By Neerja Dasani & Swati Roy
05 November, 2009
In 1985, Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler presented the world with an alternative dictionary called a Feminist Dictionary, allowing us to explore the histories and uses of words. It further forced us to consider who assembles the dictionaries usually consulted and to question the basis for the choice of words and the meanings attached to them.
The attempt was not to authorize new definitions but to challenge existing ones and envision alternatives. The fact that there is still a need for such a systematic enquiry into dominant forms of discourse and that the movement should be ever-expansive and inclusive is evident in Wimmin, Wimps and Wallflowers- An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Gender and Sexual Orientation in the United States by Philip H. Herbst published in 2001. The author points out that while everyone may experience biased language from time to time, the brunt of our language bias falls on marginalized groups, specifically heterosexual women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics, says those who control language have in their possession the means to acquire and exercise power. This perhaps explains the curious process of reducing women to sex objects while simultaneously using terms used for animals to depict their sexuality. So the very language that dehumanizes women is used to deflect guilt onto them, by making men appear as victims (nags, hags, ball breakers, shrews, temptresses, foxy etc.)
There are 220 words in an average dictionary to describe women of ill repute while there are 20 for men. There are three male words for every female word.
And so when women speak they ‘chatter’ while men ‘discuss’; women ‘gossip’ while men ‘debate’; women ‘nag’ while men ‘talk’; women ‘become hysterical’ while men ‘get angry.’
Although we do need words to think, often words keep us from thinking. For instance, note the way your mind works when you read the words ‘farmer, author, nurse, secretary’; most of us attach a gender to each occupation without it being stated.
When Neerja and I decided to look into the old favourite, The Concise Oxford Dictionary (2003), the intent was not to say that it had been written by sexists but to try to follow Fanny Fern’s principle of ‘positive discrimination through positive language’ by becoming aware of the many pitfalls. We added a few stereotypical Hindi words as well, which seemed too prevalent to be ignored.
Amanat – A Hindi word which means property. Daughters are considered the amanat of the family, to be given away to other family after marriage.
Affair – Eg. She was having an affair with her boss
Barren – A woman or a female animal, not able to produce children or young animals.
Bajh – A derogatory term in Hindi for women who cannot bear children
Bimbo – A young person, usually a woman, who is sexually attractive but not very intelligent. Eg. He’s going out with an empty-headed bimbo, half his age.
‘Ball breaker’ – A sexually aggressive woman who destroys a man’s confidence.
‘Babe in the wood’ – Innocent people who have been tricked. While the meaning refers to any people term ‘babe’ instead of ‘baby’ conjures an image similar to ‘damsel in distress.’
Blonde – While even in the dictionary it refers to a colour, its usage is derogatory towards women.
Chakka, a derogatory term used for Hijras.
Chick-flick, Chick-Lit – While their meaning refers to a movie or work of literature that is intended for women, its usage carries with it a sense of flippancy and notions of ‘girlishness’. Unsurprisingly, their counterparts, ‘lad lit’ and dick lit’ don’t seem to be too popular.
Domesticated – The first meaning in the dictionary is ‘to make a wild animal used to living with or working for humans. It goes on to add ‘it is also humorously used to make somebody good at cooking, caring for a house etc., to make somebody enjoy home life.
Of course we all know who that somebody is.
Dyke- It actually refers to a long thick wall built to stop water from flooding, especially from the sea; it is also used as an offensive slang word to mean a homosexual woman.
Effeminate – A man or a boy looking, behaving or sounding like a girl.
Emasculate – To make somebody or something less effective, to make a man feel like he has lost his main role or quality.
Under ‘emotional’, the example was “a mother provides emotional support to the family”
Under financial, the example was “she is still financially dependent on her family”
Faggot – A derogatory term for a homosexual man. ‘Fag-hag’ is a woman who likes to spent time with homosexual men.
Fast – A person who knows how to get what they want quickly, especially in a sexual relationship. The terms ‘fast’ or ‘loose’ are often used for women who are friendly to men.
Femme fatale – A very beautiful woman that men find sexually attractive but who brings them trouble or unhappiness.
Its supposed equivalent ‘lady-killer’ means – A man who is sexually attractive and successful with women but who does not stay in a relationship for long. There is no unhappiness or trouble here, despite the inherent violence.
So if the two meet, our wishes are with the lady-killer!
Feminism – A belief that women should have the same opportunities and the rights as men. It does not elaborate further. (ref. Belief is the psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true) The definition therefore robs the term of its politics.
Gori – A Hindi term which means fair, found prominently, even constantly in any matrimonial column ad.
Gender-bender – Someone who cross dresses. Nothing more.
Giddy – Someone who behaves in a silly way. And all the examples under this showed women as giddy.
History – His Story
Harem – Women or wives belonging to a rich man, it also means a group of female animals that mate with the same male for reproduction.
Under Home, the example given was “he had always wanted a real home with wife and children.”
