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Archive for August, 2013

Or: (Incomplete) List of Words and Phrases that Piss Me the Fuck Off

1. “In her own right”

Originally a term denoting an aristocratic woman’s titles as inherited through her parents rather than her husband, this is a phrase you’ll see again and again in biographies and obituaries. Often it will appear as an aside in the biographies of famous men, announcing that their wives (or mothers, sisters, etc.) had also engaged in the activity that made them famous — and this is bad enough. But it also appears with an alarming frequency in the biographies or (especially) obituaries of women who’ve done important things.

That last qualifier is of course a bit redundant, since the only women who usually get biographies or lengthy obituaries written of them in the first place are the ones who’ve done important things, or are famous (or infamous). But this is precisely the point. Many such women were associated in some way, such as marriage, with men who were also famous and/or did important things. Many, because of sexism, were totally overshadowed by said men, or are less well-remembered, and so their biographers and obituarists feel they must assert the importance of the remembered woman’s works.

The problem is that “in her own right”, by its very assertiveness, calls into question the ability (or, indeed, even the right) of the discussed woman to do the things or fill the role that she did. This is surely the opposite of what most biographers mean to be denoting with it, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Consider the origins of the phrase: aristocratic women in Europe usually did not inherit titles, except where they inconveniently lacked brothers or close-enough male cousins to take them instead. For a woman to hold a title in her own right was exceptional, remarkable, very much not the norm. To use this phrase of a woman is therefore to define her in terms of her husband (or potential husband), and not — as is supposedly the point — in her own right.

2. “Vagina”

My objections to this word are remarkably similar to the above. Latin for ‘sheath’, it inherently defines itself in terms of the penis (or, at the very least, phallus). A sheath is, after all, only even meaningful as a thing in its property of covering or being made or intended to cover or surround some other thing.

3. “Cunt”

CUNT. Not for its own sake — ‘cunt’ is a wonderful word — but because of all the bullshit around it. Etymologically, cunt is actually very much the best word for female genitalia, since (as far as I know) it is the only word that originally and always meant just that, with its other senses derived from its sense as ‘genitalia’, rather than the other way around. It is also, as recently pointed out to me by Lucy, one of the only words whose referent both actually is and is commonly understood to be the whole thing, rather than just the vulva, the vagina, or pubic hair. (‘Vagina’, of course, is popularly used, and understood, as a synecdoche for the whole of the female genital system, but that is wrong. Properly speaking, it only refers to the sheathy bit.)

Why, then, are so many people offended by this perfectly cromulent word? My theory is that it is in fact because of its above-mentioned original and continuous referent of ‘female genitalia’. Long before anyone started raising “feminist” objections to its use in reference to ‘a woman’, delicate 18th- and 19th-Century writers and even lexicographers were replacing it with “the monosyllable”, and the long lists of often quite circuitous slang terms for it speak very strongly of our collective cultural discomfort with cunts-qua-body-parts, as much or more than of ‘cunt’-qua-word-for-one.

I do understand the feminist objections to using this word as an insult. I do. Spears’ Dictionary of American Slang reportedly defines ‘cunt’, in its insulting sense, as “women considered as nothing more than a receptacle for the penis”, which is indeed enormously offensive (see: ‘vagina’). But I’m not sure that most or even many people who use ‘cunt’ as an insult mean it in that precise a sense. ‘Cunt’ when one simply means ‘of or like female genitalia’ (or even ‘of or like a woman’), and thus deployed with intent to wound, is also kind of offensive, sure — but it is no¬†more offensive than ‘pussy’ used in the same way. ‘Cunt’ is also an all-purpose insult along the same lines as ‘dick’ or ‘cock’, and while I do wish that our society were not so configured that words for genitalia were considered appropriate swear words, I fully defend our right to use them, and I’m not going to get angry about ‘cunt’ used as a generalized swear word until ‘dick’ and ‘cock’ have also fallen out of use.

In any case, what really frosts my cunt about all the supposedly feminist hoo-ha over ‘cunt’ is that the same people who get so offended on behalf of women’s poor little lady-feelings about our lady-bits seem perfectly okay with the use of words like

4. “Hysterical”

Not in the sense of ‘very, very funny’* but as in ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘characterized by hysteria‘, this is the most offensive word in the English language — or at least the most offensive that isn’t regularly labelled in dictionaries as a ‘slur’.

Although the wikipedia entry on ‘Female Hysteria‘ contains a carefully placed disclaimer that it should not be confused with the undifferentiated ‘Hysteria’, its own section on the history of the term gives the lie to that disclaimer. ‘Hysteria’, from the Greek term of the same usage meaning literally ‘suffering in the womb’, is an inherently gendered word. For most of its history, the term ‘female hysteria’ would have been a redundancy, because ‘hysteria’ was a disease of women. Women and their strange, dangerous, uncontrollable emotions. Even when applied to men, it was (and, let’s be honest, still basically is) a feminizing term; to accuse a man of being hysterical is to accuse him of being ‘like a woman’ — just as to accuse a woman of being hysterical is to accuse her of being ‘like a woman’. The very, very worst thing of all.

* The ‘very, very funny’ sense is of course related — it means ‘so funny as to make a person laugh as though hysterical’, only so truncated that the adjective becomes attached to the object of the emotion rather than its subject, thus making it so tangential that to be offended by its etymology would be a bit much, even for me.

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