Earlier in the week I saw a video on Instagram, taken from a sketch that involved a man becoming angry, and mocking the fact that a woman called him out for using the term ‘girl’ in a sexist manner.
It is a particularly insidious level of misogyny where men find humour in a mockery of language reform. Criticising gender-free language, blinded by ,ignorance that causes them to inexplicably see such language as a personal attack on them, for some reason.
Such ignorance is particularly visible in the aforementioned sketch, as the phrase described as sexist by the female actor, was “the girls go first, then the boys.” While we cannot say that this usage is not sexist. It does include a symmetrical application of ‘girl’ and ‘boy’, so is not particularly problematic in the first place.
Many people consider ‘political correctness’ to be an affront on their ‘free speech’ in general. But with perceived sexist language, I would say the majority of men - myself included - are not wholly aware of the state the English language is in, and has been since it first emerged.
One rather lurid example, is language regarding genitalia. Everyone is aware that there is an imbalance of terminology regarding male and female genitalia. An article in The Guardian a few years ago pointed out that when referring to the female reproductive system, English restricts us to abusive or clinical terms, and has no equivalents for the - many - humorous words for penis. But, what I’d guess at least some of you didn’t know, is even the noun “vagina” is a profound example of androcentric naming, in that it is derived from the Latin for “sheath” - a place where one keeps a sword. So, despite the word not retaining that meaning, the female organ was originally named in order to suggest that its only purpose is penetrative sex with men, implying women are not truly in control of their own bodies. Furthermore, when a woman is in labour, the name for that part of her body switches from “vagina” to “birth canal”. Applying a lexical analysis to this clearly shows that a significant part of a woman’s anatomy is described in terms of its function for the use of a man or a baby.
In the last paragraph I mentioned the term ‘naming’. Which is a term I have taken from the work of Deborah Cameron; “many strands in the feminist critique of language have specifically concerned themselves with representation. They have concluded, on the whole, that our languages are sexist; that is, they represent or “name” the world from a masculine viewpoint and in accordance with stereotypical beliefs about the sexes.”
What Cameron is saying here, and goes on to suggest, is the claim that the names we ascribe to our world cannot possibly be mere reflections of reality, nor are they arbitrary labels with no relation to it. In-fact, names are our culture’s way of fixing what will count as reality in a universe that is overwhelmed, “pregnant with a multitude of possible meanings.”
We can take this to the extreme - I see no harm in doing so - and state that not only has language been shaped in the interests of men, but it is in-fact ‘man-made’. The longer you take to consider that statement, the more farcical it will seem. However, let me change your mind. If we say that language is ‘man-made’, we are already admitting that women have to see their experience of reality through the filter of the male view, and on top of that, we are suggesting that women are afforded no role in the creation of new meanings. A point championed by Dale Spender, the Australian feminist scholar.
Let me provide some evidence for this. If you are not already aware of the term, ‘pronoun-envy’ refers to the derogatory, masculinist view that gender-free language is as dangerous as it is ridiculous. For example, claiming that ‘the bloody feminists’ want to change ‘manhole cover’ to ‘personhole cover’. Already, we can see that feminist attempts at language reform are mocked, and exaggerated as a form of gaslighting. On from this, there have historically and currently been many attempts at policy change at an institutional level, feminists have invented terms such as ‘herstory’, ‘wimmin’ and ‘chair’ (as opposed to ‘chairman’), but these inventions are not afforded the luxury of natural language use. As Deborah Cameron puts it; “conscious linguistic reform by feminists, or even ‘natural’ change deriving from women’s changing experience and consciousness, is not simply left to take its chance with other social faces affecting language in a free market competition for semantic supremacy.”
For example, the term ‘binge-watch’ was added to the Collins English Dictionary in 2012, after ‘surviving’ natural usage. Which it achieved, by merely being allowed to exist. In the case of feminist lexical inventions, they are cast aside by feminist critics without any consideration at all. When in reality, these terms - especially the ones I just mentioned - hold undeniable semantic importance and value.
Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that the English Language is fucked and all we can do about it, is use it better, allow it to reform on its own, with some encouragement. A better, more equal language, is a better, more equal world.
Sara Mills (1995) Feminist Stylistics
Deborah Cameron (1985) Feminism and Linguistic Theory
Deborah Cameron (1990a) The Feminist Critique of Language
Deborah Cameron (1990b) Demythologising Sociolinguistics: Why does language not reflect society?,