Our Sexist Language

PART II Woman is made, not born

Few people would care to take the negative side of the proposition that the women of the world are oppressed and scorned. Statistics are against them. What has not been made so clear, however, is that the women of America, the world's most highly advanced (that is, technological) society, may be among the most oppressed and scorned of all.
Various data suggest the conclusion. Compared to other advanced nations, we have had fewer women in high government offices and fewer women in the professions. America men are more attracted by the primal aggressive activities of hunting and fishing than are men of other nations. More of them are seduced by the atavistic appeal of all-male organizations - reminiscent of the male-bonding propensities of the apes - from the Knights of Columbus to the Rotary Club. Our culture heroes are not benevolent rulers or noble wise men, in spite of the schools' efforts on behalf of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, but aggressive men of action: cowboys, aviators, baseball players, outlaws, military men. All muy macho.
It may be argued, of course, that these facts only confirm what we all know (men and women are different) and that they do not prove that the women in our society are held in particularly low esteem; merely because a rampant male person is the national ideal does not necessarily prove that feminine qualities are not accorded due respect in their proper place.  But it is impossible to despise certain traits to the extent that you suppress them in yourself without feeling superior to people who do not suppress them, especially people you live with. Females serve as ever-present reminders to developing males of what they must not become. The deleterious effect this has on the status of women is shown most unarguably in our national language, the most masculine branch of English, itself the most masculine of languages.
Early in this century, anthropologists made a discovery that transformed the nature of their own discipline and of several related ones - linguistics most of all. They found that by painstakingly examining a language they could learn more about the culture of the people who spoke the language than any number of its native speakers, however willing, could tell them. Without any particular interest in learning to converse in a given language, the anthropologists could phonetically record large samples of it and learn things about its speakers that the speakers themselves did not know and might deny if they were asked -  things about their concepts of time and space, about their taboos, about their social and family hierarchies.
Using such methods, an anthropologist from another planet visiting the earth could soon learn from examining human language that the half of the human race bearing offspring is scorned and oppressed by the half doing the impregnating. He would no doubt be puzzled unless he used his imagination to recapitulate the social history of the race. Ah! Of course! Pregnancies and child nurture incapacitate females for all their adult lives, so the males have to go out and fight to defend the nest and hunt to bring in the food. To pre-rational creatures greater physical strength and mobility would naturally spell superiority. But how amazing that these archaic attitudes persist in a society where the socially valuable potentials of the two sexes are so little differentiated - where brute strength is about as useful to those who aspire to the seats of power as the caudal appendage.
Nevertheless, the anthropologist could discover that English, one of the most highly evolved of the world's hundreds of languages and the one spoken in the most thoroughly technological society, retains more vestiges of the archaic sexual attitudes than any other civilized tongue. It would take some time to document this assertion. Several of our distinguished linguists - all male - have examined dozens of languages to see how their speakers' minds worked, but it has never occurred to any of them to compare the languages from the standpoint of their sexist quotient.
Some of them, however, have been struck by the unique dominance of the masculine viewpoint in the development of English, though they all regard this as to the great advantage of the language. One of the most eloquent advocates of this view is Otto Jespersen, a multilingual Dane. Because Jespersen could look at English from the viewpoint of a nonnative speaker, and because the remainder of his analysis of the language is so nearly flawless, his opinions on its masculinity deserves special credence. The entire whole first chapter of his most popular book, The Growth and Structure of the English Language, is devoted to proving his thesis that English is »the most positively and expressly masculine« of all the languages he knew. It is, he said, »the language of a grown-up man, with very little childish or feminine about it«.[1]
To accept Jespersen's major thesis, you do not have to accept his belief that the most admirable qualities of English - its terseness, logicality, freedom from pedantry, openness to innovation, and emotional restraint - are strictly masculine characteristics, or his argument that the effusiveness, long-windedness, ebullience, and adherence to the status quo distinguishing the languages he contrasts with it are »childish and feminine« or »childlike and effeminate«. (He used the two sets of adjectives interchangeably.) Jespersen's notion that women and children are practically identical temperamentally and cognitively is universally shared. Stoicism, efficiency, logic, and aggressiveness are masculine; their opposites are feminine (or childlike). It has even been suggested that the countless millennia during which women's role was chiefly maternal, forcing them to be more closely attuned to their young, have resulted in a sex-connected genetic change. But psychologists attribute the apparent child-woman similarity to the cultural conditioning of females. Women, like children, are weaker than males and are therefore subjugated by them. To get along, they learn to be obedient and complaisant; this does not exactly make for boldness and inventiveness in language or anything else. Nobody knows what direction language would take in a society where men and women were equal; no such society has ever been known to exist. But, with things as they are, we may accept Jespersen's thesis as valid. The unique characteristics of English that make it, in his view, superior to other languages are masculine.
