Yesterday we discussed — Duplicity and Immorality: Women and Gays in the Military — and in our conversation concerning that hot topic, we wondered aloud about traditional gender roles, inborn strengths, and the unwittingly transmitted semiotics of the traditionally and artificially applied mainstream female façade. That dialogue brought me to wondering about language and how we choose words to define ideas down through the centuries as we try to get along with each other. Here’s a flowchart demonstrating the clear mess we’re in with language acquisition, vocabulary provenance and the propriety of ideas expressed in symbols on a page.

What makes words sexist? Usage? Traditional definition? The word’s tone one when verbally expressed?

When I was an undergraduate at UNL, I used the word “lady” in a sentence discussing female authors.

I was roundly and publicly corrected, admonished, and ground down by the feminist professor who told me, in sharp and puncturing tone, that “lady” was an Old English word for “bitch.”

She then asked — rather dramatically as she rose from her chair and pointed at me — if I really meant, if I really intended, to call Flannery O’Connor a “bitch.”

I just sat there wide-eyed and shook my head “no.”

As a graduate student — smarter to the wicked ways of the politically correct in the classroom — I used the word “seminal” in a sentence to describe a historic and primal piece of research.

The professor, a feminist male, corrected me and said — as he rather dramatically rose from his chair to stand and point at me (okay, he didn’t do that, but in the flashback of my mind he always does…) — to ask me if I knew “seminal” was a sexist male word?

The professor told me “seminal” has its linguistic provenance in “seed” or the Latin “seminalis” or — more frankly — “semen.”

Why, he asked everyone in the room in a loud voice, would anyone use the word “seminal” unless they were trying to perpetuate male dominance in research in the classroom?

I did not freeze in my response. I did not shake my head “no.”

I asked a question: “What is the feminist equal of ‘seminal?'”

He said there wasn’t one.

I nodded my head asked another question: “So if words don’t have equal male and female origins, are we supposed to not use the one that does have a historic gender meaning?”

“No,” he replied, “but we must be wary of what words we use to describe ideas. Our words may insult others who must live in a male dominated society.”

I asked if we might use the word “ovaric” to sit in gender opposition as a synonym for “seminal.” “Ovary” is of the Latin word “ovum” meaning “egg.” “Ovaric” doesn’t mean “excellent” but, perhaps, I wondered, if we might make it mean that.

The professor glared at me.

I continued, “Are seeds and eggs considered equal or not?”

“Now you’re being silly,” he said.

“Would you be insulted,” I asked, “if I used ‘ovaric’ in all the instances when I would normally choose ‘seminal’ in my writing and discussion?”

He sat there wild-eyed and shook his head “no.”

I used “ovaric” as often as I could in my papers and in my class discussion.

I realized I found a modicum of success when other students around me started using “ovaric” instead of “seminal” in their work as well — and it was then I discovered that’s how language gains ground in the popular mind and current culture and, just perhaps, finds a future foothold and an ongoing life beyond its original invection.

Through its imitation and conditional employment, any word is prime for primping and positioning if enough minds take to it and provide the word meaning in context and out-of-mind.

Have you ever been accused of using sexist language when that wasn’t your intent? If so, how did you respond?

Are there certain words others use that drive you bonkers because you know what they do not realize: Their word choice is sexist and inappropriate.

24 Comments

  1. I’m always torn on topics like this. Words, as your flow chart incidicates, don’t have an intrinsic meaning. For that reason, it should be easy to detach words from old sexist or racist contexts and or to invent new ones, right? Not really… meaning depends sort of on cultural agreement, and sometimes the historical connotations of a work are hard to override.
    Examples. The reinscription of “queer” as a non-perjorative description for homosexuals seems to have met with a fair amount of success, considering that academia (forever balancing on tenterhooks) has embraced “queer theory” as a valid scholastic designation. “Nigger?” Not so much. That word has a much longer and more violent history of perjorative use; perhaps that’s why it is still such a contentious term.
    As a student of feminism, I felt pleasantly challenged by the charge to find words other than “seminal” to describe influential and generative texts (there are some neutral synonyms for you right there). I love the word “invaginated” to describe nonlinear texts. Examining your word choice and its implications could only be productive for language, as you saw yourself in the seminal generative use of the word “ovaric.” but I find it less productive to enforce replacement of those words, as your earlier professor seemed to do.

