Reclamation and Re-imagining Words

May 6, 2009

*or, Why Write A Wordy Comment When You Can Write A Wordy Post Instead?*

Hello faithful readers of Gender Goggles! No, we’re not dead, or imprisoned because of some fabulous radical act against the establishment, or given up the feminism ghost and Found God. We appear to have lives, oddly enough! Or enough fatigue to stare at the computer screen and try to think of something to say and end up going “fuck it, watch Doctor Who!!” *ahem* Not that I’ve been doing the latter. *whistles innocently*

I had started to write a reply to one of our commenters in eloriane’s Chivalry thread but as it was getting so long I decided to make it a post instead! Cuz, it’s a little embarrassing that nothing’s been posted for several days now. And the whole reclaiming words thing is an interesting thing to talk about afresh.

Eloriane had written about the sexism/rudeness of so-called chivalrous acts, and a discussion ensued about the meaning of the word “chivalry.” If chivalry is supposed to be showing respect, does that mean that one simply isn’t being chivalrous in those examples that eloriane illustrated were rude? Or is chivalry actually a form of rudeness (despite its claims to the contrary) in that it so often contains a degree of agency-taking from the woman at the receiving end of it?

We could go to the dictionary to look more closely at how the word is defined, searching there for more meaning. But I think one of the problems with using a dictionary definition when discussing the meanings and social ramifications of these words is that language isn’t defined by the dictionary. Rather, people who write the dictionary try to capture the existing social meaning of words. This being a sexist world, dictionaries are often incomplete in their descriptions as people are often unaware of underlying sexist dynamics. Remember,  sexism is so much a part of our social fabric that it usually goes unnoticed. Even researchers trying to be accurate with their descriptions of words can miss enormous sexist subtexts.

Chivalry is a great example of this. The dictionary describes it as being polite, but the actions that are socially described as chivalrous often aren’t merely polite but serve to reinforce women’s insubordinate status. “Chivalry” is based on the notion that women (not men) need “looking after,” need escorting, need protecting from little things – but dictionary writers rarely seem to include that aspect in their descriptions. There’s this whole “putting up on a pedestal” element to chivalry that is at once, flattering and infantalizing. As an anonymous African-American abolitionist/feminist said in the 19th Century, “a pedestal is as much a prison as any other small space.” The intent may be politeness, or respect, but the result is a taking away of our agency, either in actuality or symbolically. This is the way sexism works (and other “isms” naturally); our society says it’s polite, but it really isn’t.

I do hear what I think Ishy in the linked-to comment thread is saying, though. That if chivalry is supposed to be about politeness and treating women with respect, when one is being rude while trying to be chivalrous one is then failing at chivalry. That a chivalrous act that is also rude is thus not “real” chivalry. I kind of feel the same way about “honour.” That is also a loaded word with a lot of concepts behind it that I don’t hold to. People will excuse a lot of shitty behaviour in the name of protecting/defending one’s honour. But that’s not what I mean when I use the word. I’m trying to reclaim the word. When I speak of honour, I speak about being true to one’s convictions and behaving with (actual, real) respect to those around us, but without a lot of the “moral” crap – ie a woman can have loads of sex with lots of different men or women and still be deeply honourable. One-night stands even. One can have casual sex with someone and still do so honourably. It means not lying and treating people like shit, and treating yourself with the same respect.

But are these terms really reclaimable? Ultimately, what one might consider honourable, another might not, and I’m not sure if that will ever change. I suspect that it might be just the nature of the word that keeps it so personal. Chivalry, however, I think is different; I don’t think that what is culturally considered chivalrous changes all that much from person to person. So I don’t think it really is reclaimable, at least not yet (and I’m not sure about honour, either). In a post-feminist world, when we’ve let go of this domination fetish, perhaps one can remove the gendered history of the word and keep it as a term to describe that little extra respect we might show to people we admire, male or female and any permutation in between. But now? I lean towards thinking not.

What I then find myself wondering is whether or not showing that kind of deference has a degree of submission inherent to it? Or am I only thinking that because our world is so relentlessly based on domination and submission that any kind of showing deference is automatically loaded with that subtext? Are we are so used to hammering that everything looks like a nail?

