The amazing disappearing ‘women’

September began with some good news: Purvi Patel, the woman sentenced to 20 years for ‘feticide’ by an Indiana court, was finally released from prison after her conviction was overturned. But the pro-choice organisation Planned Parenthood warned that the fight wasn’t over. ‘People’, it said, ‘are still being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes’. The organisation had already commented on another welcome development, New York State’s decision to stop levying sales tax on sanitary products. Once again, though, there was a hitch: not all drugstores had implemented the change, and some ‘menstruators’ were still being charged.

Planned Parenthood is not alone in its careful avoidance of the word ‘women’. Last year the Midwives’ Alliance of North America rewrote its core competencies document using ‘inclusive’ terms like ‘pregnant individuals’, to acknowledge that some of the individuals in question do not identify as women. And let’s not forget the UK Green Party’s brilliant solution to the same problem—putting women, trans and non-binary people into a single category of ‘non-men’.

Expressions like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘non-men’ are controversial among feminists, not only because the political issue they relate to is controversial, but also because the terms themselves are still relatively new. With vocabulary it’s novelty that breeds contempt, while familiarity promotes acceptance: the more frequently we encounter a term, the less we stop to think about its implications.This makes it easy to overlook what isn’t new about expressions like ‘pregnant people’. These particular terms are of recent origin, but they exemplify two tendencies with a much longer history: the tendency to prefer inclusive to gender-specific language, and the tendency to avoid the word ‘women’.

Back in the 1970s, when feminists began campaigning for institutions like publishing houses, universities and local councils to adopt non-sexist language policies, one argument that was often used against them was that their proposals would just replace one form of bias (against women) with another (against men). In English-speaking communities, this concern about avoiding bias against either sex often led to a preference for gender ‘neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ terms which could, in theory, apply equally to both.  For instance, one set of 1980s guidelines proposed replacing ‘maternal instinct’ with ‘parental instinct’, on the basis that it was sexist to suggest that men had no natural urge to nurture their children. ‘Parental instinct’ didn’t catch on (perhaps because it misses the point about why ‘maternal instinct’ is sexist), but other expressions using the inclusive ‘parent’–notably ‘parenting’–have now become so normalised, it’s strange to think that they were once regarded as awkward ‘PC’ neologisms.

Some of the inclusive terms that were introduced between the 1970s and the 1990s are less familiar to the average English-speaker because they belong to a more technical or bureaucratic register. An example is the term ‘gender-based violence’, which is widely used by government bodies and NGOs to refer to what feminists would call ‘violence against women’ and/or ‘male violence’. In this case what prompted the adoption of the inclusive term wasn’t a concern about anti-male bias. Rather, humanitarian organisations in the 1990s felt the need for a more abstract umbrella-term to encompass the full range of issues they were working on. The choice of ‘gender-based violence’ did not, initially, change their understanding of the issue. Most early definitions of ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly say that it means ‘violence against women’.

If the two phrases are just synonyms, though, why prefer the gender-inclusive formulation to the more specific wording?  One organisation which attempts to explain this is the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The relevant section of its website says:

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms that are often used interchangeably as most gender-based violence is inflicted by men on women and girls. However, it is important to retain the ‘gender-based’ aspect of the concept as this highlights the fact that violence against women is an expression of power inequalities between women and men.

But to me, at least, it’s unclear why calling violence ‘gender-based’ should do more to highlight power and inequality than calling it ‘violence against women’. The most obvious characteristic of the inclusive term is its vagueness: it says only that some acts or types of violence are ‘based’ on ‘gender’, while leaving the nature of the connection unspecified. (Is it to do with the motive? The perpetrator’s gender? The victim’s gender? Both?)  Far from highlighting ‘power inequalities between men and women’, the non-specificity of ‘gender-based violence’ leaves room for an interpretation of it as something any gendered being might do to any other gendered being.

That’s also how it seems to be interpreted in some of the more recent official definitions. For instance, the guidelines published in 2005 by the IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, an international co-ordinating body for humanitarian groups) say that

Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females.

I don’t think most people reading this definition would conclude that ‘gender-based violence’ means the same as ‘violence against women’.

You might think this is all just semantic hair-splitting: what difference does it make if the terms are specific or inclusive? One common answer to this question is that inclusive terms are problematic because they misrepresent the facts. Arguments about this become wars of statistics, with each side challenging the other’s claims about how many ‘pregnant people’ do not identify as women, or what proportion of ‘gender-based violence’ is perpetrated by women against men. But for the purpose of choosing linguistic labels, I don’t think the numbers are the point. Terms like ‘violence against women’/‘gender-based violence’ are not just labels for statistical trends we observe in the world, they’re conceptual categories we use to understand the world. From a feminist perspective the problem with inclusive terms is not statistical, it’s conceptual.

Feminists conceptualise male violence against women as a form of social control which helps to maintain men’s collective position of dominance. It’s not just a question of some individual men using violence to dominate some individual women. All women—including those who will never experience an actual assault—have to live with the fear of being assaulted by men, and with the restrictions that fear imposes on their freedom of movement, action and speech. Violence perpetrated by women against men, however heinous and individually deserving of punishment it may be, does not have the same political function. All men’s lives are not circumscribed by their fear of being attacked by women. This understanding is what motivates the feminist preference for gender-specific terms. Replacing those terms with non-specific, ‘inclusive’ alternatives is not just a superficial change in wording, it’s a rejection of the logic of the feminist analysis.

As one feminist remarked on Twitter, there’s a parallel here with the self-serving faux-inclusiveness of ‘All Lives Matter’, a slogan adopted by some white people in response to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign. The substitution of ‘all’ for ‘Black’ is an attempt to delegitimize the campaign’s focus on institutional racism by presenting it as narrow and exclusionary. ‘Why do you only care about Black lives?  Shouldn’t we affirm the value of every human life?’  It’s neutralising the political challenge by reframing a specific problem as a universal one. ‘All lives matter’. ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘We don’t need feminism, we need humanism’. The effect is to make a problem of structural inequality–racism or class privilege or male dominance–disappear.

When feminist organisations adopt inclusive terms, their motives are different: they aren’t trying to make the problem of structural sexual inequality disappear. But the result is still a loss of analytic and political clarity. Planned Parenthood’s reference to ‘people being criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’ is a case in point. Like feminist campaigns against male violence, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights are underpinned by a political analysis which sees the legal and religious policing of reproduction as a tool of patriarchal social control—and the point isn’t to control ‘pregnancy outcomes’, it’s to control the behaviour of women. Inclusive language obscures that: as Katha Pollitt has argued,

Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially. It becomes hard to understand why it isn’t simply about the right to life of the “unborn.”

The proliferation of inclusive alternatives to ‘women’ has the cumulative effect of making it difficult to see the wood for the trees. If I can’t get an abortion I’m being oppressed as a ‘pregnant person’; if I don’t get a job because the employer knows I have young children I’m being discriminated against as a ‘parent’; if I’m paying tax on tampons the state is profiting from my status as a ‘menstruator’. Maybe we’ll soon be urged to refer to women who earn less than men with the same qualifications as ‘underpaid people’. Lots of people are underpaid, after all: why would we only care about some of them? Let’s not be so vulgar, so unreconstructedly essentialist, as to point out that certain forms of unjust treatment don’t randomly happen to ‘people’, and they certainly don’t happen to men: they happen to women, because they are women.

Why is it so difficult to say ‘women’? The objections I’ve focused on so far are political ones, to do with the exclusionary and essentialising nature of ‘women’ as a category label. But I can’t help wondering if those objections are the whole story, or if the avoidance of ‘women’ might also be connected to something much older, and less ‘politically correct’.

The first post I ever published on this blog was about the difference between ‘woman’ and ‘lady’. I recalled learning as a child that ‘lady’ was the ‘polite’ word, whereas ‘woman’ was disrespectful: it implied low social status, a lack of respectability and a failure to display proper femininity. Analysis of the contexts in which ‘lady’ and ‘women’ are most likely to appear reveals another reason for the impoliteness of ‘woman’: its association with the gross and unmentionable functions of the female body.

