At university I had a lecturer of medieval language and literature who was so wonderfully idiosyncratic that you will no doubt suspect I have made him up. His name was Alaric. He recited Beowulf from memory to silence the room and was known to remove his shoes before commencing a lecture. You can find a video of him rapping the opening lines of Piers Plowman on YouTube.
He once took our class to York for the Jorvik Viking Festival, and led us round the medieval parts of the city, explaining the origins of the street names. The innocuous Grape Lane was originally Grapcunt Lane – from the Old English “grapian”, meaning to grasp or grope – dating from the area’s history as a red-light district. It’s a memorable example of how language shifts to fit changing sensibilities.
Sometimes this process is deliberate, especially when it comes to addressing sexism: for example, by using “chairperson” rather than “chairman”. There have been several efforts to make the English language more inclusive, most notably Mary Daly and Jane Caputi’s Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (1987). But such approaches often face resistance. This year, after German dictionary the Duden issued guidance on making the language more gender neutral, it was criticised for creating unwieldy contortions.
Last year an open letter to Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), called for it to change its definition of the word “woman”: “Bitch is not a synonym for woman,” the letter read. “It is but one sad… example of everyday sexism.” The OED subsequently updated the entry, but at a recent Oxford Languages event on sexism and language, its head of product Katherine Martin defended the inclusion of such offensive words. “Bitch” is similarly common in usage to “eyelid” and “volcano”, she pointed out, and it would be “absurd” not to include these words.
Language evolves over generations, adapting to societal changes, and dictionaries are amended to reflect how it is used. By the time the OED edits an entry, the earlier form often seems laughable, even unthinkable. Until recently, the example usage of “high-maintenance” in the OED was: “If Martin could keep a high-maintenance girl like Tania happy, he must be doing something right.”
There are – as Sarah Ogilvie, a senior research fellow in linguistics at Oxford, pointed out at the event – more than 3,000 pejorative words for a woman. A University of Nebraska study in the late 1970s found ten times as many sexual slang terms for women as for men. Sexism in language cuts both ways, though: there are more words for an insufficiently masculine man than for an insufficiently feminine woman, Martin said.
In her 2019 book Wordslut, Amanda Montell argues that words associated with women tend to pejorate (become more negative) with time, whereas those associated with men ameliorate (become more positive). “Dude” was an insult for a foppish man long before it became synonymous with Jeff Bridges. By contrast, the word “hussy” simply comes from the Old English “husewif”, and “slut” from the Middle English “slutte”, meaning untidy.
“Buddy” and “sissy” are abbreviations of “brother” and “sister”, but sissy is now derogatory, while buddy has become a term of endearment. “Sir” and “madam” were once both neutral terms of formal address, but madam now also means bossy (“little madam”), or a woman who runs a brothel.
Though these examples are curious, they’re more than just curiosities: the history of sexism is embedded in the words we speak every day. The good news is that linguistic change can be progressive: the noun “spinster” has gone out of fashion as the assumptions underlying it have been discredited. Slurs such as “queer” are being reclaimed by the people they once demeaned. After Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman”, the phrase became a rallying cry for women: it’s emblazoned on my key ring.
“I look forward to the time,” Ogilvie said, “when an OED editor puts an ‘obsolete’ marker on a lot of… sexist words.”
This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation