Words are powerful things. When you use them to describe objects, ideas, some thing or the other, you give that entity form of its own. The object becomes describable and certain. It starts to exist in a way that it didn’t before. Before you pointed it out, the thing didn’t actually exist. There wasn’t a word for it, i.e. it escaped categorisation, and because of that, it could be anything it wanted to be.
This article was originally based on an idea where we intended to put together a list of problematic words that have gendered connotations but are normalised to an extent where they are used quite popularly. Although, having such a list wouldn’t be exhaustive, because there are so many things we say that pass us by without us even realising they affect our perception of gender. Instead I’m writing this article to get at the core of the problem itself, which is the way in which words have a hold on our worldviews.
The basic premise this article asserts is that using a problematic word subtly influences the images the words evoke, and whether we realise it or not, they affect gender relations. You didn’t call someone a woman, until you used the word “woman” to call her that. And when you decided to call a woman a woman, her pronouns fell into place, you built an image of her in your head, and you saw her a particular way, when before that, she was just this body that occupied space in front of you, appeared to look a particular way and engage with the world around her in a particular way. This can have very problematic effect when a word describes a person’s quality, or a “type” of person’s quality, i.e. a stereotype.
Unfortunately, the English language, as widely spoken as it is, is the biggest indicator of this. While other languages, spoken in more gender diverse sections of the world are very intriguing topics to write about from linguistics or gender studies points of view, specifically in indigenous communities, I promise to write about those later. For now, I’m going to try and build a case for how our perceptions of the gender binary are so directly informed by the words we speak, that they affect us even if we don’t notice them.
Take for instance the stereotype of a woman who stands her ground, or speaks out, as being labelled as “crazy” or “delusional” or being told to “calm down.” At the same time, a man doing the same thing is a go-getter. This isn’t new, we’ve spoken about this particular dichotomy before in Eyra, but what I’m trying to get at is the idea that the words we use by themselves evoke such stereotypes, and before we know it, we start associating other words to these words. I can think of much harsher examples than crazy and delusional, but soon enough, these words take on identities of their own, and the more we use them to refer to one particular gender, the more those words directly associate themselves with that gender identity. Eventually, a strong, masculine man is inherently a go-getter in our heads, and a woman who is strong and masculine is delusional.
Let me try to explain this even better.
Take the word pusillanimous. Technically, it means timid, or meek. In colloquial terms, we resorted to saying things like “Don’t be a pussy!” Slowly, the word replaced itself with the image of cats, drawn from the term “pussy-cat” which was then taken to denote feminine qualities, specifically a female body part. This female body part itself has a bunch of other words for it, which are again, used today in insulting capacity. Being pusillanimous, or “a pussy”, i.e. meek, timid, cowardly, became terms associated with women, and actions of women. This is a classic example where the behaviour of women was entrenched deeper because of words spoken to describe them, even if they truly fit the stereotype of such women, in a world where a majority of women were brought up closeted and isolated, never encouraged to speak out or stand up for themselves.
So even if we don’t know a word means something, even if we use it according to contextual usage, or because we’ve heard words used that way before, or even if we assume we are using these words knowing what they mean, it doesn’t allow us to escape from the subconscious effect they have on us. Some of these words even sound cool to say at times. Saying them repeatedly drives subconscious thought processes much deeper than we realise.
They make society dichotomous and normalises these outlooks, and this affects both the women who are at the receiving end of such stereotyping, as well as men who begin to perceive these women as weak and timid, even if they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Another example would be the term “maternal” instinct. It isn’t necessarily a universal truth that the care and concern a woman exhibits to her child cannot be exhibited by a man. Similarly, it isn’t necessarily true that a woman cannot be stern, immovable and protective, i.e. both parents can have “paternal” or “maternal” instincts, without seeing them from a gendered lens. But it’s heart-warming for us to think of it as so. It makes us feel Love, feel emotion. It makes us stereotype our silent and stern, oak-tree-like fathers in a particular way, our tear-filled dandelion-to-the-wind mothers in another.
As we grow up learning to see the world through words like these, we end up emulating them. As male presenting myself, this perception of manhood or manliness is not lost to me, and at times, seems like the right way to be, the right way to respond to a situation – stoic, calm, unperturbed, strong, “masculine”. Soon, I might end up becoming that stereotype, simply because it exists. I abandon my ability to be vulnerable, or joyous, because the more I grow into myself, the more I am bound by these existing conventions of how I must be a man, in a world where life is harsh.
Existing words that are gendered, that view the world through a binary, have existed for a long time, long enough to assume identities of their own. It doesn’t even matter what the real meaning or origin of a word was.
It would surprise you to know, the word I spoke of at the start of this, the word “woman” itself, doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with men. It would be so easy to dismiss this by pointing out how the word literally has the word “man” in it, but the deeper you go into medieval sources of the word, in the 1100s, in Old English, the word “man” was gender neutral. The word “wer” was used to mean “adult male” and “wif” was used for “adult female”.
People would then combine the two as “wermen” and “wifmen” for adult male person and adult female person (woman, wimmen, etc.) respectively. Eventually the more women were relegated to the household and bound by marriage, “wif” became “wife” and “man” became specifically related to the masculine identity. Eventually we came to know the word “woman” from “wife of man.”
Today “man” is a representation of the masculine, and there’s nothing we can do about it. If I say the word to you, it is an image of the masculine that you see. A faction of the feminist movement today (a faction I still don’t know if I agree with or see a point to disagreeing with) choose to abandon any reference to the patriarchal structures that precede the word and spell woman as “womxn”, or “womyn” instead.
I don’t see how this changes anything because you still pronounce it the same way, you still allow it to evoke particular images of how you perceive a womxn when you speak of her that way. This doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but I do think choosing to be aware of the words we use while describing gender specific activity, or choosing to be aware of gendered connotations in the words themselves, is a small and easy thing to do, and the longer we do this, the farther we move away from existing stereotypes. It could be as simple as using gender neutral terms whenever possible, to describe any situation or activity. It could simply be pointing out and correcting this activity, not just in public settings but also in private ones. And finally, words like slut, cunt, whore, bitch, etc. must definitely, at all costs, stop being used.
Written words, and spoken words, are two different things, and this expression through language, must extend to both of them. Even if we think it doesn’t change anything, I have it on good authority that it does. Especially considering all the literature I have to quote on how colonial expansion and the universalisation of the English language utterly destroyed very diverse and complicated gender systems across the world, imposing the disgusting sexist and oppressive gender relations of medieval era England on the world at large. The language we speak doesn’t just affect our identities, it alters the way we think. The way we think affects us a lot more than we let ourselves know.
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*