What this implies is that ‘polite’ substitutes for ‘women’ (like ‘ladies’, or ‘the fair sex’) function as euphemisms: like ‘elderly’ and ‘plus-size’ (aka ‘old’ and ‘fat’), they enable speakers to acknowledge the sensitivity of a taboo subject or concept by avoiding the word that refers to it most directly. That’s why an earlier generation of feminists were so insistent on being referred to as ‘women’. It wasn’t just that they disliked the alternatives: what they really disliked was the assumption that alternatives were necessary. They saw the avoidance of the plain word ‘women’ as expressing a kind of squeamish distaste for femaleness, and they saw that distaste as one expression of a more general cultural misogyny. To them it seemed important to challenge this attitude, even if people thought they were being petty when they snapped ‘I’m a woman, not a lady’ at someone who was only trying to be polite.

Yet today it’s feminists themselves who are treating ‘women’ as a taboo word. Katha Pollitt suggests this may reflect women’s ‘long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt [others’] feelings’. ‘We are raised’, she observes, ‘to put ourselves second’. But that doesn’t entirely explain the historical U-turn. It is not a small demand to make of a political movement that it should renounce the term which, more than any other, has defined its constituency and its purpose throughout its history. Is feminism not, by definition, a women’s movement, a movement that fights for the rights or the liberation of women?

Some feminists today would answer that question in the negative. Feminists like Laurie Penny, who complained last year that ‘feminism’s focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary’. Once upon a time, complaining that feminism focused on women would have seemed as odd as complaining that a baker’s shop sold bread. But what’s behind it is the belief that the old feminist goal–liberating women from the oppressive structures of patriarchy–has become outdated and politically reactionary. What feminism should be about in the 21st century is freeing individuals from the oppressive constraints of binary gender.

To people who think ‘feminism’s focus on women’ has no relevance to the politics of the 21st century, I say: try telling that to the Pope. Or to Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s Vice-Presidential running mate, who was responsible, as Governor of Indiana, for the law that was used to persecute Purvi Patel. Those guys don’t care how you identify, but they do still believe in women; they also believe in using their considerable power to ensure women are kept in their subordinate place. A feminism that can’t talk about that has nothing to say to most of the world’s oppressed people. It is living in a bubble, and talking to itself.

Advertisements

Dykes, old maids and the summer of 66

This summer, British television has been reliving the glory days of 1966, when London was swinging and England’s footballers won the World Cup. My own memories of the year are rather less glorious. 1966 was the year when I turned eight; it was also the year when I first heard the word ‘dyke’.

It happened when I was eavesdropping on a conversation between my parents (a bad habit I developed at an early age). My father used the phrase ‘those dykes’ in a passing reference to two women who lived in the posher part of the village. I knew who he meant: they weren’t part of my parents’ social circle, but the village was the sort of place where everyone knew everyone by sight. But I had no idea why he called them ‘dykes’. When I asked my mother later, she said: ‘he just meant they’re old maids: they live together because they never got married’.

I’m not sure if my mother was just trying to avoid the issue, or if she genuinely disagreed with my father about the nature of the women’s relationship. Looking back, I really don’t know if they were lesbians. There was nothing about the way they dressed, spoke or behaved in public that set them apart from other women of their age and class—women I knew to be married because they were addressed as ‘Mrs So-and-So’. ‘Those dykes’ might have been a couple, but equally they might have been friends, or even sisters, who had chosen to pool their resources. It’s pointless to speculate, since I’ll never know their story. But it’s interesting to consider the way such women were talked about back then, and how differently we talk about them now.

In 1966, my father’s phrase ‘those dykes’ was markedly pejorative: even without knowing what it meant, I could tell it was not meant kindly. My mother’s phrase ‘old maids’, by contrast, though also negative in its connotations, was not too offensive to be uttered in polite company, or to an eight year-old. The difference reflected the differing levels of stigma attached to the two classes of women. Both were considered ‘unnatural’, but the unnaturalness of the lesbian was more extreme: she inspired disgust, whereas the unmarried and unmarriageable (but presumptively heterosexual) woman inspired–in varying proportions–pity and contempt.

In the 1960s there were still women around who were understood to have been denied a ‘normal’ life because the men they should have married had been lost to the carnage of World War I. These women were pitied rather than despised; some were admired for the way they had channelled the energy that should have been devoted to their families into various forms of community service. But when people spoke in that vein, they didn’t generally use the term ‘old maid’. What that term evoked was much more negative: sexless, downtrodden church-mice, or censorious old biddies whose nasty, interfering ways were the products of bitterness and sexual frustration.

In search of more evidence about the usage of ‘old maid’ 50 years ago, I paid a visit to COHA, a historical corpus of American English where you can track words and phrases decade by decade. In the 1960s section there are 42 occurrences of ‘old maid’ (giving it a frequency of just under two occurrences per million words). A couple of these, on closer examination, were not examples of the ‘older unmarried woman’ sense, but rather references to an old person who worked as a maid (or in one case, to a closet formerly used by the maid). But once those had been excluded, almost all the rest were clearly negative in the ways I’ve already described. Here’s one from a mystery novel that was published in 1966:

There’s usually one to every couple of blocks or so. The snoopy old maid with nothing better to do than look out of the window most of the day.

But by the end of the decade there are signs of change. One interesting example crops up in a 1969 Good Housekeeping article by Dr Joyce Brothers, entitled ‘Women who don’t need men’.

How can we explain the fact that so many women don’t seem to need men? Well, for one thing, the world has changed. A hundred years ago, a woman had two choices: she could marry, devoting herself to the intensely real, demanding business of childbearing and housekeeping (and maybe helping her husband plow the land and fight off Indians); or she could spend the rest of her life in her parents’ house, tatting doilies. No wonder the “old maid” became a comic-strip caricature—a tiresome old busybody with no place in the social scheme. Today, of course, a woman has multiple choices. If she doesn’t wish to marry, she can have an intensely real life as a research chemist or an officer of a bank. Furthermore, she doesn’t need a husband to enjoy sex. Moral standards are more lenient than they used to be and a woman’s private life can remain just that…

With the sexual revolution in full swing and feminism resurgent (Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl had appeared as early as 1962, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique a year later), it seemed the old maid might have had her day: unmarried women’s lives in 1969 were no longer about tatting doilies and minding other people’s business.

In the 2000-2010 section of COHA the old maid not only makes fewer appearances than she did in the 1960s (the number of tokens falls to 26, and their frequency dips below one per million words), it’s also striking that many examples explictly locate her in the historical past:

She was only 36. Considered an old maid at one time, but not now.

In an age when women were wives before they were 21, she was already an old maid.

In 2016 I think I’d be more surprised than affronted to hear myself, or any other woman, referred to unironically as an ‘old maid’. If I did hear it, though, I would assume that the speaker intended to cause offence: the connotations of the term have, if anything, become even more negative. One key attribute of the old maid was her lack of sexual experience (historically, ‘maid’ meant ‘virgin’), and today, large parts of western culture consider abstinence from sex far more unnatural than a preference for same-sex partners. You could say that the old maid has swapped places with the lesbian: as the latter’s sexuality has become more normalised, the former’s abstention or exclusion from sex has been further pathologised.

Which brings me to the recent history of the word ‘dyke’.

In the 1960s section of COHA there are only five examples of ‘dyke’ meaning ‘lesbian’ (two taken from play scripts and the rest from a single 1968 novel), and all of them mark it clearly as a pejorative term.