Americans will be encouraged - or discouraged, depending on their sex - to learn that, using Jespersen's criteria, it can be demonstrated that the masculinity of English has been enhanced on this side of the Atlantic. Jespersen applauds, for example, the distinct pronunciation of the consonants in English, lamenting the neglect of r when it is not followed by a vowel. But in most of America, r is pronounced distinctly. He believes that the use of superlatives, to which the Latins - and even the Germans - are more prone than the British, is effeminate. But to Americans, even the British overdo hyperbole - hence the »frightfully's« and »delightfully's« of the staid Englishman. Jespersen thinks that clusters of strong consonants are masculine and that diminutive endings are feminine: compare lists of related British and American words (British: hotchpotch, rumbustious, felly; American: hodgepodge, rambunctious, TV). As for freedom from pedantry and openness to innovation, Americans, including women, disregard rules and coin new words so freely that they drive even the British wild. A British reviewer of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring moaned that he was at first put off »by the transatlantic vigor of her style«.
But more objective evidence of the male dominance of the language lies in our lexicon of sexual words and words denoting gender. The word man originally meant human being, but males appropriated it; later they came up with the word wife-man (now woman) for the other half of the race. He, with different endings to show gender, was once the pronoun for all third persons, but men took over the root word; she was an afterthought. Female came into Middle English as Old French femelle, a diminutive of femina, but was soon corrupted into its present form through the process of (male) folk etymology. (Phonetic symbolism, which I will discuss later, must have contributed to the lodging of this word in our lexicon, just as it has helped to change the meaning of effete in our own time. Even she looks suspicious.)
Many words that were none-motive when they referred to either gender became contemptuous after they came to apply to women alone; some that were pejorative lost that sense when they acquired an exclusively masculine reference. The shrewd-shrewish pair exemplifies both tendencies: in the sixteenth century, both words meant wicked and were equally pejorative; when they became gender-specific their connotation diverged sharply, Virago originally meant heroic woman: being a complimentary word,  it was sometimes applied to men. In Chaucer's time, harlot meant nothing worse than what rogue means now. However, when rogue entered the language a couple of centuries later, it meant shiftless vagrant and was used as a term of abuse to servants of both sexes; it acquired its romantic aura only after it was masculinized.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun female had already become "only contemptuous"; when its entry was written (late nineteenth century), the dictionary cites an author of the period who noted that female was a "term of opprobrium." By the twentieth century, the noun no longer was used in print and »polite conversation«, as the dictionaries used to call speech fit for public ears. (The recent attempts by women liberationists to restore it are misguided.)
The history of female offers such a clear-cut example of the linguistic effects of male supremacism that the process at work should be obvious even to the layman. But the experts in the field (all male, of course), far from acknowledging male guilt, blame women not only for the decline in status of the word but for the inconvenience caused by denying to the language the logical counterpart of male.
H. W. Fowler, whose Modern English Usage (1926) remains the American editors' bible (so much for Jespersen's idea that openness to innovation is a masculine trait), was so convinced that oversensitive women were responsible for the demise of words disclosing their sex that he called his article on »feminine designations« a »counterprotest.« He admitted that using the noun female to refer to women was »impolite« and "reasonably resented" because the word may apply to "nonhuman as well as to human female creatures.[2] But he held out for the adjective. NA,%en female is used before words like suffrage and education, he pointed out with unassailable logic, it describes, "of course, human f. creatures, i. e. women." Who ever heard of a female of another species getting the vote or going to college? He hoped that when the voting of women became a topic of general discussion, it would be called the female vote and not the woman vote, just as its counterpart would certainly be called the male vote and not the man vote. »To turn woman into an adjective with female ready made,« he concluded, »is mere perversity«.
