What we’re reading this week, by @wordspinster @sianushka @slutocracy @SarahGraham7

The kids are alright , by Deborah Cameron at Language: A Feminist Guide

When I was a kid, I sometimes encountered adults who disapproved of the way I’ve just used the word ‘kid’. ‘A kid’, they would say, repressively, ‘is a baby goat’. They weren’t really objecting to the substitution of animal for human vocabulary. They just thought ‘kid’ was vulgar, a sign that the person who uttered it was uneducated and unwashed. They were using a spurious argument about language to proclaim their superiority to the common herd. They were also asserting their power, as adults, to hold young people to their standards of acceptable speech.

I was reminded of this last week when I read an article in Teen Vogue about the importance of using gender-neutral language. Clearly, I am not in the target audience for this publication, being neither a teen nor in any way voguish, and I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it before. But my interest in this particular piece was piqued after a number of people shared it on Twitter and commented on the absurdity of some of the terms it suggested—like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’ as gender-neutral substitutes for ‘uncle/aunt’ and ‘nephew/niece’. …

The obsession with “Boris’s blonde” has gone beyond public interest into misogyny, by Sian Norris for New Statesman

There were two not entirely unexpected things in the news this weekend.

The first was that Boris Johnson, the man who once boasted “I haven’t had to have a wank for 20 years”, has had a series of affairs during his 25-year marriage to lawyer Marina Wheeler.

The second was the obsessive and often sexist coverage that accompanied the revelations.

Perhaps the most egregious example was a line from Tim Shipman’s and Caroline Wheeler’s piece in the Sunday Times – photographed, highlighted, and tweeted under the caption “cracking quote” by BBC political correspondent Chris Mason – in which an unnamed ally referred to the skeletons in Johnson’s cupboard as having “skin and big tits […] walking around the West End.”…

It Was A Shadow Hanging Over My Whole Pregnancy’ – We Need To Talk About The C-Section Postcode Lottery, by Sarah Graham

Giving birth by caesarean section has long been seen as the “too posh to push” option for expectant mums. Either dismissed as “the easy way out” (which it isn’t; it’s major surgery!), or criticised for not being the “natural” or “maternal” way of bringing your child into the world, the C-section generally gets a pretty bad rap.

But for some women and their babies it is the best option – either in the form of an emergency caesarean following labour complications, or as a birth plan in its own right. Sadly, women pursuing the latter continue to face stigma and obstacles at what’s already a challenging and emotionally charged time. …

Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America Proves Right Wingers Are Ignorant About The Political Left, at Slutocracy

Sacha Baron Cohen has duped lots of people on his TV show Who Is America? where, Borat-style, he plays different characters and fools his interviewees into reacting to those characters. He’s tricked lefties, he’s tricked righties. He’s tricked ordinary Joes and lawmakers, celebrities and folks working out their payroll. Baron Cohen isn’t targeting any particular group. But something surprising emerged from the very first episode: right-wingers fell for his lefty character far harder than lefties fell for his right wing character.

Baron Cohen’s Professor Nira Cain N’Degeocello character is the epitome of the right-wingers’ idea of a leftard snowflake: he apologises for being a white male, is obsessed with gender equality, immaturely emotional about Trump’s presidency, frets about accidentally engaging in cultural appropriation, and is judgemental towards Trump supporters while acting like he’s “healing the divide.” He uses words like “triggered” out of context, rendering them meaningless. N’Degeocello stretches sentences to breaking point to avoid mentioning gender, for example when asked if his partner Naomi is a woman, he responds that she “has a round vagina…she has nipples but they are attached to swollen mammaries” when even the most dedicated leftist could have stated that Naomi was born female, is a cisgendered woman or has XX chromosomes. But perhaps an extreme view of what lefties are like is unsurprising for right-wingers who live in a right-wing bubble. What is most surprising is that right-wingers seem to horribly misunderstand what the left stands for- to the extent that it’s easy to see why these misconceptions would lead them to choose right wing attitudes over left wing ones. …

Finn Mackay’s What’s Feminist About Equality for TEDx

What we’re reading this week from: @rae_ritchie_ @sianushka @wordspinster & @MelTankardReist ‏

When boys struggle at A-level, it’s a crisis. When girls do, it’s celebrated, by Sian Norris

It’s that time of year again, when papers post pictures of jumping girls while middle-aged white male celebrities pompously explain how failing their exams never did them any harm. It’s A-level results day!