It was a terrible thing to say. But the old dyke got my goat. Jerry said, ‘You shouldn’t call her names like that. You don’t know if she’s a dyke or not…’

But by the middle of the 1970s ‘dyke’ was no longer pejorative in every context. Many lesbian feminists not only regarded it as an acceptable term for in-group use, they actually preferred it to ‘lesbian’. As the linguist Julia Penelope explained the distinction in 1974,

A dyke is a woman committed to revolution, the most radical position. A lesbian is committed to a more liberal position, and she is more willing to compromise and work within the system. A gay woman affirms her commitment to a gay community, and sees nothing wrong with working with men.

Not all radical lesbian feminists preferred ‘dyke’, however: in the early 1980s I knew some who avoided it because they couldn’t get past its history of being used in the way my father used it, to express disgust. Then as now, opinions differed on whether words with that kind of history can ever really be ‘reclaimed’.

Another issue was who had the right to use in-group terms. Even women who did call themselves and each other dykes often objected to outsiders using the word. The same patterns are found with other reclaimed, historically offensive terms relating to ethnicity or disability. It’s usually only in-group members who have an unconditional right to use them (with some latitude sometimes given to trusted allies), and there are always some in-group members who object to them being used by anyone.

In the case of ‘dyke’ the arguments about reclamation are still ongoing. The examples in the 2000-2010 section of COHA include one, from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, referring directly to the view that ‘dyke’ is no longer pejorative:

She wants to erase the negative connotation to the word “atheist” just as homosexuals have reclaimed slurs like “queer” and “dyke.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, though, that this view is attributed to someone who isn’t herself a potential target for homophobic insults. Those who are potential targets know that ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ can still be slurs: it depends on the context, the speaker and the intent. In the week I’m writing this (in August 2016), it’s been alleged that some constituents of the lesbian Labour MP Angela Eagle held a meeting in her absence where she was referred to as ‘Angie the Dyke’. This has been described as a ‘homophobic slur’ both by those who allege the phrase was uttered and by those who insist it was not.

Looking through the 21st century examples of ‘dyke’ in COHA I was actually surprised by how many clearly were being used as slurs:

Your mama works in the closest hardware store, doesn’t she? What is she, a dyke?

[The] caller said he knew where she lived on campus and would kill her for being a “filthy dyke.”

There are a couple of cases where ‘dyke’ is evidently intended to be jocular rather than insulting:

‘Did you tell them you were a dyke?’ she asked with as much humor as she could muster.

I’d expected to find more of these; I’d even thought they might be more numerous than the pejorative cases. But in the mainstream sources sampled for COHA, the balance seems to tip the other way. The pejorative and ‘reclaimed’ uses coexist in contemporary English, and adjudicating their competing claims can be tricky–a point that was dramatized during the noughties by a legal dispute involving ‘dyke’.

In 2003 the San Francisco Women’s Motorcycle Club, unofficially known as ‘Dykes on Bikes’, applied to trademark their nickname. The US Patent and Trademark Office turned down their application on the grounds that the word ‘dykes’ was offensive and disparaged lesbians. The group contested this judgment, arguing that ‘dyke’ functioned, as the veteran activist Joan Nestle put it, as a symbol of ‘community and self-affirmation’. Apart from Nestle, those who submitted evidence in support of this argument included the cartoonist Alison Bechdel (creator of ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’) and the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, who had researched and written dictionary entries for ‘dyke’ and ‘bulldyke’.

In 2006 the original decision was reversed–and then immediately challenged by a Men’s Rights activist who claimed that the term ‘dyke’ was ‘scandalous and immoral’ and ‘a symbol of hate towards all men’. The complaint was eventually dismissed, but it took until 2008 for the trademark to be granted.

The fact that ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ can still be used against gay men and lesbians does not necessarily mean that attempts to reclaim them have failed. To put it another way, we should not assume that successful reclamation requires the total eradication of the earlier, pejorative meaning. At any point in time there will be variation rather than uniformity in the meanings with which a word is used: semantic change is not the result of one meaning suddenly being replaced by another, but a more gradual process in which the balance between coexisting variants shifts. Eventually a once-dominant meaning may drop out of use entirely, but that’s unlikely to happen in the space of a few years. A more realistic approach is to ask whether non-pejorative uses are becoming more frequent, and if they’re moving into the mainstream, so that in time they will predominate in the input received by speakers acquiring the language. With ‘queer’ I’d say that shift is definitely happening. With ‘dyke’ it may be less advanced, but both words have moved further along the path of reclamation than, say, ‘slut’, ‘bitch’, ‘whore’ or ‘cunt’.

Some of those words offer a useful reminder that reclaiming pejorative terms is not always the right thing to do. ‘Slut’, for instance, is a word that I would argue needs to be abolished rather than reclaimed. The problem isn’t the negative connotations attached to the word, it’s the fact that the category exists at all. The idea that we need any label–positive, negative or neutral–to identify a subclass of unchaste or promiscuous women is entirely a product of the sexual double standard. In a society that took women’s sexual autonomy for granted, the concept of a slut would become meaningless, and the word would fade into obsolescence.

That’s more or less what’s happened to ‘old maid’: its use has declined along with the relevance of the category it labels. That category was produced by the restrictions which historically prevented most women from living outside male-headed households while also remaining both respectable and financially solvent. In some societies those restrictions are still in place, but in modern western societies they have largely withered away. I say ‘largely’ because their traces do survive in certain cultural assumptions (e.g. that ‘normal’ women will find a spouse or partner before they reach a certain age, or that a heterosexual wedding is a happier and more significant occasion for the bride than for the groom). But there is no longer a material, structural basis for the idea that a woman who remains single has, as Joyce Brothers put it, ‘no place in the social scheme’.

When a social category becomes socially irrelevant, the label(s) attached to it will survive, if at all, only in archaic references (any mention of a ‘debutante’ or a ‘kept woman’ locates us either in the past or in some particularly retrograde corner of the present) and fossilized metaphors (‘lepers’ in contemporary English are more likely to be social outcasts than people with leprosy). When I did an online search for ‘old maid’, most of the top results were references to the card game (though as I scrolled down further I also discovered the quilt pattern ‘Old Maid’s Puzzle’ which I’ve used to illustrate this post). The old maid as we knew her in the real world of 50 years ago has now passed, it seems, into history. And a good thing too, IMHO: not everything was better in 1966.

Sauce for the goose

My recent posts on male-as-norm language, To gender or not to gender and Default: male, did not go down well with everyone. I heard from one or two readers who thought I’d been a bit sweeping. Aren’t there, they asked, some cases where the unmarked term refers to a woman? And isn’t that just as problematic as the opposite?

Any feminist who draws attention to any kind of sexism will at some point be faced with this ‘sauce for the goose’ argument. It’s a particular favourite with men’s rights activists who claim that men are the real victims of sexual inequality. But it’s also popular with liberals, who maintain that sexism oppresses everyone. So, I thought I’d take a moment to consider their complaints. Are there areas of (English) usage that privilege the female over the male? And if there are, is that evidence that sexism ‘cuts both ways’?

My post about the gendering of occupational terms was prompted by all the obituaries that referred to Zaha Hadid as a ‘woman/female architect’, where her male equivalent would just have been called an ‘architect’. But it’s true there are some cases where this pattern is reversed: the unmarked form refers to a woman, and if you want to make clear you are referring to a man, you add the premodifier ‘male’. The classic examples are ‘nurse’ and ‘prostitute’. You might notice a pattern there, and I don’t think it has much to do with female privilege.

Are there any other words which mark male referents in a similar way?  Yes, actually; recently there’s been a bit of a vogue for terms which use ‘man’, in the sense of ‘male person’, as the first element in a compound (e.g. ‘manbun’) or a blend (‘manbag’, ‘manscara’, ‘mankini’). I say ‘in the sense of “male person”‘ to differentiate this new crop of ‘man’ words from older compounds like  ‘mankind’ and ‘manslaughter’, where the ‘man’ element historically meant just ‘person’, and the word’s meaning is still intended to be sex-inclusive. The new ‘man’ words are not sex-inclusive: in the cases I’ve just cited the meaning is something like ‘male version of a prototypically female item’. The female item gets the generic term (‘handbag’, ‘bun’, ‘mascara’) and the male version’s name is derived from that by sticking ‘man’ on the front.

