Genderally speaking

August 2011 was “gender English” month at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and a few of my recent posts there focus on this aspect of the language.

In “Problems with pronouns”, I address the issue of gender-neutral third person singular personal pronouns (I’m a singular-they man, myself), and wonder about the effectiveness of an experiment in Egalia, a pre-school in Sweden which forsakes gendered pronouns altogether:

Plural pronouns (they, them, their, themselves) have been used for centuries to refer to singular antecedents, not only in informal speech but in classic literature. This raises the hackles of sticklers, though, who protest that it contravenes grammatical concord. The influence of Google+ should give singular they a boost, but Facebook ran into difficulty here. Themself – which centuries ago was used where we now use themselves – is occasionally resorted to, but it is a non-standard form. [more]

My next post, “Getting cute about gender”, looks at the etymology and historical and contemporary senses of cute, a word whose usage is strongly skewed by gender. It also has a usage peculiar to Ireland:

Irish English has a version of this lesser sense of cute that is typically heard in the colloquialism “cute hoor”. Hoor in this case derives from whore but doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with sex; rather, it’s a general term of abuse applied usually to males, often corrupt ones. A cute hoor is someone cunning and devious. It’s commonly heard in political contexts, and has given rise to the noun phrase “cute hoorism”:

This is the kind of political cute hoorism that has the economy where it is today. (Irish Times, 30 June 2011)

Like many Irish insults, hoor is sometimes used with affection, even respect. It can also indicate strong or unhealthy fondness (“He’s an awful hoor for the horses/drink”). [more]

In “Finding the riot words”, I write about some of the linguistic aspects of the recent riots in England, for example the debate over what to call the people who were rioting:

The BBC was criticised for continuing to use the word protesters for a few days after the term had become inappropriate. The broadcaster later admitted it had made a mistake; Fran Unsworth, BBC News head of newsgathering, added:

We try not to be too prescriptive, but yes we have said actually that they’re not protesters they’re clearly rioters and looters. They are more descriptive terms and we should try and be as accurately descriptive as we can be.

Though the BBC went out of its way to avoid terms that could be considered judgemental, other media outlets and commentators were less cautious. All sorts of words were used to refer to the rioters – looters, thieves, criminals, hooligans, thugs, yobs, idiots, cretins, scum, terrorists, feral underclass. A few of these are, to use Unsworth’s phrase, accurately descriptive; others are loaded with prejudice or carry a nasty subtext. [more]

Back to gender: “Fighting fire with ‘firefighter’” is about how some words become outdated for political reasons, and what dictionaries do as meanings “shift and drift and settle anew”:

Dictionaries record how language is used, so they can’t simply ignore sexist and discriminatory usages – or new terms that supersede them – no matter how objectionable some people might find them. But by tagging words and adding usage notes, dictionaries can point out controversies, indicate that a word is non-standard or politically incorrect, and trust to readers’ judgement. . . .

One of the arguments against gender-biased terms like fireman and chairman is that they suggest that these roles – and the power and bravery and other virtues associated with them – are the exclusive or particular preserve of men. Sexist terminology often takes the male as norm, the female as derivation or deviation, and men have long considered themselves the quintessential type: Joe Public as “modern man”, putting in man-hours with his manpower.

This led to a good discussion in the comments about (among other things) gender-neutral words for postman. There’s more terminology here – and difficulty – than I first supposed!

My latest post is “Use ‘bloody’? Not Pygmalion likely!” This picks up on a piece the Virtual Linguist wrote about the controversial language in Shaw’s famous play:

Eliza’s line (“Walk! Not bloody likely.”) caused a scandal, and the word Pygmalion was used for decades afterwards as a jocular substitute expletive, as in the title of this post.

Bloody retains a peculiar power to bother people. Just a few years ago, its use in a tourism campaign in Australia caused a considerable fuss. Michael Quinion reports on his World Wide Words website that the Australian prime minister couldn’t bring himself to speak the offending line (“So where the bloody hell are you?”) on radio, but that the tourism minister had a markedly different attitude: “It’s the great Australian adjective. We all use it, it’s part of our language.” [more]

That’s it for this month. As always, comments in either location are very welcome. You can find the full archive of my Macmillan Dictionary Blog posts here, or by clicking the relevant link in the top right corner of this blog.

16 Responses to Genderally speaking

  1. John Cowan says:

    All the Macmillan Dictionary links are 404s.

  2. Stan says:

    Thanks for letting me know, John, and sorry about that. The links were working while I wrote the post, then they weren’t when I saw your comment – in fact, the whole blog seemed to be down, maybe for maintenance reasons. All seems in order again, at least from my side. Please let me know if the links still aren’t working for you.

