Thursday, August 14, 2008

Dyslogistic Speech – Are You A Woman?

I was sitting at a table sipping tea when I heard a man say to another, “You know he’s a little b**tch, right?” Um, gee what was he trying to say? That the man was gay? That the man expressed feelings? Perhaps the person in question was on the rag, metaphorically speaking.

Not the first time I’ve heard men using the B-word to refer to another man in such a manner. Dyslogistic speech is a word or group of words used to express disapproval or intended as an insult. Now any word could be a pejorative term so context is extremely important. Here is an example:

There are many women who surf the net, read blogs or write them. But they talk about frivolities…well they shouldn’t. If more of them talked about serious things, their impact will increase.

You can read the full context of the quote from a comment over at Salon but you get the idea. No “bad words” were used but the writer seems to suggest that all women bloggers do is talk of frivolities. We could ship him/her pounds of paper on our BlogHer discussions about healthcare, politics, race, gender, identity issues, and concerns about the planet.

But because we (female) people do it is a considered a “frivolity.” We’ve seen and heard dyslogistic speech so often most of us have developed mental calluses: “the little woman, soccer moms, femnatzi, nappy headed, ball and chain, spinster and on and on. You can find more political examples at the NOW Media Hall of Shame page.

One of the most power ways to combat instances of dyslogistic or pejorative speech is to educate. Girl_Thesis is doing just that by posting her final thesis on how the word “girl” is used as an insult for male and females in the English language.

Dale Spender, an accomplished linguist, has written in the past about a ‘semantic rule’ that she notices in English. This ‘rule’ entails that words that are marked for the female gender will develop negative meanings over time, regardless of their original definitions. I found that girl was no exception to this rule. In 1668, girl was considered to be an offensive term used to refer to maid servants, irrespective of their age.

This usage remained for a long time, possibly up until the 1950s, as evidenced in the film Corrina, Corrina, in which the middle-aged maid (played by Whoppi Goldberg) is called a girl, and is so insulted that she quits her job. By the early 1700's, girl was being used as a term of reference for sex workers. In the 1800's, girl became a word used to insult black women, such as in A.W. Tourgee’s 1879 written work, “you must remember that all colored women are ‘girls’.”

By 1921, the term girlie (a variation on the word girl) was used to refer to naked women or women in erotic contexts, such as a girlie magazine, or a girlie show. In 1986, effeminate males were referred to as girls in order to insult them, especially in sports.

Smart Like Me takes on and expands the discussion about the association with gender and words. Diane Teagarden has a long opinion post with examples and citations of The Socialization of Sexism. Diane does bring up interesting examples. I don’t agree with all of them but at least she is trying to codify the ones that she perceives as being consistently displayed in our society.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that sexist words and concepts hurt women. Men folk don’t fair all that well either. Renee at Feminocracy wants us to consider that:

When we socialize boys to view femininity as a pejorative, not only do they learn to demean women, they learn that to be associated with anything that is deemed female is to be considered an inadequate male.

So the next time you read or hear some numb-nut troll proudly extol the superiority of his existence because he is not (god forbid) female, doesn’t knit or hasn’t a clue where the kitchen is or how to feed himself without some woman to help him then this is what you do.

I want your to read Melissa at Shakesville's post on Sexism and Mysoginst Language.  And then give the bugger a (vocal) raspberry.

This post is also posted at BlogHer.


  1. OK, help me ... I agree with your concern about our casual use of words which denigrate women, both intentionally and unintentionally. Indeed, I strive to be respectful in my words when talking about any group of people.

    However, the word b**ch still slips out of my mouth. Any suggestions for alternatives that captures that spirit yet doesn't undermine women?


  2. I feel your pain. Part of an insult is to injure the other person. Traditionally women called other women heifers.

    I think it was a sexual contextual insult but calling someone a heifer to her face usually invited some form of violence as a result.

    I'm gonna have to hit the word history books to see if there is an oldie but goody that can be re-invoked. It has to sting but if we could leave the animal kingdom out of it that would be cool.