Unspeakable

September was an eventful month in the ongoing War of the W-Word. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted out an edited version of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words defending a woman’s right to choose, in which the words ‘woman’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ were replaced with ‘person’, ‘they’ and ‘their’. The medical journal The Lancet published a cover informing readers that ‘Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected’. And a series of British politicians publicly tied themselves in knots about whether it’s permissible to state that ‘only women have a cervix’.

‘Bodies with vaginas’ caused particular offence, but as the science writer and editor Sue Nelson pointed out, The Lancet had taken the phrase out of context. The statement on the cover was what’s known in the trade as a ‘pull-quote’, lifted from an article discussing an exhibition about menstruation at London’s Vagina Museum. Not only did the article mention women, it did so in the very sentence the quote was taken from:

Historically the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected—for example, the paucity of understanding of endometriosis and the way women’s pain has been seen as more likely to have an emotional or psychological cause, a hangover from centuries of theorising about hysteria.

The article does connect the treatment of ‘bodies with vaginas’ to the fact that vaginas, on the whole, belong to women. But the cover obscures that through selective quotation. Sue Nelson described this as ‘deliberately provocative’, adding that it was ‘clickbait…virtue-signalling, or both’.

What is it, though, that makes ‘bodies with vaginas’ so provocative? Many critics complained that the phrase dehumanised women by referring to them as ‘bodies’, but I’m not convinced that ‘bodies’ is the problem. I don’t think The Lancet would have been deluged with complaints if its cover had called attention to the historical neglect of ‘the anatomy and physiology of women’s bodies’, or ‘female bodies’, or ‘the female body’. On the cover of a medical journal, in a sentence about anatomy and physiology (‘the study of the structure and functions of bodies’) those phrases would not have seemed out of place.

In my view the provocation had less to do with the words The Lancet did use than with the word it conspicuously avoided. Whatever else they communicate, expressions like ‘bodies with vaginas’ (see also ‘menstruators’, ‘pregnant people’, ‘anyone who has a cervix’) signal that the speaker or writer has made a conscious decision not to use the word ‘women’. Particularly when it’s repeated across contexts and over time, this intentional avoidance implies that ‘women’ is taboo: it belongs to the category of words whose offensiveness makes them ‘dirty’ and publicly unspeakable.    

At this point you might be thinking: but this isn’t about avoidance, it’s about inclusion. It’s a way of acknowledging that some individuals who have vaginas/periods/abortions do not identify as women, but rather as trans men or nonbinary people. Is this not the same argument 1970s feminists made when they objected to the pseudo-generic use of masculine terms like ‘chairman’? I agree that there are parallels; but there are also, if you look closer, differences.     

1970s feminists looking for alternatives to ‘he/man’ language had a number of strategies at their disposal. One of these was ‘doubling’, conjoining terms with ‘and’, as in the phrase ‘servicemen and women’, now routinely used by politicians paying tribute to the armed forces. Feminists don’t complain about the continuing presence of ‘men’, who are still the majority of those who serve. But when the problem is the word ‘women’, and the issue is including people with other gender identities, there’s a tendency to shy away from the ‘add on’ approach (e.g. ‘we provide advice and support to pregnant women, trans men and nonbinary people’). The preferred strategy is to substitute a word or phrase that does not contain the word ‘women’—even if the result is bizarre (‘bodies with vaginas’), circumlocutory (‘anyone who has a cervix’) or unclear (e.g. the ACLU’s use of ‘person/people’ in a context where the reference is not to all people but specifically to those who can become pregnant). If you’re just looking for ways of referring to a category which includes but is not limited to women, why is it so important to avoid the word entirely?  

Another piece of evidence that we are dealing with avoidance is that the substitution rule only applies to ‘women’. As critics of the Lancet cover pointed out, a few days earlier the journal had tweeted something about prostate cancer which referred to those affected by the disease as ‘men’. If inclusiveness were the sole concern, the same considerations should apply to prostate cancer as to cervical cancer. In both cases, some patients in need of screening or treatment may identify as trans or nonbinary. But texts about cancers which only affect male bodies do not talk about ‘people with prostates’ or ‘bodies with testicles’. That can’t be because ‘men’ is more inclusive than ‘women’; the difference is that ‘men’ is not taboo.      

The English word ‘taboo’ means a kind of avoidance which reflects our notions of polite or socially appropriate behaviour. It covers such injunctions as not swearing in certain contexts (in front of your grandparents, or at a job interview), and not speaking plainly about certain subjects (e.g. death). The word ‘woman’ was once considered impolite (as a child I was taught to call say ‘lady)’, and avoiding it to be inclusive is also, to some extent, about politeness—being sensitive to others’ feelings and trying not to offend or upset them. But some aspects of the way this avoidance plays out might remind us of taboo in the more technical, anthropological sense.

