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United Nations International Women's Day rally

Why we should care about language and gender

With International Women’s Day being celebrated today, journalist and writer Anne Sexton looks at the long and inglorious history of the word ‘slut’, and explains why gender-neutral language is still a hot topic.

Is language partially responsible for gender inequality, Miss?

In February 2012 the French government banned the term of address mademoiselle from all official forms. Women’s groups proposing the change argued that titles indicating whether or not a woman is married are condescending, discriminatory, and sexist.

Like mademoiselle English honorific titles refer to the marital status of women, although we have the option of Ms, which is often used in formal or professional contexts but has perhaps yet to catch on in everyday life. While Ms came into vogue with second-wave feminism it actually dates back to the turn of the 20th century. (You can read all about Mrs, Miss, and Ms here.)

The vetoing of mademoiselle was not universally acclaimed as a good idea. “I think the whole thing is ridiculous,” opined a commentator on the Daily Mail website. “Keeping on pushing the feminist insanities, ‘ladies’,” fumed another. But is scrapping sexist language really just a silly idea?

Mrs and Miss have been feminist anathemas since the late 1960s because, the argument went, language not only reflects gender inequality but is partly responsible for it.

Feminists are not the only ones who think so. Commenting on the dropping of mademoiselle, Professor of Applied Linguistics Dr Penelope Gardner-Chloros argued that language can reflect entrenched attitudes as it is “a sensitive indicator of the distinctions that a society makes.”

Sluts, slappers, and bimbos

One such distinction can be seen in the words used to describe promiscuous men and women.

In 2011 the SlutWalk protests meant that the term slut came under the spotlight. Of the many debates the movement engendered one of the most heated was whether or not slut could be reclaimed as a positive badge of identity, much like how queer has been largely shorn of its pejorative connotations.

It is possible, but it is worth bearing in mind that queer had been used as a derogatory term for less than one hundred years before being reclaimed – its first recorded usage is an 1894 letter written by Oscar Wilde’s nemesis, the Marquess of Queensberry. Slut has a much longer history and has been used to designate a promiscuous woman for about 450 years. While the term polices women’s sexual behaviour, slut can be used to demonize women’s political activism too (as the Rush Limbaugh controversy shows).

‘Slut’ is of doubtful origin. The earliest reference to it comes from as far back as 1402, and used to mean a slovenly or untidy woman. The first known reference to slut as a promiscuous woman is found in the Ludus Coventriae dated around 1450 – “Com forth, thou sloveyn! com forthe, thou slutte!”

It could be argued that slut is used ambiguously here and could refer to a woman of unclean habits. Clearer examples can be found in Nicholas Breton’s 1577 Floorish vpon Fancie (“To haunt the Tauerns late And swap ech slut, vpon the lippes, that in the darke hee meetes”) and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy from 1621 (“A peevish drunken flurt, a waspish cholerick slut”). Of course, references to unclean habits don’t necessarily exclude sexual behaviour – since 1599 dirty has been used to mean ‘morally unclean’, ‘impure’, or ‘smutty’.

Another example is slapper. Slapper used to mean a large object or a strapping, or overgrown person. Anne E. Baker’s Glossary of Northamptonshire Words (1954) explains that the term referred most frequently to an overgrown woman. In its modern sense the term found its way into the 1990 Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, which describes slapper as a working-class term from East London and Essex meaning ‘prostitute’ or ‘slut’. It’s possible that the word may have its roots in the Yiddish schlepper, meaning an ‘unkempt, scruffy person; gossipy, dowdy woman’ but its etymology is unclear.

Slightly less egregious – although not by much – is bimbo. Bimbo comes from the Italian, bambino, meaning ‘little child’. In American slang it dates from around 1919 and was originally used as a contemptuous term for ‘fellow’ or ‘chap’. PG Wodehouse was fond of it and used it in this sense as late as 1947, but since the 1920s bimbo has been used to describe a prostitute or a sexually attractive woman of little intelligence, which is now the usual sense of the word.

While slut and slapper are the most common terms in use today, there are plenty of synonyms for them – tart, harlot, minx, jade, strumpet, hussy, trollop, and tramp. While there are equivalent terms for men, these don’t carry the same pejorative connotations.

Consider the slang neologisms such as manwhore and playa. The amusing if not terribly scholarly Urban Dictionary defines manwhore as (among other things) ‘a badge of f***ing pride’, and notes that ‘it is “cool” and “hip” to be labeled as a “playa”. A female version of this would be slut.’

