’.

The ‘lad’ of ‘lad culture’ is clearly a descendant of the ‘man of spirit and vigour’, and in 2001 the OED acknowledged this development by adding a new draft section to the ‘lad’ entry. In contemporary British usage, it explains, a ‘lad’ is

a young man characterized by his enjoyment of social drinking, sport, and other activities considered to be male-oriented, his engagement in casual sexual relationships, and often by attitudes or behaviour regarded as irresponsible, sexist, or boorish; (usually) one belonging to a close-knit social group’.

The first illustrative example for this sense comes from a 1986 article in The Face by Julie Burchill:

Remarried after more than a decade on the rampage, at 47 in true Lad style to a girl of 22.

The capitalization of ‘Lad’ here suggests that Burchill is referencing what she regards as a recognisable social type. It’s that type which the section is concerned with–though the  reference to ‘a young man’ does not acknowledge what the example clearly implies, that the Lad is defined less by his age in and of itself than by his attitudes and behaviour. In Burchill’s terms 55-year old Boris Johnson, with his long string of well-publicised affairs and his famously indeterminate number of children, would surely count as a Lad.

Johnson was also what we might now describe as a lad when he was young: at university in the early 1980s he belonged to the hard-drinking, restaurant-trashing Bullingdon Club. But as boorish and irresponsible as their behaviour undoubtedly was, it was not yet described as ‘laddish’. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the ‘lad’—or as he was sometimes called at the time, the ‘New Lad’–became a familiar cultural figure, his laddish enthusiasms both codified and celebrated in a clutch of popular ‘lad mags’ like Loaded and FHM.

What, you might wonder, was ‘new’ about the New Lad? In many ways he wasn’t new at all: he was an amalgam of all the earlier ‘lads’, simultaneously engaged in male homosocial bonding, disruptive mischief-making and aggressive heterosexuality. Some high-profile New Lads were middle-class men adopting a working-class style of masculinity (their sport was football, their drink was beer), but that wasn’t unprecedented either. The real point of the ‘new’ label was to contrast the emerging ‘New Lad’ with the already-established ‘New Man’, who was ‘sensitive, charming, considerate…he’d do the housework and not be afraid to shed a tear’. After a decade when pop culture had been dominated by foppish New Romantics and androgynous synthpop types, the ‘New Lad’ represented the return of the repressed: he gave men permission to be men again.

‘New lads’ were uninterested in feminism, but to begin with, at least, they were keen not to come across as unreconstructed misogynists. The message of Loaded, according to one of its founders, was

Don’t take us too seriously, we’re blokes and we’re useless. . .We like football, but that doesn’t mean we’re hooligans. . .We like looking at pictures of fancy ladies sometimes but that doesn’t mean we want to rape them.

Feminists were not impressed, however, and there was also concern in other quarters. The examples illustrating ‘lad culture’ in the OED show that by the end of the 1990s it was widely regarded as a problem. This quote, for instance, is taken from the Glasgow Herald:

Boys seem to have an extreme amount of pressure on them and it’s very hard for them to resist the lad culture.

What prompted this anxiety wasn’t the sexism of lad culture, but rather the contribution it was thought to be making to the much-discussed problem of boys’ academic underachievement. Research confirmed that one of the hallmarks of laddism among school-age boys was the belief that studying was uncool. No one wanted to be what Boris Johnson once called his slightly less laddish contemporary David Cameron–a ‘girly swot’. The worry was that lad culture was leading boys—especially the middle-class white boys who had embraced it so enthusiastically—to neglect their schoolwork and undermine their future prospects.

In hindsight this anxiety seems misplaced: far from ending up unemployed, the lads of the 1980s and 1990s have become the new Establishment. Whether they’re posh Tory boys like Boris Johnson and Toby Young, or leftists like Owen Jones (and yes, I know he’s gay, but he’s also a classic lad), they are well-represented among Britain’s most powerful and influential people. And it’s not just at the top that laddism rules. The lad mags are long gone, but the culture they promoted lives on. The current pandemic has given us countless examples of irresponsible, boorish and sexist male behaviour, whether it’s students ‘zoombombing’ online classes with offensive messages and/or pornography (which is generally having, as the Economist put it, ‘a good pandemic’), ‘covidiots’ flouting lockdown rules (in Britain 80% of those fined for this have been men, the majority young), or middle-aged professional men expressing outrage because they’ve been told to wear a mask or expected to look after their own children.

Of course this has not gone uncriticised. Nor has the sexual harassment and sexual violence associated with lad culture in educational settings. The effect of ‘lad’ masculinity on women students gets far more attention today than it did in the 1990s. But I do sometimes wonder if the vocabulary of ‘laddism’ does feminists any favours.

As this blog has pointed out before, words carry baggage from their history of being used. ‘Lad’ is arguably a case where that historical baggage is largely positive, and thus in tension with the feminist analysis of ‘laddism’ as a serious problem. The ‘lad’ has long been associated with youthful exuberance, vigour, rebelliousness, hedonism and humour–qualities which many people find attractive, and whose less appealing manifestations they are willing to shrug off as ‘only natural’. Familiar excuses for irresponsible, boorish and sexist behaviour—‘boys will be boys’, ‘it’s just banter’, ‘we’re blokes and we’re useless’—are more or less baked into the discourse. (See also: ‘classic Dom’, and ‘it’s just Boris being Boris’.)

What words could we use instead? For some forms of ‘laddish’ behaviour (like disrupting lectures, or partying in large groups in the middle of a pandemic) I’d be happier with a term like ‘anti-social’; for ‘lad culture’ I’m tempted to suggest substituting ‘toxic masculinity’. (For the Boris Johnson/Toby Young variant there’s also ‘posh boy misogyny’, but not all misogynists are posh.) It’s not that I think this language would have a deterrent effect (a true ‘lad’ would presumably delight in the disapproval of feminist killjoys); but it would send the message that no, we don’t think this is harmless, or funny, or something we must put up with because that’s just the way men are.

Of course it could be argued that changing culture is more important than changing labels, and that efforts to change culture have to start from where people are. That’s the view of the Good Lad Initiative, which works with men and boys to rethink ideas about manhood. They want to reclaim the ‘lad’, not demonise him. But while ‘lad’—like ‘girl’–has some uses which I agree are innocuous, there might still be a case for calling ‘lad culture’ or ‘laddism’ by a name that doesn’t trivialise it or make excuses for it.

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Mother, father, parent

Last Monday the Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work from sick leave; two days later it was announced that he would miss Prime Minister’s Questions because he’d just had a baby. Obviously, Johnson hadn’t given birth himself: he’d delegated that task to his partner Carrie Symonds. But in the media coverage the baby was very much ‘Boris’s’, and its birth was presented as a major life-event. The political commentator Robert Peston tweeted: 

Having babies change [sic] us. Near-death experiences change us. @BorisJohnson has the full set. So will he become a very different PM from the one the UK voted for in December?

This take was greeted with some incredulity, because we all know Boris Johnson has a number of children already–though we’re not sure exactly how many, because he’s refused to answer the question. Many responses to Peston’s tweet were joking references to this:

The first 7-9 kids didn’t do it but I’ve got a good feeling about this one

Ah you know what they say, nothing like getting a sixth/seventh [subs pls check] child to change a man

There were also some more serious responses. One man suggested that

For a certain class of man, having children really does not change him at all… They’re what you do, and after they have arrived in the house, they’re simply there while your life carries on. They have their rooms, you yours. You know their names; birthdays not so sure.

Boris Johnson, who by his own account has never changed a nappy, belongs to the class that delegates routine childcare to others. Its young children have nannies, and are later sent away—as Johnson himself was—to boarding school. Women of this class may not do much nappy-changing either. But their class privilege does not completely cancel out the effect of their sex. Women generally are expected to be able to keep track of their children’s birthdays; and it’s hard to imagine a woman becoming prime minister who’d had (at least) five children with (at least) two different men, had abandoned and tried to conceal the existence of (at least) one child, been denounced by another as a bastard, and launched her bid for the highest office while pregnant by a third man. A woman with this record wouldn’t just be joked about: she’d be vilified as a terrible mother, irresponsible, negligent and selfish.

This difference is also evident in some uses of the English words ‘father’ and ‘mother’. These may look like a straightforward pair of terms denoting, respectively, a male and a female parent; but if we look more closely it becomes apparent that their meanings aren’t entirely parallel. As many feminists have noted, the difference is most obvious when they’re used as verbs. To father a child is not at all the same thing as to mother one.