The anthropological use of ‘taboo’ reflects the way it was observed to work in the Polynesian societies which originally gave English the word. In those societies, ‘tabu’ (or ‘tapu’ or ‘kapu’) is connected to the concept of ‘mana’, a form of power which all things are believed to possess, and which is dangerous if not correctly channelled. The danger is managed through the observance of ritual prohibitions, like not eating certain foods, or not bringing objects that serve one purpose into a space reserved for another, or not uttering the names of gods, rulers, or the recently deceased. Taboo-breaking is understood to be both dangerous and shameful: offenders may be shunned, and in extreme cases even killed.      

The avoidance of ‘women’ among contemporary English-speakers is not motivated by fear of supernatural forces, but it does sometimes seem to be rooted in another kind of fear—the fear that if you don’t observe the rules you will be publicly shamed and ostracised. When politicians were asked about ‘only women have a cervix’, it was striking how many of them could not explain why, in the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s words, ‘it is something that should not be said’. Some of their responses were like the answer James Cook got when he asked why it was forbidden for Tongan men and women to eat together: ‘it is our custom’, they told him, ‘and the custom is right’. A taboo does not require an explanation.     

Even in modern western societies, linguistic taboos retain an element of the ancient belief in word-magic. An obvious example is swearing, where the effect depends on harnessing the power attached to a specific word: if you substitute a synonym (e.g. say ‘copulate off’ rather than ‘fuck off’) the effect is completely lost. And quite similar ideas about the potency of certain words inform some common recommendations for making language more inclusive.

The psychologist Carol Tavris drew attention to this phenomenon in a piece about some new guidelines produced by the University of California at Irvine (UCI).  Noting that the guidelines recommended avoiding ‘hearing impaired’ and replacing it with ‘hard of hearing’, she wondered why one was considered preferable to the other. The answer is that guidelines often proscribe terms that include the word ‘impaired’ on the grounds that it is negative and therefore stigmatising. But is ‘hard of hearing’ any less negative just because it doesn’t contain ‘impaired’? (One piece of evidence which might suggest otherwise is the existence of the joke-expression ‘hard of thinking’, meaning ‘stupid’.)

Even if they’re not efficacious, we might think these avoidance-based rules are harmless. But as Tavris says, for the average language-user, who is not steeped in the discourse of diversity, equality and inclusion, they make talking about certain issues into what can easily appear to be a minefield. They also create a gap between the approved language of inclusion and the everyday language used by most people most of the time. The mismatch is apparent in another of UCI’s recommendations—to avoid the phrase ‘homeless people’ and substitute ‘people experiencing homelessness’. If most ordinary English-speakers don’t follow this advice, is that because they don’t believe homeless people are people? Or are they just reluctant to use such wordy, convoluted jargon? Maybe they think ‘people experiencing homelessness’ is a patronising euphemism—like when doctors ask if you’re ‘experiencing discomfort’ when you’re actually in excruciating pain.   

Disregarding the views of ordinary language-users is a mistake language reformers have made repeatedly. When the ACLU substituted ‘person’ for ‘woman’ in its edited quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many objections took the form of mockery—repeating the same substitution in a context where it was clearly absurd, like ‘When a man loves a person’, or ‘feminism is the radical notion that persons are people’. Something similar happened in Britain after the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to use gender-specific terms in job advertisements. With the many jobs whose title had traditionally contained ‘-man’ there were two options: you could either use paired terms like ‘servicemen and women’, or find a gender-neutral variant to cover both. One result was a crop of new compounds like ‘chairperson’, ‘salesperson’ and ‘spokesperson’. Another was an endless stream of jokes about ‘personholes’, ‘personagers’ and whether in future diners would have to ask the ‘waitperson’ for the ‘people-u’.

To begin with this looked like a predictable backlash which would die down as the new terms became familiar. But there were other problems with -person. One was our old friend ‘the illusion of inclusion‘. Outside job ads, person-terms were frequently used not as generic substitutes for ‘man’, but as euphemisms for ‘woman’. Women were ‘chairpersons’, while men continued to be ‘chairmen’. It also became evident that replacing ‘man’ with ‘person’ often produced real terms that sounded like jokes. Soon after the law came into force I got a job in a local hospital, where my wage-slip informed me I was a ‘laundrywoman’. I found that term archaic, but on reflection I could see why it hadn’t been replaced with the ludicrous-sounding ‘laundryperson’.

‘Person’ once appeared to be the obvious substitute for ‘man’, but in hindsight we can see that it failed. Today almost none of the old -person compounds survive. But over time people converged on more acceptable solutions to the problem of making job-titles inclusive (e.g. ‘chair’, ‘sales assistant/associate’, ‘firefighter’). What they rejected was not the basic principle of inclusion, but the imposition of terms they found unnatural or ridiculous.    