This is the great challenge of reclaiming any word, of course. Language changes and evolves over time, and a word that means one thing in one century might come to mean something very different centuries later. Like “wife” for example. Used to be just the name for an adult female human. And “husband” means to look after livestock. *raises an eyebrow* Completely coincidental, isn’t it, what those words mean now. While trying to reclaim a word one has to constantly fight with everyone’s concept of what you’re saying. Some of these things are forms of activism, like “witch” and “dyke.” But we need a large enough number of people to generate this change. Plus time. Plus changes in our society around that which caused problems with the word in the first place. Without that larger social shift the words just keep meaning what they’ve always meant.


Gendered language leads to gendered thought?

April 18, 2009

I discovered a fascinating post today: Tiny Shiny Keys and Gendered Language, by Zuska at ScienceBlogs. It’s in response to an even more fascinating bit of science, a paper by Lera Boroditsky, an assistant psychology professor at Stanford University, which can be found here.

As Zuska describes it,

Boroditsky’s essay “Sex, Syntax, and Semantics” is forthcoming in Gentner & Goldin-Meadow (Eds.,) Language in Mind: Advances in the study of Language and Cognition. It is a fascinating (and very readable) look at one aspect of the “does language shape thought” question, which Boroditsky recasts as “Does thinking for speaking a particular language have an effect on how people think when not thinking for speaking that same language?” It turns out the answer is yes.

I want to draw your attention to my favourite part of the paper (which you really should read in full!), namely, section 4.6: Grammatical Gender and Object Descriptions. Native speakers of either Spanish or German (who were also proficient in English) were given 24 words, 12 of which were feminine in Spanish and masculine in German, and 12 of which were the other way around, and they were asked to write down English adjectives to describe the words. The results?

As predicted, Spanish and German speakers generated adjectives that were rated more masculine for items whose names were grammatically masculine in their native language than for items whose names were grammatically feminine. Because all object names used in this study had opposite genders in Spanish and German, Spanish and German speakers produced very different adjectives to describe the objects.

For example, the word for “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers described keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, serrated, and useful, while Spanish speakers said they were golden, intricate, little, lovely, shiny, and tiny. The word for “bridge,” on the other hand, is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, peaceful, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.

(Quoted directly from the paper in question, which, remember, you can read here!)

It’s always been my gut feeling that language matters, especially in terms of perpetuating systems of thought. However, I’d only been really certain of this on the level of, for example, using “mankind” to mean “humankind.” It becomes obviously biased when one considers, for example, the following sentence:

It is morning in Chicago, and throughout the city man is preparing for his day. He brushes his teeth, trims his beard or puts on his make up, ties his tie or pulls on his pantyhose… 

By this point I tend to get outraged cries that obviously if you know the gender, you use the feminine form. “But I thought it was neutral!” I reply, killing the conversation but emerging semi-victorious.

However, I never had proof, before, that language matters so deeply.

On the one hand, it fascinates me to see how invested we can get, however subconsciously, in the gender binary. On the other hand, life is not academic; the more deeply-rooted these biases are, the harder they will be to conquer. But I suppose all we can do is keep working away. After all, if we can eliminate silly gender stereotypes, and create a world in which men and women can be strong and elegant, it should be no problem to think of our bridges as being both, as well.

Of “bint” and “madrasa”

April 15, 2009

I’m currently in my second year of Arabic, which has been an entirely fascinating and enjoyable endeavor, but which has made certain kinds of racism absolutely jump out at me in ways I’d never experienced before. There was my awkward experience getting my hair cut, for one, but most of it has to do with words.

For example, one of the very first words I learned in Arabic was “bint.” It just means daughter, or, by extension, girl. It’s a wholly unremarkable word. However, I hear it used as an insult, and whereas before I’m not sure I would even have noticed, I find it almost painful now.

