11 everyday expressions you didn’t realise were sexist
As humans, we speak approximately 16,000 words each day. That’s a lot of talking. Unless we’re learning a new language, by the time we’re adults, we do a lot of it without thinking. There are so many factors contributing to why we use the words, phrases and expressions that come out of our mouths on a daily basis, including differences in generation, geographic location, culture and education. Sometimes you may find yourself using a certain word or expression that now, in 2020, may seem archaic or insensitive. And though there is likely no malintent behind your word choice, it might have questionable origins or applications that you’re completely unaware of – like these 12 common expressions that have surprisingly dark origins.
Considering that much of western culture and civilisation was built upon the assumption (by men) of male superiority, it makes sense that our language reflects that. For centuries, words and phrases have been used as a way to control women and dictate their behaviour. Here are 12 everyday expressions you didn’t realise were sexist.
Have you ever described someone as being “in hysterics” or crying “hysterically”? Now, it’s just part of our everyday vocabulary, but its origin story is probably the best example of the multiple ways women have been silenced and dismissed throughout history. It starts with the ancient Greeks, who thought that a woman’s uterus could wander throughout the rest of her body, causing a number of medical and psychological problems, including, but not limited to weakness, shortness of breath, fragility, fainting and general “madness.”
Centuries later, Victorian doctors (who were, of course, almost exclusively male) really latched onto the idea that the uterus was the source of essentially any health or psychological problems a woman may face. The diagnosis? Hysteria, based on “hystera,” the Greek word for womb. Female hysteria, as it was known, was a catch-all term for anything men didn’t understand or couldn’t manage relating to women, and was a valid excuse for institutionalising them. There is so much more to this story, but even though “female hysteria” was discredited as a condition – which, by the way, didn’t happen until 1980 – the word and its variations continue to be used to refer to someone who displays extreme and exaggerated excitement or behaviour. “Hysteria” can also mean a period where people are extremely crazed about something, not unlike the coronavirus panic buying earlier this year.
According to Karla Mastracchio, PhD, a rhetorician specialising in gender, politics, and language, the etymology of some words – like feisty – may not include a connection to gender, but the cultural history of the word shows that it has been used almost exclusively along gender lines. “A lot of the words that are particularly gendered have animalistic connotations – feisty being one of them,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “It’s usually used to talk about two things: an unruly animal, or an unruly woman.” But, it’s unlikely to hear an unruly man referred to as being “feisty,” Mastracchio explains, because the word has feline connotations, and it’s typically women who are associated with cats.
A good way to check whether a word or expression is inherently sexist is to ask whether a male equivalent of the word exists. Two of the most prominent examples are “career woman” and “working mother.” Ever heard of a “career man” or “working father”? Of course not. This harkens back to the Victorian ideology of “separate spheres,” meaning that a woman’s domain is the home, while men are in charge of the rest of the world and society, including working. So even 100 years later, when women ventured outside of the home to work, it was considered the exception, not the rule. And of course, if a woman has a career, there was the assumption that she cared about it more than having a family. Remarkably, the expression is still with us today, despite the vast number of women in the workforce.
In addition to animals, women are also associated with carbonated or otherwise fizzy beverages – usually in reference to their personality. According to Mastracchio, the use of the word “bubbly” to describe women began in the 1920s during the flapper era and Prohibition. Though a popular beverage of the time, champagne – thanks to its bubbles – was seen as frivolous, light and not something that is taken seriously (despite actually having a relatively high alcohol content of 12 percent). As women were making social gains during the era (everything from shorter haircuts and hemlines, to voting rights), referring to them as “bubbly” was a seemingly endearing (though clearly sexist) way of diminishing their intelligence. And as Mastracchio points out, “bubbly” is also used to describe the sound of a woman’s voice, while men’s voices were “booming,” “deep,” or “rich.”