By way of illustration, here’s a list of synonyms for the verb ‘to father’ taken from an online thesaurus:

Sire, beget, originate, generate, create, procreate, found, get, engender, institute, conceive, initiate, spawn, author, reproduce, breed, produce, trigger, bring to life, give life to, sow the seeds of

and here’s the same thesaurus’s list of synonyms for the verb ‘to mother’:

Pamper, nurture, coddle, raise, tend, cherish, cosset, protect, care for, deliver, look after, overprotect, spoil, mollycoddle, indulge, take care of, mind, minister to, fuss over, give birth to, bring into the world

Whereas the ‘father’ synonyms focus on men’s contribution to the biological process of reproduction (‘sowing the seed’, supplying the sperm that fertilises the egg), most items in the ‘mother’ entry relate to women’s social role as carers. They also illustrate the tendency for women’s performance of mothering to be scrutinised and judged (good mothers ‘nurture’ and ‘cherish’, bad mothers ‘spoil’ and ‘mollycoddle’) in ways men’s performance of fathering is not.

Though motherhood also has a biological element and fatherhood a social one, the way the verbs are used and interpreted underlines that one is conceptualised primarily as a social role and the other primarily as a biological function. If you say ‘he fathered six children’ you cannot mean, or be taken to mean, ‘he brought up/took care of six children’; you can only mean ‘he begat/sired six children’. With ‘to mother’ the reverse is true: ‘she mothered six children’ will be interpreted as meaning that she brought them up, not that she gave birth to six children who were then raised by other people.

These non-parallel meanings reflect a combination of social facts and ideological beliefs which have a long history in patriarchal cultures. But in recent decades we have seen the rise of a more ‘modern’ ideology which rejects the traditional division of roles in favour of something more equal and symmetrical. One sign of this shift is linguistic: the increasingly widespread use of the gender-neutral or inclusive verb ‘to parent’.

The meaning of ‘parent’ as a verb is close if not identical to the meaning of ‘mother’: if you insert it in the same hypothetical sentence I used before—‘he/she/they parented six children’—the meaning (at least according to my intuitions) has to be ‘brought up, took care of’, not ‘begat’. In this case, then, the purpose of switching to inclusive terminology is to include fathers in the caretaking role traditionally assigned to mothers. But it might be asked: does this new language correspond to any new reality? If in reality it’s still women who are doing most of the work involved in raising children, but we now call what they’re doing ‘parenting’ rather than ‘mothering’, has anything, from a feminist perspective, been gained?

This is one instance of a more general dilemma which radical political movements have often grappled with: should we choose our terms to reflect the world as it currently is, or the world as we would like it to become? The answer, in practice, is ‘it depends what you’re trying to do’. Sometimes what you want to do with words is name the reality of injustice and oppression; sometimes what you want to do is model alternatives to that reality, on the basis that (put crudely) words shape thoughts and thoughts shape actions.

This second argument was used in the 1970s by feminists who supported the introduction of gender-neutral job titles, even in cases where the job was still restricted to one sex: they hoped that inclusive terms, by making it easier for women to imagine themselves in new roles, would hasten progress towards their actual inclusion. In other cases, however, feminists have taken the opposite position. Neutral terms like ‘gender-based violence’ and ‘intimate partner killing’, for instance, have been criticised for glossing over the fact that these are acts committed predominantly by men against women, not vice-versa. Here the argument is that male violence needs to be named: the problem can’t be addressed effectively using language that renders it invisible.

As these examples illustrate, different problems call for different solutions. It’s entirely possible to maintain that sex-specific terms are preferable in some cases and inclusive terms work better in others. But that’s not to say feminists always agree among themselves about either the nature of the problem or the optimal solution. The language of parenthood is a case in point.

Recently a case which dramatises the dilemma has been making its way through the English courts. It concerns Freddy McConnell, a trans man who gave birth to a baby after he had already been legally recognised as a man. Because he had given birth to the child, the law required him to be recorded as its mother on the birth certificate. He contends that this was a breach of his rights, and that he should have been allowed to register either as the baby’s father or as its parent.

So far the courts have rejected this argument. Last week an Appeal Court judge, upholding an earlier decision against McConnell in the High Court, reiterated that the law requires whoever gives birth to a child to be registered as its mother. From the moment of a child’s birth there must be someone who is authorised to make decisions about its care, and the 1989 Children Act assigns that responsibility specifically and automatically to the child’s mother. ‘No-one else’, the judge explained, ‘has that automatic parental responsibility, including the father’.

Though this case is about the rights of trans parents, the principle set out by the judge applies to all parents, and many who are not trans may also find it questionable, since it is at odds with the modern, inclusive concept of ‘parenting’. If a birth certificate can be issued which doesn’t name the father—though every child must axiomatically have a male as well as a female progenitor—why is it impossible to issue a certificate which doesn’t name the mother? And why can’t a registered father be given ‘automatic parental responsibility’? The law seems to follow the same logic as the verbs ‘to mother’ and ‘to father’: it applies a similar understanding of how reproductive functions are connected to social roles, assuming that the caretaking element is central to motherhood (it is seen as following naturally from mothers’ reproductive role) whereas the social element of fatherhood is dispensable or peripheral.

In McConnell’s case these two elements have been separated, so deciding whether he should be identified as a mother or a father means deciding whether to give priority to the biological or the social component of parenthood. Since I think of parenthood as primarily a social role and a social relationship, my own view is that it makes more sense to identify McConnell as the child’s father, that being the only role in which the child has ever known or related to him. It is true, however, that while ‘father’ is closer to the child’s experience, it elides material facts about its history. Neither term is a perfect fit with all the relevant facts.

Is this a situation where gender-neutral or inclusive language would be preferable? There are jurisdictions which have adopted neutral terms as standard on some official documents: in the state of New York, for example, the parties to a marriage are recorded simply as ‘Spouse A’ and ‘Spouse B’. In addition to being inclusive (putting both men and women and same-sex/mixed sex couples on a par), this terminology has the advantage of not carrying the same ideological baggage as the traditional terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ (I’ve written before about my problems with the word ‘wife’). ‘Spouse’ defines you as a party to a contract that entails certain rights and obligations, but beyond that it says nothing about your role in the relationship. In theory there seems to be no reason why this minimalist approach could not be extended to birth certificates, replacing ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ with ‘Parent A’ and ‘Parent B’.

But in practice there might be good reasons to resist that move. As I said before, inclusive terms are open to the objection that they do women a disservice by glossing over or concealing politically consequential facts—such as, in this case, the fact that motherhood and fatherhood are not generally treated as equal and interchangeable roles. Most fathers still do significantly less childcare than most mothers (even, it turns out, when both are working from home), and plenty of men still father—that is, ‘beget’—children while treating the social role/relationship as optional. Society as a whole is still organised on the assumption that women, not men, will be primary carers, and it’s women, not men, who experience discrimination because of their actual or potential status as mothers, Does the language of ‘parenting’ help feminists’ efforts to change this reality, or does it hinder them by obscuring what the real problem is?

Clearly, different feminists have different views. But what’s also clear is that you can’t resolve issues of terminology simply by asserting that language should represent reality (whose reality?) Disputes about terms arise because there’s conflict about the reality they relate to: they are political through and through.

Slanging match

In 1960 the lexicographer Stuart Flexner declared in his preface to the Dictionary of American Slang that ‘most American slang is created and used by males’.

Many types of slang words – including the taboo and strongly derogatory ones, those referring to sex, women, work, money, whiskey, politics, transportation, sports, and the like – refer primarily to male endeavor and interest. The majority of entries in this dictionary could be labeled “primarily masculine use.”

This view reflected more general assumptions about women, men and language. Forty years earlier the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen had suggested that linguistically as in other respects, the two sexes were complementary. Women’s role in the development of language was to exert a civilising influence through their ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Men, by contrast, were responsible for ‘renewing’ language to ensure that it did not become ‘languid and insipid’. Slang, from this perspective, had two defining masculine qualities: much of it was ‘coarse and gross’, but it was also inventive and continuously changing–a product of the linguistic creativity which Jespersen assumed that men possessed and women lacked.