  2. Tanglethis —
    This for the fab-o comment!
    Just for the record, I love Flannery O’Connor and I’d never knowingly call her a “bitch” and I enjoy the fact that she was a devout Roman Catholic and expressed her deep Catholicism in her work. My students are always amazed to learn that about her and they incredulously re-read her work to discover all the embedded religious semiotics.
    I love language and meaning and it is always good to learn what you may not know. I haven’t used “lady” or “ladies” since that incident out of fear of insulting someone. Is it wrong of me to be so wholly cowed by the experience to remove the word from my everyday use? Probably. But I’m glad I did. I just wish the correction had been a little less public and, perhaps, a bit kinder in intention.
    I think back to recall in high school being vaguely insulted while learning Spanish that nouns either had a male or female connotation and based on that historic context, you had to correctly “genderize” your sentences to be grammatically correct while being humanly inaccurate by perpetuating the cultural myth that names and actions require grammar gender identifiers first before any real meaning within the structure of a sentence could be applied.
    I remember when “Queer” was coming back into the activist embrace 20 years or so ago and several of my New York lesbian friends hated the word and its connotations. They were outraged the Gay community was embracing a slur to lessen its sting. They felt a slur should remain disgruntled and unused even in activist speech.
    That was a decade before “Queer Folk” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” so maybe trying to take the slur mainstream worked.
    I still contend that today when a straight man calls a Gay guy “Queer” he isn’t being activist or modern — he’s flinging a cruel historic insult with a negative and smearing meaning — and those in his straight communion of males understand that slam.
    I know there was also an effort to de-marginalize “Faggot” in the Gay community but that didn’t seem to take as well as “Queer” did — probably because its meaning was mainly male and, therefore, less universal as a Gay rallying cry.
    I wonder if the gender-opposite synonym for “pregnant pause” would be “erect moment” or not?
    In one of my classes when I related the stories I shared today, one guy said, “Sounds like you got shafted!” One woman in the class immediately shouted back, “You mean ‘vagina’d.’”

  3. lady” was an Old English word for “bitch.” – since when ? since the feminists got hold of it?
    Lady is a woman of a certain class, a certain upbringing, is well bred and well mannered – almost the total opposite of bitch.
    A lady is everything my parents hoped I would grow up to be ……….
    Thank you for standing up for us !

  4. Thanks for the comment, Nicola, and I appreciate you sticking with us through our “vanishing comments” problem.
    I think there has been a lot of study on the lady/bitch/woman triad in the early feminist analysis of literature — at least that’s what I was told at the time. “Lady” and “Dame” and “Honey” and so on were all considered dire insults and to employ any of them was to risk great wrath! 😀

  5. That is so wild, Nicola, because Lady and Dame originated in the UK, were borrowed by the USA and then somehow made into insults. I remember a further example from my feminist professor: “Ladies and gentlemen…”
    “Why,” she asked, “is it okay to say, ’bitches and gentlemen’ in what is really a faux greeting?”
    Are there any UK words that have been around for a long time but have recently been politicized because of gender or sexuality issues?
    It’s fascinating how “faggot” in the UK means “bundle of sticks or twigs” while in the USA it’s an insult to a male homosexual. How does the meaning of the same word change so radically between English speaking nations?

  6. Nicola! I had not idea “faggot” meant meatball — now that’s even more riotous!
    “Can you please pass the faggots?”
    “Tonight, we’re having faggots and bangers for dinner.”
    “When was the last time you ate a faggot in one swallow?”
    Oh, my! :mrgreen:
    I always thought “faggots” in the UK meant cigarettes. Is that just a plain old “fag” then?
    Is it proper to say, “Faggots don’t smoke fags in the UK, but in the USA they do.”
    Thanks for the feminist site!

  7. Hi David,
    More on the First Lady and “B” connection:
    Media Matters reports about the Glenn Beck’s radio commentary about Hillary Clinton’s vocal range.

    On the March 15 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Glenn Beck said: “Hillary Clinton cannot be elected president because … there’s something about her vocal range.”
    … “There’s something about her voice that just drives me — it’s not what she says, it’s how she says it,” adding, “She is like the stereotypical — excuse the expression, but this is the way to — she’s the stereotypical bitch, you know what I mean?”

  8. Thank you for a “Brief History of Fags in the UK”, Nicola! 😀
    “Fag Hags” are big here. Especially in NYC with older, powerful women who do not have children and are unmarried. They hook up with a young and attractive gay man who seeks only access to power and wealth. It’s quite a dynamic.
    Thanks for explaining the traditional way to eat faggots, but “faggots and bangers with smoking fags” is just so much funnier to my juvenile American sense of humor.
    :mrgreen:

  9. Hi Gordon!
    That’s an excellent real-life example of what we’re talking about and I thank you for sharing your story. When you made that comment, what was her argument? That your metaphor was wrong or your word choice was inappropriate?
    Do you have a link for the menstruation melee? Now that sounds pretty wild!

  10. In my doctoral viva, one of my examiners really only had one observation to make on my thesis, and it was as follows: “You’ve used the word ‘seminal’ a few times. That’s bad according to The Madwoman in the Attic.” Now, every time I hear or read the word, I find myself incandescent with rage. Thanks for an interesting article, nonetheless!