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Words Against Women: How Language Promotes the Patriarchy

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at ODU chapter.

Before even diving into the topic of this article, I want to first give credit where it’s due – to Amanda Montell, a linguist and the author of the best-selling book Wordslut: A Feminist’s Guide to Taking Back the English Language. It’s because of this novel, which tumbles down the rabbit-hole of all the ways that English favors a patriarchal society, that I decided to do some of my own research and share both the information from the book and from what I found with my peers. 

It’s no shock that language was designed around a male point of view. But isn’t it a little late in this whole “existence” game to still be ignoring how language is used to put down women? It’s not just in the English language either. According to one BBC article, scholars and linguists across the world have looked at the ways that different languages maintain sexist language – or at least connotations – to this day. While there have been major strides in the realm of gender-inclusive language in the past few decades, there are still some inherent and discrete examples of sexist and demeaning language that you may not have noticed before. 

The same BBC article also asks the age-old question: “Is language merely a mirror of our society, or does language help shape our worldview, subtly influencing our behavior?” If you have ever taken a linguistics class, you will recognize this question as being one of the foundational inquiries of the field. This, in turn, raises another question: Is language sexist because of the male influences that primarily created it, or is there an ever-lasting patriarchal skew to society because of language? It’s not a question I plan on answering here because frankly, even after taking an English Linguistics class, I don’t know the right answer. 

However, I would argue that the most plausible answer is this: a little bit of both. 

To start small, we can look at language (for the sake of length and clarity, I will only be looking at English in this article) and identify key words and phrases that are designed as a lashing at women. Part of the argument here will include a few curse words, something we don’t normally allow in HerCampus writing, however, in this case, I’m examining the words from a linguistic point of view as well as arguing that they’re ultimately running out of power anyways. Words like “bitch” and “slut” have been used to put women down for decades, if not centuries, but upon researching, there is no male equivalent to these terms. Sure, there are words that you can call a man to put him down, but when we really analyze that small set of words, you’ll find that the reason they are demeaning is because they refer to “feminine” behavior. 

Even when looking for examples to use in this article, the Google searches were able to tell the whole story. Upon looking up “words to put men down,” the first article that popped up was actually about words used to put women down, so I guess the search engine is at as much of a loss as I am.  The very few other headlines that popped up for the male search included words like “misandry” and “mansplaining.” One notable headline even read: “Misandry: Feminists Pretend to Hate Men and it’s Not Funny,”. 

I then changed the word “men” to “women,” and the difference really presented itself with flying colors. Google provided me with a convenient list, which came from a 2014 article published by The Guardian which gave examples such as “bossy,” “feisty” and “hysterical.” This article argues that it’s much less common to use these words to describe men than it is to describe women, and the author makes a good point. How often has your co-worker, brother, classmate or any other male figure been described as “naggy” or “whiny?” 

Further down the list of search results, a well-known thesaurus shares a long list of “insulting words for a woman,” which also provides the definition and which part of speech it is. Included on this list are words like “witch,” “frump” and even “cow.” 

Stricken by curiosity, I decided to use this same thesaurus search engine to then look for “insulting words for a man,” which was short enough to fit on my screen. Interestingly enough, a handful of the words were actually tied back to women. For instance, “pansy,” “pussy” and “sissy” were all included on the list, along with definitions that claim that “doing things that women normally do” is to be ashamed of and insulting. Do I need to go on?Need I elaborate here? 

This is just the tip of the iceberg in ways that language tends to look through the lens of the patriarchy. There are much more intricate and in-depth examples of this unequal power dynamic between gender and language, but for the sake of being succinct, I chose the most explicit examples. 

But, fear not! As Amanda Montell argues in her book, there are plenty of women seeking to reclaim these terms for themselves, thus taking away the inherent power that comes from allowing others to use them in a demeaning way. 

Whether you choose to take back the power of demeaning language by using it in different ways and limiting it’s tabooness, or by choosing to eliminate certain words out of your vocabulary entirely, you are in control of the language you use! I hope you use it to promote kindness, acceptance and equality for all. 
Make sure to check out Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell.

Hi Everyone! My name is Carly Herbert, I'm the Senior Editor here at HerCampus ODU! I'm originally from Northern VA, but I'm a huge fan of traveling and don't like to stay in one place for too long. I'm majoring in English with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Marketing. A few fun facts about me: an avid coffee drinker, I love the outdoors, and I'm a cat person!