How a housewife became a hussy

In a couple of previous posts I looked at language and gender. Now I want to come back to this fascinating subject. In my first post I looked at the feminine endings ess and ette, which came into English via French. I pointed out that the word suffragette had originally been coined by The Daily Mail as a derogatory term to describe the more radical and militant elements of the women’s suffrage movement.

There are many word pairs in English where the male and female words have diverged, with the female word having a markedly more negative meaning. Examples include master and mistress or governor and governess. “Mistress” came into English from the French “maistresse” in the fourteenth century and referred to a woman who was in charge of a household or a child. But by the early fifteenth century it was being used to refer to the “kept woman of a married man.”

Linguists talk about a process called pejoration, a type of semantic change in which a word’s meaning becomes more negative. Spinster is a good example of this process. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary the word was first used for a female spinner of thread. As spinning was often done by unmarried women it came to be used for an unmarried woman in legal documents from 1600s to early 1900s. And by the early eighteenth century it had become a generic term for a woman still unmarried and beyond the usual age for it.

It is in the domain of sex where we find the most egregious examples of how we use language to put women in their place. Broad, hussy, floozy, jezebel, minx, slut, strumpet, tart, tramp, trollop, vamp, wench and whore – there certainly are a lot of words for “loose” women in English. Linguist Julia Stanley claimed there were 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman, but only 20 for a sexually promiscuous man. And many of those for men, such as stud, womanizer, rake and player, do not have the same negative connotations. This linguistic curiosity reflects the mores of society; it has been alright for a mans to go out and sleep with anyone he chooses, but a woman who does the same is beyond the pale

Many of the words I listed above have interesting etymologies. Take the word hussy. It comes from the Middle English “husewif”, and it meant the mistress of a household. It gradually expanded to include any woman or girl. By the middle of the seventeenth century was being used in its current derogatory sense to refer to an impudent or immoral girl or woman. Wench has undergone a similar transformation. In the twelfth century, “wenchel” was a child and by the thirteenth century it had become “wenche” meaning “girl or young woman.” “Wench” was then used to refer to a servant, particularly female servants. And by the mid-fourteenth century it was being used in the sense of a woman of loose morals. And as late as the 1800s the word “slut” meant lazy and unkempt. I could give many more examples, but you get the idea.

When we communicate with others we are not thinking the history of our language, and how words have evolved over the centuries. But there is no doubt that the words we use reflect the shared assumptions and biases of our society. I think it is a good idea to reflect about the words we choose.

It would be nice to think that we have got beyond this asymmetric labelling. But, I don’t we have. In recent years we have the phenomenon of slut-shaming. The term first started appearing in feminist blogging circles some ten years ago. Slut-shaming refers to the practice of criticising a woman for engaging in certain sexual behaviours that traditional society disapproves of. The idea is to make such women feel guilty and inferior. As we have seen there is a long tradition of such epithets, but it has gained a new virulence with the Internet. Women aren’t just the targets of slut-shaming, they can also engage in it as well.

In the end we can get to victim-blaming. In a talk to university students Michael Sanguinetti, a Toronto Police officer suggested that young women should avoid “dressing like sluts” as a precaution against sexual assault. This led to a famous march held in the Canadian city.

The model has been copied in many other cities making it one of feminism’s most successful campaigns in recent years. I don’t always agree with feminist initiatives. In this blog I have argued for the legalisation of prostitution and I have also criticised feminists’ attitudes to the burden of proof in rape cases. However, in this case I fully support the feminist agenda. To conclude I have a quote Leora Tanenbaum’s Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation:

“Boys will treat girls with respect… when we have one standard for both sexes–that is, when we have sexual equality.”

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