Of course, it did not occur to the usually astute grammarian to ponder the implications of the odd fact that the noun male, which has the same dual reference, is not »impolite« and »reasonably resented«. If it had, we would have been spared the perpetuation of some further nonsense.
After setting us straight on female, he goes on to castigate women for protesting against feminine endings for nouns, accusing them of putting their »sectional claims« above »general convenience and the needs of the King's English«. He holds actresses up to us as an admirable example, pointing out that they »are not known to resent the indication of their sex«. The proof of real equality,« he concludes ringingly, »will be not the banishment of authoress as a degrading title, but its establishment on a level with author«. He cites a long list of other »feminine designations« that have survived the irate female onslaughts, among them adulteress, adventuress, enchantress, goddess, hostess, Jewess, stewardess, and waitress. He failed to note that all of these terms, like actress, refer to women who are either generally conceded to be just as good at what they do as men are, or who are too low in the social scale for men to worry about their reasonable resentment at having their gender made known.
As Fowler should have realized, neither protests nor counter-protests have ever altered the course of one English word. Emotive words acquire their connotations by reflecting the sentiments of the dominant group in a society - in our case white Anglo-Saxon males (WASMs) -  and to ask women to remove the stigma from words applying to them by trying harder is like asking Jews or Negroes to do the same thing. On the other hand, it is impossible to conceive of a generic term for WASMs that would not be flattering once its referent became generally understood. With honkie, which is just a Southern pronunciation of hunkie, the militant blacks succeeded only in doing an inadvertent good turn for Central-European immigrant laborers. (They could have benefited a much larger group and riled their adversaries much more effectively if they had thought of calling them females. But there seems to be a fraternal bond among males that cuts across even class and race lines; this would have been too low a blow.) When certain racial and sexual epithets have, like female, generally disappeared from print in »polite conversation,« it has been due not to protests from the maligned but to a recognition by the WASMs that they had reached the point of overkill. In any case, the true viability of a word cannot be judged by its life within the public media, as the longevity of our Anglo-Saxon obscenities so vividly illustrates.
These words are recorded in the earliest word lists and dictionaries of modern English. Nathaniel Bailey's dictionary (1721) included fuck, but Samuel Johnson's (1755) omitted it, as did all succeeding general dictionaries of the language until 1969. It was taken as a matter of course that the sight of certain words in print could lead to moral depravity. To understand this bizarre taboo against setting down on paper certain words that everybody knows, we must try to attune ourselves to that weird repository of myths, the male mind. As James Lincoln Collier has pointed out in Language in America,[5] the concepts of obscenity and pornography, with censorship following naturally in their wake, developed as a result of the class war that began with the Industrial Revolution, the period that saw the world's first experiments in mass education. In ancient Greece, where everybody who could read was a member of the elite, obscenity was not possible; anything that could be thought or spoken could be written. But, as Collier points out, the victors in a war claim the spoils, including the nubile women. The WASM victors, still naively confusing the word with the thing, felt that the vanquished lower-class males should not be permitted to feast their eyes on the common words for the female genitals and the sex act. They regarded the sight of these words as sufficiently inflammatory to set off any uncultured male on a round of seduction and rape, with a resuiting loss in the number of virgins available to their own class. Within thies elite class, the writing, printing and upper-class  the dimensions of a minor industry class males - reché the dimensions of a minor... From during the Victorian period.
.............. price, the true class divider. The middle-class male guardians of our literary morals - the customs officials, policemen, sheriffs, judges - seem to have tacitly agreed that a book that costs fifteen dollars or more is not pornography but art. In other words, it will not fall into the wrong hands.
A study of the last three and a half centuries of our language's history will disclose to any woman that it is a history compiled by male chauvinists. Philologists inform us confidently, for instance, that fuck and cunt are the two most »sexually energizing« words in the language, an opinion that surely disregards women's sexual response, if any, to these words. However, the learned male spokesmen have more than their individual reactions to go on. Those two words and twot (or twat), a synonym for cunt, were the only ones with such an ancient lineage that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary felt conscience-bound to omit. Their male bias is indicated by their feeling no such compunction about including the vulgar words for penis. In these words we see English sexism rampant: penis (Latin) means tail; phallus (Greek) means something round; prick (English) first referred to a goad for oxen.
