Why we need to lose biased words like ‘mistress’ for good

 ‘Language matters.’ 

As mother to a young daughter, I find myself correcting my own word usage quite frequently: I try to say “firefighter” instead of “fireman”, “police officer” instead of “policeman”. It’s a small thing, but knowing how impressionable kids are, combined with the far-reaching impact of gender stereotypes, it feels like the least I can do.

So I was pleased to learn that one woman is teaching a similar sort of lesson – not to kids, but to adults in the media. Paula Broadwell, best known for having an affair with David Petraeus that led to the then-CIA director’s resignation, is fighting back against the sexist word that was used so frequently to vilify her.

In a New York Times profile, Broadwell talks about her behind-the-scenes campaign to get media outlets to stop using the word “mistress”, a term that has no similar male counterpart.

“On the one hand, I don’t want to define myself by this” she told the Times. “But on the other hand, I’ve been defined by this. So if I can change things for the better because of it, then why not?”

To date, Broadwell has persuaded Politico, the Associated Press and her hometown newspaper to stop using the word.

Why stop at “mistress”, though? It’s hardly the only word reserved for women. What about “damsel”, or “vixen”? “Diva” or “slut”? It seems especially important to do away with gendered terms when you start to notice that all of the words that refer specifically to women aren’t all that flattering. A man is a “bachelor” but a woman is a “spinster”. (Please spare me the argument that “bachelorette” is a word ever used outside of reality television and drunken parties.)

We even use “female” words to insult men. On the first day of an English class I took in college, for example, the professor asked us what words were the worst things you could call a woman. In minutes, the board was filled with misogynist invectives – words like “slut” and “cunt”. When she asked us to do the same thing for men, the board filled up again: all the worst words you could use against a man – “bitch”, “pussy”, etc – were also distinctly female.

This exercise is one I’ve written about before, and one I imagine that teachers still use in classrooms. If students can get it, why can’t we?

It’s not just inherently sexist words either; it’s also the way we use language more generally. Oxford Dictionaries came under fire earlier this year when someone noticed that their word use examples – “rabid feminist”, “nagging wife” – were sexist.

Language matters. When newspapers call women mistresses or “homewreckers”, they are not just using an identifying term. They are also making a value judgement about what happened in a relationship – a judgment that often places the blame on women, even though there are two people involved in an affair.

When we use words that prop men up for the same behavior that we disdain in women, we are sending a very particular message, one that causes harm whether you’re a reporter writing for readers or a parent talking to your kids.

So let’s lose “mistress” and words like it. Our language should reflect the world we want, not antiquated ghosts of sexism past.

12 Letters That Didn’t Make the Alphabet

You know the alphabet. It’s one of the first things you’re taught in school. But did you know that they’re not teaching you all of the alphabet? There are quite a few letters we tossed aside as our language grew, and you probably never even knew they existed.

1. Thorn

Have you ever seen a place that calls itself “ye olde whatever”? As it happens, that’s not a “y”, or, at least, it wasn’t supposed to be. Originally, it was an entirely different letter called thorn, which derived from the Old English runic alphabet, Futhark.

Thorn, which was pronounced exactly like the “th” in its name, is actually still around today in Icelandic. We replaced it with “th” over time—thorn fell out of use because Gothic-style scripting made the letters y and thorn look practically identical. And, since French printing presses didn’t have thorn anyway, it just became common to replace it with a y. Hence naming things like, “Ye Olde Magazine of Interesting Facts” (just as an example, of course).

2. Wynn

Another holdover from the Futhark runic alphabet, wynn was adapted to the Latin alphabet because it didn’t have a letter that quite fit the “w” sound that was common in English. You could stick two u’s (technically v’s, since Latin didn’t have u either) together, like in equus, but that wasn’t exactly right.

Over time, though, the idea of sticking two u’s together actually became quite popular, enough so that they literally became stuck together and became the letter W(which, you’ll notice, is actually two V’s).

3. Yogh

Yogh stood for a sort of throaty noise that was common in Middle English words that sounded like the “ch” in “Bach” or Scottish “loch.”

French scholars weren’t fans of our weird non-Latin letters and started replacing all instances of yogh with “gh” in their texts. When the throaty sound turned into “f” in Modern English, the “gh”s were left behind.”