The origin of the word as an English derogatory term apparently comes from the British occupation of Egypt. That is to say, English-speakers interacting with Arabic-speakers. Who took an Arabic word unchanged and applied it as an insult, despite the fact that there’s nothing derogatory about being a “bint,” except that it probably means one speaks Arabic. Because of this, I posit that “bint” as a derogatory is an inherently racist usage.

I have also heard it suggested that the word is really a portmanteu of “bitch” and “cunt.” I’m not totally convinced that’s a lot better, but regardless, I think it’s a sort of “folk etymology,” which often happens when a word is in use but no one remembers the original origin; people make up a new one, and pass that along. (A little like a backronym.) The historical usage of the word, according to my research, points much more strongly to an Arabic origin.

So, this is actually a pretty simple example, for me: when I see someone using “bint” in a derogatory manner, I alert them to its origin and racist connotations and ask they they refrain from using it. But it’s not the only use of Arabic that I find problematic.

My big question right now surrounds the word “madrasa.” It means a place for things that are studied, just like “maktaba” means a place for things that are written. All words in Arabic are created by putting three root letters into patterns to create words. The root K-T-B has to do with writing, so kitab means “book” (thing that is written), katabtu means “I wrote” and maktaba means “library” or “bookstore” (place for things that are written). The root D-R-S refers to studying and learning, so that dirasa means “studies” (thing that is studied, like “women’s studies”), darastu means “I studied,” and madrasa means, well, “place for things that are studied.” My translations are loose and my transliterations looser, but the point should be clear: “madrasa” really just means “school.”

So why does, for example, this story still say madrasa instead of translating it to school?

They gathered in front of the School of the Last Prophet, a madrasa run by Ayatollah Asif Mohsini, the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric.

I really don’t know. They translate it when they say the name, “School of the Last Prophet,” but not elsewhere in the story. News stories do this all the time. It stands out to me as weirdly inconsistent. It seems especially unnecessary in this particular sentence. Even if the reporter was unaware that madrasa has no religious connotations in Arabic (which is quite possible!), and therefore chose the word in an attempt to convey that this school did have religious ties (the way we might refer to a “parochial school” in the U.S.), the rest of the sentence already tells us the school’s religious affiliations.

The charitable interpretation is that the reporter believed (erroneously, but in good faith) that a madrasa was, somehow, a kind of school, and was simply trying to be as accurate as possible.

The less charitable interpretation chalks it up to good ol’ racism, conscious or (more likely) subconscious. I think that in English, “madrasa” carries connotations not just of “school” but specifically of “schools where those scary extremist Arabs learn their scary extremist Islam.” A reporter choosing “madrasa” over “school” emphasizes that aspect of the story. It’s an Othering technique, and, I think, almost something of a dog whistle.

But how racist is it? Should I be calling people out on it, explaining that the word really doesn’t mean anything but “school”? For example, in this post at Shakesville, Liss calls the school a madrasa (probably taking her cue from the article.) I’m pretty sure in her case it stems entirely from unawareness that the word doesn’t mean anything special, but I still hesitate to say anything. I’m not Muslim or an Arab; I haven’t even been studying Arabic for so long. Who am I to go on a crusade here? Is the offense really large enough that it needs calling out at every appearance?

With “bint,” the answer is easily yes. With “madrasa,” I’m not so sure. It’s more of a dogwhistle than an actual racial epithet. But it still has unfortunate connotations.

Any readers more qualified than myself have an opinion? I’d love some insight from someone whom this affects more directly.

Cherchez la femme: sexism in French class

April 4, 2009

“Turnez a la page cent trente-neuf,” instructed my teacher (except that she had all the right accent marks), and obediently, I turned to the page, where I found the following:


Okay, okay, I know it’s illegible. And in French. Translated, this is what it says:

Exercise 1. Jay or Oprah?

Listen to the following adjectives. Does the adjective describe Jay Leno (masculine form) or Oprah Winfrey (feminine form) or is it impossible to distinguish?

Example: You hear: generous (f.)