The very public controversies of the last few weeks suggest that the kind of inclusive language that requires the avoidance of ‘women’ may be encountering similar resistance. It wasn’t just a certain kind of feminist who criticised ‘bodies with vaginas’. There were other Lancet-readers who were not so much offended as just bewildered that a medical journal would go to such lengths to avoid the W-word.

But many women were angry, and that isn’t hard to understand. Erasing one group of people as a way of including others sends a clear message about who matters and who doesn’t. And replacing the word a group of people use to name themselves with terms that many of them find alien and insulting makes it clear that women’s own preferences are irrelevant. This isn’t new: for millennia, all kinds of names have been imposed on women against their will. In that respect, terms like ‘menstruator’ and ‘birthing person’ are not so different from ‘slut’ and ‘slag’. Men like Keir Starmer and the editor of The Lancet would deny that they think of women as subordinates–yet they apparently feel entitled to tell women what it’s acceptable for them to say about their own bodies. They need to understand it isn’t up to them to decide, and let women speak, in their own words, for themselves.                    

‘Woman’: an update

Back in the summer of 2019, I wrote about a petition which called on Oxford University Press to change the Oxford dictionary entry for ‘woman’. It was started by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi after she googled the word ‘woman’ and was shocked by what her search returned—entries full of insulting synonyms (‘baggage’, ‘besom’, ‘bint’) and time-warped example sentences like ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’. Oxford wasn’t the only offender, but its market position and reputation made it a prime target for Giovanardi’s campaign. Her petition attracted media attention, and ultimately over 30,000 signatures. Oxford announced that it was undertaking a review. And earlier this month, the first results were unveiled.

Here’s what you get if you google ‘woman’ now:  

Woman /ˈwʊmən/ noun

noun: woman; plural noun: women

  1. an adult female human being. “a drawing of a young woman”

Similar: lady, adult female, female, girl, person, lass, lassie, wife, colleen, Frau, Signora, Señora, the female of the species, member of the fair sex, member of the fairer sex, bird, gal, Jane, sister, Sheila, femme, Judy, dame, broad, frail, maid, maiden, damsel, demoiselle, gentlewoman, bint, mare, [offensive] bitch

  • a female member of a workforce, team, etc. “thousands of women were laid off”
  • a female person associated with a particular place, activity, or occupation “she was the first Oxford woman to take a first in Physics”
  • a disrespectful form of address to a woman “don’t be daft, woman!”
  • DATED  a female person who is paid to clean someone’s house and carry out other domestic duties “a daily woman”
  • a person’s wife, girlfriend, or female lover. “he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him”

Similar: girlfriend, girl, partner, significant other,  wife, spouse, consort, fiancée, lover, mistress, sweetheart, inamorata, better half, other half, baby, Mrs, old lady, gf, missus, bird, her indoors, mot, dona, bibi, querida, lady friend, lady love, young lady, lady, lady wife, old dutch, squeeze, patootie, leman, doxy, paramour

  • a person with the qualities traditionally associated with females. “I feel more of a woman by empowering myself to do what is right for me”
  • a female individual; one “with that money, a woman could buy a house and put two kids through college”

First, a pedantic point: though many headlines said Oxford had ‘changed the definition of woman’, in fact the definition has not changed: it’s still ‘adult female human being’. What’s changed is some of the other stuff that appears in a dictionary entry. The list of synonyms no longer includes some of the archaic and little-used terms from the previous version (e.g. ‘besom’, ‘wench’); it does still contain some insulting items, on the grounds that they remain in common use, but notes have been added explaining that ‘bitch’, for example, is ‘offensive’. Some more specialised senses of ‘woman’ get similar warning labels. ‘Woman’ as a vocative (as in ‘don’t be daft, woman!’) is ‘disrespectful’, and ‘woman’ in the sense of ‘maid/cleaner’ is ‘dated’.

The old example sentences have been ditched; the new ones depict women in what Oxford calls an ‘active and positive’ way, getting first class degrees in physics, empowering themselves and putting their children through college. Even the less upbeat ‘thousands of women were laid off’ is an implicit reminder of women’s presence in the paid workforce. I’ll confess to finding this a bit heavy-handed, as though the entry-writer had decided to atone for the casual sexism of the past by choosing only examples with an Uplifting Feminist Message. But that’s a minor quibble: the new examples do a decent job of illustrating the usages they’ve been chosen to exemplify.    

For most media commentators, however, the most newsworthy aspect of the revision was not the culling of archaic synonyms or the use of examples showing women in a positive light. What really caught their attention was the shift to LGBT-inclusive language in ‘a person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover’. Pink News, unsurprisingly, led on this change—but so did many mainstream publications which are not exactly known for their cutting-edge sexual politics. The Daily Mail, for instance, ran a report headed ‘Oxford English Dictionary updates entry for “woman” so that it is now defined as a “person’s” wife, girlfriend or lover as opposed to a man’s after gender review’, and went on to note that the entry for ‘man’ has had a parallel makeover: it ‘now reads as “a person’s husband, boyfriend or male lover”’.   