4. Ash

You’re probably familiar with this guy from old-fashioned Greek or Roman style text, especially the kind found in churches. It’s even still used stylistically in words today, like æther and æon.

What you may not know, however, is that at one time the ae grapheme (as it’s now known) was an honorary English letter back in the days of Old English. It still had the same pronunciation and everything, it was just considered to be part of the alphabet and called “æsc” or “ash” after the ash Futhark rune, for which it was used as a substitute when transcribing into Latin letters.

5. Eth

Eth is kind of like the little brother to thorn. Originating from Irish, it was meant to represent a slightly different pronunciation of the “th” sound, more like that in “thought” or “thing” as opposed to the one found in “this” or “them.” (The first is the voiceless dental fricative, the second is the voiced dental fricative).

Note that, depending on your regional accent, there may not be much of a difference (or any at all) in the two pronunciations anyway, but that’s Modern English. Back in the old days, the difference was much more distinct. As such, you’d often see texts with both eth and thorn depending on the required pronunciation. Before too long, however, people just began using thorn for both (and later “th”) and so eth slowly became unnecessary.

6. Ampersand

Today we just use it for stylistic purposes (and when we’ve run out of space in a text message or tweet), but the ampersand has had a long and storied history in English, and was actually frequently included as a 27th letter of the alphabet as recently as the 19th century.

In fact, it’s because of its placement in the alphabet that it gets its name. Originally, the character was simply called “and” or sometimes “et” (from the Latin word for and, which the ampersand is usually stylistically meant to resemble). However, when teaching children the alphabet, the & was often placed at the end, after Z, and recited as “and per se and,” meaning “and in and of itself” or “and standing on its own.”

So you’d have “w, x, y, z, and, per se, and.” Over time, the last bit morphed into “ampersand,” and it stuck even after we quit teaching it as part of the alphabet.

7. Insular G

This letter (referred to as “insular G” or “Irish G” because it didn’t have a fancy, official name) is sort of the grandfather of the Middle English version of yogh. Originally an Irish letter, it was used for the previously mentioned zhyah/jhah pronunciation that was later taken up by yogh, though for a time both were used.

It also stood alongside the modern G (or Carolingian G) for many centuries, as they represented separate sounds. The Carolingian G was used for hard G sounds, like growth or good, yogh was used for “ogh” sounds, like cough or tough, and insular g was used for words like measure or vision.

As Old English transformed into Middle English, insular G was combined with yogh and, as mentioned earlier, was slowly replaced with the now-standard “gh” by scribes, at which point insular G/yogh were no longer needed and the Carolingian G stood alone (though the insular G is still used in modern Irish).

8. “That”

Much like the way we have a symbol/letter for “and,” we also once had a similar situation with “that,” which was a letter thorn with a stroke at the top. It was originally just a shorthand, an amalgamation of thorn and T (so more like “tht”), but it eventually caught on and got somewhat popular in its own right (even outliving thorn itself), especially with religious institutions. There’s an excellent chance you can find this symbol somewhere around any given church to this day.

9. Ethel

Similar to Æ/ash/æsc above, the digraph for OE was once considered to be a letter as well, called ethel. It wasn’t named after someone’s dear, sweet grandmother, but the Furthark rune Odal, as œ was its equivalent in transcribing.

It was traditionally used in Latin loan words with a long e sound, such as subpœna or fœtus. Even federal was once spelled with an ethel. (Fœderal.) These days, we’ve just replaced it with a simple e.

10. Tironian “Ond”

Long before there were stenographers, a Roman by the name of Marcus Tullius Tiro (who was basically Roman writer Cicero’s P.A.) invented a shorthand system called Tironian notes. It was a fairly simple system that was easily expanded, so it remained in use by scribes for centuries after Tiro’s death.

One of the most useful symbols (and an ancestor to the ampersand) was the “et” symbol above—a simple way of tossing in an “and.” (And yes, it was sometimes drawn in a way that’s now a popular stylistic way of drawing the number 7.) When used by English scribes, it became known as “ond,” and they did something very clever with it. If they wanted to say “bond,” they’d write a B and directly follow it with a Tironian ond. For a modern equivalent, it’d be like if you wanted to say your oatmeal didn’t have much flavor and you wrote that it was “bl&.”

