Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones, But Words Will Obliterate My Identity

Boy playing with Barbie dollsWhy do words exist?

Why have we gone to such exquisite effort to stratify our existence with extremely subtle differences in mouth noises? Why do we do that? Part of the answer is somewhat philosophical, concerning our profound need to express what is in our minds, and we have found an amazing way to do it.

Ignoring profundity, we can see that we use words to describe our world. Because our world changes depending on time and space, I know the meaning of the word “website” whereas my ancestors knew the word “harrow”. Whatever that was. Or we can cite the famous example of how the Eskimos have 684 words for snow.

But for this blog entry, let’s consider a distinction in the fact that we not only use words to describe our world, but to express our feelings about that world. In this case, I don’t mean by talking about our feelings, but by creating words for the things we think are important. What specific verb means “to put cold water on your eyes in the evening to try to wake up”? There’s no such word. Who cares? It’s not important enough to have a word.

There was a time when people did think it was imporant to have a word like “octoroon”. It means a person who appears to be a member of the “white” race but who has one eighth (yes, 1/8th) “black” blood. Why was there ever such a word? Because a world existed in which the distinction between black and white was so important, and in which “black” blood was considered so inferior, that it really mattered if a person had even one eighth black heritage. Thus there was a word to set those people apart. There was also a word for someone who was one fourth black: quadroon, and one half black: mulatto. These words did not exist simply to describe the world, but to describe how people felt about the world.

I’ll examine some very interesting pairs of words that illustrate ideas about male and female behavior. Some of these words (some) are slipping out of use as social ideas change. That’s part of my point—these words do not exactly describe the world, but rather they capture what people have believed about the world.

You Naughty Girls

For the last few centuries (i.e., 10,000 years), what has been the attitude toward women who have more than one sexual partner, or even just one for that matter? It has been considered wrong wrong wrong for women to freely have sex, and they should be condemned if not worse. We even have a word to symbolically perform that condemnation: slut. Every time you use that word, you are participating in male domination, even if you’re a woman.

Is there a real male equivalent for that word? And don’t give me that “male slut” bullshit. I mean a real word, with the same connotations. Of course there’s no such word. A man who sticks it around in as many directions as possible will probably get a positive word: stud. Duuuude!

That’s Your Rocking Chair Over There

In The Canterbury Tales, the character known as Wife of Bath tells about her many husbands, the first of which she married while still a girl. I’m remembering that she was 12 years old. At that time remarkably young girls might become married to much older men, a practice that is still true in some pretty nasty cultural practices around the world.

It was almost impossible for a girl to be too young to be married, but she could certainly be too old. Because some women were still unmarried past some age of decrepitude (say, 25), they simply weren’t going to be able to marry. They would remain “maidens” or maids for life, and thus they would become old maids. In order to pass the days these poor women might spend a lot of the time spinning wool, so they were also spinsters.

And what is the male equivalent term? In the case of men, the social attitude was that they practically could not be too old—or dumb, or ugly, or mean—to get married. An unmarried bachelor was always an eligible bachelor.

You Boys Take Those Dresses Off

How bad are the connotations of the word “tomboy”? Not that bad, really. In most cases, probably not bad at all. How bad is the word “sissy”? It is never, ever good, and until recently might result in medical treatment in the United States.

A tomboy is a girl who behaves according to socially defined male behavior. No doubt some people have not liked for girls to act that way, but in general it’s not horrible and it shows a little spirit. In opposition to this, a sissy is a boy who behaves according to traditional female behavior. And it ain’t a good thing.

What these two words show us is that, socially, male behavior is so positive a girl who acts that way is at least following something admirable. Male behavior is the positive standard. Female behavior, on the other hand, has been looked at so negatively that for a boy to act as a girl—well, good God, somebody stop him!

In reality, every word in the language carries a social history, telling us something about how people in the past looked at the world. We might consider the word “virgin”, for instance, but maybe we’ll look into that later.


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