This year, the Daily Mail greeted the results with a resounding “Let’s Hear It For The Boys” headline (it was later updated). For the second year in a row, male students outperformed girls. The Guardianmeanwhile, reported “the proportion of students in England gaining C grades or above in A-levels fell back this year, driven by a relatively weaker performance among girls”.

This shift towards improved boys’ results has come after a change to A-level courses was introduced. The new structure places more emphasis on final exams, with less coursework and fewer practical assessments. A 2013 study by the Independent Schools Association, as reported by the Telegraph, claimed that “a shift towards more end-of-course exams would […] have a disproportionate impact on girls who appear to favour coursework-style tasks”. …

Love Between Black Girls Has the Power to Save in Night Comes On, by Claire Heuchan

Angel is a girl with a mission. On her eighteenth birthday, she’s released from juvie after a year’s imprisonment. She leaves with two objectives. One: to find a gun. Two: to find out where her father lives. Newcomer Dominique Fishback gives a captivating performance in Night Comes On, the flashes of vulnerability in Angel making it impossible to look away from the devastating story. Angel’s mother was murdered by her father, who has been living free while his two daughters were shunted from foster home to foster home.

The driving force behind the film is Angel’s need to avenge her mother’s death. In her single-minded pursuit of these goals, it becomes clear that Angel is as determined as she is loyal to the memory of her mother. Only one thing has the power to shift Angel’s focus from revenge: her ten-year-old sister, Abby. …

The illusion of inclusion, by @wordspinster

Feminists (and other progressive types) talk a lot about ‘inclusive language’, and it’s generally assumed that we’re in favour of it. But what exactly is it? What makes a word or an expression ‘inclusive’? And are feminists’ purposes always best served by inclusive terms?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, feminists criticising conventional usage rarely talked about ‘inclusive’ (or its antonym, ‘exclusionary’) language: we talked much more about ‘sexist’ and ‘non-sexist’ language. As the issue became more mainstream, other terms came into use which were seen as less overtly political and thus more palatable to people of moderate liberal opinions. Many included the word ‘gender’: it became common for institutions to formulate policies and guidelines about ‘gender equal’, ‘gender free’ or ‘gender fair’ language.

The concept of ‘inclusive language’ has become popular more recently, and it represents a further move away from the original feminist critique of sexism. ‘Inclusiveness’ is much more general concept: guidelines on ‘inclusive language’ may address concerns about the linguistic representation not only of women, but also of other marginalised groups like ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBT people. And while most feminists would probably see this broadening as a good thing in principle, some (myself included) might argue that in defining the problem as ‘inclusion versus exclusion’ we have both narrowed the scope of the earlier analysis of sexism and lost some of its more radical insights. …

How Pinterest has changed my life (or at least been super useful for work), by @rae_ritchie_

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WIN: DFO pulls down ‘Starving for Fashion’ billboard after protest initiated by 13 year old, by Melinda Tankard Reist

It’s so good to be able to share another win with supporters. This one thanks to 13-year-old Melbourne teen Naomi, who spotted this billboard advertising the DFO at Morabbin Airport in Melbourne

Naomi told her mother, long time supporter Gloria Anderson, who texted me the images and her daughter’s comments.

“I knew it was wrong because it was promoting anorexia, sending a message that you need to be skinny to be fashionable, which is obviously not true.”

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Immodesty becomes her?, by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: language: a feminist guide
Originally published: 20.06.18

When the Toronto Globe & Mail announced that in future only medical doctors would be accorded the title ‘Dr’, it probably wasn’t expecting this news to cause much of a stir. But then a historian with a Ph.D objected:

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This tweet provoked an avalanche of criticism–directed not to the Globe & Mail‘s new style-rule, but to the arrogance and conceit of Fern Riddell. And as she later told the BBC, she couldn’t help noticing that her critics were mostly men. A lot of men seemed to be outraged by a woman claiming the status of an expert and expecting others to acknowledge her as such. ‘Humility Dr Riddell’, tweeted one. ‘There’s no Ph.D for that’.

