Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: Womanizer

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

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).

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

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a noted American writer, critic and social commentator who contributed occasional reviews and essays to the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496