Feminists, of course, have questioned this account. Like the related idea that women don’t swear, ‘women don’t create or use slang’ sounds suspiciously like a combination of wishful thinking and sexist language-policing (‘we don’t think women should swear/use slang, so we’ll insist that it’s not in their nature’). But in that case, why are dictionaries like Flexner’s so dominated by the vocabulary of men? Does that just reflect the historical fact that slang has flourished most conspicuously in the ‘underground’ subcultures of (for instance) thieves, conmen, gangsters, gamblers, soldiers and sailors—all groups in which women were un- or under-represented? Or is it a reflection of male slang-collectors’ limitations, either their inability to access women’s slang or their insistence on defining slang in a way that excluded female speech?

This long-running debate has recently been revisited by the slang lexicographer and historian Jonathon Green, in a book entitled Sounds and Furies: The Love-Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. Having dipped into it last year, I’ve now (thanks to the current lockdown) had time to digest it properly. At over 500 pages it’s not a quick read, but if you’re interested in the subject it’s full of fascinating detail. It is also (IMHO) a welcome corrective to the nonsense that has been talked for decades about women’s (non)contribution to slang.

Women’s supposed avoidance of ‘coarse and gross expressions’ is obviously a myth, contradicted by evidence about both the present and the past. We have many historical records of the abuse uttered by women during arguments with their neighbours that sometimes landed them in court, not to mention the Billingsgate fishwives whose obscene invective gave their occupational title a secondary meaning of ‘foul-mouthed woman’. However, slang encompasses more than just insults and obscenities: it also includes the informal terminology used by specific in-groups, especially those outside or on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society. On this question Green suggests (though cautiously, since most records of the speech of marginalised groups were written down by outsiders, making it difficult to gauge their accuracy), that what’s often been presented as male in-group slang was most likely known and used by both sexes, to the extent that they participated in the same activities and social networks.

Crime is the prototypical example of an in-group slang-generating activity (the precursors of slang dictionaries were glossaries of ‘thieves’ cant’, which began to appear in England in the 16th century), and it is one that has always involved women as well as men. Some women played supporting roles as men’s wives, girlfriends or accomplices, but others (like Mary Frith, aka ‘Moll Cutpurse’) engaged in daring exploits that made them (in)famous in their own right, or played influential roles behind the scenes. Early writing about these women represents them using the same cant as their male counterparts, and this is hardly surprising—if your business was robbing or conning people, you’d surely know the vocabulary of the trade. Later on, though, the conviction that women didn’t use slang (or obscenities, or nonstandard dialect) would lead writers to clean up the language of both real and fictional female criminals, creating such implausibly ‘well-spoken’ examples as Dickens’s Nancy in Oliver Twist.

One criminalized activity in which women were always over-represented was the sex trade, but some male authorities have gone out of their way to deny that prostitutes have created slang: as one put it, ‘they lack the sophistication to make and acquire an artificial language for themselves’. But the evidence Green reviews suggests, again unsurprisingly, that women who sell sex have developed their own ‘work-specific jargon’—including a list of terms describing their customers as fools, suckers, losers, sexual inadequates, perverts and scumbags. Perhaps they chose not to share this lexicon with the male researchers who sought them out—or perhaps the researchers didn’t ask. A similar point can be made about lesbians, another ‘outlaw’ group who have been said to have no slang of their own. The folklorist Gershon Legman put the dearth of lesbian material in his 1941 glossary of ‘the language of homosexuality’ down to lesbians’ ‘tradition of gentlemanly restraint’, but he doesn’t seem to have had much evidence about the way lesbians talked among themselves.

Slang is not, in any case, the exclusive domain of ‘outlaws’ or people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Green also discusses family and nursery slang (much of it probably female-coined), the slang of ‘respectable’ female occupations like nursing, and a number of historical cases where young women—not infrequently from the higher echelons of society—were the prime movers in the development of an identifiably female or female-centred form of youth slang. In these cases no one suggested that girls and women were incapable of inventing their own language; on the contrary, their linguistic creativity was used as a stick to beat them with. The Burlington Free Press complained in 1879 that

The poorest, feeblest and most vicious slang….is the fashionable slang which pollutes the lips of young girls. ‘Awfully jolly’, ‘Immense’, ‘Aint he a tumbler?’ ‘He has a great deal of the dog on today’.

This writer was talking about the in-group language of the young middle-class women who were referred to, disapprovingly, as ‘fast young ladies’. The term ‘fast’, applied to men, meant a hedonist who devoted his life to pleasure; applied to young women, however, it meant

one who affects mannish habits, or makes herself conspicuous by some unfeminine accomplishment—talks slang, drives about in London, smokes cigarettes, is knowing in dogs, horses, etc.

The slang-using girl was seen as rejecting femininity, and with it her prospects of future happiness. ‘She thinks she is piquante and exciting’, complained one (male) writer in 1868, ‘and will not see that though men laugh with her they do not respect her, though they flirt with her they do not marry her’. He called for the return of the ‘simple and genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesty’.

The panic about ‘fast’ girls did eventually fade away, but complaints about young women’s slang lived on, finding new targets in the girls who featured in (and read) the early 20th century boarding school stories of Angela Brazil (‘Right you are, O Queen, it’s a blossomy idea!’) and in the slightly older figure of the 1920s flapper. Frivolous, flighty and ‘loose’, with her trademark bobbed hair and lipstick, the flapper had an elaborate slang lexicon for discussing her main preoccupations, which included dancing, drinking, money and men. Among the expressions she either coined or popularised are some we still recognise, even if we no longer use them—like ‘the cat’s pyjamas’, ‘the bee’s knees’ and ‘for crying out loud’ (a ‘clean’ version of ‘for Christ’s sake’: the avoidance of actual obscenity does seem to have been a feature of middle-class girls’ slang).

Flapperdom was the first in a long line of 20th century youth subcultures with a distinctive style that included slang. In some cases this argot was either male-centred or shared by both sexes, but in others, like the ‘Valley Girl-speak’ that emerged in California in the 1980s (‘gag me with a spoon!’), it was created and primarily used by young women—who were promptly criticised, like fast girls a century earlier, for being vacuous, frivolous, pretentious and superficial.

These recurring complaints underline the point that slang is not and never has been an exclusively male preserve. But each generation of critics has presented young women’s slang as if it were a wholly new phenomenon, a worrying departure from the relatively recent past when girls were allegedly ‘genuine’ and modest. As usual with verbal hygiene, there is more at stake here than language. Disapproving of girls’ slang has often been a coded expression of a deeper unease about social change. Whether she was a middle-class flapper or a working-class ‘munitionette’, the slang-using young woman symbolised female emancipation, and as such she was a threat to the patriarchal status quo.

Complaints about young people’s slang have continued into the 21st century: in the past few years a number of British schools have gone so far as to ban slang expressions like ‘peng’, ‘bare’, ‘bait’, ’emosh’ and ‘fam’. But today the anxiety youth slang provokes seems to have more to do with class (and sometimes race) than gender. Girls are no longer accused of ‘affecting mannish habits’, or warned that they are jeopardising their chances of finding a husband. Rather, both they and boys are told that their slang is holding them back academically and damaging their future employment prospects.

Yet the old sexist prejudices have not completely disappeared. Two years ago, when the Metro newspaper asked if swearing made a woman less attractive to men, not only did many men answer ‘yes’, some added that they were also turned off by women who spoke with strong local accents or used ‘colloquial slang’. Two years earlier, Faima Bakar had complained in a piece for Gal-Dem about young men telling young women not to talk ‘street’. Jespersen’s idealised woman (or rather, ‘lady’), with her ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’, lives on in these judgments—as does the idea of slang, along with nonstandard speech, as rough, tough and therefore male by definition.

This view of slang as ‘rough talk’ doesn’t just exclude women as legitimate users of slang, it also excludes certain kinds of in-group language used by women from the category of slang. As the lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin has pointed out, this makes the argument that women use slang less than men entirely circular. A full picture of women’s slang would require researchers to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and consult a wider range of sources. One source Jonathon Green looks at is Mumsnet, whose users, predominantly middle-class women with children, are pretty much the opposite of ‘outlaws’; yet they’re prolific creators of in-group terminology, and an excellent source for nursery slang (including terms for both sexes’ genitals: the male slang collector who confidently asserted in 1811 that ‘it is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of “twiddle-diddles”’ evidently hadn’t checked with his mother).