Housewife – was clearly defined as ‘a woman who stays at home to cook, clean, take care of children, while a husband is the one who goes out to work.’
Under ‘honest’, one phrasal use of the word was ‘to make an honest woman of’; and it meant to marry somebody you had a sexual relationship with.
Izzat – A Hindi word which means honour; the burden of honour is always on women.
J: A relatively nice alphabet.
We have Janani, which refers to the exalted notion of motherhood.
Kalank – A Hindi word for shame, often used in the context of staining a family’s honour.
Motherhood – The state of being a mother and an example under this was: motherhood suits her.
Fatherhood – The state of being a father; no qualifying example was present here.
Madam – A girl or young woman who expects other people to do what she wants and the example under this was: she is a proper little madam.
It also refers to a woman who is in charge of prostitutes in a brothel.
A ‘male chauvinist’ is defined as the belief that some men are more important or more intelligent than other women.
Male – Belonging to a sex that doesn’t give birth to a baby.
Female is defined as of the sex that lay eggs or gives birth to babies. There has been no emphasis on their ability.
Man-eater has been explained as a woman who has many sexual partners.
Manhood – The qualities that a man is supposed to have; courage, strength.
Eg. The nation’s manhood died in the field of WWI.
Nymphomaniac – A woman who wants to have sex very often
Nymphet – A sexually attractive woman
Originally the word ‘nymph’ meant ‘the form of a young woman in the spirit of nature
Nancy – A homosexual man
Other woman – this is all it says, no corresponding category of ‘Other man’
Pansy – A homosexual man
Paraya dhan – A Hindi phrase which means ‘a wealth that’s not one’s own’ usually used for a daughter since she is considered to belong to her husband
Pati-parameshwar – A woman’s God-like husband
Patriarchy – A society ruled/controlled by men
Matriarchy – A society which gives power and authority to women rather than men
Queen Bee – A woman who behaves as if she were the most important person present
Reputation – Eg. She soon acquired the reputation of being a first class cook
Rakhel – A man’s ‘keep’
She-male – A transsexual person
Sex bomb – A sexually attractive woman (common connotation of the woman’s sexuality as having the potential for destruction)
Seductress – A woman who induces men to engage in sex (while a ‘seducer’ is any ‘person who induces another to engage in sex’)
Shame – Eg.s a) He could not live with the shame of others knowing his truth
b) She felt her failure will bring shame on her family
Superman – A man who is unusually strong or intelligent and can do tasks exceptionally well
Superwoman – A woman who can do tasks exceptionally well, especially one who has a successful career and takes care of the home and family
Spinster – An offensive word referring to an unmarried woman. The example given is “For most women marriage used to bring higher status than spinsterhood”
The corresponding word ‘Bachelor’ means ‘a man who has never been married’, the word does not have a negative connotation
Sissy – A man who other men or boys laugh at for being interested in things girls like.
Tomboy – A girl who enjoys games and activities traditionally considered for boys
Tart – A woman you think behaves or dresses in ways that are immoral, and may make men sexually excited
Unmarried – The example given is ‘Unmarried mother’, there is no corresponding ‘unmarried man’ example or category
Virile – Having or showing sexual energy that is typically male, a display of sexual power
Virgin – The example is “She was dressed in virginal white”, examples of ‘him’ being dressed in virginal white are absent
Vamp – A sexually attractive woman who tries to control men
Villain – Often taken to be the corresponding male version of ‘vamp’ means ‘A morally bad or irresponsible person’
Categories under ‘Woman’ – Fallen woman, Kept woman, Other woman
(The ‘woh’ in the pati, patni or woh is always the Other woman)
Man – Synonym for humans; can also mean strong, brave. Category under ‘man’ – A woman’s man
Womanhood is simply put as the state of being a woman, rather than a girl.
Womanish- A disapproving word, especially for a man
Womanly – An approving word
Womanizer – A disapproving word which means ‘The fact of having several sexual relations’
Whore – A taboo, offensive word, which means ‘A woman who has sex with a lot of men
Wifely- One who performs the typical or expected duties (The would be equivalent ‘Husbandly’ does not exist)
Wife-swapping – No corresponding ‘Husband-swapping’
Since XYZ are fairer to the ‘fairer sex’, Z could stand for – Zaroorat hain, zaroorat hain, zaroorat hain, ek srimati ki, kalavati ki, seva kare jo pati ki (There is a need for a well-qualified wife, who’ll serve her husband)
Patricia C. Nichols, Signs ( 1988 ) ‘A Review of A Feminist Dictionary’
Liz Bondi, ‘In Whose Words? On Gender Identities, Knowledge and Writing Practices’ (1997)
Hajira Vahed, ‘Silencing Womyn with Words’ (1994)
Sally McConnell-Ginet’s review of A Feminist Dictionary (1987)
This is an assignment we did in V.Geetha's Gender class, at Asian College of Journalism, with help from our friend Rajeev.
Neerja Dasani is a freelance journalist and works with the Spaces Foundation, Chennai.