A linguist’s approach to sexism
As many of you know language shapes the way we see the world. We form opinions and prejudices because of the way we speak and how we perceive other people talking. That is one of the many reasons why political correctness is as important as representation on TV. We use words to describe our surroundings, the people we love and our feelings. Or as Wittgenstein said it:
“Language disguises thought”
We are slowly (very slowly) overcoming discrimination in certain aspects of society (sadly not all) and fortunately we are at a point where it is not really acceptable anymore to use them in public. There are still many out there. There are also people out there, who claim that one can take it too far with political correctness. As a linguist, I have found it a helpful strategy to explain why it is not okay to use certain terms from an etymological point of view. That way, I prevent being called too emotional or even hysterical, but we will discuss these terms later.
Of course this is not only a woman’s issue, but includes men as well. Sexism goes both ways. A lot of times these words are also used to describe men, who behave in a non-manly way. Or to insult men, who do not conform to a very specific image of masculinity. Therefore I have gathered a couple of terms and expressions that are considered sexist and their origin. This means they carry a gender-role bias.. So next time, someone calls you or someone around you hysterical, you can explain why this is really not approriate.
A sexist’s dictionary
hysterical, hysteric or hysteria
Originates from the greek word hystera – the womb. It was originally used in the 1800s to describe a neurotic condition that is caused by the dysfunction of the uterus. Its meaning changed with the centuries to “unhealthy emotions or excitement”. In the 19th and 20th century a way to heal a woman from her hysteria was through a clitoridectomy. A clitoridectomy is the removal of the clitoris. Until the 1950s doctors used “hysteria” to describe multiple mental health issues, though it’s a term exclusively used for women. Imagine: You go to see your doctor because you don’t feel well. Instead of giving you a diagnosis, he/she calls you “hysterical” and sends you home without proper treatment.Today people mainly use it to describe women, who cannot control themselves or are too emotional (because..you know..women have a uterus). To call a man hysterical means that he is behaving “unmanly”.
Originally this term is the female equivalent to master. In the true sense of the word this is a woman, who has power over something or someone. Its meaning changed over time from head of a household, to teacher or someone, who has mastered the art of something, to… a woman, who has an affair with a married man. So this means that a term, once used to describe a woman with a certain amount of power, has now changed to something purely sexual. And as if this wasn’t bad enough, try to think of terms that describe the male equivalent of a mistress: stud, lover or even a ‘fancy man’.
This term does not go waaaaaay back. But it is sexist because there is no male pendant. Therefore this carries a gender-role bias. This is bad because of two things: First of all, it is often associated with a mother, who is working so much that she is not motherly enough. Second it excludes 50% of the parents, who deserve recognition for working and raising childern: Working Dads.
soccer mom, hockey mom, peagant mom
A range of terms to describe specific types of motherhood. Soccer mom was first mentioned in 1982 in Massachusetts. This describes a mother, who is usually white, SUV-driving, living in a suburb and overparenting her children. These terms qualify again as sexist because there are no male equivalents. The term “soccer dads” does exist according to the urban dictionary. It is the opposite of a soccer mom. He is the cool, chill dad, who let’s the children enjoy everything that the controlling soccer mom does not allow.
So this raises two questions: Why are there so many terms to qualify and criticize motherhood? And why are there so few terms to describe fatherhood, and the few describe men unfit to be a parent?
This is an old one. So originally this means a person, who spins fibers into a thread. In the 15th century this was a gender neutral term. But over the centuries its meaning changed to: a woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it. Therefore a double-feminem form emerged: the spinstress, a female spinner, which then just became another word for: a woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it. So apparently, we simply don’t need the term to decribe the profession of someone spinning threads as badly as we need words to describe old, unmarried women. Says quite a lot about our society, don’t you think?
The man flu describes the alleged phenomena that men with the common cold act as if they were suffering from a life-threating illness. And although there has been no scientific proof of its existence, newspapers still dare to declare it’s a thing. Though there are some explanations why women might have better immune system than men. That has nothing to do with how someone experiences an illness. One of the results of using such terms is that men are less likely to visit the doctors because they are ashamed. Another consequence is doctors not taking men as seriously because no one is immune to gender bias.
Of course, these are only a couple of examples. Not to mention the uncountable number of expressions that are racist, homophobic or discriminating in any other way. Often times we do want to give people around us the benefit of the doubt, that sometime they are saying things without realising that they are hurtful. With this little guide you can offer them an explination why the words they are using are indeed sexist. And if they still insist on using those terms, at least you know it’s not because they don’t know any better….