It has sometimes been suggested that women avoid what’s generally thought of as ‘real’ slang not because they’re prudes, but because so much of it is sexist and misogynist. But while that might be a consideration for some of us, there’s abundant evidence that woman-hating language has been weaponised by women as well as men. ‘Whore’ and its many synonyms have been the go-to woman-on-woman insults for centuries. Conversely, women’s in-group slang is often rich in disparaging terms for men. The flappers had various words for men who were reluctant to spend money on a date; contemporary female college students have produced a range of unflattering terms describing men you wouldn’t want to date in the first place—for instance, the unattractive ‘craterface’, the overweight ‘doughboy’, and—my particular favourite—the tedious ‘Mr Dry Guy’.

And what, we might ask, about feminist slang? While I was checking the opening quote from Flexner’s preface, I unexpectedly found myself in the manosphere–more specifically, on the MRA hellsite that calls itself A Voice For Men--where Flexner had been approvingly quoted in a 2017 post celebrating slang as ‘the original voice of men’. The writer points out that men’s rights activism has an extensive slang lexicon–‘cuck’, ‘mangina’, ’emotional tampon’ (no, me neither)–whereas feminists, he says, have only ‘prosaic’, quasi-academic terms like ‘benevolent sexism’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. ‘Feminism’, he comments,

is an ideology, and ideologues are not noted for their sense of humor. Also, wit is a trait only rarely associated with women, though they do excel at making catty remarks.

The supposed nonexistence of feminist slang also shows that feminists are the establishment, whereas the men who invented ‘cuck’ and ‘mangina’ are rebellious outlaws. But hold on a minute, dude, if you’re going to boast about ‘mangina’, how about ‘mansplain’, ‘manterrupt’,  ‘manspread’ and ‘mantrum’? And while you’re waxing nostalgic about the 1960s, may I remind you that the feminists of that decade called men like you MCPs, which stood for ‘male chauvinist pigs’?

The truth is, as Green says in his conclusion, that slang is ‘an equal-opportunity employee’. Though men and women may have different slang repertoires, they employ them for the same basic purposes: bonding with in-group members while excluding outsiders, entertaining their friends and insulting their enemies. Those aren’t just things that men do: for better or for worse, they’re things that humans do.

Is the fuchsia female?

Here’s something that made me laugh recently when somebody shared it on Facebook. 83778263_3912267798786914_6847277020674523136_n

It’s from a page called ‘Men’s Humor’, which I initially found surprising, since on the face of things it’s a joke at men’s expense: it’s saying men don’t normally get to name eyeshadow colours because their colour vocabulary is so limited. Once they’ve used up basic colour terms like ‘orange’, ‘pink’ and ‘purple’, they’ll be forced to fall back on unappealing comparisons with meat, ‘spoiled milk’ and (ew) ‘diarrhoea’.

But on reflection that’s only part of what the joke is doing. It’s also indirectly poking fun at the names conventionally given to make-up colours, which are absurd in a different way. From that perspective the joke is on women, who are suckers for a flowery name–they wouldn’t buy an eyeshadow in ‘pork’, but they’d be happy to shell out for one in ‘tea rose’ or ‘autumn sunrise’. When it comes to colour-names, cluelessness is proof of manliness. Real men don’t know words like ‘taupe’; they have more important things to worry about than the difference between ‘lavender’ and  ‘mauve’.

Some readers may recognise that last bit an allusion to Robin Lakoff’s 1970s classic Language and Woman’s Place. Lakoff put non-basic colour terms like ‘taupe’, ‘lavender’  and ‘mauve’ into the category of ‘women’s language’, a register which in her view both derived from and reinforced women’s subordinate status in society:

Since women are not expected to make decisions on important matters, like what kind of job to hold, they are relegated the non-crucial decisions as a sop. Deciding whether to name a color ‘lavender’ or ‘mauve’ is one such sop.

These distinctions are regarded by men as trivial; and once they have been defined as the province of women, any man who does display an interest in them invites questions about his masculinity.

[A] woman may say ‘The wall is mauve’ with no one consequently forming any special impression of her as a result of the words alone; but if the man should say ‘the wall is mauve’, one might well conclude he was either imitating a woman sarcastically, or a homosexual, or an interior decorator.

So in addition to being something men ‘relegate’ to women because they consider it beneath their notice, colour-naming might be something men actively avoid, because they don’t want to be perceived as effeminate or gay.

As usual, though, what got into wider circulation was not Lakoff’s analysis of the cultural conditions that might produce gender differences in colour vocabulary, but just the ‘fun fact’ that women know more colour terms than men. The ‘if men got to name eyeshadow colors’ joke shows that nearly 50 years on, this is still part of our cultural common sense. Does research done since the 1970s bear it out, though? Many of these ‘fun facts’, after all, continue to be repeated long after they’ve been debunked by science. We’ve known for years that the ever-popular ‘Women talk more than men/use x times as many words per day as men’ is just straight-up BS. And other claims, including some of Lakoff’s, have turned out to be more complicated than they originally seemed. So, what’s the story about colour terms?

The short answer is that research done since the 1970s generally has supported the claim that women know more colour terms than men. There are also some finer-grained differences in the kinds of terms men and women produce when their colour vocabulary is tested. But what’s behind these differences is still a matter of debate.

By way of illustration, let’s take a closer look at one fairly recent piece of research in this tradition: an experimental study which was presented at a conference in 2012. It was conducted with 272 English-speaking subjects (159 women and 113 men), who were each asked to name a series of 20 colours selected randomly from a set of 600. The responses were ‘unconstrained’, i.e. participants could give each stimulus colour a name entirely of their own choosing. This procedure produced over 5000 responses, containing 1226 different colour terms. 29 per cent of these were ‘basic colour terms’ (red, blue, green, etc.), 23 per cent were single-word non-basic terms (mauve, scarlet), 42 per cent were two-word descriptions (a one-word term plus a modifier, like ‘bluish green’ or ‘pale yellow’) and 6 per cent contained three words or more (e.g. ‘pillar box red’).

As expected, there were differences between men and women–and there was more to this than the familiar finding that women produce more colour-names overall. Though the two sexes made similar use of basic colour terms, beyond the basics their choices diverged. Women chose more single-word terms like ‘mauve’, whereas men gravitated more to the two-word ‘bluish green’ type. The most frequently-used non-basic terms were also different for each sex. For instance, the top 20 female choices included ‘peach’ and ‘fuchsia’, neither of which featured in the men’s top 20; conversely, the male top 20 included ‘cyan’ and ‘magenta’, which did not make it onto the female list.

In their discussion of these findings the researchers remark that the colour men labelled ‘magenta’ is the same one for which women preferred the ‘fancy’ term ‘fuchsia’. I find this comment interesting, because to me it isn’t obvious that ‘fuchsia’ is any ‘fancier’ than ‘magenta’. On the contrary, I would argue that the two terms are not just equally fancy, they are fancy in exactly the same way. Both are derived from proper names: ‘fuchsia’, the name of a plant genus, honours the botanist Leonhard Fuchs, while ‘magenta’, the name given to an aniline dye invented in 1859, commemorates France’s victory at the battle of Magenta. The dye-colour was inspired by the fuchsia plant, and before its (French) inventor got carried away by patriotic pride he had intended to call it ‘fuchsine’.

We might suspect–in fact, I find it hard not to–that the researchers’ description of ‘fuchsia’, but not ‘magenta’, as ‘fancy’ reflects the pre-existing gender stereotype according to which women, but not men, use fancy colour terms. Similarly, they note that the part of the spectrum which women typically categorised as ‘turquoise’ was segmented by men into ‘turquoise, cyan and light blue’–but they make no comment on the ‘fanciness’ of ‘cyan’, nor on the fact that in this case it was men who made finer distinctions.

You may already have thought of an explanation for men’s more frequent use of ‘cyan’ and ‘magenta’. These terms have a tech connection: they’re two of the four ink colours used in colour printing. ‘Peach’ and ‘fuchsia’, by contrast, are terms you’d be more likely to encounter if you were shopping for lingerie. Such observations might suggest that women’s more extensive colour vocabulary is not a product of nature but an artefact of culture. Men don’t shy away from non-basic colour terms if they belong to a male domain; it’s just that there tends to be more use of elaborate terminology in domains which are coded as female.