You mark: Oprah

My teacher read the adjectives arrogante, creatif, franche, drole, nerveuse, optimiste, folle, and interessant. Funny and optimistic were impossible to distinguish. Which means that Jay Leno is creative and interesting, while Oprah Winfrey is arrogant, frank, nervous, and crazy. Yeah.

It’s pretty typical of the book to test us on gender things by giving us people for each column, and also typical for those people to be famous, but I hadn’t previously noted such a stark difference between who gets what. It’s probably because this is our first chapter to even have ajectives– previous exercises on similar lines had to use sentences like “she likes to swim” and “he is from Paris” which are harder to attache gender fucked-up-ness to.

It may have just been a bizarre coincidence, but je ne suis pas optimiste! On the next page, we have the following:


Bill and Hillary Clinton! Are they compatible?? Clearly, it is our business to determine!

I dread finding out who is hardworking, frank, honest, and kind, and who is…not. At least it looks like we get to write our own sentences for this one. If it’s assigned for homework, I just might turn in an angy rant essay on the topic.

EU bans the use of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ (and sportsmen and statesmen) because it claims they are sexist

March 18, 2009

Yup, you read that right. EU bans the use of ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’ (and sportsmen and statesmen) because it claims they are sexist (emphasis mine.) Not, because, you know, it’s sexist.

I think I would find the over-the-top outrage a lot funnier if it wasn’t, well, sad.

No, really just read this! (I’ve inserted my own comments, but otherwise this passage is unaltered from the original.)

Instead of using the standard titles, it is asking MEPs to address women by their names.

No! Truly, society shall crumble!

And the rules have not stopped there –


they also ban MEPs saying sportsmen and statesmen, advising athletes and political leaders should be used instead.

Man-made is also taboo – it should be artificial or synthetic, firemen is disallowed and air hostesses should be called flight attendants.

Uh… really? That’s it? These seem, uh, pretty obvious to me.

Headmasters and headmistresses must be heads or head teachers, laymen becomes layperson, and manageress or mayoress should be manager or mayor.

Wait, seriously? The words manageress and mayoress actually existed? That’s about as pathetic as millionairess. And people object to eliminating them??

Police officers must be used instead of policeman and policewoman unless the officer’s sex is relevant.

The only problem words that do not fit into the guidelines are waiter and waitress, which means MEPs are at least spared one worry when ordering a coffee.

Thank goodness. I was really concerned about them. Those poor MEPS, and the loss of their mayoresses.

They have reacted with incredulity to the booklet, which has been sent out by the Secretary General of the European Parliament.

Scottish Tory MEP Struan Stevenson described the guidelines as ‘political correctness gone mad’.

Haha, this is my favourite part, this poor guy’s hilariously overwrought rant!

He said: ‘This is frankly ludicrous.

You’re frankly ludicrous, oooh! (Except actually, he kinda is. Keep reading.)

We’ve seen the EU institutions try to ban the bagpipes and dictate the shape of bananas, but now they seem determined to tell us which words we are entitled to use in our own language.

‘Gender-neutrality is really the last straw. The Thought Police are now on the rampage in the European Parliament.

Seriously, guys, it’s like, 1984 or something! Thought Police!!

‘We will soon be told that the use of the words “man” or “woman” has been banned in case it causes offence to those who consider ‘gender neutrality’ an essential part of life.’

Indeed, that slope, it is so slippery! Why, soon, women might ask that we pay them as much as we pay men who do the identical work! The horror!

In all seriousness, I’m excited about this change, and while I’d prefer for people to recognize the inequity and the role language plays in perpetuating it, and choose to alter their language accordingly, well, maybe it’ll work in the other direction, too. At the very least, this is a step in the right direction.

Thinking by analogy

March 13, 2009

I want to direct everybody towards “A Person Paper on Purity in Language,” by Douglas Hofstadter, which I’ve read several times now, and never ceases to impress me with its relevance, even though it was written in 1985. It begins thus:

It’s high time someone blew the whistle on all the silly prattle about revamping our language to suit the purposes of certain political fanatics. You know what I’m talking about-those who accuse speakers of English of what they call “racism.” This awkward neologism, constructed by analogy with the well-established term “sexism,” does not sit well in the ears, if I may mix my metaphors. But let us grant that in our society there may be injustices here and there in the treatment of either race from time to time, and let us even grant these people their terms “racism” and “racist.” How valid, however, are the claims of the self-proclaimed “black libbers,” or “negrists”-those who would radically change our language in order to “liberate” us poor dupes from its supposed racist bias?

