The spinster returns?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In praise of strident women

Here’s what some random man on Twitter had to say about Greta Thunberg yesterday (just to put it in context, he was replying to a woman who had tweeted her admiration for Thunberg following the latter’s speech at the UN Climate Action summit):

But she’s so strident! Just her speaking style, if we can set aside for a moment what’s she’s speaking about, which is critically important I agree. All the more reason to win over a broad base with an agreeable presentation; you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

This was not, by a long shot, the worst thing anyone had said about the 16-year old activist. A pundit appearing on Fox TV called her ‘a mentally ill Swedish child’; Dinesh D’Souza shared an image showing a photo of her alongside an old Nazi propaganda poster featuring a blonde-braided, rosy-cheeked Nordic maiden, and invited us to infer that she was continuing an old ‘socialist’ (aka totalitarian and racist) tradition. And—with the inexorability of night following day, or of targets being missed for the reduction of carbon emissions—US President Donald Trump mocked her in a tweet, which read: ‘She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!’ (It was later reported that Thunberg had upped the ironic ante by incorporating his words into her own Twitter bio.)

Unlike these critics, however, Random Twitter Guy thought he was being constructive. He wasn’t politically opposed to Thunberg’s message; he just thought there was a problem with the way she delivered it. He felt her presentation hadn’t been ‘agreeable’ (which is true: the speech was visibly angry and linguistically accusatory, punctuated regularly by the question ‘how dare you?’): it had too much vinegar and not enough honey. He presented this concern as tactical, a question of maximising the reach of this critically important intervention by taking care not to alienate listeners when you could be recruiting them to the cause.

But we might want to probe what’s behind this perception of Thunberg’s style as alienating to a mass audience. Would Random Twitter Guy have had the same reaction if the ‘how dare you’ speech had been made by a male teenager? I suspect the answer is ‘no’, and the reason for that suspicion has to do with language. It’s not, to my mind, just a random coincidence that the word RTG reached for to describe Greta Thunberg was ‘strident’.

‘Strident’ is one of a number of code-words which have become covertly gendered because of the way they’re most commonly used. Though in principle they are applicable to anyone who speaks in a certain way, in practice they are used significantly more frequently to criticise the speech of women and girls. It doesn’t necessarily matter how the target of this criticism actually speaks, because what’s couched as a complaint about her speech style is really just a way of complaining about the woman or girl herself, while making the speaker’s antipathy to her appear to have some reasonable or ‘objective’ basis. (‘I’m fine with women holding office/ making speeches/ leading movements…it’s just that this particular woman’s voice/speaking style is so horrendously [insert code-word here].’)

Another classic code-word of this type, as we saw in commentary on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, is ‘shrill’ (there’s a graphic here showing the sex-unbalanced distribution). ‘Abrasive’ is popular in some contexts (as Kieran Snyder found in 2014 when she analysed a sample of performance reviews in the tech industry), and ‘bossy’ does the job in others; ‘aggressive’, ‘intimidating’ and ‘pushy’ may also work. A related code uses apparently positive, or at least not overtly negative, terms to express condescension rather than outright dislike—the iconic example would be ‘feisty’. (And somewhere in between the two we find ‘formidable’, as in ‘the formidable ladies of the WI’.)

But back to ‘strident’. What exactly is a ‘strident’ speaker being accused of? The word itself comes from the Latin verb ‘stridere’, meaning to creak (it also covers ‘shriek’ and ‘screech’, which in English show a similar pattern of sex-preferential usage to ‘shrill’), and one thing it can evoke is a loud, rough or grating vocal quality. In relation to Greta Thunberg’s speech, however, we’re probably dealing with another sense of the word, relating to the (metaphorical) tone in which an argument is made or an opinion expressed.  To quote the definition offered by the Oxford Dictionary, being ‘strident’ in this sense means

presenting a point of view, especially a controversial one, in an excessively and unpleasantly forceful way.