Older terms for promiscuous men include philanderer – “a man who philanders; a male flirt”; rake, which the OED explains is “a fashionable or stylish man of dissolute or promiscuous habits”; and sybarite, who we may disapprove of for being “devoted to luxury or pleasure” and “an effeminate voluptuary or sensualist” to boot. As I’m sure you’ll have noticed these terms are not in frequent usage these days, nor are whoremonger, lecher, debauchee, or roué. Even playboy sounds a little outdated to contemporary ears.

Playboy, when used to refer to a wealthy man who pursues pleasure and is irresponsible and sexually promiscuous, originates from Irish English. The original playboy was Christy Mahon from JM Synge’s 1907 play, The Playboy of the Western World, although these days when most people hear the term they think of a dirty magazine and the smoking-jacket-wearing old codger who made a fortune from it.

He or she is a waitron: changing sexist language

Feminists have had some success in changing sexist language. From the late 1960s feminists objected to terms like chairman, spokesman and the use of male pronouns as standard. A great deal of gender-neutral language is now accepted in everyday usage. The first known written reference to chairperson can be found in Science News of September 1971, while spokesperson made its first outing in British newspaper The Guardian on February 1972. In November 1982 Scientific American noted that flight attendant was gradually replacing steward and stewardess – although these days trolley dolly is widespread, a term that is both pejorative and gendered!

Some gender-neutral terms have just never caught on, such as the much-unloved waitron. First used around 1980 to imply that waiting tables was a mindless job, it was later championed as a substitute for waiter and waitress. On 23 January 1985 the Daily Telegraph reported that: “A coffee shop at Cambridge, Massachusetts, has joined the feminist bandwagon by banning references to waiters and waitresses. According to a notice on the door the staff are henceforth to be known as ‘waitrons’.”

It is worth noting that there never has been a concerted effort to change manhole to personhole, nor has anyone seriously argued that manipulate should be personipulate. Remember the film Legally Blonde? Enid complains that semester privileges semen over ovaries and argues that the second university term should be called the “Winter Ovester.” If Enid had checked the OED she would have learnt that semester comes from the Latin sēstris, meaning ‘six months’. In the same way, manipulate has its roots in manus, the Latin for hand – it has nothing to do with the ‘man’ that denotes the male gender. These and other ridiculous examples are sometimes brought up to trivialize the idea of gender-neutral language and imply that feminists are extremist, impractical, or suffering from that old sexist standby – hysteria (which, as the OED notes “was originally thought to be due to a disturbance of the uterus and its functions”).

One particular feminist grievance is the use of generics such as man to refer to all of humanity, as these rendered women invisible. As the OED notes “Man was considered until the 20th century to include women by implication, though referring primarily to males.”

It’s fairly easy to avoid using masculine generics – humankind trips off the tongue just as easily as mankind; working hours is a perfectly good alternative to man-hours, and adulthood is far more precise than manhood if you want to refer to fully-grown humans of both sexes.

The use of the male pronoun as standard has fallen out of fashion and looks archaic these days, although at times people complain that using he or she and his and her can result in clunky sentences. You can read how to get around the issue here.

Linguistic invisibility and International Women’s Day

Feminists have the argued that use of masculine generics reinforces a binary whereby the male and masculine is seen as the norm while the female and feminine is seen as secondary, derivative, or lesser in some way.

This may sound a little nonsensical at first but consider Douglas Hofstadter’s article “A Person Paper on Purity in Language”, before you dismiss the issue out of hand. Hofstadter, an American academic, drew an analogy between racist and sexist language and asked the reader to imagine a world where white not man was the generic term. So you’d have spokeswhites, policewhites, and the achievements of whitekind. In such a world, people of colour would be linguistically erased – just like women are when we talk about mankind.

International Women’s Day aims to recognize women’s achievements and highlight gender inequality around the world. When you consider issues such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honour killings, or even the fact that women in the West still earn less than men for doing the same jobs, sexist language might not seem like a pressing issue. However, the language we use has a subtle but significant effect on how we perceive others.

For example, blonde women are stereotyped as foolish and scatterbrained and dumb blondes have been with us since around 1936. Stereotyping blondes as stupid is not as harmless as you might think: a study by Diana Kyle at California State University found that hair colour affects a job applicant’s chances of being hired and her salary. Women with brown hair are seen as more capable and are awarded higher salaries than their equally well-qualified blonde counterparts.

Language is important. But then you know that – that’s why you read this blog.

Photo credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com.

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