Most of the clamor,as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun “white” and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, straw white, whitehandle, and so on. The negrists claim that using the word “white,” either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism. Therefore the libbers propose that we substitute “person” everywhere where “white” now occurs. Sensitive speakers of our secretary tongue of course find this preposterous. There is great beauty to a phrase such as “All whites are created equal.” Our forebosses who framed the Declaration of Independence well understood the poetry of our language. Think how ugly it would be to say “All persons are created equal,” or “All whites and blacks are created equal.” Besides, as any schoolwhitey can tell you, such phrases are redundant. In most contexts, it is self-evident when “white” is being used in an inclusive sense, in which case it subsumes members of the darker race just as much as fairskins.

It’s a bit long, but I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. The metaphor only grows more powerful, covering the use of gendered pronouns, and “Mrs” and “Miss” for women but only “Mr” for men, and changing one’s name upon marriage, and the tendency to refer to adult women as “girls,” and more! Here, have a second link to it!

Now I’m linking this not only because I think it’s well-written (and especially useful as an eye-opener for those who don’t think sexist language is important), but also because I’ve been thinking a lot about the uses of analogies to highlight systematic problems. When I posted about environmentalism earlier, for example, I frequently used analogies to the feminist movement to articulate my thoughts about the environmental movement. To quote myself:

I don’t want to fall into the “WHAT ABOUT WOMEN IN SAUDI ARABIA” sort of argument that feminists face when they try to talk about comic books– I get that talking about the little things does not preclude talking about the big things, and that it’s important to pay attention on both.  But this seems somehow… not even one of the little things. As if a feminist was trying to complain about women no longer being put on a pedestal. It’s missing the point, somehow, aiming for a goal other than the one that out society needs.

I was trying to articulate that I didn’t object to the innovations in question merely because they were small, but because I thought they were missing the point entirely; any sustainable action, no matter how small, would be worthwhile, but something selling itself as “green!” that didn’t work towards sustainability would be problematic. I was having trouble expressing that idea, though, since I am not as well-versed in environmental issues, so I went back to something I did understand, and which I thought my readers would be more likely to understand, and tried to reason from there. I wasn’t totally successful (the comments were a hoot!) but that was my goal, and my reasoning behind using the feminist movement as an analogy.

I find that I also try to work from my feminist framework to understand other “isms” which I do not directly experience. But this is where I start checking myself. I truly do think that thinking by analogy can be enlightening and not appropriation, and the article I began with is an example of a usage I find acceptable. But I could be totally, totally off base. There are definitely example of “analogies” being drawn between oppressions (especially using the black civil rights movement!) that are not acceptable. For example: Gay is the new Black!

The biggest flaw that I can identify in usages like this is the way that they pretend the black civil rights movement is over, which is a bit of a lol/sob situation. Barack Obama did not end racism! Seriously! I may still have some embarrassingly obvious moments where my privilege is showing (like, possibly, this post!), but at least I don’t try to pretend I don’t have privilege. Any attempts to draw parallels between the black civil rights movement and any subsequent civil rights movement is going to be fatally flawed (and probably worthless) if it doesn’t accommodate the fact that we’re not done yet.

But even more importantly, even though all oppression is connected, all oppression is not the same. The analogies break down when you get into the details. Using analogies like the ones I’ve mentioned earlier might be useful as an introduction to one’s privilege, but they have to be replaced with an actual understanding of the topic at hand for the conversation to go farther. Trying to only think via analogy can be seriously harmful.