But why should women humble themselves when other people are there to do it for them? As I explained in an earlier post, the treatment of women in professional and public settings is demonstrably affected by a ‘gender respect gap’: while this disrespect takes multiple forms, one salient manifestation of it is the withholding of professional and respect titles. It doesn’t just happen in academia: a 2017 study showed that women hospital doctors are less likely than their male counterparts to be referred to by male colleagues with the title ‘Dr’, and  in 2016 women lawyers in the US campaigned for the American Bar Association to make the use of endearment terms like ‘honey’ a breach of professional standards. Meanwhile, British school teachers have complained for decades about the convention whereby men are addressed as ‘sir’ while women of all ages get the rather less respectful ‘miss’. …

 

You can read the full article here.

language: a feminist guideIt does what it says on the tin: a feminist language guide.

There go the girls, by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: Language: A Guide
Originally published: 11.02.18
Until they were officially abolished last month, I had never heard of the ‘walk-on girls’ who accompanied professional darts players onstage at tournaments. Nor did I know that Formula 1 featured ‘grid girls’ (who have also been axed), that cycling has ‘podium girls’, and that boxing employs ‘ring card girls’ to do the vital job (according to promoter Eddie Hearn) of ‘letting people know what round is coming up’. The issue which has suddenly made these ‘girls’ controversial is not primarily about language (it’s more about broadcasters’ #metoo-fuelled unease with overt displays of sexism). But it does, arguably, have a linguistic dimension.

 


Read more There go the girls, by @wordspinster

‘Men, shut up for your rights!’, by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: Language: A Guide
Originally published: 25.06.17

If you haven’t spent the last decade living on another planet, I’m sure you will recognise the following sequence of events:

  1. A powerful man says something egregiously sexist, either in a public forum or in a private conversation which is subsequently leaked.
  2. There is an outpouring of indignation on social media.
  3. The mainstream media take up the story and the criticism gets amplified.
  4. The powerful man announces that he is stepping down.
  5. His critics claim this as a victory and the media move on—until another powerful man says another egregiously sexist thing, at which point the cycle begins again.

The most recent high-profile target for this ritual shaming was David Bonderman, a billionaire venture capitalist and member of Uber’s board of directors. It’s no secret that Uber has a serious sexism problem. Following a number of discrimination and harassment claims from former employees, the company commissioned what turned out to be a damning report on its corporate culture. At a meeting called to discuss the report, Arianna Huffington (who at the time was Uber’s only female director) cited research which suggested that putting one woman on a board increased the likelihood that more women would join. At which point Bonderman interjected: ‘actually what it shows is that it’s likely to be more talking’.
Read more ‘Men, shut up for your rights!’, by @wordspinster

The Problem That Has No Name because “Woman” is too Essentialist by @ClaireShrugged

Cross-posted from: Sister Outrider
Originally published: 15.03.17

This is the third in my series of essays on sex and gender (see parts 1 & 2). Inspired by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on gender identity and the subsequent response, I have written about language within feminist discourse and the significance of the word woman.

Update (17/03.17): this essay is now available in French.


 

Screenshot_20170315-144208“…what’s a shorter non-essentialist way to refer to ‘people who have a uterus and all that stuff’?” In many ways, Laurie Penny’s quest to find a term describing biologically female people without ever actually using the word woman typifies the greatest challenge within ongoing feminist discourse. The tension between women acknowledging and erasing the role of biology in structural analysis of our oppression has developed into a fault line (MacKay, 2015) within the feminist movement. Contradictions arise when feminists simultaneously attempt to address how women’s biology shapes our oppression under patriarchal society whilst denying that our oppression is material in basis. At points, rigorous structural analysis and inclusivity make uneasy bedfellows.