Etymologists also believe that the word fuck (and its postulated forerunners, probably viichen to f tic ken) has always had a unique power to turn men on; it was not one of the words Our ancestors went around carving on runic stones. In fact, its etymology is uncertain because so far as is now known, it was never inscribed anywhere in any of its earlier forms. Unfortunately, the Victorian WASM mentality of the Oxford English Dictionary editors, who had legions of brilliant men combing old records for decades, has deprived us forever of the benefit of anything they may have learned about that word.
regard to twot occasioned one of the greatest bloopers in literary history. Browning misled by the apparent sense of the word as it was used in an old rhyme, employed it thus in Pippa Passes:

Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister's moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry.

Webster's Second New International Dictionary (1934), which was very conscientious about including words you might run across in literature, had the mandatory entry for this one, but defined it disingenuously as »some part of a nun's garb. Erroneous. Browning«. It could thereby have perpetuated an error forever, except that« nobody learns the meanings of Anglo-Saxon words from dictionaries and that there have been few such innocents as Browning who ever undertook to write anything.
As a matter of fact, men become so certain of their sexual omniscience after they have achieved a few orgasms that they feel no necessity for consulting dictionaries even on technical terms. The Victorian experts on love were sure that women ejaculated during orgasm, and the playboys of 1970, if Gore Vidal can be taken as an example, believe that women urinate through the vaginal canal * It was partly the fault of the lexicographers, though, that the existence of Bartholin's glands, an essential part of the female sexual anatomy, came as such a surprise to everybody when Masters and Johnson revealed it a few years ago. Actually the glands had been discovered and described by a Danish physician more than 200 years previously - rather late in the day, even then. The term can be found in Webster's Unabridged after some searching - you have to look under glands - but it is not in the two self-styled unabridged dictionaries that came out after the Masters-Johnson revelation.
Dr. Bartholin's name and an account of his chief discovery have been preserved for us by the medical historians. But another benefactor of womankind who is believed to have been working away in his laboratory at about the same time has been neglected by the anatomists as well as the lexicographers. As a result, the etymology of a common English noun that probably came into the language as late as  the eighteenth century remains as shrouded in mystery as some of the early Indo-European stumpers. We are not even sure of the spelling and pronunciation. Is it condom or cundum? The consensus soon evolved concerning the device, that it was deleterious to the penis and detracted from male enjoyment of sexual intercourse, was enough to bring on selective lexicographical amnesia. In our own more scientific age, therefore, there is still uncertainty about whether the device is named for an Englishman called Condom, Conton, or Cundum, whether he was a colonel or a doctor, or whether the whole thing is not one of those old word-myths concocted to give the British credit for a popular French import shipped from the village of Condom. All that is really known is that the word - if not the device - was familiar to the grandfathers of the first generation that was permitted the great privilege of looking it up in a dictionary. The Third Edition of Webster's Unabridged (1961) is the first one to consider it fit to print.
Curiously, condom - and also diaphragm in the related sense - was omitted from Webster's Seventh Collegiate Dictionary, an abridgement of the Third for college students, though, as the editor once boasted in a letter to Playboy, it does include fellatio, cunnilingus, and soixante-neuf. The choice of entries was obviously the result of masculine decision-making; males may find graphic descriptions of exotic forms of sexual connection more fun to write (and read) but females - the childbearers - would give priority to informing college students about more practical methods of contraception, just in case some atavistic impulse should lead a couple to fall into the old Adam-and-Eve trap, with possible dire consequences for the girl.
In their eternal - and foredoomed - quest for the origins of language, philologists have naturally surmised that the exchange of meaningful vocal sounds began among males. It was men working, fighting, or hunting together, they assume, who first discovered the value of exchanging complicated vocal signals. From this assumption, they have gone on to present us with such fanciful theories of language origin as the »bowwow« and the »yo-heave-ho«. (It might have occurred to a woman that a »no-no« theory was more likely, considering the importance to racial survival of the mother-child communication, with the prevalence of open fires, poisonous reptiles, and other hazards). But some philologists have speculated that the first sounds that could be called words were those addressed by males to females for sexual purposes - formalized mating calls - summoning them to the act that was truly essential to species survival.
