Beverly Flanigan flanigan at OAK.CATS.OHIOU.EDU
Fri Nov 12 22:44:08 UTC 1999

A very nice encapsulation of my "Language of Women and Men" course!  The
era is right, of course, with Robin Lakoff kicking off the discussion and
with people like Julia Penelope Stanley dealing specifically with sexual
and animal terms and their connotations when used about and to
persons.  And yes, prescriptivism inevitably comes into play when we deal
with such touchy issues, though I try to move from description and
subjective reaction toward a class consensus of sorts (though I'm defeated
lately on the notion of "girl," as I've said).

At 04:56 PM 11/12/99 -0500, you wrote:
>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
> >term.
> >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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