Gregory {Greg} Downing gd2 at IS2.NYU.EDU
Fri Nov 12 21:56:05 UTC 1999

At 12:13 PM 11/12/99 -0600, you wrote:
>I am in college.  Now and in high school, my friends and I have used
>"chick", when we are talking amongst ourselves.  We do not take offense to
>it.  Many other women do, though, and some men are surprised that we use the
>What is it about "chick" that is offensive to some people?
>-Beth Bradley

This is an interesting sociolinguistic question. Something I've noticed on
this list for several years is that as empirical social scientists people
tend to take the descriptivist position ("our job is to describe as
objectively and accurately as possible what people actually do,
linguistically, without fear or favor"). But then the same people turn
around and express very strongly prescriptivistic opinions. I suspect that
there is always a deeper consistency behind any seeming inconsistency,
though the deeper consistency may not always be clearly understood or

But you are not asking about this meta-problem. To answer your specific
question: My sense would be that it has to do with the sociolinguistics, in
the 1965-75 period, of college-educated and non-college-educated speakers.
During that period, when modern versions of feminism were emerging and
developing, one of the linguistically prescriptivistic ideas proposed in
connection with the movement was that any words for females that seemed to
carry a sexual connotation or could be taken as otherwise offensive needed
to be eliminated by those who supported the main ideas of emergent feminism.
Like many terms of actual or supposed endearment, "chick" was a term for a
small, cuddly animal that had come to be used figuratively in application to
women, either by lovers or by those who wanted to discuss or address women
in a sexualized fashion. (Of course, women also used similar metaphorical
terms of endearment -- or, in some uses, predatory sexualization -- in
application to men, but that was not the issue at that time.)

Sociolinguistically, since emergent feminism tended to be attractive to
those with a college education and the less educated were less aware of or
interested in or even tolerant of emergent feminism, terms such as "chick"
came to be matters of dispute in the culture wars that followed. So today,
thirty years later, when a young woman uses "chick" in the hearing of an
educated woman who grew up in the 60's or 70's and accepted emergent
feminism, that is kind of parallel, sociolinguistically, to a Baptist
hearing someone blatantly swear in a public forum.

This doesn't mean there's anything metaphysically offensive about all the
terms that came to be negatively marked. Note for example that "lady" came
to be seen as offensive as part of the same process, not because there is
something offensive about the metaphor involved ("lady" is actually an
aristocratic term if you trace it back) but, again, for sociolingusitic
reasons. "Lady" was a term of address used for women whose name one didn't
know by people without a college education -- cadrivers and the like (recall
Archie Bunker, a fictional character in the early 70's). Since those who
were interested in the emergent feminist perspective perceived that such
folks were frequently on "the other side" in the culture wars, those
people's terms for women came to be stigmatized in more educated circles.
Thus the originally aristocratic "lady," which had been employed as a (by
aspiration, at least) upscale term among less educated and affluent people
in the pre-1970 period, came to be seen as repulsive and insulting, while
"woman" (interestingly, "wife person" if one traces it back) was seen as
inoffensive because it was the most mainstream and unmarked word in the
actual usage of that time.

So, sociolingistic history lives on!

Best, Greg D.

Greg Downing/NYU, at greg.downing at or gd2 at

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