Is that sexist?  Yes: but not because it privileges women over men. Its effect is to reinforce traditional gender norms by underscoring that certain things (many of them things that signify vanity and frivolity) are for the laydeez. If men adopt them (or, perhaps more to the point, if marketers want men to buy them) they need a special, manly label.

But there are some other recently popular ‘man’ terms which serve a different purpose. They name forms of behaviour that are considered not just prototypically male, but prototypical expressions of male entitlement. The words thus encapsulate a critical stance towards the behaviour in question, and sometimes a feminist analysis of it.

One of the best-known words in this category is ‘mansplain(ing)’, a term used to describe the practice of explaining something to a woman on the assumption that she must know less about it than the man providing the explanation. It was inspired by the writer Rebecca Solnit, whose essay ‘Men explain things to me’ featured a killer example: she’d had a conversation with a man who urged her to read an important book on her specialist subject, without realising she had actually written the book in question.

Because it’s linguistically a bit clunky, I didn’t initially think ‘mansplain’ would catch on; but in the event it got taken up quite widely, probably because the behaviour it named prompted a strong sense of recognition among women, and indeed among members of other groups with extensive experience of being patronized. Not only has ‘mansplain’ become part of the active vocabulary of feminism, it has generated a number of analogous terms like ‘whitesplain’ and ‘straightsplain’. It has also boosted the production of other terms naming related forms of entitled male behaviour, such as ‘manologue’ (men don’t just hold forth when they’ve got something to explain) and ‘mantrum’–though it remains to be seen whether these will prove to have the same staying-power.

Another word which appears to have prompted a similar ‘yes! we really needed a word for that’ reaction is ‘manspreading’, which names a physical expression of male entitlement (men sitting with their legs wide apart so they occupy more than their share of the available space). This term has been taken up not only in feminist circles, but also in official campaigns to encourage good manners on public transport.

Are these critical ‘man’ terms examples of anti-male sexism? Some men evidently think so: if you go to Urban Dictionary, you’ll see that they’re fighting back with ‘sauce for the goose’ entries like this one for ‘womansplain’:

When a woman attempts to tell a man how his brain works and what the motivations behind his various thoughts, words and actions are.

There’s an equally inventive entry for ‘womanspreading’:

The act by a woman to fill more than one seat, either by putting bags on the other seats or putting their feet on the seat across them [sic]. Way more common than manspreading—and more obnoxious—but feminists think it’s AOK.

You have to give the entry-writers points for effort, but these ‘woman’ terms are unlikely to become serious rivals to the ‘man’ words that inspired them, because they don’t fill what most people would regard as a genuine lexical gap. The definitions I’ve quoted do describe a form of behaviour that’s both recognizable and annoying, but in neither case is it a distinctively female form of behaviour in the way ‘manspreading’ is distinctively male. Consequently the terms come across as just tit-for-tat expressions of resentment–‘you’ve criticized us and we don’t like it, so we’re going to show you two can play at that game’.

But that’s not to say anti-feminists can never play the game successfully.  The over-the-top insult ‘feminazi’, for instance, which was first popularized in the 1990s, is still, as the writer Zoe Williams noted in the Guardian last year, ‘the go-to term for trolls out to silence women’. And another notable success is the recent promotion by men’s rights activists of what might be considered the ultimate ‘sauce for the goose’ word: ‘misandry’.

‘Misandry’ (meaning ‘hatred of men’) is meant to denote a phenomenon analogous to ‘misogyny’ (‘hatred of women’). But the two elements of this seemingly natural pairing, ‘misogyny/misandry’, have different histories: ‘misandry’ was created in a somewhat similar manner to the Biblical Eve, who was taken from Adam’s rib. Whereas ‘misogyny’ appears in English sources dating back to the mid-17th century,  ‘misandry’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, entered the language only in the 1880s. Though like ‘misogyny’ it has linguistic roots in ancient Greek, it was not borrowed directly from classical sources, but rather constructed on the model of ‘misogyny’ to fill the vacant slot for a gender-reversed equivalent.

The current generation of MRAs were obviously not responsible for this innovation (their Greek isn’t generally up to Victorian standards), but they were the ones who plucked ‘misandry’ from the obscurity in which it had languished for more than 100 years. Thanks to their efforts, ‘misandry’ and its derivative ‘misandrist’ have gone from being words almost no one had ever heard of (in my youth people just called feminists ‘man-haters’) to being words which many of us know only too well.

I don’t think the increased currency of ‘misandry’ reflects high levels of mainstream support for men’s rights activism as such, but I do think it is connected with the mainstream preference for liberal over radical political analysis. If you have a structural analysis of sexism (or any other -ism), you’re not going to think it ‘cuts both ways’: it’s a system in which one group dominates another. But if you think of social inequality less in terms of overarching power-structures and more as the result of the prejudiced attitudes held by individuals, it becomes reasonable to suggest that there are prejudiced individuals in every group, and that every group’s prejudices deserve the same condemnation.

This is the reasoning ‘misandry’ exploits: if we acknowledge the existence of misogyny, then in fairness we must also acknowledge its opposite. Every coin has two sides, right? And what’s sauce for the goose… The promoters of ‘misandry’ have also shown some astuteness by choosing to revive a learned-sounding, faux-classical term, which implies that the mythical balance between woman-hating and man-hating has been recognized and discussed since ancient times. ‘Misandry’ conceals what ‘feminazi’ and ‘womanspreading’ can’t–its status as an angry riposte to feminist criticisms of men and masculinity.

All this reminds me of an interesting argument about male-as-norm language which was put forward in the early 1980s by Maria Black and Rosalind Coward. Most feminists, then as now, were critical of the tendency for women, but not men, to be represented linguistically as sexed beings (the ‘female architect’/ ‘woman president’ problem), and mostly they believed that the way forward was to insist on using the same gender-neutral terms for everyone. Black and Coward argued, however, that the real problem wasn’t the relentless gendering of women so much as the de-gendering of men. As they saw it, ‘one of the major political problems confronting feminism [is] the need to force men to recognize themselves as men’. 

Men are sustained at the centre of the stage precisely because they can be ‘people’ and do not have to represent their masculinity to themselves. They need never see themselves or their maleness as a problem.

Simone de Beauvoir mentioned the same asymmetry in The Second Sex, remarking that any man could say to a woman ‘you think thus and so because you are a woman’, whereas it would be out of the question to retort ‘and you think the contrary because you are a man’. ‘For it is understood’, she wrote, ‘that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity’.

The terms that provoke an angry response from MRAs, like ‘mansplain’ and ‘manspreading’, are, precisely, terms that do treat the fact of being a man as a ‘peculiarity’ (that is, as something specific and distinctive). They describe men’s behaviour as gendered behaviour, and where they criticize it, they call on men to ‘see themselves [and] their maleness as a problem’. As feminists since Beauvoir have pointed out, that’s something most men have less experience of than most women. And evidently, some of them don’t enjoy the experience. They respond by calling it sexism, or ‘misandry’; but maybe a better name for it would be ‘sauce for the gander’.

A rabid feminist writes…

Last week, the anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan asked:

Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as “rabid feminists” with mysterious “psyches” speaking in “shrill voices” who can’t do research or hold a PhD but can do “all the housework”?

The Oxford dictionary he was talking about was the one that comes with Apple devices (Macs, i-Pads, i-Phones), and his question was about the examples that follow the definition of a word and illustrate its use in practice. The ones he reproduced included the phrase ‘a rabid feminist’ illustrating the metaphorical usage of ‘rabid’; the sentence ‘I will never really fathom the female psyche’ exemplifying the use of the term ‘psyche’; and a series of examples featuring women and female voices in entries for ‘shrill’, ‘grating’ and ‘nagging’. He also reproduced entries for the words ‘doctor’ and ‘research’ where the examples referred to doctors/researchers as ‘he’.

