Weekly Word Watch: theyby, #PayMeToo, and attagirl
As our colleague Katherine Connor Martin tweeted this week, the Oxford English Dictionary has updated dozens of entries relating to sex and gender, a ‘rapidly changing segment of the English lexicon’:
In the latest @oed update, dozens of entries relating to sexual and gender identity were revised, the first phase of a project to revisit this rapidly changing segment of the English lexicon: https://t.co/M24v92d7FG
— Katherine Connor Martin (@kconnormartin) April 3, 2018
Inspired by the updates, we thought to highlight four notable terms tracking such changes in our first Weekly Word Watch for this April.
In the past few years, we’ve seen they come of age as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun for people who don’t identify as he or she, e.g., Dana will take care of it themself.
Now, the pronoun is producing some offspring all its own: theyby, or a they baby.
As discussed in an article on The Cut making the rounds this week, a growing group of parents – including many who themselves use they/them/their pronouns – are choosing to raise their babies from birth without gender designation. They refer to their children with the gender-unspecified singular they, hence the blend of they and baby into theyby.
Theyby is a clever portmanteau, but will it learn to walk? Baby already serves well when speaking of newborns regardless of gender, but most people still ask if a baby is a boy or a girl upon a birth announcement. Theyby could, then, become an economical way for parents to signal the child has no gender designation.
We’ll be monitoring theyby’s development, but one thing is for certain: gender-neutral neutral they has a bright future. We should expect a new whole new generation of children who natively use they, giving the singular, gender-neutral pronoun a long, long life in the lexicon to come.
Another productive term in the world of sex and gender has been the hashtag #MeToo, which assumed the social media mantle for the global movement of women speaking up and out against sexual harassment and violence.
This week, a group of MPs across the UK political spectrum saw more social – and lexical possibilities – in the momentum of the #MeToo movement. As Labour MP Stella Creasy explained in The Guardian, they’ve launched the #PayMeToo campaign to address the gender pay gap, or the difference between what men and women earn.
RT! Do some good this bank holiday – Make sure everyone knows their rights and what to do next when it comes to tackling the gender pay gap in Britain. Because everyone deserves their fair share! Advice and survey here – https://t.co/VwFYxCUQ4Z #paymetoo pic.twitter.com/6z2OioBP8s
— stellacreasy (@stellacreasy) April 2, 2018
#PayMeToo, as a hashtag, comes as a brilliant piggyback on #MeToo as a movement – and a term that gracefully, effectively, and grammatically fits into the phrase me too.
But #PayMeToo isn’t just a deft bit of wordplay. It also demonstrates the linguistic power of hashtags in our language. Hashtags aren’t traditional words per se, but #MeToo has taken on a specific and widespread meaning all its own, so much so that we can instantly process #PayMeToo as a derived form of it.
We might even imagine #MeToo becoming a kind of lexical marker more broadly signifying activism against various form of sex- and gender-based discrimination. Think of it this way: if you logged on Twitter and saw #HireMeToo or #ElectMeToo were trending, do you think you could make a reasonable guess what causes they were fighting for?
Another trend in the language of sex and gender is the recasting of iconic male characters as females. Speaking to The Sun this week, director Steven Spielberg said it’s time his adventuresome archaeologist Indiana Jones – whom Harrison Ford will reprise in an upcoming fifth movie in the franchise – takes a ‘different form’.
‘We’d have to change the name from Jones to Joan’, Spielberg said. ‘And there would be nothing wrong with that.’
On the surface, it’s a convenient change. Jones literally means ‘John’s son’. And the given name Joan is simply a daughter, as it were, of John: Joan, along with Jean and Jane, is a from a medieval variant of Ioannes, the Latin form of John with roots yet further down in Greek and Hebrew.
And yet Jones is a common surname borne by men and women alike. Indiana Jones’s full name is Dr Henry Walton Indiana Jones, Jr, making Joan an irrelevant, if clever, gender marker. If Spielberg wants a female Indiana Jones, why couldn’t she be called, well, Indiana Jones?
Plus, what are marketers and branders to do when their Johnnie’s and Jones’s don’t so readily lend themselves to Jane’s and Joan’s?
Such easy name shifts are in part why some women call out Jane Walker or Indiana Joan as token, if a well-intended, feminism. If people are truly interested in more equitable gender representation, they say, don’t merely recast John as Jane. Let Jane speak for herself in the first place.
I, for one, say we take the prospect of a female Indiana Jones as an opportunity to pick another distinctive US state name: Alaska Jones or Minnesota Jones, anyone?
Finally, a viral story this week highlighted a word we encounter far less often than its male counterpart: attagirl.
For John Oliver’s news comedy show Last Week Tonight, writer Jill Twiss composed a children’s book, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Featuring a same-sex romance between two bunnies, Twiss’s book parodies Marlon Bundo’s A Day in the Life of the Vice President, a story from US Vice President Mike Pence’s family about their actual pet rabbit named Marlon Bundo.
Pence is known for his opposition to same-sex marriage, hence Twiss’s pointed tale. One reader, an 87-year-old man, took appreciative note of that, sending Twiss a certificate for Ten Attagirls for her championship of sexual equality. As Twiss tweeted:
Hi, a tiny story: I wrote a book about two boy bunnies falling in love and got a wonderful letter from an 87 year old man that included this — a thing I love so much — a certificate for “TEN ATTAGIRLS” pic.twitter.com/eLTwNyzX9l
— Jill Twiss (@jilltwiss) April 4, 2018
Attagirl is a slang expression of encouragement or admiration to a woman or girl, e.g., You told your boss to #PayMeToo or you’re quitting? Attagirl! Evidenced since at least the 1920s, attagirl is modeled on attaboy, recorded as early as 1909 and said to be a colloquial pronunciation of the cheering That’s the boy!
What’s great about this viral attagirl is, yes, that the man’s letter is charming – and that attagirl is just absolutely fun to say. But what’s also notable is that it uses attagirl as a count noun: ten attagirls are like ten units of praise or recognition (to a woman or girl), a natural extension of attagirl as the exclamation for such kudos.
Parents raising gender-neutral theybies, of course, would issue ten attatheys.