That same week Dame Jeni Murray, who has BBC Woman’s Hour for forty years, faced criticism for asking “Can someone who has lived as a man, with all the privilege that entails, really lay claim to womanhood?” Writing for the Sunday Times, Murray reflected upon the role of gendered socialisation received during formative years in shaping subsequent behaviour, challenging the notion that it is possible to divorce the physical self from socio-political context. Similarly, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came under fire for her comments on gender identity. 
Read more The Problem That Has No Name because “Woman” is too Essentialist by @ClaireShrugged

Pride, prejudice and pedantry by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: Language - A Feminist Guide
Originally published: 03.03.17

Last year I discovered the perfect gift for the supercilious arse in your life: a mug emblazoned with the legend ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’. grammar-mugThe existence of this item testifies to the widely-held belief that sneering at other people’s language-use is not just acceptable, it’s actually a virtue. When the subject is language, you can take pride in being a snob; you can even display your exquisite sensitivity by comparing yourself to a genocidal fascist (‘I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi: I can’t bear it when people use language incorrectly’).

On Twitter there’s a ‘Grammar Police’ bot whose mission is to belittle random strangers by tweeting unsolicited corrections of their ‘defective grammar’. Because, according to its profile, ‘publishing defective grammar abases oneself’. 
Read more Pride, prejudice and pedantry by @wordspinster

Dykes, old maids and the summer of 66

Cross-posted from: Language - A Feminist Guide
Originally published: 14.08.16

This summer, British television has been reliving the glory days of 1966, when London was swinging and England’s footballers won the World Cup. My own memories of the year are rather less glorious. 1966 was the year when I turned eight; it was also the year when I first heard the word ‘dyke’.

It happened when I was eavesdropping on a conversation between my parents (a bad habit I developed at an early age). My father used the phrase ‘those dykes’ in a passing reference to two women who lived in the posher part of the village. I knew who he meant: they weren’t part of my parents’ social circle, but the village was the sort of place where everyone knew everyone by sight. But I had no idea why he called them ‘dykes’. When I asked my mother later, she said: ‘he just meant they’re old maids: they live together because they never got married’. 
Read more Dykes, old maids and the summer of 66

Lesbian Anxieties, Queer Erasures: The Problem with Terms Like ‘Subversive Femme’ by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from: Reading Medieval Books
Originally published: 16.01.17

The paper I recently gave at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in Canterbury was titled – after much thought – ‘Walled Desire and Lesbian Anxiety in Chaucer’s “Legend of Thisbe”‘. It should be out in The Chaucer Review before too long, but for the moment, I want to think about that second term: ‘lesbian anxiety,’ which has proved to be a topical one in much wider context that I could have anticipated when I responded to the Call For Papers.

My work is, obviously, mostly about medieval England, centuries before anyone (still less a mainstream writer such as Chaucer) thought to fling around a term like ‘lesbian’ with the cheerful abandon of a BBC blurb for a Sarah Waters adaptation.

The category of women I’m looking at are difficult to recognize. They are fictional women in mainstream literature, and therefore we don’t see them engaging in actual same-sex sex. They aren’t, on the whole, gender nonconforming in overt ways – like, for example, the cross-dressing heroines of earlier French romances, who frequently end up in flirtations with, or even in bed with, women – and, even if they were, gender nonconformity isn’t a particularly good litmus text of medieval female preferences for same-sex desire anyway. There’s a strong tradition, as Karma Lochrie has shown, of medieval onlookers interpreting ‘masculine’ behaviours and activities in women the result of imbalanced humours, easily found in women such as the cheerfully cougarish Wife of Bath. And after all, what we recognize as ‘female masculinity’ is heavily socially conditioned in the first place. So, how do I identify – and write about – women whose same-sex desire is revealed through suggestions and innuendos that are anything but ‘queer,’ either in the popular sense of uniting same-sex desire with gender nonconformity, or in the academic sense of being boldly subversive and disruptive? It’s hard, and my recent conference paper succeeded (I think!) in demonstrating that there’s a difficulty, without giving me a concrete answer to the problem. 
Read more Lesbian Anxieties, Queer Erasures: The Problem with Terms Like ‘Subversive Femme’ by @LucyAllenFWR

Swellings and Seals: On the Origins of Bill

Cross-posted from: Glossologics
Originally published: 25.11.16

Well, here it is. Bill. Like it or not, we all have them, we all think about paying them.