The point of this intervention was not just to criticise a few specific entries, but rather to draw attention to a pattern of sexist stereotyping in the dictionary’s illustrative examples. But when Oman-Reagan tweeted to Oxford Dictionaries, citing the ‘rabid feminist’ example, whoever was running their Twitter account that day chose not to acknowledge the deeper point. Instead he was told that (a) the ‘rabid feminist’ example was authentic, and (b) that ‘rabid’ isn’t necessarily a negative term. In the ensuing arguments (first on Twitter and then in lengthier pieces like this and this) the main issue became whether Oxford was endorsing a view of feminists as mad fanatics, and then compounding the offence with its dismissive responses to criticism.

Eventually Oxford apologized for its ‘flippant’ tweets, and promised to review the example in the ‘rabid’ entry, noting that in its corpus (the collection of texts which examples are drawn from) the commonest words found alongside ‘rabid’ are actually ‘fan’ and ‘supporter’. In one way that’s a positive outcome, but in another it’s frustratingly limited: revising a single entry which has been criticized for overt political bias does not address the much larger problem of covert sexism in the dictionary as a whole.

I use the word ‘covert’ for two reasons: first, because most of the sexist examples are incidental, appearing in entries for words which are not specifically ‘about’ women; and second, because much of the sexism will remain invisible if you only look at single entries in isolation. There’s nothing obviously sexist about an entry for ‘research’ where the example sentence uses the pronoun ‘he’; what’s covertly sexist is if there’s a systematic preference for ‘he’ over ‘she’ in all the entries for words denoting intellectual pursuits. The effect is cumulative, and arguably all the more insidious because we’re unlikely to be conscious of the pattern that produces it. This point rather got lost in the debate on ‘rabid feminist’. Oxford was held to account for that particular example, but not for the more systematic bias that Oman-Reagan had detected.

He isn’t by any means the first to have detected it. Feminists who study dictionaries have been complaining about the sexist example problem for decades. I discussed it myself in an earlier post, taking examples from a foreign language learners’ dictionary where the entry for ‘slip’ was illustrated with ‘he slipped on his shoes’ and ‘she slipped off her dress’, while ‘mop’ had men mopping their brows and women mopping floors. Once you’ve become aware of this pattern, you soon start to notice how pervasive it is. It’s not just a problem in one publisher’s products or one type of dictionary.

But whenever it’s pointed out, the dictionary-makers have a tendency to respond in the way Oxford responded to Oman-Reagan. Their examples, they say, are authentic: every phrase or sentence used to illustrate every entry was actually written by a real person in a real context. Dictionaries just describe usage, they don’t judge it, and they certainly don’t censor it. So, don’t shoot the messenger: don’t accuse lexicographers of sexism when they’re only documenting the sexism that exists in the wider world.

Fair point, or lame excuse? I’d say, a bit of both, but more the latter than the former. As Tom Freeman remarked on his Stroppy Editor blog, ‘even if a sentence isn’t theirs, they’ve still made the decision to use it’. And they can’t really argue that they didn’t have other options. The illustrative examples used in contemporary dictionaries come from very large collections of texts—Oxford’s corpus contains over two and a half billion words—so there isn’t a shortage of authentic examples to choose from. In some cases the argument might be made that a sexist example captures something significant about the usage of a word. We might suspect that ‘shrill’ and ‘strident’, for instance, are more often used about women than men. But in most cases it’s neither necessary nor illuminating to reproduce sexist stereotypes.

There’s also something a bit disingenuous about the protestations of dictionary makers that their products simply reflect the world around them. For the average user looking something up on their i-Phone, the dictionary isn’t seen as a neutral document, but as an authority on the existence, meaning, spelling and use of words—a view its publishers are happy to exploit when they use words like ‘authoritative’ in their advertising. It follows, as Tom Freeman observed, that

Dictionaries do help to set the cultural tone, whether they intend to or not. Their job is to describe the language neutrally but beyond that they should also be aware of how they come across. For example, I have a battered Oxford dictionary from 1969 on my shelf. It defines “jazz” as “syncopated music, & dance, of U.S. Negro origin”. Today, the Oxford website says jazz is “of black American origin”.

As this example suggests, there are areas of usage where the editors of dictionaries are anxious not to come across as culturally insensitive. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (begun in the late 19th century and completed in the early 20th), contained numerous definitions and examples which would now be considered horrendously racist—and not only because they used words like ‘Negro’ (which, though offensive today, was regarded as a polite term in 1969). A famous example is the original entry for ‘canoe’, which distinguished between the type used by white people for sport and leisure, and the more ‘primitive’ type used by ‘savages’ as a mode of transport. This kind of thing has been weeded out during the ongoing process of revising the OED. But the sexism displayed in entries like the ones Michael Oman-Reagan reproduced does not seem to have been targeted in the same way.

Why is that? Partly, it may be because sexist examples are distributed in a different way from racist ones. Whereas racism tends to be concentrated in entries for words that relate directly to particular groups and cultures (like ‘jazz’ or ‘canoe’), sexism is an incidental feature of a much wider range of entries. To deal with it systematically, you’d not only have to get rid of the obvious stereotypes, you’d also have to look at the overall balance of your examples—for instance, check that you had roughly equal numbers with ‘she’ and ‘he’, distributed in a non-stereotypical way. Precisely because it’s so pervasive, eliminating sexism would be a major undertaking.

But I can’t help wondering if there’s a more basic problem here: most people just aren’t that offended by sexism—or at least, by the low-level sexism of clichés like ‘I will never really fathom the female psyche’. It’s a bit like the treatment of sexist verbal abuse in schools or football grounds, which is often talked about as if it were a different thing from the racist or homophobic equivalent: it gets put under the heading of ‘banter’, and women who complain are seen as humourless and over-sensitive.

The dismissive tweets for which Oxford later apologized were very much in that tradition. Their tone suggested that whoever wrote them did not feel obliged to take complaints of sexism seriously, and did not expect that stance to attract criticism. On this occasion the negative reaction prompted a climbdown–an apology for flippancy and a promise to look again at the example people had objected to. But if we want to see the problem of sexism addressed in a less piecemeal way, we’re going to have to keep sending the message that we don’t think it’s trivial or a joke. Become, in short, a bit less tolerant and a bit more rabid.

Words of the year

And now to the second part of my end-of-year round up (ICYMI you can read the first part here). As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to choose some Words of the Year.

Actually, I’m a bit late to this party: like Christmas adverts, the WOTY announcements are getting earlier and earlier. We’re still waiting to hear from the American Dialect Society, the originator of the whole WOTY phenomenon, which doesn’t pick its winners until its annual meeting in early January. But it wasn’t even December when the lexicographers at Oxford University Press bestowed the annual accolade on something that isn’t even in the dictionary—the emoji ‘face with tears of joy’. Their counterparts at Collins chose ‘binge-watch’, while Merriam-Webster went for the suffix ‘-ism’, on the basis that their online dictionary’s most looked-up entries included a number of isms—‘capitalism’, ‘socialism’, ‘terrorism’ and, yes, ‘feminism’ among them.

This marked an improvement in the fortunes of ‘feminism’. A year ago, it was one of the items shortlisted in Time magazine’s poll for the year’s worst word, the one readers would most like to ban in 2015.  Also on the list were ‘bae’, ‘I can’t even’, and—oddly—‘kale’.

If this blog could ban a word in 2016, that word would be ‘banter’. Banter cropped up in the news several times during 2015, and on each occasion it revealed itself, once again, as a term whose main function is to normalize misogyny. Of course it’s true that getting rid of the word wouldn’t eliminate the thing itself. But it might make it harder for people to pretend that sexist verbal abuse is just a bit of harmless fun, in a totally different category from the racist or homophobic equivalent.