  3. I have had a few strange looks when I have used cute in the Irish sense. Hoor is another one that doesn’t trvel across the Irish Sea either but an aunt had a great expression “Like a hoor on horseback”.

    I’ve just done a quick Google search and there is no record of that expression anywhere on the net. So you heard it here first on the intertubes!

  4. Stan says:

    Jams: Cute hoorism the phenomenon is likely to happen anywhere, but the phrase will surely remain confined to Irish English. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “like a hoor on horseback” – does it convey the speed at which someone goes about their cute hoorism, or is it something else altogether?

  5. Sile Convery says:

    “A cute hoor” were the first words out of my brother’s mouth when he heard about John Mc Cain’s choosing Sarah Palin. Am not sure which of them he was referring to but it works for both!

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Mainly used by my family in discussing politicians. Seems so apt.

    I’ve heard alternative pronouns, more notably “Zie” and “hir”.


  7. Stan says:

    Sile: Heh! In my experience it’s applied to men much more than women, so I suspect he meant McCain.

    WWW: Yes, politics is the phrase’s natural environment.

  8. Marc Leavitt says:

    “Cute” in northeastern American English falls into two main categories, the first similar to “twee” (although the nuance is not exact), and it is also used descriptively, as in, “she”s a cute girl,” and sharp (going back to “acute”), The second major sense is more expansive. If someone does something unacceptable, you might ask, “What was that cute performance all about?” If someone exaggerates to make a point, you might say, “He was trying to be cute.” If someone makes a joke that falls flat, you might say, “Very cute,” in a sarcastic manner, And so it goes.

  9. Stan says:

    That’s very interesting, Marc, and I appreciate the detailed examples. The word’s versatility is striking, the way it’s used commonly to mean and connote so many different things.

  10. H.E. ELLIS says:

    Wow. Don’t read my book or visit my blog because your head just might explode.

    I’ve lived all over America and I assigned various accents to my characters in my novel. Here your accent and speech patterns have less to do with where you live and everything to do with where you work or how you spend your time.

    For instance, no matter where you live in the US if you are under the age of thirty you sound like you’re from Los Angeles. I’ll bet it has something to do with all the hours of television.

    I agree with Marc Leavitt about the word “cute.” Also, if you live in the northeast the words “wicked” and “sick” are positive. For instance, if someone is impressed with your car they will say, “That car is wicked sick.” Although if someone from the northeast says, “You think you’re wicked cute, don’t cha?” Start running…

  11. Stan says:

    Don’t worry, H.E.: my head is in no immediate danger of exploding. I think you’re right that a lot of youth slang spreads via television (and, more recently, the internet). Slang often inverts meanings, as in your examples wicked and sick. These aren’t confined to the northeast of the U.S.; I’ve been hearing them in Ireland for years. Positive sick has been around since the 1980s, I believe, and F. Scott Fitzgerald used wicked in a positive sense in This Side of Paradise (1920).

  12. H.E. ELLIS says:

    Man, F. Scott Fitzgerald beats me at everything. Except maybe breathing…

  13. Catbar UK says:

    Like Stan I’m a singular-they person. I can’t understand what’s really so ‘grammatically incorrect’ about using this. Anyway, ‘incorrect’ or not, I shall continue to use this.

    Some more suggested gender-neutrals and how they’re used:

    Msr / Msrs = Mr/Mrs / Messieurs/Mesdames
    Seh = He/she Eg, ‘It’s seh who knows best’
    Hir = him/his/her Eg, ‘It’s hir!’ ‘Don’t say that to hir’ ‘Hir clothes are stylish’
    Hirs = his/hers Eg, ‘Leave that alone, because it’s hirs’
    Hirself = himself/herself

    • Catbar UK says:

      [Sorry – this came out unclear, so, as there seems no way of editing or deleting this, I’ve reposted this, hopefully making it a bit better-spaced-out].

      Some more suggested gender-neutrals and how they’re used:
      Msr / Msrs = Mr/Mrs / Messieurs/Mesdames
      Seh = He/she …. Eg, ‘It’s seh who knows best’
      Hir = him/his/her …. Eg, ‘It’s hir!’ ‘Don’t say that to hir’ ‘Hir clothes are stylish’
      Hirs = his/hers …. Eg, ‘Leave that alone, because it’s hirs’
      Hirself = himself/herself

      • astraya says:

        How is ‘hir’ pronounced? If it’s the same pronunciation as ‘her’, then this doesn’t really solve the problem. Or it is ‘hear’?

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