These updates were undoubtedly needed. We’ve been referring to same-sex partners as ‘wives/husbands’ for several years now, and same-sex uses of ‘boyfriend/girlfriend/lover’ go back much further. But the issue being addressed by the substitution of ‘person’ for ‘man/woman’ is not sexism but heterosexism. The commentators who hailed it as a breakthrough seem not to have noticed that it’s an isolated and largely token gesture: the rest of this section, beginning with the example sentence ‘he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him’ and continuing with a list of synonyms which includes ‘her indoors’, ‘doxy’ and ‘patootie’, is still entirely patriarchal and heteronormative.

Some readers did notice this, and were evidently confused by it: their comments on the Mail story included ‘People in general are definitively much more than just the roles they fill in others’ lives’, and ‘So a woman is not an individual person but belong[s] to somebody else?’ This criticism does not reflect the overall emphasis of the entry, where ‘a person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover’ is only one of several senses listed. But it does reflect the emphasis the media gave to the LGBT inclusion angle, which led some readers to conclude that ‘wife, girlfriend or female lover’ was now the primary definition of ‘woman’, and to wonder–not unreasonably–why that was supposed to be progress.   

Though the petition focused specifically on the ‘woman’ entry, Oxford’s review did not stop there. Revisions have also been made to other entries which were thought to pose similar problems. Many news reports mentioned two of these: ‘housework’, where the example ‘she still does all the housework’ has been replaced by ‘I was busy doing housework when the doorbell rang’, and ‘high-maintenance’, where the sentence ‘if Martin could keep a high-maintenance girl like Tania happy, he must be doing something right’ has been replaced by ‘I freely admit to being high-maintenance’.   

These substitutions, while unobjectionable, show the limitations of an approach which tackles stereotyping by simply replacing sex-specific examples with gender-neutral/inclusive ones. When you read ‘I freely admit to being high-maintenance’, who do you imagine as the ‘I’? In many cases we would tend to imagine a gender-unspecified person as male by default, but in this case I’m betting that most readers will picture a woman. Part of what English-speakers know about the expression ‘high-maintenance’ is that when it’s used to describe a person, that person is likely to be female (I did a quick corpus search to check, and found that references to ‘high-maintenance’ women were over three times more frequent than similar references to men). If you want to block that association, you probably need to pick an explicitly male-referring example. A gender-neutral one avoids overt stereotyping, but it doesn’t prevent the covert stereotyping that results from readers interpreting ‘I’ in relation to their pre-existing cultural and linguistic knowledge.

But in any case there’s a question about whether a descriptive dictionary, one whose aim is to document, as OUP’s press statement put it, ‘how real people use English in their daily lives’, should be trying to block associations which are part of our knowledge about words. It’s one thing if the sexism is gratuitous—if a sexist example has been selected for no good reason (as appears to have been the case with Oxford’s use of ‘a rabid feminist’ to illustrate ‘rabid’, which was criticised on social media a few years ago); but if there’s evidence that ‘high-maintenance’ really is used more frequently about women, should that not be reflected in the entry for it? Should dictionaries be trying to present us with a less biased world than the one we currently inhabit—or is their real obligation to reflect the world as it is, and as it shapes our use of words?

For the makers of dictionaries this is a perennial, and genuinely difficult, question. They may say that their decisions are ‘driven solely by evidence about how real people use English in their daily lives’, but ‘solely’ is an overstatement: they also have to consider what real people want from, and find acceptable in, their products. Sensitivities change over time—in the past many controversies turned on matters of taste and decency, whereas today there is more concern about diversity and bias—but what doesn’t change is the existence of competing pressures, and the difficulty of finding a balance between them.  

Has Oxford found the right balance? Maria Beatrice Giovanardi told reporters that while she is mostly happy with the revisions, she’s disappointed by the retention of ‘bitch’, and will continue to press for its removal. I think she’s got a point: while I don’t believe offensive epithets should be airbrushed out of dictionaries, I do struggle with the logic of putting ‘bitch’ on a list of synonyms for ‘woman’.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s take a look at the list of synonyms in the ‘man’ entry:

male, gentleman, guy, fellow, gent, mother’s son, bloke, chap, geezer, lad, Joe, dude, bro, hombre, digger, oke, ou, oom, bodach, cove, carl.