Until recently, this cultural explanation was favoured not only by feminists, but also by most scientists. But in sex-difference science generally there’s been a resurgence of interest in biological explanations, and it’s been suggested that women’s more extensive colour vocabulary might reflect their naturally superior ability to discriminate colours visually. This isn’t an easy argument to settle: there’s an obvious chicken and egg problem. For instance, referring to a 1990 study of mail order catalogues which found ‘more variation in the terms describing women’s clothing than men’s’, the authors of the 2012 study suggest that the catalogue producers were ‘taking advantage’ of women’s greater facility for discriminating and naming colours. Yet it could equally be argued that women develop this facility precisely because the products they consume come in a wider range of colours and are described using a wider range of terms.

One way to investigate this further might be to consider variables other than sex/gender. Men and women, after all, are diverse rather than homogeneous, in ways that might be expected to make a difference to their use of colour-terms–especially if this is primarily a cultural thing. Pursuing that line of thought, I discovered a study published in 2007 which found a difference between older and younger men: while the older men, as usual, produced a limited range of non-basic terms, the younger men were far more similar to women. There is more than one possible explanation for this finding, but the most plausible one, arguably, is cultural change, both in gendered patterns of consumption and in ideas about masculinity. I found some indirect support for this in current clothing catalogues. When I looked at a (small) sample it was clear that the colour-terms used in the menswear and womenswear sections were less sharply differentiated than they reportedly had been in 1990. Today’s fashion retailers seem confident that their male customers, like their female ones, will buy shirts in ‘sage’, ‘forest’ or ‘acqua’ rather than just ‘green’.

But another variable that should probably be in the mix here is social class. The catalogues I looked at (which had come unsolicited through my letterbox and ended up in my recycling bin) were clearly addressed to a certain segment of the market, and that was reflected in their language as well as their prices. Words are among the semiotic resources companies use to construct an image that will appeal to, or flatter, their target customer; elaborate or unusual colour terms often seem to be associated with more ‘aspirational’ brands.

Consider, for instance, paint shade-cards. They’re a vast repository of ridiculous colour-names, but if you compare, say, the upscale Farrow & Ball range to B&Q’s more basic house-brand, you will find they are ridiculous in different ways. F&B sells shades called things like ‘Railings’; B&Q offers shades like ‘Pumpkin Pie’. Both might be described as whimsical, but one is–to quote a painter and decorator I once discussed this with–‘poncier’ than the other.

Of course, no one participating in a colour-naming experiment would be likely to produce something as obscure as ‘Railings’. But participants’ choices might still be influenced by the ‘ponciness’ factor. And this wouldn’t necessarily be just a direct reflection of their own class position. As I explained in an earlier post about swearing, there’s quite a strong tendency for middle- or upper-class linguistic norms to be symbolically associated with femininity while working-class norms are associated with masculinity. We might therefore expect men, including middle-class ones, to be more concerned than women about avoiding terms they consider ‘poncy’. This avoidance is central to the humour of the joke eyeshadow palette: in a context where poncy words are standard, the author of the joke has substituted aggressively plain, down-to-earth or crude alternatives.

The maleness that’s both parodied and celebrated in this joke is defined not only in opposition to femininity, but also by contrast with certain kinds of masculinity (for instance, anything too gay or too educated). Colour terms, it turns out, are a great resource for this kind of social symbolism. But precisely for that reason I think it’s hard to know what we can safely conclude from studies which claim to show that women know more colour terms. I’m not disputing the (very consistent) finding that women generally produce more terms; but is that simply because men’s vocabulary is smaller? If men write ‘pinkish-purple’ rather than ‘mauve’, does that mean ‘mauve’ isn’t in their repertoire, or does it mean they’re reluctant to present themselves as the kind of man who uses words like ‘mauve’?

There’s also a more fundamental question, one I always seem to end up asking when I post about any kind of sex-difference science: why does any of this matter in the first place? So what if you say magenta and I say fuchsia? Let’s call the whole thing off!

But while I don’t care about the question itself, I do care about what’s behind it. When a (real or alleged) sex-difference becomes the object of intense scientific and/or popular fascination, that often has less to do with its real-world importance than with the symbolic meaning we project onto it. We seize on certain generalisations because they fit with our beliefs about what men and women are or should be like. Sometimes the generalisations are completely false; sometimes, as in this case, they’re more robust; but either way, they contribute to the patriarchal project of keeping men and women in their prescribed, different-and-not-equal, places. And even when it’s funny, that’s no joke.

 

The spinster returns?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dictionary wars

As I had failed in my efforts to think without recourse to language, I assumed that this was an exact equivalent of reality; I was encouraged in this misconception by the grown-ups, whom I took to be the sole depositories of absolute truth: when they defined a thing, they expressed its substance, in the sense in which one expresses the juice from a fruit

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

Back in July, I posted about a petition calling on Oxford University Press to change the archaic and sexist entry for ‘woman’ in one of its most widely-used dictionaries, the Oxford Dictionary (the one you get with an iPhone). A few weeks later, in August, OUP’s blog published a response to the petition from Katherine Connor Martin, whose job title is ‘head of lexical content strategy’. This response made some of the same points I had: since language reflects the culture in which it is used, a certain amount of sexism is inevitable—you can’t eliminate all bias without compromising the aim of a modern dictionary, which is to describe the way words are actually used. Martin did, however, assure readers that OUP takes their concerns very seriously, and said the dictionary’s editors were investigating ‘whether there are senses of “woman” that are not currently covered, but should be added in a future update’.

At the time this response attracted little attention. But then this week, the petition was suddenly news again. There was a spate of press reports claiming, in effect, that because of the petition, which has now attracted 30,000 signatures, OUP was going to redefine the word ‘woman’. One report, in the Bookseller, misleadingly referred to the petition as ‘an online survey’, as if Oxford had commissioned an opinion poll and was proposing to change the meaning of a word on that basis. And at that point things really kicked off: Twitter was all over it, and by Thursday the debate had even been covered by Good Morning America.

In fact, nothing Katherine Connor Martin had said the press might do–like adding new senses to the entry, or marking some synonyms for ‘woman’ more clearly as offensive–would amount to ‘redefining’ the word ‘woman’. More fundamentally, you can’t change the meaning of a word like ‘woman’ simply by altering a dictionary entry. If OUP decided to redefine ‘woman’ as ‘a mythical white equine mammal with a single horn’, it would make no difference at all to the way English speakers actually use it. It would just make the dictionary look like (if you’ll forgive the mixing of equine species) an ass. No one checks the dictionary entry for ‘woman’ before they utter a sentence containing the word: we don’t need anyone’s permission to use words to mean what we already know they mean. Dictionary-makers spend a lot of their time and energy systematically investigating what we think words mean, as evidenced by the way we use them, so they can document that fully and accurately. They take their cue from us, not vice-versa.

But most people really don’t understand that, as I found out when I waded into the debate on Twitter. The Guardian’s report had mentioned one suggestion made in the petition—though in that context it was a minor point, almost an afterthought—that the example sentences in the ‘woman’ entry might include references to different kinds of women, like ‘a trans woman, a lesbian woman, etc.’ It then quoted Katherine Connor Martin’s point about ‘senses of “woman”…that should be added in a future update’. This juxtaposition led some Guardian-reading Twitter-users to infer that OUP was planning to update the entry to include, specifically, references to trans women. And the press was then accused of caving to political pressure from the trans lobby to redefine what ‘woman’ means.

I thought that was a stretch, and I said so. Not because there hasn’t been lobbying on this issue—there has, from both sides—but I don’t think this petition is an example of it. (Its central concern is sexism rather than gender identity, and its creator is a feminist, not a trans activist.) I also don’t think that the press has ‘caved’ to any kind of pressure, except possibly the pressure to move the ‘woman’ question higher up its agenda. In the age of the internet, dictionaries, like other commercial enterprises, do feel an obligation to appear responsive to users’ concerns, so a petition with 30,000 signatures may have some influence on their order of priorities. Beyond that, I see no evidence of ‘caving’: far more has been read into Katherine Connor Martin’s comments than they actually say.

But as the discussion on Twitter progressed, I began to realise that the reason so many people believed or suspected things I found implausible or even absurd was because they saw dictionaries in a particular way—one which is at odds with the way dictionaries see themselves, and the way I, as a semi-insider, see them (I’m a linguist not a lexicographer, but I know how modern lexicography is done). Based on my conversations with people on Twitter over the last few days, some widely-held beliefs about dictionaries include the following.

