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.