Essentially this is a list of stylistic and/or regional variants meaning ‘man’, or in a couple of cases ‘old man’. The corresponding list in the ‘woman’ entry (see above) also includes informal and regional variants (e.g. ‘girl/gal’, ‘lassie’, ‘colleen’, ‘Sheila’), but in addition it features two sets of words which have no parallel on the ‘man’ list: archaic courtly terms (‘maiden’, ‘damsel/demoiselle’, ‘member of the fair(er) sex’) and belittling or dehumanising insults (‘bint’, ‘bird’, ‘bitch’, ‘mare’–though not ‘cunt’, which suggests that evidence-based decision-making does have limits).

This is what I meant when I used the word ‘logic’: it’s not just that the two lists contain different words (which you’d obviously expect), it’s that they seem to have been compiled on different principles. That can’t be because there are no comparable words for men. If you’re going to count ‘bitch’ and ‘mare’ as synonyms for ‘woman’, you could equally count ‘stallion’, ‘cock’ and ‘stag’ as synonyms for ‘man’. True, they’re not exact equivalents (the difference reflects our culture’s more negative attitude to female sexuality), but if it’s relevant to include words from this general category in the ‘woman’ entry, why not do the same for ‘man’? If the casually contemptuous ‘bint’ belongs on one list, why doesn’t the other include, say, ‘git’ or ‘bastard’? If ‘damsel’, why not ‘knight’?

I’m not seriously suggesting that these terms should be added to the ‘man’ entry. The serious question is why flowery euphemisms and insults are deemed essential for our understanding of ‘woman’, whereas ‘man’ requires no such elaboration. I’m inclined to see this asymmetry as a hangover from the long history of treating ‘woman’ as man’s ‘Other’, and representing her from men’s perspective. Just removing ‘bitch’ would not resolve this deeper problem–but I do think it needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

So, from me as from Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, it’s two cheers for Oxford’s revisions. Heartfelt cheers in my case, though, because I don’t think we should underestimate either the magnitude or the difficulty of the task they’ve taken on. It’s a lot easier to criticise a dictionary than it is to make one.          

X marks the what?

Earlier this month there was controversy after the Wellcome Collection, a museum in London, used the word ‘womxn’ in its publicity for an upcoming event. ‘Womxn’ has been around for a while in activist circles: there are various Womxn’s Marches, the Olympia YWCA in Washington State runs a ‘Womxn of Achievement’ award, and the UK organisation Her Stories recently announced an art auction to benefit refugee and migrant womxn. Nevertheless, Wellcome got so many complaints that they eventually removed the contentious X. ‘We invite challenges to our thinking’, they tweeted, ‘and we listen to our audience’. But what were they thinking when they originally chose to write ‘womxn’? And why did that choice provoke resistance?

These questions take us back to something I’ve discussed in a couple of recent posts: the contested concept of ‘inclusive language’. The letter X in ‘womxn’, also found in ‘Latinx’, ‘folx’ and the title ‘Mx’, has become an orthographic symbol of gender-inclusiveness, signalling that the term it appears in addresses or refers to people of all gender identities (though ‘womxn’ is a partial exception to that rule, in that it does exclude people who identify as men). The Olympia YWCA’s ‘Womxn of Achievement’ awards, for instance, are open to ‘two-Spirit, gender non-binary and queer folks’ as well as women. That isn’t the only thing that makes it a sign of the times: it also reflects the primacy of digital media and the written word, and the transnational or global nature of contemporary political communication. But at the same time it’s part of a longer history of attempts to change the way gender is marked linguistically, and has a complicated relationship with earlier feminist interventions.

Re-spelling words to make a political point is not a new strategy. In the 1960s and 70s leftist counter-culture types sometimes wrote ‘Amerika’ or ‘Amerikkka’ to convey the idea that the US was a fascist and racist state. And in the 1970s and 80s some feminists adopted variant spellings of ‘woman’ and ‘women’—including ‘womon’, ‘womyn’, ‘wombyn’ and ‘wimmin’—that were designed to get rid of the ‘man/men’ part, and so convey the idea that women are not just extensions or appendages of men. Sometimes this move was justified with reference to the (inaccurate) folk-belief that the word ‘woman’ was originally derived from ‘man’ in the same way the Biblical Eve was fashioned from Adam’s rib.

The Wellcome Collection explained its use of ‘womxn’ by citing a definition from Urban Dictionary which repeats these old ideas, presenting ‘womxn’ as a direct successor to the earlier feminist re-spellings:

Womxn: A spelling of “women” that is a more inclusive, progressive term that not only sheds light on the prejudice, discrimination, and institutional barriers womxn have faced, but to also show that womxn are not the extension of men (as hinted by the classic Bible story of Adam and Eve) but their own free and separate entities. More intersectional than womyn because it includes trans women and women of color.