Like the rest of the code-words, ‘strident’ used in this way isn’t inherently a gendered or sexist term. The illustrative example given in the OD entry I’ve just quoted is the gender-neutral ‘public pronouncements on the crisis became less strident’. But its well-established use as a criticism of female speakers reflects the sexist tendency to judge men and women by different standards when considering what might constitute being ‘excessively and unpleasantly forceful’. What might be deemed appropriately forceful in a male speaker—taken as a sign of his sincere and urgent concern about the issue at hand—becomes ‘excessive’ and ‘unpleasant’ in his female counterpart, because it diverges from the stereotypical feminine ideal against which her performance, unlike his, is consciously or unconsciously being measured.

‘Forceful’ speech is rather generally disapproved of in women. As Robin Lakoff noted in her pioneering 1973 essay ‘Language and Woman’s Place‘, it’s considered unladylike and unattractive to be too blunt, too direct and too sure of oneself. If women do express opinions, they are expected to do it in a suitably measured and ‘pleasant’ way: to be deferential rather than commanding, gentle rather than aggressive, agreeable rather than accusatory, soothing rather than angry or despairing. Rather than being forceful, women are taught that they should use their charms to get what they want. But that’s a lesson Greta Thunberg seems to have skipped: she doesn’t pose or smile for the cameras, she isn’t sexy or flirty or cute. As commentators have noticed, this is hard for certain men to understand, and some of them are evidently enraged by it.

The philosopher Kate Manne has pointed out that the primary duty assigned to women as a class—taking care of other people, especially male ones—requires them both to suppress their own feelings (which Thunberg, angrily accusing today’s leaders of failing her generation, obviously did not do) and to put inordinate effort into making others feel better–another expectation Thunberg did not meet, giving a speech which some commentators found long on blame and short on hope. ‘Giving hope’, observed Manne on Twitter,

whatever the grim truth of the matter, is a feminine-coded pseudo-obligation that is far too seldom questioned.

Since one of the criticisms ‘strident’ implies is a failure or refusal to meet the linguistic demands associated with ‘proper’ femininity, it is not surprising that the word has a specific history of being used to disparage feminists—women who express Rebecca West’s proverbial ‘sentiments that distinguish me from a doormat’. In my own youth, the pairing of ‘strident’ and ‘feminist’ was a cliché in its own right—it may even have been where I first encountered the word ‘strident’.

Sometimes ‘strident’, when paired with ‘feminist’, was pretty much a code-word for ‘man-hating’, and that association apparently lingers on. Last year, the hashtag #StridentWomen was created in response to a comment made by the (male) Chief Scientist of Australia, who had complained that the real progress being made on sexism and sexual harassment in science was being unfairly ignored by ‘strident’ women. Here, once again, the underlying complaint is about women not treating men the way men feel entitled to be treated—not deferring to their superior knowledge, not expressing gratitude for whatever crumbs we’ve been tossed, not reassuring men we know they’re trying and everything will be OK.

‘Strident’ women, in short, are women who not only speak out forcefully, but who do so on their own behalf, in the interests of their own sex, or in Thunberg’s case their own generation. And the misogynist reaction is, how dare they? How dare women behave so selfishly? How dare they question the official line that things are improving, or suggest that progress needs to be faster? How dare they turn the tables, wagging their fingers and saying ‘how dare you’ to their betters?

Here’s my advice to people like Random Twitter Guy: if you don’t want us to think you’re sexists and misogynists, be careful with words like ‘strident’. The code I’ve been discussing was cracked by feminists long ago: we know what you’re communicating, even if you don’t. And far from shutting us up, what you communicate when you call us ‘shrill’, ‘strident’, ‘pushy’, ‘bossy’, ‘abrasive’, etc., just makes us more determined to go on speaking—as loudly and as forcefully as we think the circumstances require.

Thanks to all the people on Twitter who shared their thoughts and examples.

Dictionary wars

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

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hold my beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who owns words?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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