Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

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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… for that particular feeling of hesitant trepidation, or trepidatious hesitancy, felt before turning off a hot shower on a really cold day.

It could be generalized, I suppose, for any situation in which one must leave an intensely comfortable but ultimately untenable situation. Your warm, cozy bed. The warm, cozy kettle which you must eventually put down, and stop hugging to your body like a beloved child. An industrial economy based on fossil fuels. Capitalism. Money.

Because, like, this shit can’t go on forever, right?

Stupid fat hobbits


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[Making this an open letter; it’s probably the only way of getting any response.]

Dear Jobcentre Plus,

I am a currently underemployed proofreader and copy-editor. I have been looking for work using your site, and have been dismayed to see that the job postings are rife with typos and other errors. I understand that this is employer-submitted content, but I am writing to ask if there is space on your staff for someone to read through job postings and, at the very least, remove obvious typos and spelling errors — if not also to work with employers to make more substantial corrections to grammar and punctuation. I believe that a process such as this would improve the experience of searching for job seekers, and improve the response rate to postings for prospective employers.

Thank you for your consideration in this matter.

Best regards,


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Checking my email this morning sent me into a bit of a rage. See, I’d opened up the latest in the unending stream of clicktivist emails I get as punishment for signing their petitions elsewhere on the internet. I often get upset when I open them, although to be fair, my rage is usually directed mostly at the content. This one, however, contained good news. It was even subject-lined “Finally, some good news” (though I could swear they’ve used that exact phrasing before, for previous victories on the LGBT front). From AllOut.org, this is the actual opening paragraph — bolding and hyperlink theirs:

“Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon delivered an incredibly powerful speech at the U.N. in Geneva. It’s not every day that a major world figure speaks out forcefully in defense of equality. But most people didn’t even hear about it.

Why? Because a handful of delegates stormed out of the meeting in protest and their story – that gay people should be denied human rights – dominated the day’s news.

But we are about to change that. Our friends at the U.N. just let us REMIX Ban-Ki Moon (complete with a dance beat chosen by the team at All Out). Will you take just 2 minutes to listen to this incredibly inspiring speech and share with your friends and family? When someone like Ban Ki-Moon speaks out, it makes a difference – but only if people hear what he has to say: (youtube screengrab, also a hyperlink)”

Do you see the problem here? This is news I actually appreciate — and even that I might not have gotten through other sources. Ban Ki-moon made a pro-LGBT speech on the floor of the UN. That’s pretty great (even if the actual speech turned out to be cursory and talking-pointy). BUT, the email makes such a point of trying to make me feel all ~*~*active*~*~ and ~*~*virtuous*~*~ for the mere act of watching a video on the internet that I feel disinclined to even watch it at all.

Granted, All Out’s whole platform is awareness-raising. But I recently found myself [finally getting around to] unsubscribing from Amnesty International’s similar clicktivist emails because they were all written in that same content-thin, patronizing register. AMNESTY FUCKING INTERNATIONAL, whose work I respect, whose projects I support, and whose news I would actually like to hear about, if only they would write to me like a literate, thinking adult. Friend @[redacted] over on Twitter used to work for clicktivist petition generator 38 Degrees, and writes “I helped draft/proof 38 Degrees emails… I was crap at it. Just couldn’t let myself write like that. They’re always so thin on information and full of supposedly emotive blah. They run emails through a sentence complexity checker.” I do not even know if that last sentence is a joke or not. And they ALL FUCKING DO THIS. It’s like every organization that gets big enough has the same marketing hacks come ’round to tell them how.

Finally, once I’d finished bashing my half-formed rage onto Twitter, I decided I might as well go ahead and watch the video. Only I was so distracted by the distracting bolding in their email that I’d missed the fact that this wasn’t just a link to the speech, it was a “REMIX … complete with a dance beat[!]” This would have been a terrible thing to do to Ban Ki-moon, if it actually were what it implied. Instead it was taste-offensive in another way: an over-slick intersplicing of Ban’s speech with emotive images of homophobic violence and soundbite-capture text quotations (complete with powerpoint word-swoosh sound effects), overlaid with music I guess you might dance to if you went to clubs that played documentary soundtracks.

No wonder God hates fags.

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Having listened to Maddy Prior & June Tabor’s album ‘Silly Sisters’ several times at work the other day, I found myself with their version of Geordie stuck in my head — only, annoyingly, I couldn’t remember all the words, so had just snippets. Thinking to exorcise it through fuller knowledge, I opened up a songbook, Rise Up Singing, that I knew to have a version of it, to scan the lyrics.