The trend grew popular beyond scribes practicing shorthand and it became common to see it on official documents and signage, but since it realistically had a pretty limited usage and could occasionally be confusing, it eventually faded away.

11. Long S

You may have seen this in old books or other documents, like the title page from Paradise Lost above. Sometimes the letter s will be replaced by a character that looks a bit like an f. This is what’s known as a “long s,” which was an early form of a lowercase s. And yet the modern lowercase s (then referred to as the “short s”) was still used according to a complicated set of rules (but most usually seen at the end of a word), which led to many words (especially plurals) using both. For example, ?uper?titous is how the word superstitious would have been printed.

It was purely a stylistic lettering, and didn’t change the pronunciation at all. It was also kind of silly and weird, since no other letters behaved that way, so around the beginning of the 19th century, the practice was largely abandoned and the modern lowercase s became king.

12. Eng

For this particular letter, we can actually point to its exact origin. It was invented by a scribe named Alexander Gill the Elder in the year 1619 and meant to represent a velar nasal, which is found at the end of words like king, ring, thing, etc.

Gill intended for the letter to take the place of ng entirely (thus bringing would become bri?i?), and while it did get used by some scribes and printers, it never really took off—the Carolingian G was pretty well-established at that time and the language was beginning to morph into Modern English, which streamlined the alphabet instead of adding more to it. Eng did manage live on in the International Phonetic Alphabet, however.



Wait … is that a rule? Ten everyday grammar mistakes you might be making

Before their workshop at the NGV Art Book Fair in Melbourne, writing studio the Good Copy shares some tips

Penny Modra and Max Olijnyk from Melbourne writers studio the Good Copy

 Penny Modra and Max Olijnyk from Melbourne writing studio the Good Copy.

1. Mistaking style issues for errors

Should you use italics for movie titles? Do you put full stops inside or outside quotation marks? Is the Oxford comma for all lists … or just some lists? Should that ellipsis have had a space on either side of it?

The correct answer to each of these questions is “it depends”. In other words, they’re style decisions. In writing, as in fashion, you just have to figure out the style that’s appropriate to your situation and apply it consistently. Unfortunately, many of us spend our professional lives being corrected by people who believe the style guide they once saw on their nanna’s bookshelf is The Official Grammar God’s Eternal English Rule Book.

2. Mistaking ye olde conventions for rules

Beyond style decisions, most of the things people mistake for “rules” in grammar and punctuation are just conventions that crawled out of the swamp at some point and got a foothold, either in a school curriculum or as a recommendation in a 19th- or 20th-century grammar screed.

Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction? That’s never been a rule. True story. If anyone tries to start trouble with you about this, hand them the Chicago Manual of Modern Style:

There is a widespread belief – one with no historical or grammatical foundation – that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as ‘and’, ‘but’ or ‘so’.

And then finish them off with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage: “Everybody agrees that it’s all right to begin a sentence with ‘and’.”

What about ending a sentence with a preposition? Avoiding this has never been a rule, either. As Winston Churchill said: “This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not

3. Over-correcting

You: “Hey, mum. Me and Tim are going to the milk bar.” Your mum: “You mean, ‘Tim and I are going to the milk bar.’”

When you’ve spent your childhood receiving slaps on the wrist for using “me”, you spend your adult life replacing every “me” with an “I”. That’s over-correcting.

Grammatically, “me” is always the right choice when you need an objective pronoun. You wouldn’t say, “Hey, Tim, want to come to the milk bar with I?” or, “The CEO will be interviewing I next Thursday”. (Unless your friend’s name is I, which wouldn’t actually surprise us. We met a kid named Better the other day.)

4. Capitalising things because they feel Important

Random capitalisation is a slippery slope. If everyone put a capital on everything they thought was important, we’d live in a city full of Sausage Sizzles and Footy Tipping and Pop Up Shops and Flat Whites. Tone it down, team. Capitals can’t be decided via a Dennis Denuto-esque “It’s the vibe of the thing” logic, because everyone has a different vibe.

Let’s stick to what we can all agree on: capitals to start sentences and capitals for proper nouns. Is a job title a proper noun? That’s a can-of-worms decision for your style guide.

5. Misplacing or confusing your pronouns

Pronouns stand in for other nouns, including people’s names. It’s nice to give people the pronoun “who”, and save the pronoun “that” for everything else. For instance, “the guy who won the footy tipping” arrived in “a car that bloody well breaks down all the time”.

