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Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: Womanizer

The American man of letters on linguistic complacency and corruption either side of the Atlantic.

Painting of Lord Byron.
Lord Byron: happy with all definitions of the word. Photo: Getty Images.

Anyone who has been reading the more literate departments of the British and American press in the period since the last war must have been becoming aware, in the case of certain English words, of a recent change in usage which sometimes amounts to a change in meaning. I have been making a collection of such words and trying to discover the implications of the roles which they have lately been made to play, and I present here a list of conspicuous examples - some British, some America, some both - with the best that I can do in the way of explanation.

One: Womanizewomanizer (British).

This word, as one learns from the Oxford English Dictionary, meant originally to render effeminate or to become womanlike. Later, however, it came to mean to consort illicitly with women. The first illustration of this latter meaning is quoted from the slang dictionary of Farmer and Henley of 1893; the next is from Compton Mackenzie's Sinister Street (1914): "The bad men [among Oxford students] went up to London and womanized"; and under womanizer, of which similar definition is given, the only example is from Galsworthy's The White Monkey (1924): "Somehow ... I feel he's a womanizer".

But this word, in its twentieth-century sense, has lately become much more common. In Six Proust Reconstructions by Pamela Hansford Johnson, we find, for example, "... she'd never be safe with an old womanizer like you"; and in Victor Purcell's epic poem Cadmus (1944), an amusing use is made of it, which makes one suspect that the word is coming to mean something more than to consort illicitly with women: that it implies a disparagement of sex itself. Purcell makes Francois Villon confess that, "we womanized, we cheated, and we stole"; and we have only to imagine how Villon would actually have described his activities to see the absurdity of this and how far away Villon is from the England in which Cadmus was written.

Nor would the French lady in Miss Hansford Johnson's pastiche of Proust have used any word equivalent to womanizer: no such word exists in France. She would have said "vieux satyre" or "vieux coureur" or some other such more lively word. In English, the older words would have been whoring or wrenching or chambering or seducing, all of which have different nuances, social or aesthetic or moral, and a womanizer would have been particularised as a libertine, a rake, a Lothario, a Lovelace, a gallant or a ladies' man (in America a Casanova, a heartbreaker, a great lover, a skirt-chaser or a swordsman); but womanize seems to reduce all intimate intercourse with women to the same insipid-sounding level.

Since Cadmus, this tendency has been carried farther, till one feels that, from the point of view of the contemporary British intelligensia, not only would Byron have been a womanizer but also Tracy Tupman and Nathaniel Winkle in their flirtations with the ladies at Dingley Dell. The playing-down of the importance of women - in the role at least of charmers or idols - has been long, of course an English trait.

Uxorious is another English word which, I should think, does not have an equivalent, at least a common equivalent, at least a common equivalent, in any other modern language: it is used always in a derogatory sense to refer to a husband who cares too much for or who spends too much time with his wife. And womanizer seems sometimes in England to have come to be used simply as a derogatory epithet for a man who likes women.

The word has, in fact, become disgusting.

6 September 1958. Next up: Religionist (American).