The words we use in everyday language did not arrive on earth pure and ready made. They have been ‘invented’ over the generations by certain people who need them and use them.
The words that get into the dictionary – and shape the meanings for all the community – are those of public figures who give speeches and write books and articles and make pronouncements. Their words of approval and disapproval, of praise and scorn and fear and fantasy, are the ones that have endured in books and papers and official documents.
These words – and the way they are used – are quoted and recorded, and provide the definitions of meanings for the rest of us as well.
As the public figures change along with the times, so do the meanings of the words; that’s why dictionaries need to be updated. If you called a woman a ‘tart’ in Shakespearean times you would have been paying her a great compliment as a warm and affectionate person: that wouldn’t be how she would take it today!
Throughout most of our history the public figures of power and influence have been white males; most of the words and meanings in our dictionaries have come from them – and reflect their perspective on themselves and others.
Women – who have traditionally led very different lives from men – could have ‘made up’ just as many words to name their specific experiences and occasions and rituals – but their words have not found their way into the standard dictionaries because women have not been the ones that are deferred to and quoted in society. Women’s meanings are lost.
Having used the messages of men as the basis of our definitions, we have constructed a language of man-made meanings. There are more words for men in English and more of the words that are available show men in a positive light. It’s men’s version of men; and unfortunately it is also a record of men’s version of women.
There isn’t really a public record of what women think of themselves, and of men, as they have never been a critical force in public life. So from the outset – when women want to talk about their lives – about events that are specific to their gender, there is not only a shortage of words but among the words that are available, many of them are negative and sexual.
There’s an awful lot of ‘slut talk’ in the English language.
This isn’t just an interesting issue or another item for a TRIVIA contest (and Trivia itself is a good example; it was once used to name a wise woman who could look in three directions in contrast to tunnel vision)
TRIVIA, deriving from “tri-via” (crossroads), was one of the names of the Triple Goddess. Recognizing that what is of primary importance in women’s lives tends to be relegated to the margins of patriarchal history and thought, dismissed as “trivial,” we conceive TRIVIA: Voices of Feminism as a place at the crossroads where women’s ideas can assume their original power and significance.
As we don’t really have the same public record of what women think of men, and of themselves, the language is not an equal resource for both sexes. This limitation of meanings is a matter of grave concern if we want to talk about gender equality. Because the words – and the meanings we attach to them – shape our ideas and our actions.
We take the words of the English language for granted as if they are somehow neutral. We don’t usually examine the ways they might be skewed or loaded with a particular bias – and how this might influence the way we think.
Yet no matter how many words there are in the English language – there are still many blind spots – areas of human experience that remain misnamed, or unnamed, and are therefore often unknown or unthought of; many of these relate to sex and race.
Our language promotes some values over others; ‘black’ is a word that is closely linked to the darkside for example: a black day, black sheep, black magic, blacklisted, blackballed, to have your name blackened etc. …… We wouldn’t call these terms racist necessarily, but there is no getting away from their association with ‘black’ as a negative!
Consciously we may not even notice the blackness; at another level the idea of black and darkness are being constantly linked. And this forms part of the complex pattern of racism.
Once you start asking about the meaning and making of words, a new way of seeing opens up. Some of the language blind spots become neon signs that light up possibilities that you haven’t noticed before. And these new ways of seeing reshape your insights and explanations. (In the 1970s there was a term for this; it was called ‘the click phenomenon’ but it hasn’t survived …..maybe we didn’t get enough public space to get it in the records! 1)
Sexism in language is often buried deep within the foundations of meanings rather than settling on the surface – as it is with words like ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ where the meanings are clearly explicit.
We can choose when and where we use the obviously derogatory words but we don’t choose the meanings that are more deeply embedded in our vocabulary. And we use them without always understanding the extent to which they diminish us.
And blatantly sexist words (or more subtle ones) aren’t the only source of difficulty. Sometimes there is only ONE word for the absolutely opposite meanings for women and men,
Take the word EQUALITY for example.
- To many women, EQUALITY IS A POSITIVE – IT MEANS A GAIN
- To quite a few men EQUALITY IS A NEGATIVE – IT MEANS A LOSS
And it isn’t just that the two sexes may be investing this term with different meanings and visions that is the problem. Women and men see the same world from such a different perspective that often one sex cannot recognize the reality of the other.
The BIG DIFFERENCE IS THAT
MEN THINK THEIR VERSION IS
THE RIGHT ONE!
Which is one reason that women are always saying sorry!
We don’t even have words for the extent that the language fails to adequately represent our emotions, our values, our lives. Sexist language doesn’t begin to cover the issues raised here. Yet they are fundamental to our status and our ability to state our case. But as long as the authority and reality of the male view of the world goes unquestioned – we are in the wrong before we even phrase our claims.
 I can’t find this term in any standard dictionary but A Feminist Dictionary states ‘ a way of describing that instant of recognizing the sexual politics of a situation: a moment of feminist truth’