What about animals? Many people like “who” for animals – but it does feel weird for spiders: “Have you seen the funnel-web who’s been lurking on the ceiling all week?”

Also make sure your reader can easily understand which noun your pronoun is standing in for, or you’ll put many innocent pooches at risk.

6. Using the wrong modifier

Modifiers can be single words, phrases or clauses. They’re optional elements that are inserted to change the meaning of the words around them. There are three kinds of modifier error, ranging from the confusing to the hilarious.

A squinting modifier modifies two things at once: “Cycling up hills quickly tones your thighs.” Wait, should I ride quickly, or will my thighs tone up quickly?

A misplaced modifier modifies the wrong thing: “The food truck served tacos to customers in boxes.” Wow. Did they have much elbow-room in there?

A dangling modifier ends up modifying the wrong thing because the thing it’s trying to modify isn’t there: “Having studied for the exam, my coffee machine was a welcome sight.” Full on. Coffee machines are getting smarter by the minute!

7. Which or that?

Whether it’s “which” or “that” depends on whether you want to listen to the convention police. You’re not wrong if you ignore it, but the convention is to reserve “which” for non-defining relative clauses (“The couch, which has a stain on it, is dirty”), and “that” for defining relative clauses (“Here is a couch that has a stain on it”).

To translate from High Grammarian, if it’s between commas or after a comma, err on the side of “which”.

8. Creating run-on sentences

Independent clauses are great don’t mash them together. Just a little grammar joke for you.

When you’ve got two main clauses in a sentence, you’ll need something in between – and a comma doesn’t qualify. Independent clauses are great; try joining them with a semicolon. Independent clauses are great but don’t mash them together. If you subordinate one clause to the other, you can totally use a comma. See what we did there?

9. Freaking out about apostrophes

When you’re not sure about apostrophes, your natural instinct is to put them everywhere. Understandable. But this can lead to strange-looking plurals such as banana’s and peach’es, and (at least 50% of the time) the wrong it’s.

Remember: don’t put an apostrophe in “its” unless you mean “it is”. Things get difficult with possessive apostrophes only because style guides differ on how to form the possessive when singular nouns end in “s”. If your name is Chris and you’re opening a cafe, most non-American style guides will tell you to name it Chris’s Cafe. But some American style guides (including AP Stylebook) will recommend Chris’ Cafe.

Definitely don’t freak out and name it Chris,s Cafe.

10. Not going with the flow on contemporary usage

How longeth wilt thou persist with “amongst” and “whilst”? Yea though thine prose doth ring fanciful, long hath the “st” lain banish’d ’pon the pebbl’d shore. (These days, it’s always “among” and “while”.)

The Good Copy is holding Greatest ’its – an apostrophe workshop – at the NGV Melbourne Art Book Fair on Saturday 30 April; their grammar school is called Stop. Grammar Time.


Talking while female: an expert guide to the things you definitely should not say

Recent takedowns of women who say things such as ‘I feel like’ and ‘sorry’ got Arwa Mahdawi thinking: what can they utter? Here’s her handy cheat sheet

Assemble these letters into bold, definitive declarations and you will win at life.

 Assemble these letters into bold, definitive declarations and you will win at life.

The semantic struggle is real. Every day it gets harder and harder to know whether my vocabulary is inadvertently perpetuating a “growing tyranny of feelings” that threatens the very foundations of democracy. Thankfully the internet is full of vocabulary vigilantes eager to spell things out for the rest of the us – the most recent example being Molly Worthen, who recently published an op-ed in the New York Times urging people to “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’”. According to Worthen, the phrase is “linguistic hedging” that evades the civilized conflict on which democracy is premised. 

In case you’re wondering why Worthen is qualified to tell people what not to say, she is an assistant professor of history who focuses on conservative Christianity. Her latest book was called Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. I feel like this is an unusual way to become an apostle of linguistic reason, but I’m no expert.

While Worthen explains that “I feel like” is used and abused across generations and genders, she also makes it clear that the trouble all started with young women. And her piece is just the latest example in a long history of unsolicited advice about what women should and should not say. In just the past couple years, there have been millions of words written explaining why “undermining” words or phrases like “sorry”, “just” and “I’m not an expert” are basically upholding the patriarchy while making you sound like a moron. There’s even an app, Just Not Sorry, which helps you remove these words from emails.