I should probably point out here that Urban Dictionary is not a reliable source: since the people who post definitions on the site have neither the expertise nor the resources of professional lexicographers, what you get isn’t a systematically researched, evidence-based account of where words came from and how they’re used, it’s just one person’s understanding, sometimes embellished with theories they’ve come across in other, mostly equally unreliable, sources. It’s certainly not true that ‘womyn’ (let alone, as some readers inferred, ‘women’) excluded women of color; and it’s a myth that ‘woman’ was originally derived from ‘man’. But whatever its relationship to the actual historical facts, there is evidently a widespread belief that ‘womxn’ combines the anti-sexism of older variants like ‘womyn’ with the inclusiveness of newer X-forms like ‘folx’.

The letter X had its own place in the liberation movements of the 20th century. In California in 1988 I met a feminist named Laura X, who was a central figure in the long campaign to make rape in marriage illegal in the US. In 1969 she had replaced her last name with ‘X’, following the example of Malcolm X, who repudiated his original surname, ‘Little’, when he joined the Nation of Islam in the 1940s. That name, he pointed out, was part of the legacy of enslavement: it had been imposed on his paternal ancestors by the white man who owned them. Some feminists saw a parallel with the situation of women, who were also named by and for their oppressors. Even married women who declined to take their husband’s name would in most cases be keeping their father’s. In the 1980s I knew many feminists who had swapped their patriarchal surname for their mother’s first name, or some other name of their own invention. But ‘X’ makes a different kind of statement: it isn’t so much an alternative name as a placeholder for the name (and lineage, and history) that slavery or patriarchy has denied you.

If you want a placeholder, X is an obvious choice, because of its history of being used to symbolise an unknown quantity–first in algebraic equations, and later in other contexts. ‘X-rays’, for instance, were given their name by Roentgen on the basis that he did not yet know what was causing the effects he observed. ‘Brand X’ was once a common formula in advertising, where it denoted the unidentified cereal or washing powder to which the advertised product was allegedly superior. These usages had nothing to do with gender, but it isn’t hard to see how gender-inclusive X-forms rework the same idea. If X can stand for anything or anybody, then nothing and nobody is excluded by it. Its use can convey a commitment, not only to the norm of being inclusive, but also to the norm that one should not make assumptions about the identities of others. Until these are ascertained by asking the individuals concerned, they remain an unknown quantity.

The second of these norms is relatively new, but the first was also the basis for earlier feminist proposals to reform conventional usage—the difference being that ‘inclusiveness’ was conceived in terms of a two- rather than a many-gender model. It was a strategy for countering sexism by using terms that included women as well as men. And it is these earlier gender-inclusive terms which are now, at least in some quarters, being superseded by the new X-forms.

‘Latinx’, for instance, is increasingly being preferred to the dual-gender forms that Spanish-speaking feminists adopted to make women visible in a language where any reference to a group of people not exclusively female is conventionally required to be grammatically masculine. The male bias of conventional usage was addressed by creating masculine-plus-feminine forms like ‘Latinos y Latinas’ or ‘Latinos/as’. In digital-era writing another possibility was to use @ (‘Latin@s’), which looks like a combination of masculine -o with feminine -a. The newer X-form continues the move away from conventional male-centred usage, but in addition it signals a rejection of the binary model of gender which earlier departures from convention assumed. That’s also, as I noted earlier, the main difference between ‘womxn’ and earlier feminist re-spellings like ‘womyn’ and ‘wimmin’. And it helps to explain why opposition to the new X-forms is coming from two very different directions.

One kind of opposition, now as in the past, comes from social conservatives who see any deviation from conventional usage as an attack on traditional gender roles and hierarchies. A dramatic example occurred in Rio de Janeiro in 2015* after a biology teacher at one of the city’s most prestigious high schools constructed a test for his students on which the space for them to write their names was marked with the word ‘Alunx’ (an X-form of the Portuguese word for student, ‘aluno/aluna’). News of this spread through social media, and soon it was being reported in the national press. In the ensuing debate, the school was accused of ‘succumbing to the dictatorship of gay groups and feminazis’ and using ‘newspeak’ in the service of ‘the gay Marxist agenda’.

But another kind of opposition, particularly to the English re-spelling ‘womxn’, is coming not from conservatives, but from feminists. And while these two sets of critics have sometimes been presented as saying the same thing for the same reason–essentially because they’re right-wing transphobic bigots–I don’t think that claim stands up to scrutiny. The feminist opposition is certainly political, but the logic it follows belongs to the left rather than the right.

Earlier this year the blogger Sister Outrider tweeted:

I have yet to see anyone who uses the spelling “womxn” for purposes of inclusivity also use “mxn”. Significant that women become the unspeakable Other while men remain a recognised category.

If people say they write ‘womxn’ to be inclusive, then why don’t they also write ‘mxn’? What does this asymmetry imply?

