Sunday, December 5, 2010

[Weekly Whimsy] Lexicon

[Welcome to Weekly Whimsy! Loquacious' love of language laid low.]

Do You Even Understand The Words Coming Out of My Mouth? - Chris Tucker, Rush Hour 


I am very purposeful and pay close attention to intent when I chose my words. Some days, I am a lot more casual and off the cuff, and others I'm much more deliberate. I'm always aware of what the words I am using mean, even if it's a simple complement, or a quick one-liner. I'm especially careful when talking about myself in regards to gender.

I was given a challenge a while ago to find a single word that one could use to describe "women" without the word having reference to or connection with "men".

As a student of words, meaning, history and how they fit together, this was a pretty interesting challenge. I started a collection of words commonly (and sometimes not so commonly) used to describe the female kind and started taking notes. By using Webster's, Roget's, Bartlet's and a few other (more obscure) resources, I have a pretty comprehensive list here.

[An important comment on sexism here: I'm specifically and deliberately talking in a fairly "binary"sort of way on this post merely because it's expedient. I have no grudge or disdain for the trans community, and I am not trying to leave them out of any future conversations; just this one.]

Also, this post is intended mostly as a tool for discussion from all comers, and really has less relevance to the gaming community than my past entries- but it's a subject I find truly fascinating. I thrive on the intellectual considerations behind the words we choose, and hope that by considering this, I can bring some illumination and introspection to the way we interact with each other.

Harald said...Wtf? Are you being tricksy and using some kind of womanly ju-ju on me to make me learn?!? Goddammit!

No, Harald, I'm not being womanly. I'm being a lady.

What's the difference, you might say? There's actually a lot of difference, from a linguistic standpoint. When looking at the various words used to describe the 'fairer' sex, the differences become easier to see. Let's take a walk through the dictionary, history, and some old languages to get a better idea.

One of the most common words used to describe someone of the female kind: woman.

This word has a listed definition of- wife of man. To me, this word fails on so many levels. Not only does it INCLUDE the word "man" in it, it defines the entire gender through marriage and linkage to another gender. It implies quite strongly that the woman can't stand alone without man.

Next, we have female. This word's definition indicates: sex able to reproduce, a hollow area or grove where 'male parts fit'. This is a little better- the first definition is mostly accurate, but the second brings the other gender into the equation and makes the gender connected (quite literally) to the male variety. It's not perfect, but it's not completely terrible; but it does not pass the test.

Girl: female child, young unmarried woman, (origins with young person of either gender) This one is a doozy. It includes 2 references to the male, but it's early uses meant "young person" almost universally. While the history helps, it's current connotations are strikes against it.

- a female of rank or station, specifically a wife or daughter of a lord (origins from Domina; master or domus; house- master of the house) : Again, this one is a double edged sword. While a 'dame' implies some power and station, she exists only as an offshoot of the male. Not what I am looking for.

- woman who dominates - This one doesn't look SO bad, at least on the surface. But it's primary noun is "woman", the word that failed so heavily previously.

- young woman of station - This is pretty much in the same league as Damsel. Not the word I want.

Miss- short for mistress. A woman with power or authority, sometimes a teacher or tutor, feminine of mestre; master Well, at  least she's not a helpless "woman". Still not what I want.

- unmarried girl or woman. No, this isn't it either.

Lass - young woman or girl  No, unfortunately, not the word I need either. I'm starting to despair of ANY such word.

Femininefemale, characteristic of or appropriate or unique to women Well, at least this one starts with a definition that's not "woman". It's promising until it indicates "unique to women", and then it loses steam. I found it's history and origins most interesting-

Origin of FEMININE

Middle English, from Anglo-French feminin, from Latin femininus, from femina woman; akin to Old English delu nipple, Latin filius son, felix, fetus; fecundus fruitful, felare to suck, Greek thēlē nipple

A woman with nipples for a son/fetus to suck- Well. That's not all that great, either.

Lady- a woman having proprietary rights, especially as a feudal superior. Well, this one appears to be a fail, as well. The first noun is woman. But looking at the history and origins of the word, I find promise.

origins in old english, kneader of bread

Considering my favorite hobby is baking, and bread is a specialty, I like this word more than I originally imagined. I wind up keeping (and using) it most often. However, it too, fails the test of the initial challenge.

I'm still looking.

The major counterpoint to this business about women being defined through men appears here:

Man:  An individual human.

It's honestly not the words that offend me. It's the inability to be defined outside of males that is frustrating. I feel I stand on my own pretty well in this crowd of men. Why do I need to be defined by them? I keep looking for that singular word, and the ability to be an individual human.

Be Well,



  1. this was actually a fascinating read.

    now, i'm not trying to be an ass, but honestly, what do you expect. English is a language which has evolved almost entirely in a society dominated by men. as such, i'm not sure you will find a word which is not defined by past perceptions of the status of females in society, which is to say lower than men.

    out of interest, do you know if the problem is the same in other languages?

  2. In Norwegian: Kvinne - An adult human of the female sex.


    I still think you were being triksy though.

  3. Not that they're any better, but you can't define "dame" without "broad" and you left out Matron, which seems similar to Matriarch.

    I think the problem you're going to run into is language has been built around the man being the prominent figure, and women an extension of this. (Look at biblical references... Adam's first wife was made equal and not subservient to him, therefor God made Eve from Adam when he complained)

    That Norwegian definition isn't bad - neutral, but still uses "male". That's actually an interesting thought regarding exploring how other languages define it.

    Therefor, I don't know if there's a word for it in english, but the definition would have to be something like "A person whose gender typically allows them to bear children."

    Now, in German, there does seem to be completely different words for each sex.
    Woman - Frau
    Women - Frauen
    Man - Mann / Mensch
    Men - Manner / Menschen
    Female - Buchse, Weib, Weibchen, weiblich
    Male - Mann, männliches Wesen, männlich, Männchen
    I'm not sure what the origin of these words are, but maybe that doesn't matter if the language has evolved to a point where they've defined a difference between each sex - isn't that what we're talking about doing here?

    Also, I think the feminist choice of "womyn" is stupid as it still bases off of "men".

  4. Ah, but it doesn't. The Norwegian definition is voksent menneske av hunnkjønn, the English translation must by needs use your sexist language to be intelligible to you foreigners ;)

  5. Since you're a self-proclaimed logophile, you really should check out Awakening Ynead. He's got some interesting stuff that would seem right up your alley. For instance:

    A post on the meaning behind names of Tyranid creatures (which is directly related to this post in more ways than one):

    A regularly recurring set of posts on the common
    (mis)uses of words in gaming:

    It's also a pretty solid blog in other aspects, and certainly one that's worth of consideration on your blog roll (and no, I'm not getting paid for this comment). :)

  6. What do I expect? How hard would it be to make the definition of woman to be:

    an individual human capable of bearing offspring

    that's pretty accurate and is independent of men...

  7. That's why I suggested "A person whose gender typically allows them to bear children."

    Because to say a woman who can't bear children isn't a woman raises all sorts of issues.

  8. Interesting post. @Dave G. above there might be on the right track--maybe looking into another language might be the solution, bring the word back into English as a loan word...