The makers of dictionaries have absolute power to decide what words really mean, and they use that power selectively.

Some people I interacted with evidently imagined the editorial process at a dictionary as rather like what you see in movies or TV shows about journalism: people sitting in a meeting arguing the toss about definitions and debating whether to accept or reject new words and senses of words. (‘Does this deserve to be in the dictionary, or should is it too illogical, confusing and objectionable to make the cut?’) This may help to explain why there’s concern about the potential for political lobbying to influence definitions, just as people worry about, say, who might be putting pressure on the BBC to take a certain editorial line on Brexit.

Concern about dictionaries pushing, or being persuaded to push, a covert political agenda is reinforced by a second widely-held belief, that

The decision to include a word or sense in a dictionary is effectively an endorsement of that word or sense. It communicates that the word or sense is real, correct and should be used by everyone.

Another dictionary-related news story this week reported that ‘non-binary “they”’ (i.e., the pronoun ‘they’ used in reference to a specific individual who identifies as neither male nor female) had just been added to a leading US dictionary, Merriam-Webster. For some of my interlocutors on Twitter, this decision implied not, ‘we have looked at the evidence and found this use of “they” is now mainstream enough to be recorded in a dictionary entry describing the current usage of “they”’, but something more like, ‘we thoroughly approve of this new way of using pronouns, and we want to support non-binary people by telling everyone to adopt it’. The news reports themselves took a similar view, in some cases describing the decision as ‘validation for nonbinary people’. That only reinforced some people’s suspicion that the decision must have been prompted by lobbying.

When people expressed the view that dictionaries shouldn’t be entertaining politically partisan demands to change their entries, I pointed out that their own demand for no change was also politically partisan. But some of their replies invoked another belief which shows what’s ultimately at stake in arguments like the one about ‘woman’:

Dictionaries don’t just define words; since words (or a lot of words) name things in the world, the word-meanings that appear in dictionary entries are also definitions of reality itself.

For people who hold this belief, there is essentially no difference between asking ‘what does the word “woman” mean?’ and asking ‘what, in reality, is a woman?’ It follows that changing the definition of a word means changing what will count as reality, and in some cases that’s seen as a politically-motivated, quasi-Orwellian assault on the truth.

One of my interlocutors on Twitter explained this to me using a hypothetical question:

if some people started to demand we use the word ‘night’ to mean ‘day’ …would the dictionary record that use?

I think this person expected the answer to be ‘no, of course not, that would be absurd: “night” and “day” are antonyms in language because they’re opposites in nature’. But in fact the answer is ‘yes’: if the evidence showed that a significant section of the linguistic community was using ‘night’ to mean ‘day’, then that sense would be recorded in entries for ‘night’ (alongside the original sense, not instead of it). This is exactly what many dictionaries have done with the word ‘literally’, which, notoriously, is used very frequently as an intensifier with the opposite meaning, ‘figuratively’ or ‘metaphorically’ (as in Taylor Swift’s recent statement that ‘I’m literally breaking’, though as far as I know she remains physically intact). This ‘incorrect’ and much-criticised usage of ‘literally’ is so common, it would be hard for a dictionary whose aim is to document the actual use of words to leave it out.

For dictionaries (and linguists like me), the question ‘what does this word mean’ is an empirical question, reflecting the axiom that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’. You work out the meaning (or more often, meanings) of a word by collecting and organising evidence about its use by real speakers and writers in real contexts. There are no meetings where dictionary-makers compare their intuitions about the meaning of ‘woman’, or ‘they’, and debate whether a new sense is ‘good enough’ to deserve ‘endorsement’. What they’re looking for is evidence that the new sense is sufficiently well-established to be considered part of ‘general’ or ‘common’ usage. If it is, then it belongs in the dictionary. Not because the lexicographers think it’s a worthy addition, but simply because their aim is to provide a full and accurate record of usage. If enough speakers of the language have adopted a new word or meaning, descriptive accuracy requires it to be included.

So, what is the evidence that something is part of general usage? There’s probably some variation in the criteria different dictionaries use, and also in the criteria they apply to different kinds of words, but with something like non-binary ‘they’, which has been around for quite a while in certain subcultures (e.g., on college campuses and tumblr), Merriam-Webster’s decision that the time had come to add it was likely based on evidence that it’s now turning up regularly in mainstream sources targeting a general audience, like newspapers and general interest magazines. (In fact, it has recently been adopted as a norm in the style guides of several mainstream media organisations, so its frequency in their output will probably have increased.)

The source material dictionaries treat as evidence isn’t just selected and used in an ad hoc, unsystematic way. Today’s dictionary-makers rely on corpora, which are very large (millions or even billions of words), structured, taggable and searchable samples of authentic language-use. They’re constructed to cover a wide range of written and spoken genres and media, and to represent different sections of the language-using population (for English this may include writers/speakers in all the major world regions where the language is used). From a corpus you can collect not only a large number of authentic examples of a word’s use, but also quantitative data on how frequently it’s being used in particular ways, and whether these uses are common across contexts and populations or confined to specific regions, subcultures or genres. You can also monitor changes over time, tracking the spread of an innovation or the progress of a shift in meaning.

When Katherine Connor Martin says that editors are investigating ‘whether there are senses of “woman” not currently covered [that] should be included in future updates’, I’m guessing one thing that means is that they’ll be looking at recent corpus data to see what’s changed–if certain ways of using ‘woman’ have become more salient, or if they’ve moved, like ‘they’, from the subcultural margins to the mainstream. I’m confident the evidence will confirm that ‘adult female human’ is still the primary sense of ‘woman’ (and the commonest by a long way); the question is whether there will be a case for adding anything else.

For the dictionary-makers this is a question about the linguistic facts on the ground: it’s about how people are using the word ‘woman’, how frequently it’s being used in a particular way, and what range of contexts it’s appearing in. Even if they make a show of being responsive to concerns like the ones raised in the petition, they’re not going to ignore their own data on these points: their rigorous, evidence-based approach is, after all, what enables them to market their products as ‘authoritative’. However assiduously they’re lobbied, they’re unlikely to emulate Urban Dictionary by making popular opinion the measure of a definition’s value.

But whatever the linguistic evidence shows, it won’t answer the question at the heart of the Twitter spat, which is not an empirical question about the way words are used, but an ontological question about the nature of reality. Dictionaries cannot answer that kind of question, and it’s a mistake to think they can. They can only tell us (and only claim to be able to tell us) what the word ‘woman’ is currently used to mean. That will never settle the ongoing argument about what a woman is or is not.

Hold my beer

This week we learned that the organisers of the Great British Beer Festival, an annual event sponsored by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, have taken the radical decision to ban alcoholic beverages with sexist names. The products which were said to have fallen foul of this new policy included a cider called ‘Slack Alice’ slack alice(whose makers describe it, hilariously, as ‘a little tart’), and beers named ‘Dizzy Blonde’, ‘Village Bike’ and ‘Leg Spreader’. A quick trawl of the internet produced a number of other potential candidates, such as ‘Bristol’s Ale’ (‘I’ll let the image reproduced below speak for itself), ‘Top Totty’, and ‘Voluptuous Vicky’.

In my last post, about the sexism of dictionary and thesaurus entries for the word ‘woman’, I pointed out that the vocabulary of English is rich in terms that represent women as men’s inferiors, dependents, servants and sexual objects. The beer and cider names just mentioned cover most of these bases—as with ‘humorous’ greeting cards and ‘saucy’ seaside postcards, there seems to be a particular obsession with double-entendres featuring breasts—but the thing I find most striking is how many of them are drawn from a very specific part of the lexicon of sexism: the extensive and elaborate set of terms which mean ‘an unchaste or promiscuous woman’. One who spreads her legs for any man, or has been ‘ridden’ by every man in the village. Who is ‘slack’, a ‘little tart’, a strumpet, a slut, a whore. bristols ale

As feminists have been pointing out for at least the last 45 years, there is no analogous set of slur-terms denoting men. Men who have a lot of sex are ‘studs’ rather than ‘whores’. ‘Gigolo’ can be an insult, but that’s about it. As Amanda Montell summarises the rule in her recent book Wordslut: (incidentally, I’m not going to get into the debate on reclaiming ‘slut’, but there’s a good concise discussion of the word’s past and present uses in this blog post by Nancy Friedman):

If you want to insult a woman, call her a prostitute. If you want to insult a man, call him a woman.