As long as we’re on the topic of cute-sounding names that are only applied to women as a method of keeping them in their place, let’s talk about “perky.” Beginning in the 1930s, “perky” was a vulgar term used to describe the physical characteristics of a woman’s breasts, Mastracchio explains. From there, the word evolved to describe someone with a “lighthearted, young, plucky” personality (which, naturally, only applied to women). Interestingly, Mastracchio points out that both “plucky” and “perky” – along with other words like “chirpy,” “perch,” and, of course, “chick” – are examples of using bird imagery to describe women. Although there are both male and female birds in the wild, they are almost exclusively feminised in language and culture.
Most famously used in the Shakespearean play, The Taming of the Shrew, a shrew is a small rodent with a pointy snout which it uses to gnaw things like wood. But men couldn’t resist another opportunity to use an animal to describe women, and the word later came to mean a “peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman,” according to a 1755 dictionary written by Samuel Johnson. The reason for this association is thought to be the belief that shrews (the rodent) had a venomous bite, which played a role in various superstitions. A woman considered a “shrew” may also be described using another term reserved for women: shrill.
Yes, “frigid” means “cold,” but there’s a lot more to the story. As Mastracchio points out, this is another example of the Victorian perception of women as being frail and fragile beings, because as a woman, if you got cold, it means you’d be seen as particularly weak. “It’s gendered in the sense that you would never call a male ‘frigid,’ because being cold is not something that is detrimental to one’s masculinity,” she explains. On top of that, “frigidity” was formerly the medical term for a woman who has no interest in being intimate with her husband, or any other type of dysfunction (real or perceived) in that area.
Though the exact origin of the word “ditzy” remains unknown, it’s another one that is exclusively used to describe a woman’s perceived intelligence (or rather, the lack thereof). “It’s another example of this intrinsic idea that women have their head somewhere else,” Mastracchio says. “You wouldn’t call a man ‘ditzy,’ because men are not categorised in those kinds of boxes. So it’s tapping into the idea that a woman’s physical head is not necessarily always on her shoulders.” Interestingly, the word “ditz” to describe someone who is ditzy, didn’t enter our vocabulary until 1982. Calling someone a “ditz” or “ditzy” immediately frames them as someone who is scatterbrained and not very smart.
Although the word “hussy” has always referred to women, it’s the change in connotation over time that makes it problematic today. Originally, “hussy” was a neutral term used to describe a female head of the household. This makes sense, given that it is a deformed contraction of the Middle English word “husewif,” which, you guessed it, is “housewife.” Traditionally, it was pronounced “huzzy,” but by the 20th century, the pronunciation shifted to match the spelling of the word. And while it started out meaning a housewife, soon “hussy” was used to describe any woman or girl. By 1650, the term was narrowed even further, and used primarily to mean a woman who engages in questionable behaviour.
In yet another example of inequivalent words for men and women in the same position, we have “spinster.” Unmarried adult women are pitiful “spinsters,” while unmarried adult men are eligible “bachelors.” As the name suggests, a “spinster” is a person who spins thread, and originally, it applied to both men and women in that profession. Eventually, it evolved to refer to an unmarried woman who had to occupy her time or financially support herself by spinning thread or yarn. In fact, it became the official legal term for a single woman starting in the 1600s. This remained the case in England and Wales until 2005, when they also retired the word “bachelor” for a single man, according to a 2017 article in Smithsonian Magazine.
Hearing the word “governess” may conjure images of the classic 1964 movie, The Sound of Music, and Julie Andrews, who played a nun-turned-governess in the musical. This context – a governess as a woman who takes care of children – is actually pretty sexist when you look back at its origins. Unsurprisingly, it is the female equivalent of a “governor,” or someone who rules or governs over a place or group of people. At least it was in the 15th century. But as time went on, the domain of a governess went from having authority a territory or jurisdiction (in the geographic and political sense) to supervising and caring for children. Yet again, it reinforces the idea that women can be in charge of children and household duties, while men oversee everything else.
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