I, of course, am no exception. Several kind people have asked me recently why I have been producing fewer articles for this blog. The main reason is that I do not receive an income from here, and I have bills to pay. Much as I would like to spend my time writing more and more articles, I have to do other work that actually pays. If you would like to help enable me to produce more articles here, please support my books; fiction and non-fiction.

Now, onto the matter of the etymology of bill.

If you look in the dictionary, you will find several definitions for the word ‘bill’. It could be a bill in parliament; a duck’s bill; a bill to be paid; a slang term for the police, as well as other usages. 
Read more Swellings and Seals: On the Origins of Bill

What makes a word a slur?

Cross-posted from: language: a feminist guide
Originally published: 06.11.16

Content note: this post contains examples of offensive slur-terms. 

Last week, the British edition of Glamour magazine published a column in which Juno Dawson used the term ‘TERF’ to describe feminists (the example she named was Germaine Greer) who ‘steadfastly believe that me—and other trans women—are not women’.  When some readers complained about the use of derogatory language, a spokeswoman for the magazine replied on Twitter that TERF is not derogatory:

Trans-exclusionary radical feminist is a description, and not a misogynistic slur.

Arguments about whether TERF is a neutral descriptive term or a derogatory slur have been rumbling on ever since. They raise a question which linguists and philosophers have found quite tricky to answer (and which they haven’t reached a consensus on): what makes a word a slur?

Before I consider that general question, let’s take a closer look at the meaning and history of TERF. As the Glamour spokeswoman said, it’s an abbreviated form of the phrase ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’; more specifically it’s an acronym, constructed from the initial letters of the words that make up the phrase. Some people have suggested this means it can’t be a slur. I find that argument puzzling, since numerous terms which everyone agrees are slurs are abbreviated forms (examples include ‘Paki’, ‘Jap’, ‘paedo’ and ‘tranny’). But in any case, there’s a question about the status of TERF as an acronym. Clearly it started out as one, but is it still behaving like one now? 
Read more What makes a word a slur?

Familiarity and contempt by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: Language: A Feminist Guide
Originally published: 22.08.16

Earlier this month, in an English court, a man who had just been sentenced to 18 months told the judge she was ‘a bit of a cunt’. To which she replied: ‘You’re a bit of a cunt yourself’. Complaints about her language are now being considered by the Judicial Standards Investigation Office. But plenty of people applauded her, calling her a ‘hero’, a ‘role model’ and a ‘legend’.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the New York Times reported that sexist endearment terms like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ were no longer acceptable when addressing women in court. The American Bar Association had adopted Resolution 109, which makes it a breach of lawyers’ professional standards to engage in ‘harmful verbal or physical conduct that manifests prejudice and bias’.
Read more Familiarity and contempt by @wordspinster

In the Frame – a critical look at the linguistic framing of current debates on prostitution

Cross-posted from: Trouble & Strife
Originally published: 01.05.16

Debbie Cameron takes a critical look at the linguistic framing of current debates on prostitution.

Let’s start with a question. Are you pro-sex or anti-sex?

Maybe you’re thinking: ‘of course I’m not anti-sex, who the hell would be against sex?’

Or maybe you’re thinking: ‘Hang on a minute, aren’t those terms a bit loaded?’

And of course, they are. But that comes with the territory. It’s in the nature of political arguments to be conducted in loaded language. The proverbial ‘battle for hearts and minds’ is always, among other things, a war of words.

‘Pro-sex’ (or ‘sex positive’) and ‘anti-sex’ are shorthand labels for political positions on a set of issues (including pornography and prostitution) which have divided feminists since the 19th century. ‘Anti-sex’ is what the ‘pro-sex’ camp call the people on the other side of the argument: it’s not what the other side call themselves. (Because who the hell would be against sex?)