Even then, as Montell observes, there are far more insults based on the first principle than the second. Where do they all come from?

Quite a few are the result of a process which the linguist Muriel Schulz named ‘the semantic derogation of women’. As she explained:

Again and again in the history of the language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or a woman may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications, at first perhaps only slightly disparaging, but after a period of time becoming abusive and ending as a sexual slur.

‘Tart’, for instance, started out as a term of endearment, like ‘sweetie’ or ‘cupcake’. ‘Hussy’ is a variant of ‘housewife’, a neutral occupational label. ‘Slut’ was always negative, but in its earlier meaning of ‘untidy or slovenly person’ it wasn’t a sexual slur. ‘Slack’, as in ‘Slack Alice’, can be applied to people of either sex, but it only means ‘unchaste, promiscuous’ when it’s used about a woman. If I criticised a man for being ‘slack’ I’d be implying that he was lazy or careless, not sexually incontinent or undiscriminating in his choice of partners. (Similarly, we can talk about ‘loose women’, but not ‘loose men’.)

Female promiscuity and prostitution belong to the set of socially taboo subjects which tend to generate a lot of slang words. The variety and inventiveness of this vocabulary has often been celebrated by lovers of language. There’s a famous literary example in John Barth’s novel The Sot-Weed Factor, a 1960s pastiche of 18th century picaresque novels like Tom Jones, where two characters identified as prostitutes engage in a prolonged verbal duel (it goes on for several pages) consisting entirely of English and French epithets meaning ‘prostitute’.

“The truth is,” said the dealer, “Grace here’s a hooker.”
“A what?” asked the poet.
“A hooker,” the woman repeated with a wink. “A quail, don’t ye know.”
“A quail!” the woman named Grace shrieked. “You call me a quail, you, you gaullefretière!”
“Whore!” shouted the first.
“Bas-cul!” retorted the other.
“Frisker!”
“Consoeur!”
“Trull!”
“Friquenelle!”
“Sow!”
“Usagère!”
“Bawd!”

Amanda Montell also notes that some promiscuous woman-terms are ‘fun to say’. Archaic-sounding words like ‘strumpet’ and ‘harlot’, or newer coinages like ‘skankly hobag’, are colourful, exotic, over the top; other terms are ‘fun’ because, like ‘village bike’, they involve some kind of play on words. In all this celebration of linguistic creativity, it’s easy to forget that what we’re looking at is a long list of sexual, and sexist, slurs.

But why, you may be wondering, would sexual slur-terms be considered good names for alcoholic beverages? What are you trying to say when you call your product ‘Leg villagebikeSpreader’ or ‘Village Bike’? Is it, ‘hey, lads, this one’s as good as Rohypnol if you’re looking to get your end away’? Or ‘this beer is convenient and undemanding–good for a quickie in the car-park, but you wouldn’t take it home to meet your parents’? Or is the point just to associate a product that targets a certain (male) demographic with something else that demographic is believed to be keen on?

Actually, I don’t think what’s behind these names is the old adage that ‘sex sells’ (there’s surely nothing sexy or aspirational about the Village Bike): what they’re selling has more to do with masculinity and male camaraderie. Beer, after all, is the classic male homosocial beverage, the one men consume while engaged in stereotypically male homosocial activities like watching the football on TV or having a night in the pub with the lads. Arguably, what’s being referenced in names like ‘Leg Spreader’ and ‘Village Bike’ is the stereotypical language of male homosocial bonding—our old friend ‘banter’, which, just like the crude beer names, is transgressive, politically incorrect and resolutely non-serious (hence the common coupling of the term ‘banter’ with words like ‘irreverent’, ‘witty’ and ‘light-hearted’).

In support of this interpretation I will cite what I consider to be—at least for this purpose—an unimpeachable source, namely the comments made on the CAMRA ban by readers of the Daily Mail. There were three points that recurred in this set of comments. The first (though in fairness it did not command universal agreement) was that beer is a man’s drink, and that in attempting to make it less off-putting to women, CAMRA was alienating its core constituency. The second point, which did command more or less universal agreement, was that banning ‘Slack Alice’ et al. was ‘PC nonsense’; and the third was that anyone who found these ‘light hearted’ names offensive must be a miserable git with no sense of humour.

Interestingly, a fair number of commenters felt impelled to add that in their experience, women are not at all offended by expressions like ‘village bike’. ‘All the women I know find this funny’, wrote one. ‘My wife’, affirmed another, ‘thinks [the ban] is PC, puerile condescension’. Yet another recalled that his ‘good lady’, an enthusiastic patron of beer festivals for many years, had only ever been put off a beer by its name on one occasion, when someone offered her a glass of ‘Old Fart’.

It’s always suspicious when a conversation about sexism consists predominantly of men making claims about what their wives, female friends and colleagues think, while the women themselves remain conspicuously silent. (The extract I quoted earlier from The Sot-Weed Factor is another case of a man putting words in women’s mouths and attitudes in their imaginary heads.)  But that’s not to say that the Mail readers’ wives, if asked, would share CAMRA’s attitude to ‘Slack Alice’ and her ilk. Women’s relationship to sexual slur terms is complicated: they have their own reasons for tolerating this kind of sexism, and even on occasion for joining in with it.

For many women who are not feminists, men’s fondness for beer, banter and busty women comes under the heading of ‘boys will be boys’. It’s seen as harmless, and they indulge it. It’s also common for casual sexism to be presented in the way the Mail comments do, as ‘light-hearted’, just a bit of fun. If you object to it, you’ll be that humourless person (and if you’re female, worse still, that humourless feminist killjoy) who doesn’t get, or can’t take, a joke. As I’ve said before, the charge of having no sense of humour is a surprisingly powerful one, and women are especially vulnerable to it (since it’s an old sexist stereotype that women can’t tell or understand jokes).

Another reason women may tolerate, or indeed actively embrace, the language of ‘sluts’ and ‘strumpets’ and ‘village bikes’ is to distinguish themselves from the women those epithets are aimed at. It certainly shouldn’t be thought that only men call women whores: there’s abundant evidence that women have been calling each other whores for centuries. What is known in modern parlance as ‘slut-shaming’ has long been, and continues to be, a way for women in patriarchal societies to exercise power over other women. Because of that, as I noted in an earlier post about sex and swearing, exchanges of sexual slurs between women were not usually light-hearted: accusations of unchastity could not be taken lightly, because a woman whose reputation was damaged by them faced real and serious social consequences. In some communities and situations that’s still the case today.

But surely, you might be thinking, you can’t compare the representation of women in beer names and on pumpclips with the slut-shaming of women in real life. ‘Slack Alice’ and ‘Voluptuous Vicky’ aren’t real people: their names may be sexist, but they’re clearly intended to be humorous, and arguably the humour is more affectionate than contemptuous. If you look at their visual representation, you’ll also notice that these women are presented as figures from a bygone age. vickyThey exemplify, in fact, the advertising strategy that the cultural critic Judith Williamson labels ‘retrosexism’, where you use obviously ‘retro’ imagery (in this case it’s most often drawn from the mid-20th century visual language of either the seaside postcard or the pin-up photograph) to locate sexism firmly in the past. The implication is that we all know this isn’t meant to be taken seriously: the past was another country, and we’re enlightened enough now to look back and laugh at the absurdity of it.

As Williamson says, though, in reality the world is still full of entirely unreconstructed and un-ironic sexism. The retro style may be dated, but the substance–objectifying women and judging them by a sexual double standard which is not applied to men–shows no sign of withering away. In her view what retrosexism really expresses is nostalgia: the longing of many men, and some women, for a time when sexism wasn’t just (as it still is) a thing, but an acceptable, taken-for-granted thing. A time when nobody complained that tit jokes were offensive, or lectured cider-makers about slut-shaming, or tried to attract more women to beer festivals.

In Britain in 2019 there’s an awful lot of this nostalgia about—expressed not just in retrosexism but also retronationalism and retroimperialism. In that sense, the popularity of crudely sexist beer-names and 1940s imagery is a depressing sign of the times. I’m glad to see that CAMRA, at least, is not just keeping calm and carrying on.

