Politics, by definition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pride, prejudice and pedantry

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. It’s a red herring

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

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

2. It cuts more than one way

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

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

3. It’s a vote for the status quo

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

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

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

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

5. Modesty becomes you

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

6. It’s counterproductive

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

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

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

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

‘Language changes, deal with it’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A brief history of ‘gender’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

What makes a word a slur?

Content note: this post contains examples of offensive slur-terms. 

Last week, the British edition of Glamour magazine published a column in which Juno Dawson used the term ‘TERF’ to describe feminists (the example she named was Germaine Greer) who ‘steadfastly believe that me—and other trans women—are not women’.  When some readers complained about the use of derogatory language, a spokeswoman for the magazine replied on Twitter that TERF is not derogatory:

Trans-exclusionary radical feminist is a description, and not a misogynistic slur.

Arguments about whether TERF is a neutral descriptive term or a derogatory slur have been rumbling on ever since. They raise a question which linguists and philosophers have found quite tricky to answer (and which they haven’t reached a consensus on): what makes a word a slur?

Before I consider that general question, let’s take a closer look at the meaning and history of TERF. As the Glamour spokeswoman said, it’s an abbreviated form of the phrase ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’; more specifically it’s an acronym, constructed from the initial letters of the words that make up the phrase. Some people have suggested this means it can’t be a slur. I find that argument puzzling, since numerous terms which everyone agrees are slurs are abbreviated forms (examples include ‘Paki’, ‘Jap’, ‘paedo’ and ‘tranny’). But in any case, there’s a question about the status of TERF as an acronym. Clearly it started out as one, but is it still behaving like one now?

To see what I’m getting at, consider an acronym from the 1940s: ‘radar’. Do you know what all the letters stand for? I do, but only because I’ve just looked it up. I’ve been using the word for 50-odd years without realising it meant ‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’—a feat made possible by the fact that ‘radio detection and ranging’ isn’t really what it means any longer. Over time it’s become just an ordinary word, which is used without reference to its origins as an acronym. No one mentally expands the letters R-A-D-A-R into words; no one imagines that ‘gaydar’ must be short for ‘gay detection and ranging’. Also (a trivial but telling sign) no one now writes ‘radar’ in all caps.

I’ve been writing TERF in all caps, but these days you also see it written ‘Terf’ or ‘terf’. That’s one sign it’s going the same way as ‘radar’, becoming a word which can be used without knowing what the letters of the original acronym stand for. Another sign is the way it’s now used to describe people (e.g., men) who don’t fit the original specification, in that they aren’t radical feminists. It looks as if at least some users of the term don’t define it strictly as meaning ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, but use it with a more generic meaning like ‘transphobic person’.

This kind of change is common in the history of words. Word-meaning is inherently unstable, liable to vary among different groups of users and to change over time, because we don’t learn the meanings of most words by looking them up in some authoritative reference book, we figure them out from our experience of hearing or seeing words used in context.

It’s easy to see how that might shift the meaning of TERF in the way I’ve just suggested. Imagine you hear two of your friends discussing a mutual acquaintance who they refer to as a TERF. You’ve never encountered the term before and you have no way of knowing it’s a short form of a longer phrase (because it’s a true acronym, pronounced not as a series of letters but as a single syllable that rhymes with ‘smurf’).  So you listen to what’s being said about the TERF in question and make the simplest inference compatible with what you’re hearing: that TERF means a transphobic person.

If TERF’s meaning has started to shift that’s actually a sign of its success (words evolve as they spread to new users and contexts). But it makes the argument that TERF is just a neutral descriptive label for a specific group of people less convincing. That argument either takes no account of the way usage has changed over time, or else it’s a version of the etymological fallacy (‘however people actually use a word, its original meaning is the true meaning’).

But the fact that a word isn’t a neutral description doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a slur. We’re back to the question philosophers and semanticists have found so tricky: on what basis can we say that a word is a slur?

As I’ve already mentioned, the people who’ve written on this subject don’t agree on what the answer is. And after reading their various accounts, I’m not sure I believe there’s a single right answer. Rather, I think there are a number of criteria which need to be considered. If we’re in doubt about a word’s status as a slur, we can try asking the following questions, and then looking at the overall balance of the answers.

My first two questions are based on what the philosopher Jennifer Hornsby proposes as the two fundamental features of a derogatory term or slur.

Is the word commonly understood to convey hatred or contempt?

Does the word have a neutral counterpart which denotes the same group without conveying hatred/contempt?

This definition seems to have been constructed using racial/ethnic slurs as a prototype. In these cases it’s generally understood that the slur term, used in preference to a neutral term which denotes the same group of people, communicates hatred/contempt as part of its meaning (that’s the difference between, say, ‘Jew’ and ‘kike’). This doesn’t help us much with terms like TERF whose status as slurs is disputed. TERF is certainly understood by some people to convey hatred and contempt, but others deny it conveys those things.