But the competing terms in a political argument aren’t always straightforward opposites like ‘pro-/anti-sex’. In debates on abortion, the opposing camps are most commonly labelled ‘pro-choice’ (supporting women’s right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy) and ‘pro-life’ (defending the sanctity of human life and the rights of unborn children). Each side has chosen a label that suits its own argument, and both have been relatively successful in getting others, including the media, to respect their terminological preferences.
Read more In the Frame – a critical look at the linguistic framing of current debates on prostitution

Confessions of a Mumbler at She Means Well But …

Cross-posted from: She Means Well But ...
Originally published: 24.02.16

When I was a kid, my Dad nicknamed me ‘Mumbles’ thanks to my habit of muttering things under my breath. Now that he’s gone, I feel a little sad that there’s no-one left to call me by that name.
Some nicknames have a limited shelf-life. You just grow out of them and what once seemed cool and clever, in time sounds crap and stupid.

When I was at school my little gang of mates called me ‘JAM’ (a play on my initials) or ‘Baggot’(which applied equally to us all). And that was fine, while it lasted. But by the time we went our separate ways after the trials and tribulations of the O levels, they had reached their expiry date. Today, I cringe almost as much at those names as I do at the haircut I had at the time, and I’d be hard-pressed to even tell you what a Baggot is. 
Read more Confessions of a Mumbler at She Means Well But …

A rabid feminist writes… by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: Language: A Feminist Guide
Originally published: 26.01.16

Last week, the anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan asked: 

Why does the Oxford Dictionary of English portray women as “rabid feminists” with mysterious “psyches” speaking in “shrill voices” who can’t do research or hold a PhD but can do “all the housework”?

The Oxford dictionary he was talking about was the one that comes with Apple devices (Macs, i-Pads, i-Phones), and his question was about the examples that follow the definition of a word and illustrate its use in practice. The ones he reproduced included the phrase ‘a rabid feminist’ illustrating the metaphorical usage of ‘rabid’; the sentence ‘I will never really fathom the female psyche’ exemplifying the use of the term ‘psyche’; and a series of examples featuring women and female voices in entries for ‘shrill’, ‘grating’ and ‘nagging’. He also reproduced entries for the words ‘doctor’ and ‘research’ where the examples referred to doctors/researchers as ‘he’.

The point of this intervention was not just to criticise a few specific entries, but rather to draw attention to a pattern of sexist stereotyping in the dictionary’s illustrative examples. But when Oman-Reagan tweeted to Oxford Dictionaries, citing the ‘rabid feminist’ example, whoever was running their Twitter account that day chose not to acknowledge the deeper point. Instead he was told that (a) the ‘rabid feminist’ example was authentic, and (b) that ‘rabid’ isn’t necessarily a negative term. In the ensuing arguments (first on Twitter and then in lengthier pieces like this and this) the main issue became whether Oxford was endorsing a view of feminists as mad fanatics, and then compounding the offence with its dismissive responses to criticism. 
Read more A rabid feminist writes… by @wordspinster

The fembots of Ashley Madison

Cross-posted from: Language: A Feminist Guide
Originally published: 12.09.15

Content note: this post includes some explicit sexual material which readers may find offensive and/or distressing.

‘Life is short. Have an affair’.

That was the sales pitch for Ashley Madison, the website for people seeking ‘discreet’ extra-marital sex that recently came to grief after hackers dumped a load of its users’ personal data on the web. It turned out that the website was basically running a scam. Straight men, the majority of site-users, were paying to hook up with women who did not, for the most part, exist. Real women did use the site, but they were massively outnumbered by fake ones.  Profiles were cobbled together by employees, and then animated by an army of bots which bombarded male subscribers with messages.
Read more The fembots of Ashley Madison

Mark My Words: Conscious Creative Cursing by @GoddessKerriLyn

Cross-posted from: FOCUS: Feminist Observations Connecting Unified Spirits
Originally published: 14.07.14

“Powerful people can do more, say more, and have their speech count for more than the powerless.” -Rae Langton

power of wordsjpgHave you ever said “that’s so lame”?  As a disabled person who has trouble walking, it’s not fun to be a cultural reference point for things that suck.  Alternative word choices are everywhere,  like “that’s so crappy.”  Or perhaps you’ve called someone a douchebag. Why exactly is it insulting to call someone a tool used to clean a vagina?  Because any word associated with female genitalia is a put-down in our society, as a method of oppressing women.  For centuries women have been labeled hysterical and crazy as a method of subordination and silencing.
Read more Mark My Words: Conscious Creative Cursing by @GoddessKerriLyn

