Gregory {Greg} Downing gd2 at IS2.NYU.EDU
Sat Nov 13 22:58:25 UTC 1999

At 03:04 PM 11/13/99 Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU> wrote:
>That's not quite how I remember that discussion from the mid to late '70s.
>Although Robin Lakoff, in her discussion in _Language and Woman's Place_,

Yes, I was assigned that in two different undergrad classes! (Univ of Mich.
Linguistics Dept, late 70s).

>did bring up some examples like "saleslady" that might be seen as involving
>pink collar jobs, the real objection to using "lady" for "woman" was that
>it was a 'pedestal word', used to desexualize women, and as such
>functioning essentially as a euphemism.  Thus "lady" was placed in the same
>bag as "Israelite" for 'Jew' and "Afro-American" and originally "Negro" for
>'black', in each case providing support for the thesis (advanced by Lakoff
>and others) that we only have ethnic euphemisms where we would also have
>dysphemisms representing our 'true' feelings about the class referred to.
>Essentially, we use "lady" because we're REALLY thinking...well, one of the
>500 words insulting terms listed in large slang compendia.  If "lady" were
>used exactly where "gentleman" was (as in the plural, on some bathroom
>doors or in preambles to formal speeches), it would have been considered a
>quaint relic, perhaps, but nothing to raise feminist hackles.  It was (and
>is) the asymmetry--the use of "lady" and, for that matter, "girl" in
>contexts where a man would simply be called a "man"--that prompted the
>objections.  I'm not sure that Archie Bunker was really part of this debate.

I bet that prescriptivistically-driven linguage-change is no different from
human activity generally in the following basic sense: Various people do the
same thing for a variety of reasons. Not everyone who's eating a hamburger
right now is doing so for the same reasons, or would articulate the same
reasons if asked. People who vote for a given political party or candidate
in a given election do so for a variety of reasons, always mutually
contradictory to some extent when there are enough voters involved.

So the possibility or reality that various kinds of reasoning were spoken --
or left unspoken -- during the process of stigmatizing "lady" within one
significant subdivision of the anglophone world in the 1970's actually makes
perfect sense. After all, as people have mentioned in prior messages on this
thread, the general point was to generate linguistic change *as* a social,
and putatively moral, differentiator. I.e., the point was to stigmatize
words, not to make sure that all the reasoning for doing so one everyone's
part was identical and unimpeachable. The only crucial thing was that by
creating linguistic "differentiators," some kinds of speakers hoped to be
able to claim or imply superiority to other kinds of speakers. The important
thing was that sheep and goats should be created, and be made as
distinguishable as possible; that everyone agree on exactly why given words
were stigmatized was supererogatory.

>>"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.
>Agreed on the sociology, but not on the etymology, or at least it's
>misleadingly packaged.  "Woman" is only 'wife-person' if we remember that
>"wife" here (wi:f, actually) was then the word for 'female' or 'woman', so
>a better gloss for wi:f-man(n) would be 'female person', as wer-man(n) was
>'male person'.  Only later did wi:f end up specialized to mean 'wife' (in
>the same way that Ger. Frau or Fr. femme have specific meanings of 'wife'
>alongside their general meanings of 'woman').  "Old wives' tales" and
>"midwife" preserve the earlier meanings of "wife" = 'woman'.

We've seen the same etymologies. It's true that, early enough, "wif" more
generally meant female, but a lot of the etymologizing and a lot of the
semantic and connotational analysis that resulted in the whole array of
"1970's feminist stigmatizations" were based not on historically accurate
beliefs about language, but instead on widely held but historically
inaccurate 20th-cent. beliefs about various lexical items. If "history" was
stigmatizable as patriarchal (I heard this many times as an undergrad in the
late 1970's), then to be consistent and thorough woman ("wife-person")
should also have been stigmatized, as I mentioned in the post to which you
are responding here.

But then again, the goal in that epoch was a pragmatic one -- to create
differentia rather than to be logically or linguistically consistent in some
global, dispassionate sense. Some words needed to be left unstigmatized, or
no one would have been able to talk about women at all. That would not have
been desirable, or even possible. According to the analysis that was
proposed, the history of language is the history of culture, and the history
of culture was, according to the then-emergent worldview, patriarchal. It
followed that all words relating to women must have been offensive, if
examined closely enough. However, on a practical level, some words needed to
remain unstigmatized. The idea was to be able to differentiate sheep and
goats and claim moral superiority via linguistic means. The gaol was not to
reveal everyone as goats whenever they talked.

Best, Greg D.

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

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