One traditional place for the ‘harmless banter’ argument to surface is in discussions of the shit that gets said to and about women by sportsmen, sports fans and sports pundits. In March, when the FA made a statement condemning sexist chanting at football matches, women involved in the Beautiful Game were supportive, but also sceptical. Carolyn Radford, the Chief Executive of Mansfield Town, contrasted attitudes to racist abuse (which was condoned for far too long, but is now subject to a zero tolerance policy) with the endless trivialization of sexism and misogyny. ‘Because it’s “banter”, so to speak’, she said, ‘I’ve got to flick my hair and just accept it’.

Yet it’s possible the tide is turning. In December there was a row about the inclusion of the boxer Tyson Fury on the shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year, after he made a series of sexist and homophobic remarks. He did try the time-honoured ‘light-hearted banter’ excuse, but this time a lot of people were unimpressed. A petition to take him off the shortlist attracted around 130,000 signatures, and on the night (when he didn’t win) he was forced to make an apology of sorts.

But perhaps Fury’s big mistake was combining sexism with homophobia: you’re taking less of a risk if you stick to dissing women and girls. That point was made clearly in October, when a report commissioned by the Institute of Physics identified sexist language in schools, and the failure of the school authorities to deal with it in the way they deal with other forms of bigotry and harassment, as a factor contributing to gender inequality in the uptake of STEM subjects. Depressingly, large sections of the media presented the report’s recommendations as a case of humourless feminists trying to put a stop to the age-old tradition of ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’. It’s not bullying, it’s BANTER. Flick your hair and move on.

Just to be clear, I’m not really in favour of banning words. On the contrary, one depressing feature of this year has been the continuing determination of some feminist organizations to purge their political vocabulary of terms that refer to women as a class. A proposal to drop the word ‘sister’ from future campaigns was approved at the National Union of Students’ annual women’s conference. The Midwives’ Association of North America rewrote its core competencies document replacing the phrase ‘pregnant women’ with ‘pregnant individuals’. As more and more organizations campaigning for abortion rights took the word ‘women’ out of their literature, the Nation columnist Katha Pollitt wrote:

it feels as if abortion language is becoming a bit like French, where one man in a group of no matter how many women means “elles” becomes “ils.”

My first ever post on this blog pointed out that ‘woman’ has a long history of being treated as a ‘dirty word’, and that reclaiming it from silence and euphemism was one of the goals of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The new argument for avoiding it (that it’s exclusionary) may look different from the old one (that it’s ‘indelicate’), but if you’ve been around for long enough to remember when the old one was common-sense, you’ll find it difficult not to notice certain similarities. There is a persistent distaste for the idea of embodied femaleness which has deep historical and cultural roots. And that, I believe, is something feminism must continue to challenge.

But back to the words of the year.  As you’ll have gathered from the list of already-announced 2015 WOTYs at the beginning of this post, a WOTY doesn’t have to be a whole word, a single word or even a word at all; nor does it have to be either novel or otherwise linguistically remarkable. Choosing WOTYs is more like reading tea-leaves: they’re the items that jump out at you when you turn the year over and contemplate its linguistic detritus. So, what might we see in the tea-leaves this year that’s significant for feminist politics?

I’m going to start with online memes. In the hashtag subcategory, my 2015 winner is #distractinglysexy, women scientists’ riposte to the embarrassingly sexist comments made by Tim Hunt during the summer. In the ‘non-hashtag’ subcategory I’m giving another well-deserved shout-out to ‘Congrats, you have an all-male panel’,  the tumblr that got people to notice that all-male panels were still a thing, and that it was high time to make them a thing of the past. Because, as the newly-elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said when he was asked why half his ministerial appointments had gone to women, ‘it’s 2015’. (If this were a quote of the year contest, Trudeau would be in the running.)

And now to words (and phrases and morphemes). In a pre-Christmas radio interview, Ben Zimmer, who chairs the American Dialect Society’s new words committee, tipped a number of gender-related items as possible WOTY contenders: he mentioned singular ‘they’, the gender-neutral title ‘Mx’ and the word ‘cisgender’ (I touched on the rise of ‘cisgender’ in a post about dictionaries earlier this year; pronouns and titles are among the subjects I’ll be tackling in 2016.) Of the three, I’d say ‘they’ has the best claim: it’s both acquiring a new use (in specific references to non-binary individuals, as in ‘Lee called to say they were running late’) and being officially recognized in the use it has had for centuries (indefinite and generic reference, as in ‘has everyone picked up their badge?’). So, ‘they’ makes it into my own top five.

After Merriam-Webster went with ‘-ism’, I thought about nominating the suffix –ette. As I wrote earlier in the year, it’s making an unexpected (and from my perspective, not entirely welcome) comeback in words like ‘stemette’. But I decided that instead I’d go for the first authentically English word in which it appeared—‘suffragette’, originally coined in 1906 as a derogatory term for the militant campaigners of the WSPU.

As 2018–the 100th anniversary of (some) British women getting the vote–approaches, we’ll doubtless be hearing more of ‘suffragette’, but this year the ground was prepared by the film of that name, which arguably did something to change perceptions of ‘suffragette’ as a label. Specifically (and whatever anyone thought of the film overall), it made more people aware of three important points: (1) feminism wasn’t invented a few years ago or even just a few decades ago, (2) British women were not just handed their civil rights because they asked the nice men nicely, and (3) most suffragettes bore no resemblance to Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins.

Next, and based on a completely unscientific poll of my own feminist network, the word most in need of being reclaimed. My own choice would have been ‘woman’, for the reasons already discussed; but my respondents went for ‘sisterhood’, in its political meaning of solidarity among women.

Also on my list is ‘tampon tax’, the phrase that became shorthand for the treatment of sanitary products as ‘luxury’ items. Feminists in the UK (and elsewhere) held protests against the tax which were visually as well as verbally inventive; though they didn’t get the tax removed, the response to their efforts did reveal that a lot of supposedly modern men have some pretty old-fashioned ideas about menstruation. Add Donald Trump’s comments on the subject (and women’s response to them) into the mix, and you could almost say that 2015 was the Year of the Period: periods figured in public and political discourse in a way they haven’t for quite a while.

And finally, ‘feminism’. You’re probably thinking, ‘really? What a boringly predictable choice’. But for the F-word, the year has been anything but dull. It began 2015 at the centre of the controversy around Time magazine’s proposal to ban it, and it ended the year by polarizing opinion in a YouGov survey which showed that a majority of British people support the core goals of feminism, but only a minority are willing to use the word.

31% identify with the term overall, but this only rises to 35% for women – half (50%) of all women would not call themselves a feminist. And people are more likely to consider calling someone a feminist as an insult (19%) than a compliment (15%).

I sometimes think it’s more of a compliment when it’s meant as an insult. But the point is that ‘feminism’ is a word that makes waves. First, second, third, fourth… just kidding, I mean a word that stirs strong emotions. No term is more contested among feminists themselves, and few terms are more controversial in the wider world. It’s loved, it’s hated, it’s claimed and it’s disclaimed, but above all it’s talked about: on a blog called Language : a feminist guide, ‘feminism’ is the obvious choice for my first Word of the Year.

So that’s it for 2015. But before I sign off, I’d like to thank everyone who’s read, followed and shared this blog over the last seven-and-a-bit months. When I started it I had no idea if anyone would want to read it, and I’ve been truly amazed by the number of people who did (as well as the number of locations they read it from). I’d also like to thank my fellow-linguists, and all the other researchers whose work I’ve made use of. The words and the opinions you read here are mine, but the research I write about comes from many sources. So, to everyone who’s contributed and everyone who’s taken an interest: thanks, happy new year, and I hope I’ll see you again in 2016.

Lesbian slang: a postscript

In my last post I quoted the folklorist Gershon Legman, whose introduction to a 1941 glossary of gay slang drew attention to ‘the seeming absence of almost any but outsiders’ slang in relation to female homosexuality’. I also pointed out that his comments on this subject said as much about his own limitations as they did about the language of lesbians.