He Do the Police in Different Voices': On Speech and Language Policing by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from: Reading Medieval Books
Originally published: 26.07.15

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to speak, as T. S. Eliot puts it, ‘in different voices’. We use language as an index of belonging. At the moment, there’s an idiolect, which I’d like to imagine would immediately tell me whether or not I’m in the presence of the sisterhood. ‘Silencing’ is the new favourite Participle Of Oppression for all parties. Fourth wavers talk about language as a form of literal violence. Radfems say unsisterly things about fourth wavers and bite our tongues. We all thank the goddess for Rebecca Solnit coining the term ‘mansplaining’, and Deborah Cameron writes brilliant critiques of all the idiotic pseudo-scientific arguments that all misogyny would disappear if only women would learn to Talk Proper and adopt the diction equivalent of a fine natural baritone.


Read more He Do the Police in Different Voices': On Speech and Language Policing by @LucyAllenFWR

Dictionaries, dick-tionaries and dyketionaries by @wordspinster

Cross-posted from: language: a feminist guide
Originally published: 30.06.15

Exactly ten years ago, in June 2005, I was contacted by a man from the British Potato Board. He wanted me, in my capacity as a professor of the English language at Oxford University, to endorse the Board’s campaign to get the expression ‘couch potato’ removed from the Oxford English Dictionary. It gave potatoes a bad name, he explained, by suggesting they were unhealthy, when in fact they were virtually a superfood, packed with fibre and vitamin C. The Board wanted the OED to replace ‘couch potato’ with ‘couch slouch’, which would convey the same meaning without unfairly maligning potatoes.

Initially I suspected this was a wind-up; but then a group of people turned up, dressed in potato costumes, to protest outside the offices of the OED’s publisher, Oxford University Press. Basically it was a publicity stunt: I’ve never been sure how serious they were about getting the dictionary to alter its entry. But even if the aim was just to get media coverage for the health benefits of potatoes, the campaign still traded on the popular belief that dictionaries function as a kind of supreme authority on the existence, validity and meaning of words. As if removing ‘couch potato’ from the dictionary were equivalent to banishing it from the language.


Read more Dictionaries, dick-tionaries and dyketionaries by @wordspinster

Men and Words at Hell, Yeah. I’m a Feminist

(cross-posted from hell, yeah. I’m a feminist)

As a result of a recent exchange on a blog in which I felt insulted enough by the patronizing tone taken by the moderator that I decided not to participate any further, while another commenter (a male) responded with a mere “LOL”, I asked yet another commenter (also a male) why he thought our reactions were so different. “Don’t men know when they’re being insulted?” I asked.

His response? “We know, we just don’t care. At the end of the day, it’s just words on a screen. Most of us don’t expect to convince anyone else, this is a social event of sorts for people who like to talk about stuff.”

He went on to say “We don’t expect to change anything, we’re just engaging in venting, observation, and entertainment. If we learn something new, all the better.”

I find this horrifying. Words have meaning! Meaning is important! At first I thought maybe that’s just a philosopher/non-philosopher thing, but then I recalled conversations with male philosophers in which I similarly felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously, in which I felt like, the man nailed it, “entertainment”.

I don’t feel that when I speak with women on these matters. So it’s a sexist thing, not a philosopher thing.

But it’s not that men don’t take women seriously, it’s that they don’t take each other seriously either. Suddenly their attitude toward debate—it’s a game—makes sense.

As for the convincing, the changing, maybe that’s a non-teacher-non-social-activist thing, but again, if it’s a male thing, then again, it’s horrifying. No wonder the world isn’t getting better and better: the people in power aren’t talking, thinking, acting to make it so. Their discussions on policy are just “venting, observation, and entertainment”!

I wonder if at its root, it’s part of the male relationship to words. Women are better with language, so it’s said, whether because of neurology or gendered upbringing; men are better with action, so it’s said, again whether by neurology or gendered upbringing. So that would explain why women consider words to be important, and men don’t.

Hell Yeah, I’m a Feminist: a radical feminist blog mostly about sexism