It’s also unclear whether there’s a neutral term which TERF contrasts with. TERF doesn’t so much refer to a pre-existing group as bring a new category into existence (there was a pre-existing group of radical feminists, but they weren’t defined as a category by the belief that trans women are not women, and in fact they still aren’t, since not all radical feminists hold that belief). So, to decide whether TERF is a slur we need to ask some other questions.

Do the people the word is applied to either use it to describe themselves or accept it when others use it to describe them?

Both parts of this question are important. If a group of people voluntarily use a word to describe themselves, then—on the assumption that people don’t generally slur their own group—you might conclude the word isn’t a slur. However, this does not allow for the possibility that a term might be a marker of identity and solidarity when used within the group, while remaining a slur if it’s used to/about the group by outsiders. (The classic example is the solidary use of the N-word among (some) Black people: it doesn’t make it OK for white people to use it. ‘Dyke’ for ‘lesbian’ is another example: fine if you are a lesbian, suspect if you aren’t. ) There are also jocular, ironic and self-mocking uses which don’t undermine the status of a word as a slur (women friends might refer to themselves in private as ‘sluts’ or ‘bitches’, but they wouldn’t accept being described in those terms in public or by non-intimates).

With TERF, I’d say the answer to both parts of the question is ‘no’. There may be people who use TERF ironically/self-mockingly in private, but I’m not aware of any who publicly define themselves as TERFs, and it’s common for those who are called TERFs by others to reject the label. Note that these observations concern attitudes to the word: there are certainly some feminists who publicly affirm the belief mentioned by Juno Dawson, that trans women are not women, but they may still deny being TERFs. This suggests they see TERF in the same way members of a certain ethnic group might see an ethnic slur: ‘yes, I am a member of the group you mean, but no, I do not accept the implications of the name you’re calling it by’.  Which brings me to the next question:

Do the people the word is applied to regard it as a slur (e.g. do they describe it explicitly as a slur, protest against its use, display offence/distress when it is used)?

For some writers, a ‘yes’ to this question is enough on its own to make a word a slur.  Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore argue that

…no matter what its history, no matter what it means or communicates, no matter who introduces it, regardless of its past associations, once relevant individuals declare a word a slur, it becomes one [emphasis in original]

What these writers are trying to account for is the fact that labels which were previously considered acceptable, or even polite, can get redefined as slurs (examples include ‘Negro’ and ‘coloured’), and the reverse may also happen (‘Black’ was not always acceptable, and ‘queer’ used to be unambiguously a slur). This isn’t a matter of what the term means (the literal meaning of ‘Black’ and ‘Negro’ is the same), but rather depends on the perceptions of ‘relevant individuals’ (members of the target group) at a particular point in time. If they declare a term offensive, then it’s offensive: it’s idle for non-members of the group to tell them they have no business taking offence.

On this criterion, TERF is indisputably a slur.  Many individuals who have been described as TERFs have called it a slur, protested against its use (witness the complaints about Juno Dawson’s column) and explicitly said that it offends them. But I’m reluctant to make that the sole criterion. I agree that for something to be a slur it’s necessary for members of the target group to regard it as offensive, but I’m not sure that’s a sufficient condition (and what do you do about cases where the target group is split? ‘Queer’, for instance, divides opinion in the LGBT community).

As a sociolinguist (unlike the writers I’ve been referencing), I’m also dissatisfied with the implication that members of a group just arbitrarily and randomly decide that, for instance, ‘queer’ has ceased to be a slur or ‘Negro’ has now become one. I think these developments can be related to the changing social and political contexts in which words are used (for instance, the context for the ‘unslurring’ of ‘queer’ was the surge of radical activism prompted by the HIV-AIDS epidemic). Perceptions of words have to be seen in relation to what the words are being used to do, either by the group itself or by its opponents. So another question I would want to ask is,

What speech acts is the word used to perform?

If a word is just a neutral description, you might expect it to be used mainly for the purpose of describing or making claims about states of affairs. If it’s a slur, you’d also expect it to be used for those purposes, but in addition you might expect to see it being used in speech acts expressing hatred and contempt, such as insults, threats and incitements to violence. (By ‘insults’ here, incidentally, I don’t mean statements which are insulting simply because they use the word in question, but statements which say something insulting about the group, e.g. ‘they’re all dirty thieves’.)  

There’s evidence that TERF does appear in insults, threats and incitements. You can read a selection of examples (mostly taken from Twitter, so these were public communications) on this website, which was set up to document the phenomenon. Here are a small number of items from the site to give you a sense of what this discourse looks like:

you vile dirty terf cunts must be fuming you have no power to mess with transfolk any more!

I smell a TERF and they fucking stink

if i ever find out you are a TERF i will fucking kill you every single TERF out there needs to die

why are terfs even allowed to exist round up every terf and all their friends for good measure and slit their throats one by one

if you encounter a terf in the wild deposit them in the nearest dumpster. Remember: Keeping our streets clean is everyone’s responsibility

Precisely because it was set up to document uses of TERF as a slur, this site does not offer a representative sample of all uses of the term, so it can’t tell us whether insulting/threatening/inciting are its dominant functions. It does, however, show that they are among its current functions.  It also points to another relevant question:

What other words does the word tend to co-occur with? 