This prompted some readers to wonder what Legman had missed: apart from the few terms his glossary included (such as ‘bull-dike’, ‘bulldagger’ and ‘daddy’, all labels for a butch or masculine lesbian), what terms were actually in use among lesbians before the advent of women’s and gay liberation? This postscript will address that question–though for the reasons I mentioned in my earlier discussion, what we know is unlikely to be the full story.

I’m fortunate to have had help from someone who knows a lot more than most–the lexicographer Jonathon Green, editor of Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This is a historical slang dictionary (you can see some of the data from it visually represented on a tumblr whose self-explanatory name is The Timelines of Slang): to compile it, Green sifted through a range of source material including, for instance, pulp fiction and muckraking journalism, as well as the work of earlier lexicographers and academics. I’m grateful to him for giving me access to his data, though he can’t be held responsible for what I’ve made of it.

Before I go on, I should point out that what’s mainly been documented by slang historians is not some generic ‘language of homosexuals’, but the in-group vocabulary of a subculture which only some gay men and lesbians were part of, while others avoided it or had no access to it. As late as the mid-1970s, research investigating gay men’s knowledge of what was supposed to be ‘their’ slang found that many didn’t use or even know the words in question. This research didn’t include lesbians, but it’s likely that many women, too, were unfamiliar with in-group slang because they were isolated from any larger community .

Even if they were not isolated, lesbians did not form a single, internally homogeneous group. Historical evidence from the US shows there were differences in the slang used by Black and white lesbians; there was also a big difference between upper-class bohemians (the targets of Legman’s dismissive remark that a lot of what passed for lesbianism was just ‘a faddish vice among the intelligentsia’), and working-class women whose social lives were conducted in the bars and on the streets, and whose activities in some cases led to repeated stints in prison.What’s mostly presented under the heading of lesbian slang is the usage of the latter group.

Examining that usage underlines a point made in 1969 by the anthropologist David Sonenschein: ‘The language of homosexuality’, he wrote,

is basically the language of social and sexual relationships rather than of the sexual act itself. The deviancy of homosexual sexual orientation has been so salient…that previous research has ignored two main and very real factors of homosexual life: (1) its social complexity and (2) its relatively unexotic (even unerotic) nature as a total lifestyle.

Sonenschein went on to point out that in glossaries like Legman’s, what he called ‘role terms’ were approximately twice as numerous as ‘sex terms’. Virtually all the lesbian-specific terms Legman included fall into the ‘role term’ category, and the same pattern is evident in later sources, with the largest number of terms relating to the central role distinction between butch and fem.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, some of the most interesting sources are accounts of life in women’s prisons, which reproduced inmates’ stories in their own words. Two notable examples, both from the 1960s, were Rose Giallombardo’s academic study Society of Women, and the journalist Sara Harris’s book Hellhole: The Shocking Story of the Inmates and Life in the New York City House of Detention for Women. Not all the slang recorded in these texts was specifically lesbian slang, as opposed to general prison slang, but ‘the racket’ (as inmates called the lesbian subculture) was clearly a salient aspect of prison life.

Prison slang made a distinction between women who were lesbians on the outside, and women who turned to lesbianism only while incarcerated. The latter were known as ‘j.t.s’ (short for ‘jailhouse turnouts’), ‘dogs’ or ‘guttersnipers’–derogatory terms indicating the low regard in which they were often held. In some cases they appear to have been subjected to a degree of coercion: there was a word, ‘flagging’, for older inmates’ attempts to involve younger ones in sexual activities. The evidence suggests that this practice existed in both prisons and reform schools, and that young women sometimes submitted because, as one told Harris, ‘you got to belong or get hurt’.

As on the outside, relationships on the inside were typically organized around the butch/fem role division. The butch (known as, among other terms, a ‘stud broad’, ‘king’ or ‘pop’) was the dominant partner both socially (Giallombardo noted that the fem was expected to ‘give him respect’) and sexually. Taking the active role in sex was known as ‘giving up the work to someone’, an expression whose use is illustrated by this quote from Hellhole:

And that, says Lucky, was the last time she ever played femme and let anybody give up the work to her. From that day on, she knew herself to be a dyke and she was the one who gave the work up to other girls.

Lesbian slang overlapped not only with prison slang, but also with the vocabulary of other groups whose members were engaged in illicit sexual activities. An example is the verb ‘mac(k)’: applied to lesbians, it meant ‘to act in a masculine manner’ (to ‘mack it’ was to wear men’s clothing). Applied to men, however, the same verb could mean ‘to work as a pimp’. Because they were all viewed as sexual deviants and/or criminals, lesbians, gay men and people working in the commercial sex trade inhabited a shared underground social world; their networks intersected, and that was reflected in their vocabularies.

Some gay men and lesbians were directly involved in the sex trade, most commonly through working as prostitutes. For some this was a regular occupation, while for others it was more occasional: Sara Harris reports that ‘when they needed to, femmes and butches […] picked up tricks and put on circuses [i.e., performances of lesbian sex] for them’. There were also women who would pay to have sex with a woman. The term ‘jane’ (a female analogue of ‘john’) is recorded, referring to ‘the female client of a streetwalker’, as is the use of the word ‘freak’ to describe a woman who catered to lesbians.

Jonathon Green observes that what slang dictionaries offer is ‘an oral history of marginality and rebellion, of dispossession and frustration’. They make visible a world which standard, ‘general purpose’ dictionaries either pass over in silence or handle with metaphorical tongs (as I noted in a previous post, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary declined to include the word lesbian itself until 1976). But this does not reveal everything about a marginalized community’s life: it’s in the nature of slang to be more concerned with some areas of experience than others. You may have noticed, for instance, that the themes of the vocabulary I’ve been discussing include sex, commerce and power, but not love, affection and other tender feelings,  though those must also have existed and been expressed between women.

It’s also difficult to see this vocabulary as either a language of conscious political resistance to oppression or a proto-feminist language of sisterhood. Though lesbians as a group occupied a precarious position in male dominated society, the subculture had its own power hierarchies: women could be exploited not only by men, but also by other women–like the older women who put pressure on younger ones in prisons, or the richer women who paid poorer ones for sex. It’s a reminder, if we needed one, that women have no special claim to superior moral virtue, and that oppression does not generally make people behave like saints.

As a linguist who’s interested in the history of English, I’m happy to have a record of terms like ‘hawk’ (a lesbian who makes pick-ups on the street), ‘jasper’ (African American prison slang for a lesbian), ‘mantee’ (a masculine lesbian), ‘ruffle’ (a fem) and ‘sil’ (short for ‘silly’, meaning a lesbian who’s infatuated with another woman). But I wouldn’t want to live in the world they belonged to. Creative and colourful though the words may have been, I’m glad that social change has made them history. .

Missing words

Last week, the BBC radio programme Woman’s Hour ran an item on the American documentary film Do I Sound Gay?  The film explores what’s popularly known as ‘the gay voice’, a way of speaking that identifies a man as gay (though not all gay men have it, and some men who do sound gay are actually straight). The Woman’s Hour feature ranged more widely over the subject of gay language, including a lengthy discussion of Polari. But it was all about the boys–until, towards the end of the item, the presenter broached the inevitable question: do lesbians also have a language of their own?

The short answer is no: there isn’t a lesbian equivalent of the gay voice, or a lesbian argot comparable to Polari. But since this blog does not do short answers, let’s consider the question–and what’s behind it–more closely.

Questions of the form ‘what is the lesbian analogue of X?’, where X is something gay men do, are usually asked with good intentions–most often the idea is to counter the tendency for discussions of gay culture to centre on the male variety, thus erasing or marginalizing the contribution of lesbians. But the way the question is framed introduces another kind of male bias. It treats gay male culture as prototypical, assuming that lesbian culture must be a copy or a mirror image, rather than something that needs to be considered on its own terms.

