09 Nov Words Men Shouldn’t Say
First published in the Press 26.8.15
Last week, Martin Van Beynan tossed a hissy-cat amongst the pigeons when he argued there were words – specifically the sweary ones – that women shouldn’t say.
The response was a fairly universal “Get f***ed” from women and linguists, with a side note of “yawn”. On reflection, I’d have been prepared to make a deal: Men could have exclusive use of all the swear words if women could have exclusive use of all the rest. Let’s call that Option A.
It’s not the first time a man has told women how to talk. Public records show people have been criticising women’s voices – the timbre, the tone, the words chosen – ever since we tossed off our corsets in the 1870s, drew a deep breath and started expressing opinions. It is likely this kind of gendered nonsense was happening even before records began – some caveman with a deep “ugh” probably bemoaned the higher pitched “ugh” of cavewomen in an effort to maintain monopoly of fireside discourse.
But I was curious to know what would happen if we turned the question around, so I visited my online water-cooler on Sunday afternoon and asked women which words they thought men shouldn’t use.
In general terms it goes like this: men don’t like it when we use words that don’t fit their prescribed image of who we should be – as in the “unladylike” swearing-like-a-sailor; whereas women don’t like it when men use words that remark on our failure to fit that prescribed image. (We are “strident”, for example, when they’d prefer us to be passive.) Women also don’t like it when men use words that diminish our status. (“Girl” if we are a grown human.)
Here, then, is a handy list of words men shouldn’t say.
NOUNS: Sweetie, dear, love, honey, chick (when in a business meeting). Also bitch, pussy, girly, ladies, girls (unless referring to actual children), slag, ho, prossy, nag, slut.
ADJECTIVES: Crazy, insane, mental, stuck-up, shrill, hysterical, uptight, bossy, strident, bitchy, nubile.
PHRASES: You’re overreacting. What are you on about? Calm down. (Especially when used all together in the same breath.) Also: “You’re being emotional”, and “You’re being sensitive.”
SENTENCES THAT BEGIN: “I’m not… But…”. “Women are naturally” and then includes shrill, strident or bitchy. A sentence also should not begin “Look…” or especially, “Well, actually…” when the tone is condescension rather than a disagreement between equals. Same goes for, “In my experience…”
Men should also never begin a sentence with: “I consider myself a feminist, but…” Nor end a sentence with “for a girl” or “like a girl”.
PHRASES MEN SHOULD AVOID: “Biological fact”, “That time of the month?”, “Not all men”, or “She’ll have the salad.” And no-one should ever tell a woman she needs to smile.
I realise this is a comprehensive list. It would take a fair amount of effort to filter these words and phrases out of your casual social interaction. Arguably more effort than it takes to not say the F-word. In fact, it might involve a whole shift in attitude and require some self-examination – what we might have called “consciousness raising” back in the 1970s. If that turns out to be too hard, we could always go back to Option A.
– Michele A’Court