It is possible that the two utterances that modern English-speaking men find so galvanizing originated then, of course. In spite of assiduous scholarly efforts, which, until recently, had to be carried on secretly in defiance of customs and postal laws, etymologists have not been able to establish any kinship between fuck and cunt and words even remotely related in other Indo-European languages. The seeming cousinship between fuck and the Latin fu-tuere (whence French foutre) is illusory; Grimm's Law of sound changes rules it out. A kinship with Latin pungere (whence puncture) is more likely but not proved.
My own theory, similarly unprovable, is that the Anglo-Saxon word originated as an expression of disgust. If that is true, it would be as fruitless to look for its kinship with words in other languages as it would be to try to establish such a base for fooey, eckhh, or ugh, sounds that no English-speaking person needs to have defined, regardless of how they are represented in print, and of which, after all, fuck is only a blend. Besides, so far as is known, the word may have been used longer - as it is certainly now used more often - as an expletive than as a transitive verb.
Such communication of meaning through what amounts to oral gestures is calied phonetic symbolism, a phenomenon that is only peripherally related to onomatopoeia. The consonants in splash are onomatopoeic; the vowels that make the difference in the meanings of splish, splash, and splosh are phonetically symbolic. The widening of the vowels is understood to correspond to the widening of the space between the hands in gestures indicating an increase or intensity. The consonants in flash are phonetical-symbolic light makes no sound to be imitated. Never......the semantic code to which native speculars of...................privey, one of the meaning of it is »moving light« (flare, flash, flame, flicker) The initial sounds of fight (flare, flash, flame, flicker) The initial sounds  - p.f. sh. or k...instictive oral gestures of disgust. (If Other peoples have not formalized these gestures into words, so much the worse for the expressiveness of their languages.)
Women who object to the use of the taboo words in love-making do so not from a fear of them as insidious aphrodisiacs but from a linguistic perception that seems to be shared by everybody except a few adult males. Say »Fuck off« to a six-year-old child who has never heard the word before - in the unlikely event that one can be found and he will resent it; he will resent it more than if you had said »Run along« in the same tone of voice.
There is no !exual content in the word as it appears in that phrase, or in most of its other uses, and perhaps there never was. The American Heritage Dictionary, the first dictionary to include the word for 250 years and the filrst one ever to offer a full range of definitions based on actual usage, gives two nonsexual definitions of the verb and has a separate entry for fucking as an intensive. The second definition of the transitive verb is »to deal with in an aggressive, unjust, or spiteful manner.«
There is an interesting, but unanswerable, question as to which meaning came first. All the older Anglo-Saxon synonyms for fuck range from mildly aggressive to sadistic: swive, plow, cut, take, bang, shaft, score, screw; all of them, as transitive verbs, have a male subject and a female object. So does fuck in its sexual sense; on this, their number-one definition, the American Heritage lexicographers made the customary lexicographical error. Their definition reads simply »to have sexual intercourse with«. But actually fucking is exclusively something that a male human being can do to another object, animate or inanimate. Young Alex Portnoy, you"will recall, b|s imagination fired by a chunk of liver he spied in the refrigerator, fucked his family's dinner (to use his words). Some small progress toward the civilization, of males is shown by the fact that lay, the least aggressive of the currently popular synonyms, is used by below-forty men in either the active or the passive voice - they caA lay or get laid.
For speakers of English the Latinate Synonyms lack .....the phonetic sybmolism of the  Anglo-Saxon .....  copulation and..... spoken of on TV and in the classroom. they also...... sense of the male's  being the sole operator. Say »Fuck off« to a six-year-old child who has never heard the word before - in the unlikely event that one can be found -  and he will resent it; he will resent it more than if you had said »Run along« in the same tone of voice. There is no sexual content in the word as it appears in that phrase, or in most of its other uses, and perhaps there never was. The American Heritage Dictionary, the first dictionary to include the word for 250 years and the first one ever to offer a full range of definitions based on actual usage, gives two nonsexual definitions of the verb and has a separate entry for fucking as an intensive. The second definition of the transitive verb is »to deal with in an aggressive, unjust, or spiteful manner«.

Laws are sometimes changed in advance of the public consensus. Language never is. The English language will continue to imply that women are inferior creatures until Anglo-American men can be persuaded that they are not.