Lots of days I go about my activities without screaming about the patriarchy, but today is not one of those days. Today I’m thinking about how words that are used to refer to women, eventually (and inevitably?) become insults.
For example, did you know Gossip started out as a very positive term?
“The history of ‘gossip’ is emblematic in this context. Through it we can follow two centuries of attacks on women at the dawn of modern England, when a term commonly indicating a close female friend turned into one signifying idle, backbiting talk, that is, talk potentially sowing discord, the opposite of the solidarity that female friendship implies and generates. Attaching a denigrating meaning to the term indicating friendship among women served to destroy the female sociality that had prevailed in the Middle Ages, when most of the activities women performed were of a collective nature and, in the lower classes at least, women formed a tight-knit community that was the source of a strength unmatched in the modern era.”
“[Gossip] originally meant ‘godparent,’ one who stands in a spiritual relation to the child to be baptized. In time, however, the term was used with a broader meaning. In early modern England the word ‘gossip’ referred to companions in childbirth not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women friends, with no necessary derogatory connotations. In either case, it had strong emotional connotations.“
But it’s not just Gossip. Mistress used to be the female version of Master Now we only use it to refer to a married man’s girlfriend on the side. (Also, Mrs. is an abbreviation of Mistress).
Madame was the respectful equivalent of Sir. Now it means a lady pimp.
Even Princess and Queen — they started as terms of power, yet get twisted into terms implying entitlement.
Spinster referred to a woman who worked spinning fibers into thread. Now it’s a generic term for an older, unmarried woman, and laden with negative connotations.
On thing I learned while reading about the term ‘Spinster’ is that there are other historic terms that refer to women’s occupations, that are now in use as common last names (and hooray! have not become insults). For example, a woman who worked at weaving was a “Webster” while a “Baxter” was a baker. As a side note, I like learning those are feminine occupational terms and being reminded that women have always worked — either in addition to, or outside of, motherhood.
In 1852, Feminist denoted “the state of being feminine.” Now, it’s considered the ultimate insult by those who classify themselves as political and social conservatives.
And we’re not done yet! It’s still happening, even with new terms. Consider Influencer and Blogger. Or Mommyblogger. New fields, dominated by women — so the terms get used more and more often as insults.
I’m not sure what my point is in writing this post. I suppose I just want people to be aware of how much misogyny is built right in to our language — and language has so much influence on how we think. No matter how not-sexist a person wants to be, it sometimes feels impossible.
We all grew up surrounded by deep sexism — we eat it, and breathe it, and think it; it’s part of the atmosphere that we live in. I’m not sure it’s even possible to see every aspect of the sexism clearly, because we have no model to compare it too. We have no examples of what it’s like to grow up without deeply embedded misogyny — we can only imagine what that might look like. We really have no idea.
Maybe I’m just tired.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you have any favorite ways to refer to women that are positive? Or other examples of female words that started out neutral, but have become pejoratives? Did you know the linguistic term for a neutral term becoming a negative term is “pejoration”? (I just learned that today.)
P.S. — 25 words that don’t mention gender in their definitions, but are only used to refer to women.