What this overlooks is that a group’s culture is a product of its history, and gay men and lesbians do not have identical histories. Though there were certainly experiences they shared, their lives were also affected by gender difference and inequality. How that may have influenced their ways of using language is an interesting, though also complicated, question.

The non-existence of a lesbian language was noticed and discussed as long ago as 1941, when Gershon Legman, a folklorist with a particular interest in sexual matters, published ‘The language of homosexuality: an American glossary’. As Legman acknowledged, what was documented in this list of more than 300 slang expressions (which appeared, somewhat incongruously, in a weighty tome summarizing the current state of medical and scientific knowledge about homosexuals) was an almost exclusively male vocabulary. ‘Very noticeable’, he wrote, ‘is the seeming absence of almost any but outsiders’ slang in relation to female homosexuality’. He proceeded to speculate on the reasons for this absence:

The tradition of gentlemanly restraint among Lesbians stifles the flamboyance and conversational cynicism in sexual matters that slang coinage requires; and what little direct mention of sexual practice there is among female homosexuals is usually either gruffly brusque and vague, or else romantically euphemistic.

But restrain yourself, gentlemen, there’s more:

Concomitantly, Lesbianism in America—and perhaps elsewhere—seems in a large measure factitious: a faddish vice among the intelligentsia, a good avenue of entry in the theatre, and most of all, a safe resource for timid women and demi-vierges, an erotic outlet for the psychosexually traumatised daughters of tyrannous fathers and a despairing retreat for the wives and ex-wives of clumsy, brutal or ineffectual lovers.

So, most so-called lesbians were only pretending, and the rest were either too restrained or too romantic to be capable of coining slang terms.

It’s tempting to dismiss Legman as just an arrogant sexist jerk. But if we put what he says alongside the work of later historians, it becomes easier to understand what actual characteristics of gay and lesbian cultures in the 1930s and 40s might have led him to pursue this line of argument.

One difference between lesbians and gay men was that lesbians were less likely to be arrested and imprisoned for engaging in illegal sexual acts. The riskiness of sex between men may have been a factor influencing the ‘language of homosexuality’, since it intensified the desire for secrecy and in-group solidarity. Legman remarked that lesbians had less sense of ‘criminality, let alone criminal community…two attitudes of mind which seem particularly conducive to the manufacture of slang’.

In other ways, though, gender inequality made life harder for lesbians. It was harder, economically and socially, for women to live independently of men, and to inhabit public space without male protection. This suggests an alternative explanation of why lesbians did not develop an extensive in-group vocabulary or a widely-used argot like Polari. As the lesbian feminist linguist Julia Penelope once put it,

Lesbians have been socially and historically invisible in our society and isolated from one another as a consequence, and have never had a cohesive community in which a lesbian aesthetic could have developed.

In their history of the working-class lesbian community in Buffalo, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis point out that in the 1940s and 50s what we would now call the ‘lesbian community’ was not perceived as a unified group whose members shared a single identity. Rather, ‘butch’ and ‘fem’ were regarded as distinct identities: they were associated with different ways of behaving, and in the case of fems, though there were exceptions, with a less permanent commitment to the lesbian life. When Legman talked about ‘factitious’ lesbians it was probably fems he had in mind. .

By contrast, when he talked about ‘gentlemanly restraint’ he was probably thinking more of butches. Kennedy and Davis show that butches, who were more visible as gay women because of their overt gender non-conformity, faced a different set of risks from those that confronted gay men. Butches attracted hostility not only as sexual ‘deviants’, but also as women who claimed certain male prerogatives. Kennedy and Davis think this may be why they did not display the kind of wit and flair that were features of gay men’s linguistic performance. Butches’ survival depended on acting and talking tough, so their style needed to be blunter and more assertive.

But I don’t think we can take it for granted that lesbians never created in-group vocabularies or other distinctive ways of speaking. Whenever the record seems to show that women haven’t done something, the question always has to be asked: is that because women really didn’t do it, or is it just because history did not preserve the evidence?

That question did occur to Legman: he acknowledged that there might have been something for him to find if he’d been able to look in the right places:

I have been assured that the situation is quite different in prisons, and that a fairly extensive Lesbian argot is likely to be found there. I have not had the opportunity to find out.

Later research would bear out this prediction. In 1966, the social scientist Rose Giallombardo published Society of Women , a study of a women’s prison in which she reproduced a number of the letters exchanged by inmates involved in romantic relationships. These suggested that a lesbian argot did, indeed, exist, and offered a glimpse (though only a glimpse, since language wasn’t the author’s main interest) of what it might have looked like.

Women’s prisons are not the only locations where this kind of evidence might have been found. Slang typically flourishes in what the sociologist Erving Goffman called ‘total institutions’ (e.g. prisons, asylums, boarding schools, religious orders, the armed forces), and many institutions of this type have historically been sex-segregated. All-female total institutions (like girls’ boarding schools, women’s colleges and the women’s armed services, as well as prisons and reformatories) would have been good places to look for lesbian slang in the pre-feminist, pre-Stonewall era. But they weren’t readily accessible to male researchers. Legman’s methods had an inbuilt male bias: as well as reading pornography, he spent time hanging out in burlesque theatres and what he described as ‘the grimier shit-houses around Broadway’ (toilet wall graffiti was one source of slang and vulgar terms, and some toilets were also ‘tea rooms’, places where men had sex.)

By the time lesbian researchers came on the scene, the linguistic situation was changing. The advent of the women’s and gay liberation movements at the end of the 1960s produced divisions between those gay men and lesbians who saw sexuality as a political issue, and those who remained resolutely unpoliticized. While the second group continued to use the traditional slang in the traditional way, the first denounced it as reactionary and oppressive. As Julia Penelope argued in 1974:

Too much of the lexicon of gay slang is given over to a preoccupation with sexual objectification and social stratification… Insofar as gay slang reflects and encourages the value system of a racist, patriarchal culture, those gays who use it are engaging in self-oppression. …although gay slang is the vocabulary of those who are themselves outcasts from the straight culture, it also binds us to the same value system that makes us outcasts.

Penelope noted that the gay community’s political awakening had not led to the wholesale abandonment of traditional slang terms, but rather to a shift in their meaning. ‘Certain terms…have ceased to be used with sexual meanings and have, instead, taken on new, political meanings’. The pejorative words ‘dyke’ and ‘faggot’, for instance, were reclaimed as positive identity labels. For activists, the term ‘gay’ itself now denoted ‘a state of political awareness in which one no longer needs the narrowly-defined sex stereotypes as bases for identity’.

These new meanings, however, were not accepted by everyone. Many self-styled homosexual men who remained outside the movement (and often firmly inside the closet) thought ‘gay’ was ‘trivializing and inane’. Meanwhile, some lesbians rejected the label ‘gay’ because their primary allegiance was to feminism. In the new nomenclature of sexual identity politics,

A dyke is a woman committed to revolution, the most radical position. A lesbian is committed to a more liberal position, and she is more willing to compromise and work within the system. A gay woman affirms her commitment to a gay community, and sees nothing wrong with working with men.

Today if you Google ‘lesbian slang’ you get more than half a million hits. I can’t say I looked through all of them, but many of the top ones turned out to be variations on the same two wordlists. Commentators continued to wonder why lesbians lag behind gay men. A piece posted in September 2015 with the title ‘11 lesbian slang words we wish existed’ began:

IDK if you’ve noticed, but the gays have completely monopolized the gay slang world. They have words for everything. Otters?! Pups?! Twinks! Where are our words!!!??!

That question has a long history, but maybe it’s time to move on. If we only ever talk about what lesbians’ language isn’t, we’ll never understand what it is.

An extract from Legman’s glossary is reprinted in The Language and Sexuality Reader, which I co-edited with Don Kulick. This post draws on other research and writing which Don and I  did together, and I thank him for his contribution–though he isn’t responsible for the views I’ve expressed here.