One possible answer takes us back to the Urban Dictionary entry quoted earlier. If, like the older feminist re-spellings, ‘womxn’ is intended to make the point that women are not appendages of men, then putting the X into ‘men’ would make no sense: it would just reinstate the idea that ‘men/mxn’ is the root from which ‘women/womxn’ is derived. But if the main reason for using the X-form is to communicate that you’re referring not only to the people traditionally labelled ‘women’, but also to people who claim other gender identities, then there is an argument for treating ‘men’ as a parallel case. If you only give the X-treatment to women, you’re essentially replicating the Green Party’s much-criticized opposition between ‘men’ and ‘non-men’. As Caroline Criado Perez commented during the recent row,

I’m really fed up of women being just a big grab bag of anyone who isn’t a proper default human, aka a man.  Read some bloody de Beauvoir and pull your head out of your a**.

This reference to Simone de Beauvoir may answer a question I know some people asked: why would anyone get so worked up about a minor tweak to the spelling of a word? It’s not as if the X makes that word unrecognizable: it still looks more like ‘women’ than it does like anything else. For feminists influenced by Beauvoir, however, the imposition of the X-form has a deeper significance. In The Second Sex Beauvoir wrote that ‘man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being’. The replacement of ‘women’ with ‘womxn’, creating a taxonomy in which there are two classes–men, the default humans, and others, defined in relation to men–can be seen as a symbolic enactment of the same principle. Once again, women are being told they must accept others’ definitions and accommodate others’ needs. The argument about ‘womxn’, in short, is not just about competing theories of gender; it’s also about the basic political principle that every oppressed group has the right to define and name itself.

These are both issues on which feminists themselves are divided: they have different ideas about what and who feminism is for. While some remain committed to the traditional view of it as a movement for the rights, equality or liberation of women, others argue that it’s time to redefine it as a more inclusive social movement seeking justice for all oppressed people. This is not a new argument either. Since at least the 1920s, after women in Britain and the US won the right to vote, the whole history of feminism has been punctuated with cries of ‘surely we’re beyond all that essentialist stuff about women’ and ‘isn’t it time to move on?’ But as the historian Catherine Andrews observed earlier this year, these exhortations have always turned out to be premature, based on an over-optimistic assessment of women’s progress towards equality.

This latest call to ‘move on’ seems particularly ill-timed: in the past couple of years we’ve had a flood of depressing evidence that the old forms of patriarchal power have not withered away. Until they do, feminists will (still) need to talk about women and the specific ways in which they are oppressed. And the right word to use for that purpose will (still) be ‘women’. I’m not saying we don’t also need terms that address or refer to a wider constituency: for some purposes I think we do need them. But that doesn’t mean they should replace more specific terms in every context. As I said in my very first post on this blog, a movement for the liberation of women (and yes, I’m in the camp that still thinks that’s what feminism is) cannot go along with the treatment of ‘women’ as an outdated, irrelevant, unspeakable dirty word.

*My information on this case comes from the Brazilian linguist Rodrigo Borba: the English translations quoted are his, and I thank him for letting me reproduce them. (The opinions are mine and he should not be held responsible for them.)

2016: the bad, the bad and the ugly

Once again tis the season to look back on the last twelve months, and since we’re talking about 2016, that may not make for uplifting reading (unless your heroes are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and President-Elect Donald Trump). If the Words of the Year chosen by dictionaries are any guide, the mood among English-speakers is darker than it was a year ago. Whereas Oxford’s choice in 2015 was the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji, in 2016 it has gone for ‘post-truth’; other dictionaries’ selections have included ‘paranoid’, ‘surreal’ and ‘xenophobia’.

The reasons why this year sucked were not primarily to do with language, but language played a part—in some cases quite a prominent part. So, this review will be more about the lowlights than the highlights. Here are six of the worst:

Bantering bigots. In my 2015 annual round-up I named ‘banter’ as the word I’d most like to ban (if banning words were either feasible or desirable, which IMHO it isn’t). But banter continued to be exchanged in 2016, and the word ‘banter’, and variations thereon, continued to be used to wave away accusations of misogyny and bigotry. Both these tendencies peaked in October with the release of a 2005 tape in which Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump engaged in what he and his defenders called ‘locker room talk’. He was elected just a few weeks later.

Relentlessly sexist commentary on female politicians, often focusing (most notably in the case of Hillary Clinton) on their voices and style of speaking. All the familiar word-weapons—‘shrill’, ‘harsh’, ‘grating’, ‘aggressive’—were deployed by all the usual suspects.

If you’re thinking, ‘but surely there was plenty of critical commentary on Donald Trump’s language too’, you’re not wrong, but the comparison is instructive. When negative judgments are made on the speech of a female politician, her alleged failings are typically presented as the failings of her sex in general. Trump’s failings, on the other hand, were presented as his alone. They were ‘Trumpisms’, not ‘man-isms’ (it was even argued that Trump talks like a woman). The one exception was the ‘locker room talk’, where the idea that this was typical male behaviour got wheeled out not to condemn Trump but to excuse him.

