It’s a bit of a commonplace at this blog that language is not simply a neutral account of an underlying reality. Instead it’s a shared system of conventions and implications, which is shaped by the meanings which have most often found expression through it, and can demonstrate the assumptions held by many of its users.
This fact is highlighted in particular cases by the way in which some words alter their meanings over time, moulding themselves to the power imbalances which they refer to. Of course, it’s a bit misleading to suggest that the words have changed, as if they have mutated whilst everyone around them watched in astonishment. But it’s a shorthand way of pointing out the accretions of extra meaning, of implication and innuendo, which build up over the years when a word is uttered in a society which devalues certain people. The hearers understand the social world to which the word is pointing, and eventually a word’s shared meaning becomes understood as pejorative, or at least carries a certain smirk within it.
I discussed this recently whilst tracing how “buxom” went from meaning obedient to meaning large-breasted and sexy. Or rather, how those meanings overlapped in the word’s connotations until they demonstrate the assumptions of a society which too often sees women’s sexual attraction, their availability to men, and their performance of a service role as exactly the same thing. Pairs of male and female nouns are an excellent example of this verbal arc in a word’s development which reveals the gravitational pull of society’s assumptions about men and women. Linguists have long pointed out the fact that the male and female versions of particular nouns develop very differently, such as the following examples:
With this is mind, I thought you all might be amused by a particularly notable example of this tendency, which I had never noticed before, but which emerged by accident during the exams last month. For a moment, the language ambushed us and we found ourselves genuinely unable to say what we meant, because of the gender roles encoded into it by long use. I was convening one of the first-year modules, so I’d arrived at the exam hall early, just to make sure that everything was ready. I was met by the head invigilator, who assured me that the papers had arrived, there was no problem with the seating charts, that everyone was briefed fully, and so on. Right, I said, I’ll hang around by the door and see if I can be sort of generally calming and reassuring to any of the students who need it, if they’re not too busy cramming from index cards. “Good idea”, she said, “Some of them did look as if they could do with some mothering…er, sorry, I mean, fathering…oh gosh, no, I mean…” We laughed, but it was a pretty telling moment, don’t you think?