All the images reproduced in this post are taken from Pumpclip Parade, a blog dedicated to ‘aesthetic atrocities from the world of beer’ 

Dissing the dictionary

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

od def woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broad men and narrow women: the perils of soundbite science

Last week a few people asked me what I made of a new study that was generating some interest on social media. At the time I hadn’t read it: I only knew Nature had reported it under a headline–‘Male researchers’ “vague” language more likely to win grants’–that made it sound both baffling (why would scientists get points for being vague?) and infuriating (as usual, it seemed to be men who were benefiting and women who were losing out). So I decided to investigate further, and then share my conclusions in this post.

The study was conducted by researchers at the US National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), and their write-up is available as an NBER Working Paper. The data they analysed consisted of 6794 grant applications submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which operates a policy of anonymous reviewing. Because reviewers weren’t told whether applicants were men or women, the researchers assumed that any gender differences in success rates could not be the result of direct discrimination. Whatever was leading reviewers to favour men must be contained in the application itself. And since most of a grant application consists of words, they decided to look for gender-differentiated patterns of word-use.

What their analysis revealed was a tendency for reviewers to give higher scores to applications that contained ‘broad’ words and lower scores to those that used ‘narrow’ words. Since broad words were used more frequently in men’s proposals, while narrow words appeared more often in women’s, this preference for broad over narrow words was also a preference for male- over female-authored applications. The researchers found no reason to think that broad words were associated with better proposals. When they looked at what applicants had gone on to achieve, the words used in their proposals appeared to be a poor predictor of research quality. Overall, then, the study’s conclusion was as infuriating as the Nature headline suggested: men whose research was objectively no better than women’s were receiving more funding from the Gates Foundation because reviewers preferred a particular style of grant writing.

One question the researchers didn’t attempt to answer was why men and women writing grant proposals might favour, respectively, ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ words. But many people who commented on their findings thought the answer was obvious: simply and bluntly put, men–or at least a higher proportion of men–are bullshitters. Whereas women offer specific, realistic accounts of what they think their research can deliver, men have fewer inhibitions about making sweeping, grandiose claims.

This take is an example of a common interpretive strategy. If you present people with a generalization about language and gender—especially one whose significance isn’t immediately obvious—they will often try to make sense of it by invoking some other, more generic gender stereotype. In this case what they did was map the alleged linguistic difference (‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’) onto a higher-level, more familiar male-female opposition: ‘men are over-confident, women are over-cautious’.

You might ask: what’s wrong with that? Stereotypes aren’t always false: there’s plenty of other research you could cite in support of the thesis that men are over-confident (for instance, experimental studies showing that male test-takers consistently overestimate how well they’ve done, or the fact that men are more likely than women to apply for jobs when they don’t meet the advertised criteria). I don’t dispute any of that: in fact, I agree that ‘men are over-confident and women are over-cautious’ captures a real and significant cultural tendency. But there are, nevertheless, some problems with using it to explain the findings of this study.

One general problem is that you can use the same interpretive strategy to explain pretty much any set of findings, including made up ones. Suppose I told you the study had found that men use narrow words and women use broad words (i.e., the opposite of what it actually found). You’d be able to come up with an equally plausible explanation for that (non) finding just by switching to a different gender stereotype. Instead of ‘men use broad words because they’re overconfident bullshitters’ you might suggest that ‘women use broad words because they’re more attuned to their readers’ needs’; or ‘men use narrow words to show off their expert knowledge’. Since the supply of gender stereotypes is inexhaustible, there’s no statement of the form ‘men do x and women do y’ that can’t be slotted into this explanatory frame.

In the case of the NBER study, though, there’s a more specific problem with explaining men’s use of broad words as a linguistic manifestation of their over-confidence. When the researchers use the terms ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’, they don’t mean what people have assumed they mean (i.e., what the words would mean in ordinary English).

By way of illustration, here’s a list of six words taken from the study: three of them were classified as ‘broad’ and the other three as ‘narrow’. Which do you think are which?

  1. bacteria
  2. brain
  3. community
  4. detection
  5. health
  6. therapy

My guess is that you defined words as ‘broad’ if they were just basic, everyday vocabulary, and ‘narrow’ if they were a bit more abstract and technical. On that basis you probably categorised ‘health, ‘brain’ and ‘community’ as broad and ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ as narrow. That wasn’t, however, what the researchers did. Their definition wasn’t based on the characteristics of the words themselves, but on their frequency and distribution in the sample. Broad words were those that occurred in proposals on a wide range of different research topics; narrow words were restricted to proposals on a particular topic. By those criteria, ‘bacteria’, ‘detection’ and ‘therapy’ were broad, whereas ‘brain, community’ and ‘health’ were narrow.

If you think these definitions are confusing, I agree: the researchers might have done better to choose a different pair of terms (like, say, ‘core words’ and ‘peripheral words’). But once you’ve understood how they made their broad/narrow distinction and looked at the words in each category, it becomes difficult to argue that what’s behind the gender difference is men’s propensity for writing grandiose bullshit and women’s dogged attention to detail. (Is ‘health’ more precise than ‘bacteria’? Is ‘therapy’ vaguer than ‘brain’, or more grandiose than ‘community’?)

The fact that so much discussion revolved around the question of explanation suggests that most people had simply accepted the findings themselves at face value. This always bothers me: in my view, any claim that men use language in one way and women use it in another should be approached with a degree of scepticism. And that’s especially true if what you’re basing your assessment on is a report in the media. For obvious reasons, the media pay most attention to studies whose findings will make an eye-catching headline or a killer soundbite; this means they have a bias towards research which makes bold rather than cautious claims (stories like ‘men and women fairly similar, study shows’, or ‘we looked, but we didn’t find anything’, are not exactly clickbait). But for feminist sceptics it’s always worth asking whether the finding everyone’s talking about is supported by any other evidence. Have other researchers found the same thing? Or have they asked similar questions and come up with different answers?

There is, in fact, other research investigating the influence of writing style on grant decisions. Earlier this year, the Journal of Language and Social Psychology published an analysis of the language used in a sample of nearly 20,000 abstracts taken from research proposals submitted to the US National Science Foundation. This study considered only successful applications, taking the amount of funding applicants had been awarded as a measure of how positively their proposals had been assessed. It found there was a relationship between the funding researchers received and the language used in their proposal abstracts, but the linguistic features which made a difference were not the same ones the NBER study identified. The NSF gave more money to applicants whose abstracts were longer than average, contained fewer common words, and were written with ‘more verbal certainty’.

But I’m not just lamenting the uncritical reception of the NBER findings on general scientific principles. It also bothers me because I know how easy it is to propagate myths about the way men and women use language. ‘Men use broad words and women use narrow words’ is exactly the sort of thing that gets mythologized–detached from its original context (a study in which, as I’ve already pointed out, it meant something completely different from what most people thought) and repeated without elaboration in dozens of other sources, until eventually it turns into one of those zombie facts–like ‘Eskimos have a lot of words for snow’, or ‘women utter three times as many words per day as men’–that refuse to die no matter how many times they’re debunked.

If it does become part of our collective folk-wisdom on this subject, there’s every chance that ‘men use broad words, women use narrow words’ will also be filtered through the kind of deficit thinking which sees whatever women do with language as a problem in need of remedial intervention. Using ‘narrow’ words could join over-apologizing, hedging and tilting your head on the list of bad habits which are said to hold women back, and which it then becomes women’s responsibility to fix. (I can already imagine the TED talks exhorting women to ‘think broad’, and the workshops for female grant applicants on ‘choosing the right words’.)

To be fair to the authors of the NBER study, that isn’t what they think should happen. As they see it, it’s the reviewers who need training: their bias towards certain ways of writing elevates style over substance and leads to less than optimal funding decisions. But it’s hard for researchers to control what people make of, or what they do with,  findings that have entered the public domain. Even a study that was intended to be part of the solution can end up becoming part of the problem.

This is a dilemma for everyone who researches or writes about language and gender, myself included. Whenever I criticise some questionable claim or mistaken belief, I’m aware that I could be amplifying it just by giving it airtime. Though I’m only repeating it to explain the arguments against it, those arguments won’t necessarily be what people take away. But as you’ll have noticed, that hasn’t caused me to retreat into silence. I do believe that knowledge can set us free–but only if we’re willing to interrogate it critically.

 

Who owns words?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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