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Mind your language

Last updated on March 8, 2019

Sexism is embedded in the very words used to describe women and their experiences. Today is a good day to start changing your vocabulary

Pejoration’: The depreciation of a word’s meaning to a negative one.

“If you do want a healing relationship,

How do you talk about it when the language is rooting against you??

‘Hey! Wanna bang? Screw? Nail me?’”

Melissa Escoloedo and Rhiannon McGavin, Rape Joke

Really. How do you have healthy conversation about feminism when you have predetermined double entendres to words that you use to describe women and their experiences? ‘Bang’, ‘nail’ and ‘screw’ are all words used to describe the act of sexual intercourse. Don’t such words predispose a sense of violence regardless of the context?

More common tropes of this phenomenon have been discussed at length. Words and phrases alluding to men are supposed to inspire bravery while those related to women — let’s just say, not so much.

Words like ‘macho’, ‘manly’ and ‘virile’ are words used as positive adjectives to describe men; women on the other hand, inspire a slew of not-so-empowering adjectives like ‘girly’, ‘sissy’, ‘loose’. Not to mention the undying dichotomy of “Like a girl” or “Like a man” — the former alluding to an act of cowardice while the other alludes to bravery or strength. Only recently have words like ‘fierce’ and ‘powerful’ started being used in the colloquial narrative of the ‘modern’ woman.

Given that the very languages we speak have developed gender specific innuendos, begs the question of how and why they came to be. Research over the years into the genesis of gender biases in language suggests that it is a product of our history as societies. Men have typically been considered best suited for agentic (namely active and independent) roles and women for communal (benevolent, kind and nurturing) ones. Therefore, even today, women are expected to fare better in such spaces while men are expected to flourish in authority positions in the home as well as away from it. And as a result of this trend, our languages and communication were also adapted to suit our presumptions and conveniences.

Two forms of sexist prejudice were identified in the late 1990s by Glick, Fiske and Eagly — expressly hostile and subtly benevolent. The expressly hostile kind of prejudice is exhibited in negative speech and derogatory and violent behaviour in order to prove male dominance or cement the archaic gender roles. Subtly benevolent refers to a situation wherein the woman is seen as kind and timid and in need of a man’s protection and care. This goes to solidify the dominance of men over women. “Women are usually liked or respected, but not both,” said Cuddy, in his article in the Journal of Social Issues.

In the workspace too, such trends were evident until quite recently, when women started being celebrated for shattering that professional glass ceiling. The term ‘virgin’ still largely refers to an unmarried girl who has never had sex. And there are no male counterparts to words like ‘career woman’ or ‘working mother’, because in the case of a man, it is but obvious that he would have a career. The workspace is considered natural for a man and out of the ordinary for a woman.

Today, most women in positions of authority as well as stay-at-home dads are reluctantly respected as these roles are not typical of their respective genders. In many languages, to this day, there is still an absence of the opposite for ‘Miss’. Job advertisements, recommendation letters, and titles have also been historically inclined to favour men for authority positions.

A study conducted in 2009 showed that dominant and positive adjectives like  ‘forceful’, ‘independent’, ‘confident’, and ‘outspoken’ were being used to describe men’s potential, while women were being judged on their interaction with their surroundings with terms like kind, helpful, sympathetic and agreeable. And due to such language in masculine advertisements, women automatically feel isolated from that professional space.

Further research proved that a majority of the men and women were not even conscious of the gender-biased language or how it was affecting their decisions. Language, at a very systemic level, is one of the most important hurdles to cross in order to achieve gender equality.

We started out with the understanding that the prototypical human being is a man, and so, the female gender counterparts are simply the male origin word, with a suffix or a prefix added to it. Male becomes female, actor becomes actress, hero becomes heroine, and man becomes woman.

The language we use and the words we prescribe to the very simplest of things not only act as a defining term, but also dictate the society, circumstances and prejudices we are living with, and how we deal with certain subjects in the future. The naming of anything decides its treatment from that moment on. Nomenclature is a delicate and risky process that requires immense mindfulness and foresight, lest we subject a certain percentage of our population to a stereotyped existence or a limited lifestyle.

What’s in a name, you ask?

Just about everything.