Does the essay I started with fall into that category? I’m not sure. It’s definitely working from the assumption that “we all know that Racism Is Bad,” but I’m not sure that it’s positing that racism is gone. I’m not sure that saying “we all know Racism Is Bad” is the same as saying “racism is fixed now”– in fact, my impression is that one of the problems with eradicating racism is that We All Know Racism Is Bad, and therefore any attempt to say “that was pretty racist” gets translated to “you are A Racist, and therefore Evil!” and shuts down the conversation. So my first response is that the essay is OK on that level, but what about the fact that some of the instances it uses– especially gendered pronouns– were not oppressions that (male) people of color faced? Is that minimizing the ways they they were (and are!) oppressed, making it look like sexism is somehow worse or more widespread? Are we getting into an Oppression Olympics here? (The first half of the link is more relevant, though the whole thing is good.) But the whole point is revealing that they are oppressive acts, by applying them along race lines instead of sex lines, to trigger our Racism Is Bad response. This particular essay isn’t trying to say anything about racial oppression; it’s assuming we already know how it happens. Maybe. Is it only my privilege that makes an essay that relies so much on race-related language seem to somehow be “not about race” to me?

I guess my big question is, when is thinking via analogy helpful, and when is it hurtful? Is it ever all one or the other?

My gut response is that of course you have to engage directly with the voices in question to get to the actual paradigm shift, the real understanding. But, however easy it is for an analogy to be misguided and hurtful, there are exceptions, and it can be a good way to start things, by forcing people to realize that their paradigm isn’t quite right.

But, of course, I could be way off base. What do you think?

On Language

March 3, 2009

I am currently taking Intensive Arabic 2 from 9:30 to 10:20 Monday through Friday, and Elementary French 1 from 11:30 to 12:20 Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Plus I use English all the time. Is it a surprise that I’ve been thinking about languages lately?

Unfortunately, most of the stuff that’s really interesting right now isn’t very bloggable. It’s just this journey I can feel myself making, where I am absorbing so much information and making so many connections, both on the “how to conjugate the past tense in Arabic” level and on a more meta level that’s about the institution of language itself.

This week has been notable in both areas. On the practical, learning-the-language level, I had my first non-English thought recently! It was a really powerful breakthrough, once I realized what I’d done. My brother was talking about last year, and said, “that was before I had friends.” I thought to myself, “انا عندي اصدقاء، و لكن ما مع اصدقاء” which means “I have friends, but I don’t have friends.” I thought it in Arabic because Arabic has a phrase “endii” for “I have, in general” and a phrase “maa” for “I have, right now, in my presence.” It was actually pretty poor Arabic since one uses “lee” for having abstract ideas like “friends,” but it expressed a thought that I couldn’t have had in English.

Which sort of leads in to the meta language stuff that’s been going on in my head. I can feel my entire brain changing, in the ways it processes information. When I was growing up, a friend of mine liked to expound a theory that the language one speaks controls, in some fundamental way, the ideas one can have; at the time, I didn’t quite buy it, but lately I think there’s a gem of truth. You can’t think something if you don’t have the words to express it. You might feel it, but you can’t express that feeling in a thought unless your language has given you the tools to express that particular thought. Often you can get close, by saying “it’s like such-and-such” and explaining the concept, but your native tongue controls which thoughts come easily and which thoughts you must work at. If you have a commonly-used, concise word for “I have, right here, with me” you’re going to make that specification a lot more often than if you have to use, for example, a six-word phrase.

I’m still thinking about this. I think it’s relevant to a lot of important things– for example, why it’s inaccurate to call historical figures “gay,” even if they had confirmed homosexual desires/ relationships, because the word “gay” involves so many cultural assumptions that just didn’t apply to people who lived before the creation of the word. “Gay” means not only having homosexual desires, but identifying with them as something opposite heterosexual desires, and living a life that does not involve even the expectations of heterosexual relationships. People just didn’t think that way, and they didn’t talk that way, in the days of Alexander the Great. And I think that the talking and the thinking are connected.

Like I said, not totally sure where I’m going with this. A lot of it is so tied to my own, personal language-learning journey that it’s hard to explain to people who aren’t trying to communicate in three languages at once. Sort of ironic, really– learning more languages ought to increase my communication skills. Hopefully that will come later.