"X's widower"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Sep 8 02:53:00 UTC 2008

At 10:39 PM -0400 9/7/08, Mark Mandel wrote:
>  >From "Q. Pheevr"'s blog (http://q-pheevr.livejournal.com/53663.html),
>quoted by permission:
>  Linguistic history is made in Islamabad (and New York)
>07 September 2008 @ 17:16
>The world has come a long way in the past third of a century or so. In
>1975, Robin Lakoff's book Language and Women's Place had the following
>to say about widows and widowers:
>     Surely a bereaved husband and a bereaved wife are equivalent: they
>have both undergone the loss of a mate. But in fact, linguistically at
>any rate, this is not true. It is true that we have two words, widow
>and widower; but here again, widow is far commoner in use. Widows, not
>widowers, have their particular roles in folklore and tradition, and
>mourning behavior of particular sorts seems to be expected more
>strongly, and for a longer time, of a widow than of a widower. But
>there is more than this, as evidenced by the following:
>       24.
>              1. Mary is John's widow.
>              2. *John is Mary's widower.
>     Like mistress, widow commonly occurs with a possessive preceding
>it, the name of the woman's late husband. Though he is dead, she is
>still defined by her relationship to him. But the bereaved husband is
>no longer defined in terms of his wife. While she is alive, he is
>sometimes defined as Mary's husband (though less often, probably, than
>she is as "John's wife"). But once she is gone, her function for him
>is over, linguistically speaking anyway.
>As of this morning (at the latest), this is no longer true.

It hasn't been true for a while, indeed for at least 30 years.  I
brought this up in my Language, Sex & Gender class (in which we'd
read the enlarged edition of the Lakoff book) shortly after Benazir
Bhutto was killed, and the articles in the paper consistently
referred to Zardari as Bhutto's widower.  I looked for other examples
on google, and found a bunch for Ted Hughes, the former poet laureate
of England but also known widely, it appears, as Sylvia Plath's
widower.  The key is, of course, that in these cases the late wife is
more famous than the living husband and so helps define him; this
isn't really antithetical to Lakoff's point, but it does show the
need for a bit of refinement.

I've been collecting these since Lakoff's book came out.  The
earliest I found in print was from the late 70s or so, when someone
wrote in to an advice column to ask what had become of Irving
Mansfield, Jacqueline Susann's widower (remember her? remember him?).
Hey, thanks to N'Archive, I can actually post that advice column, and
it was from the mid-70's, basically the year Lakoff's claim first
appeared in print:



>Here is
>today's New York Times reporting on yesterday's election in Pakistan:
>     Bhutto's Widower, Viewed as Ally by U.S., Wins the Pakistani
>Presidency Handily
>     ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the
>assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who has little
>experience in governing, was elected president of Pakistan on Saturday
>by a wide margin.
>We talk about "sexist language," but, as Lakoff's book made clear,
>it's not really the language that is at fault. The sexist asymmetries
>in our language merely reflect, and to some extent reinforce, the
>sexism that is present in our society. (The words governor and
>governess, for example, were once about as parallel semantically as
>they are morphologically; that they have drifted apart is merely a
>reflection of the fact that society generally assigned men to govern
>states, and women to govern children. This pair, I think, is unlikely
>to swing back into sync; Sarah Palin is not the governess of Alaska.)
>Zardari is described as "Bhutto's widower" for the same reason that so
>many women over the centuries have been described as somebody's widow:
>because the deceased spouse is more prominent in the speaker's mind
>than the surviving one. All it took to make the construction in
>Lakoff's (24b) grammatical was the remarkable career of Benazir
>Bhutto. If we want to change the language, all we have to do is change
>the world.
>Mark Mandel
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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