Now, I am no stranger to folk music; I’m well aware that there are about a bajillion versions of every song, especially older ones, and that they vary considerably in both words and music. This, however, was a broader divergence than I ever would have expected. The very story changes dramatically! The basic story of a man called Geordie being condemned, and then his wife coming to beg for his life is the same, but they diverge in almost evey other aspect. And I know they are supposedly the same song, as well, since the songbook lists the ‘Silly Sisters’ album as an example recording!

In Prior & Tabor’s (which turned out to be this version, originally transcribed by Robert Burns), Geordie was a nobleman framed for the murder of another. His lady rides to court and is told his life will be spared if she collects a ginormous ransom, which she does, and so buys his freedom. In the Rise Up Singing version — as in most other, especially English versions, it turns out — Geordie is a poacher, and when his wife comes to beg for his freedom, she is turned away, and he dies. Talk about alternate endings!

A musician, identified only as ‘Ian’ in this Mudcat thread describes his own recording of the song as “an English song about a disproportionate punishment for a crime which evolved from a Scottish song about a frame-up”. The Scottish versions do seem to generally pre-date the English ones (though they also seem to have become less common), and I guess changing the condemned man to reflect a common-ish crime in your area, for which the punishment is widely seen as vastly unjust, does make a sort of sense. As, given the former, does having him actually die rather than get ransomed at the last minute. But at this point, is it even still the same song? Could there have been some other English song (or several) that got morphed into this one because the tune was catchy and the story was distilled and familiar?

Oddly, this recording by Ewan MacColl seems to combine elements of several versions, but seems mostly drawn from this one, known as Gight’s Ladye. Geordie’s wife is still a noblewoman of some sort, but Geordie’s crime is poaching. She isn’t turned away out of hand, though, and goes through with the begging for ransom money as in the other Scottish versions. However, it seems to me that her success in this is left ambiguous while the narrator is distracted by telling the tale of her verbal harrassment by a bawdy lord. Though, granted, my impression of ambiguity could merely be from an inferior understanding of Scots; it’s certainly not ambiguous in the ‘Gight’s Ladye’ version given on Mudcat. But why this “Bog o’ Gight” stuff? Well, a little googling proved illuminating: ‘Bog-Of-Gight’ is an old name for Gordon Castle, and the earliest historical event to be associated with this song/set of songs was the story of a George Gordon, who would have been lord of said castle at the time — although the actual events of his life, at least as given on Wikipedia, don’t quite line up with the song, and they CERTAINLY don’t line up with the ‘Gight’s Ladye’ version, though at a stretch they could be described by Burns’ ‘Geordie’.

So what is going on here? It seems unlikely that an earl — who’d have his own hunting preserves, after all — would be brought up for poaching. Yet the ‘Gight’s Ladye’ version preserves an awful lot of specific names and places, far more than Burns’ ‘Geordie’. Could the crime have been changed to make the song more populist in one area, while in another the events were recorded more faithfully even as the names all dropped away? It’s nearly impossible to tell. Though for those who feel like making minute comparisons between versions (woefully void of any information about where or when or how they were collected), it turns out Wiki has transcriptions of all of Child’s collections.

Meanwhile, a few thoughts on the Burns/Child A version. In it, Geordie is framed (or blamed for the death, anyway, regardless of guilt), and his lady, upon receiving the news of his captivity, rushes to Edinburgh with all of her men. Later on, after she’s made her tearful case to the king, but before the aged lord suggests a fine instead of death, we get this verse, which on first listen seems to break the pattern of the story considerably:

The Gordons cam and the Gordons ran,
And they were stark and steady;
And ay the word amang them a’
Was, Gordons keep you ready.

Then we see the king’s advisor suggesting that a fine might be the wiser course of action. Because this lady brought a freaking army with her to “beg” for her dearie’s life. Conclusion: the ‘fairest flower o’ woman-kind’ is a lot more badass than you might expect.

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Words to live with

Spam knows what we really want. I mean, not me personally, but we as a society. Mine’s finally given up on bank scams, and now mostly tries to sell me a degree or an “elevated bed experience”. It seems to come in waves, and changes like the tides — and is apparently now responding to the news. A day after the swine flu paranoia started, I started to get the subject line “Absolutely effective respiratory pathogens treatment”.

Advertising of all sorts does this, really. It appeals to the desires we don’t want to admit we have: the shameful, base, lazy and cowardly and shy. There’s an instant food company here called ‘Batchelors’. I thought it was a little blatant, but never gave it much thought until a box of powdered “soup” packets appeared in our cupboard. How they got there is a mystery in itself, since my housemates are vegan and they are not. In any case, they were named ‘Slim a Soup’, to indicate their capacity to effect self-improvement. The powder they contained promised to materialise into “chicken noodle & vegetable”, a stereotypical comfort food. The more interesting promise was in what appeared to be their slogan: “a great big hug in a mug” — thus replacing not just the cookery of the prototypical wife, but the wife herself.

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