It’s noticeable that on the website I’ve linked to, TERF quite often shows up in the same tweet as other words whose status as slurs is not disputed, like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. Other words that occur more than once or twice in these tweets include ‘disgusting’, ‘ugly’, ‘scum’ and a cluster of words implying uncleanness (‘smell’, ‘stink’, ‘garbage’, ‘filth’)—which is also a well-worn theme in racist and anti-Semitic discourse.

One of the clues we use to infer an unfamiliar word’s meaning in context is our understanding of the adjacent, familar words; the result is that over time, recurring patterns of collocation (i.e. the tendency for certain words to appear in proximity to one another) have an influence on the way the word’s meaning evolves. The examples on the website are too small and unrepresentative a sample to generalise from, but if the collocations we see there are common in current uses of TERF, that would not only support the contention that it’s a slur, it might also suggest that the word could become increasingly pejorative.

In summary: TERF does not meet all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, but it does meet most of them at least partially. My personal judgment on the slur question has been particularly influenced by the evidence that TERF is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution). Granted, this isn’t the only kind of discourse TERF is used in, and it may not be the main kind. But if a term features in that kind of discourse at all, it seems to me impossible to maintain that it is ‘just a neutral description’.

I believe in open debate on politically controversial issues, so I’m not suggesting the views of either side should be either censored or protected from criticism. My point is that when one of the key terms used in the argument has become a slur, it is no longer fit for any other purpose, and the time has come to look for a replacement.


Donald Trump talks like a woman (and the moon is made of green cheese)

A couple of days ago, Politico magazine published a piece by Julie Sedivy claiming that Donald Trump talks like a woman:

He might be preoccupied with grading women’s looks, penis size and “locker room talk,” but the way he speaks and the actual words he uses make for a distinctly feminine style. In fact, his speaking style is more feminine by far than any other candidate in the 2016 cycle, more feminine than any other presidential candidate since 2004.

A number of people who read my last post, on Trump’s ‘locker room talk’, have asked me what I think of this claim. The answer is well summarised in the title of a response written by the linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, ‘Trump does NOT talk like a woman (BREAKING NEWS: gender continues to be complicated and confusing)‘. If you’re looking for a full explanation of why Sedivy’s analysis does not stand up, this excellent post should be your first port of call. (Some other relevant points are made by John McWhorter here.)  There’s no need for me to duplicate these more detailed critiques, but before I go, let me just highlight a few key points–points which aren’t just relevant to this piece about Donald Trump, but are equally applicable to many other discussions of the linguistic differences between men and women.

First point: the fact that a word is used more frequently by women than men, or vice versa, does not license the conclusion that the word in question is typical of women’s or men’s speech (let alone that the word itself is ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’). As Tyler Schnoebelen points out, a word can be strongly associated with one gender, but only used by a small minority of people of that gender. If that’s the case, you’re not looking at a marker of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ style: more likely it belongs to the style of a particular subset of men or women (e.g. ‘white suburban women under 25’), or maybe it’s typical of a group which is numerically female- or male-dominated, but is actually defined by something other than gender (e.g. being a sports fanatic, or the primary carer for small children). Women and men are not internally homogeneous groups, so we should always be sceptical about any claim which implies that each of them has a single, uniform style of speech.

Second point: statistical findings about language-use need to be interpreted in relation to the context–it makes a difference what people are talking about, to whom and in what situation. A case in point: the research Sedivy cites suggests that women use the pronoun ‘she’ more frequently than men do, and the analysis of Trump’s speech during the presidential debates shows that he also uses ‘she’ quite frequently. But there’s a good reason not to interpret that as evidence of his ‘feminine style’. Political campaigners tend to make repeated reference to their opponents, and Trump has a female opponent. In this context, his use of ‘she’ says precisely nothing about his style.

Third point (and please forgive me for stating the obvious here): communication style isn’t just about words. Even if we leave aside the question of content, what Trump says, the analysis of his ‘distinctly feminine style’ detaches the words he uses from a whole lot of other things that contribute to our perception of him. His aggressive attempts to dominate the floor, for instance, by interrupting and talking over other speakers. The tone and volume of his voice. His body language: gaze, facial expression, posture, the way he prowled around and loomed over his opponent in the second debate. All those aspects of his performance, I would suggest, are distinctly–indeed, cartoonishly–masculine.

When you look at Trump’s performance as a whole, it’s hard to buy the argument that his ‘feminine’ linguistic style is ‘helping to counter the opposition’s portrait of [him] as a domineering misogynist who lacks empathy and concern for others’. And I don’t think we need that argument to explain Trump’s appeal. His support isn’t coming from people who don’t believe or haven’t noticed he’s a domineering misogynist; it’s coming from people who either don’t care that he’s a domineering misogynist or who consider that a positive virtue. We can only hope their view will not prevail.

Getting real about bad advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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