Sorry, but this is all getting out of hand. I don’t want to read any more op-eds about what women should or should not say. Let’s just make things easier for everyone by laying down some ground rules that put a stop to the confusion: a Dictionary of WomanSpeak (get 10% off with your Woman Card) that serves as a definitive guide to things you should not say while being female.

‘I feel like’

We’ve already covered this, but I’ll just repeat it for clarity: every time you say “I feel like”, a small part of democracy dies. So please, reach for more definitive, muscular phrase such as:

 “I have a graph that demonstrates”

 “Statistics suggest”

 “A man told me”

 “A wise man told me” (although this is obviously tautology)

Rather than saying “I feel like it’s going to rain”, for example, say: “A man told me that it is going to rain.” Democracy saved.

‘I’m no expert’

Tara Mohr, a leadership coach, has advised women not to use qualifiers such as “I’m no expert in this, but …” She delivered this advice on a blogpost for Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle community. You should absolutely ban “I’m no expert” from your vocabulary and replace it with “You’ll find that the expert, Ramlikizan, once said …” Ramlikizan is a made-up name but people will be too embarrassed by not knowing it to contradict you.

‘I think’

“I think therefore I am undermining myself,” said Descartes’ sister. Well, that may not be exactly true, however the Just Not Sorry app highlights mentions of “I think” suggesting that they undermine your message. The solution to this is following the lead of Jane Austen and prefacing every opinion with “It is a truth universally acknowledged …” After all, would Pride and Prejudice have had quite the same appeal if it had started with “I think …”? I think not.


Former Google exec Ellen Leanse has said women should stop using “just” as a “permission” word because it puts the person they are talking to into a “parent” position, granting them more authority and control. Bad uses of the word included:

 “I’m just following up on …”

 “I was just wondering if you’d decided …”

Apparently, every time you use these phrases all the person is hearing is: “Please Mom, can I …” So take a time-out, ladies, and just don’t do it.


Sheryl Sandberg is leading a charge to ban the word bossy, stating: “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader’. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’.” However the best thing to do whenever a child speaks up is to not call them anything at all. Just ignore them.


Sometimes you make mistakes maybe once or twice – and by once or twice, I mean maybe a couple hundred times – and you wonder: is it too late to say sorry now? The answer is yes. Never use the word “sorry” in any context whatsoever or you will be letting all women down. It has been extensively documented that women apologize a lot and should stop. Tami Reiss, the creator of the Just Not Sorry app, says she is a big believer in saying thank you instead of sorry. So next time you spill coffee on your boss, just say thank you. You’re welcome.


There’s nowt wrong with dialects, nothing broke ass about slang

Policing children’s language encourages them to think nonstandard English is substandard. Linguistic diversity should be celebrated, not banned
Cheryl Cole at the X Factor auditions in California in 2011
 ‘Our dialect and language use are part of our identities, connecting us to time, place, community, and self-image.’ Cheryl Cole has a strong Geordie accent. 

Language use is one of the last places where prejudice remains socially acceptable. It can even have official approval, as we see in attempts to suppress slang and dialects at school. Most recently, Ongar Academy in Essex launched a project to discourage students from using words like ain’t, geezer, whatever, like, and literally.

We’ve been here before. Schools across the country have outlawed inoffensive words, with some asking parents to “correct” children at home. Slang, regionalisms, and colloquialisms are typical usages objected to, with occasional spelling errors thrown in as though somehow equivalent. The only thing uniting them is that they’re not considered standard or sufficiently formal.

Banning words is not a sound educational strategy. As Michael Rosen points out, schools have been trying this for more than 100 years to no avail. Research showsthat gradual transition towards standard English works better. But because dialect prejudice is so prevalent, this must be done in such a way that children understand there’s nothing inherently wrong with their natural expression.

Ongar Academy says it’s not banning words, but “evolving” its pupils’ speech – a description with classist implications. The head teacher, David Grant, says that students’ dialect “may not favourably reflect on them when they attend college and job interviews”. This may seem a reasonable position, when even those who work in education are subject to linguistic intolerance. But to assume that students who use slang – ie, most of them – will do so in interviews does them a disservice.