If a female politician is widely acknowledged as an excellent public speaker, you can always accuse her of talking too much. In April, Owen Smith MP (in case you’ve forgotten, he was the man who unsuccessfully challenged Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership) tweeted about his visit to a café in Millport in Scotland. He included two photos, one showing him with his arms around two of the ‘ladies’ (his description) who worked there, and the other showing a jar of old-fashioned gobstoppers. The part of the tweet relating to this second image said: ‘they’ve got the perfect present for @NicolaSturgeon, too’. A gobstopper, geddit? Because Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland (and at the time—before Theresa May became PM—the most powerful female politician in the UK), talks entirely too much and needs a good shutting up.

The continuing war on the word ‘women’. Two of the most popular posts I published this year touched on the question of why ‘women’ now seems to be the hardest word. In April the women’s section of the UK Green Party set off a Twitterstorm with its use of the term ‘non-men’. Across the Atlantic in September we had Planned Parenthood talking about ‘people’ being ‘criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’. And throughout the autumn there were regular sightings of a new addition to the lexicon of ‘women’-avoidance: ‘menstruators’.

Having rejected sex or gender-based labels as essentialist and exclusionary, promoters of this term apparently felt that bodily function-based labels were the way to go. I, by contrast, feel pretty sure they aren’t. If you don’t want to say ‘women’, OK, I get it, but why not try using your linguistic judgment to find a contextually appropriate alternative? In this case, where the news story was about the removal of sales tax on pads and tampons, ‘sanitary product buyers’ would have worked—or where the report had already made clear what products were being discussed, just ‘customers’. If you’d find it offensive, or just plain weird, to read statements like ‘the recent fall in the price of toilet paper has been welcomed by defecators across the country’, or ‘perspirers have questioned the classification of deodorant as a luxury’, then you shouldn’t be giving house-room to ‘menstruators’ either.

More terrible advice and stupid opinions about women’s speech. This year hasn’t (yet) brought us anything quite as ludicrous as the ‘Just Not Sorry’ app that appeared at the very end of 2015, but bullshit continued to be churned out by the bucketload. It remained a truth universally acknowledged that women apologise too much, and constant criticism of female ‘verbal tics’ was once again presented as empowering rather than underminingAn op-ed piece in the New York Times added ‘I feel like’ to the list of words and phrases women should avoid if they want anyone to take them seriously—while also managing to relate the rise of ‘feeling like’ to Everything That’s Wrong With Our Society Today. (If anyone from the Times is reading this, I’d be happy to advise on what linguistic opinions editors should avoid giving space to if they want anyone to take them seriously.)

Not all bad advice is addressed to women: some of it is advice for men on how to make women’s lives a misery. The example that got most attention this year advised on how to make a woman take off her headphones and PAY ATTENTION. Because it’s part of a woman’s job description to be available to random men who want to converse with her AT ALL TIMES.

Death. It’s become a truism (though maybe not an actual truth) that 2016 brought a bumper harvest for the Grim Reaper. Two posts on this blog reflected that: one was a response to the death of the architect Zaha Hadid and the other was prompted by the murder of Jo Cox MP.

Online misogyny. In 2016 the abuse directed at women online was widely acknowledged as a significant problem, and in Britain it was the subject of a high-profile cross-party campaign—which was launched with a report that managed to blame half of the problem on women. (If you want to read something more sensible on this subject, I can recommend Emma Jane’s new book Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History.)

There were a few small consolations:

Resolution 109. The American Bar Association made the use of patronising endearment terms to women lawyers a breach of professional standards. (Meanwhile in the UK, a female judge responded to a male defendant who called her a cunt by saying ‘you’re a bit of a cunt yourself’.)

Women political speakers kicking ass. In the wake of the referendum that brought us Brexit, Nicola Sturgeon showed once again that few politicians can touch her when it comes to rhetorical skill. The US presidential campaign brought another outstanding female political speaker to the world’s attention: Michelle Obama.

Arrival. Not the best thing I’ve ever seen, but hey, Hollywood made a film about a woman linguist who saves the world!

In real life, of course, linguists don’t save the world: the best someone like me can do is try to make a bit more sense of some of the things that are happening in the world. As ever, my efforts to do that this year have been indebted to the work of many other researchers and/or bloggers, and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve cited/linked to in my posts.

I’ll be back with more feminist guiding in 2017, but in the meantime I thank everyone who reads the stuff I put here (there are a lot more of you than I ever thought there would be when I started this blog in 2015), and I wish you as much peace, love and joy as you can find in these unsettled and discouraging times.

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.