Native speakers of English are generally at least bidialectal. We have the dialect we grew up using, with its idiosyncrasies of vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation, and we learn standard English at school and through media like books and radio. As with any social behaviour, we pick up linguistic norms and learn to code-switch according to context. Just as we may wear a T-shirt and slippers at home, but a suit and shoes at work, so we adjust our language to fit the situation.

Standard English is a prestige dialect of huge social value. It’s important that students learn it. But the common belief that nonstandard means substandard is not just false but damaging, because it fosters prejudice and hostility. Young people can be taught formal English, and understand its great cultural utility, without being led to believe there’s something inferior or shameful about other varieties.

Grant says that in Shakespeare’s anniversary year, we should “ensure the way the pupils talk gives a positive impression”. But Shakespeare’s plays abound in slang and informal language. “Geezer” appears in books by HG Wells, Graham Greene, and Anthony Burgess. Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and Vladimir Nabokov used non-literal literally. Rather than spurning such words, we can teach students when and why they are used. Learning different Englishes gives us command of different domains, a skill we can then put to creative and appropriate use. Facility with slang is a real advantage in some jobs.

James Sledd once wrote: “To use slang is to deny allegiance to the existing order … by refusing even the words which represent convention and signal status.” That is, slang lends covert prestige – however anathema to those in authority who prefer teenagers not to be teenagers. It doesn’t help Grant’s cause that in a short radio interview, he put basically on the Bad List but used it himself several times.

Linguistic vetoes can be counterproductive pedagogically too. Sociolinguist Julia Snell argues that “to learn and develop, children must participate actively in classroom discussion; they must think out loud, answer and ask questions”. When the focus is on the forms of speech instead of its content, she writes, “children may simply remain silent in order to avoid the shame of speaking ‘incorrectly’, and miss the interactions crucial to learning”. In light of this I can’t share Ongar Academy’s satisfaction that its students are now policing each other’s speech.

People feel strongly about correctness in language, but this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by knowledge and tolerance. And because children are sensitive to how they’re perceived, stigmatising their everyday speech can be harmful. By educating them about linguistic diversity instead of proscribing it, we can empower students and deter misguided pedantry.

There’s nowt wrong with regional dialects, nothing broke ass about slang. They’re part of our identities, connecting us to time, place, community, and self-image. They needn’t be displaced by formal English – we can have both. As David Almond wrote, in a wonderful response to one school’s linguistic crackdown: “Ye hav to knaa the words the world thinks is rite and ye have to knaa how to spel them rite an speek them rite … But ye neva hav to put the otha words away.”




‘They’: the singular pronoun that could solve sexism in English

You only need four letters to take a stand against the prejudice embedded in the English language

Man and Woman Being Weighed on Scales Credit: Meriel Jane Waissman Creative #: 165793283 Equality! A stylized vector cartoon of a man and a woman being weighed on scales,reminiscent of an old screen print poster and suggesting battle of the sexes, woman’s rights, equality, opposites or gender issues,. Man, woman, scales,paper texture and background are on different layers for easy editing. Please note: clipping paths have been used, an eps version is included without the path. GettyImages-165793283

I got in trouble over a four-letter word the other day. None of the ones you are thinking of: it was “they” that caused a fracas that Jeremy Clarkson would have been proud of.

At the start of 2016, the good folks of the American Dialect Society got together to crown their Word of the Year. They (see what I’m doing here) have decided that the word could now be used as a singular pronoun, flexing the English language so a plural could denote a singular, genderless, individual.

They has long been used in the singular in English, but not to denote genderlessness. One of the earliest examples comes from Geoffrey Chaucer in 1395, who wrote in The Pardoner’s Tale: “And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up…” Shakespeare followed in 1594, in The Comedy of Errors: There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me/As if I were their well-acquainted friend”. It took a few centuries for they to pop up in reference to women: Jane Austen uses they in the singular 75 times in Pride and Prejudice (1813) and as Rosalind muses in 1848’s Vanity Fair: “A person can’t help their birth.”

Around 1809, Samuel Taylor Coleridge rejected “he” as the generic pronoun (“in order to avoid particularising man or woman, or in order to express either sex indifferently”, he wrote in his notebooks), settling on “it” as an ideal, neutral solution. Roughly around the same time, the philosopher John Stuart Mill was struggling to define the philosophy of language itself: what we could know – if anything – beyond our language? Mill came to the conclusion that language tells us what is thinkable, possible; so, if a young woman never sees the word “she” or “they”, could she naturally know that “he” represented her, too? No. In this sense, women were inherently excluded.

Growing up almost two centuries later, I was just supposed to understand that language excluded me because I was a girl: I was out, except when it came to naming hurricanes and referring to ships. I was once told as a kid that all hurricanes were female because women were so destructive; a barbed comment I never questioned because at the time I already sensed some things were easier if you were a boy.

These days there is an increased awareness of gender and how we define it. The ever prevalent pay gap, the high rate of male suicide. The rise of transgender celebrities: Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, the Wachowski sisters. Maria Munir, the non-binary student who came out to Obama in April. Debates about contraception, consent, masculinity, body image: so many public conversations are opening up how we define gender and its roles. But there are many insidious examples of gender divides that persist in English usage: Oxford Dictionaries defining the word “rabid” with the example “a rabid feminist” or “housework” with “she still does all the housework” – but then using the male pronoun for all examples involving doctors. There are 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman in English, but only 20 for their male equivalents.

Winnie-the-Pooh author AA Milne once wrote: “If the English language had been properly organised … there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’, and I could write: ‘If John or May comes, heesh will want to play tennis,’ which would save a lot of trouble.” And this is an English problem; the “all languages are this way, it’s just the way of the world” argument is a convenient one, but not true. While the push to use “they” as a genderless pronoun is new for English, it is rather old hat in other languages: while English was picking and choosing its vocabulary from Latin and German, so many other languages – Turkish, Hungarian, Finnish, Persian – are entirely genderless. The Pipil language, a language indigenous to Central America, uses a genderless pronoun – “yaja” – to refer to “he or she”. Others have attempted to amend their language by borrowing from others – as Sweden did by introducing the gender-neutral “hen”, based on “hän”, meaning “he or she” in Finnish – with varying degrees of success. Not English.

In the past, I have tried solving the problem of inherent sexism in language by alternating male and female pronouns when referring to generic professions – where I refer to a patient as “he” in one sentence, I may refer to his doctor as “she” in the next. Because I’m one of the rabid feminists of which Oxford Dictionaries speaks, I make certain that my generic “shes” are not always in positions of vulnerability. Within the last few decades, we have seen a shift in this regard: air hostesses became cabin crew, male nurses are nurses, firemen are firefighters. Women are no longer just hurricanes and boat names, and in turn, men are no longer ridiculed for working in ‘female’ professions like airplane service or nursing. These are modest but significant changes, all the more significant when you consider these terms came into practice from a deliberate drive to address outdated stereotypes. We still need deliberate effort to remove sexism – like the Washington Post’s recent move from she/he to they as their default pronoun.

As part of a liberal, feminist, grammar-nerd circle of friends, I had a small expectation that we would all see “they” as a positive thing; what I didn’t expect was fights to break out on my Facebook feed. Some friends cited jobs where they had been treated as sex objects or second-class citizens for their gender. Others recalled reading books as children about experiences they would have liked to have had, but couldn’t because it was always a “he” on the adventure. But some could not be moved: switching to “they” was meaningless, changing nothing in a world where being born female could justify your being killed. Actions against actions, rather than language, made more sense. And wasn’t this push for “they” just an example of a new political correctness, in a time of Caitlyn Jenner and genderless bathrooms, a fuss driven by those who compulsively find offence in everything they can?

In 1986, Joan Scott wrote that gender is not just about sex, but is also “a primary way of signifying relationships of power”: two decades since she wrote that, these battles continue. Personally, I think we should make a fuss over any use of language that excludes us by gender, race, sexuality, or religion, but I know that this is itself another issue of contention. I think “they” is the way to proceed as a default, until English is spoken in a world where the inherent power disparity between the “hes” and “shes” is eradicated. I know it won’t happen in my lifetime, but as long as we continue to use a language that is inherently sexist, we will be forever perpetuating sexist ideology, even without intending to. I still do not know how to talk about this without inspiring fights – but it is an important one.


Eight words that reveal the sexism at the heart of the English language

Canterbury Pilgrims
 ‘I am a gentil womman and no wenche’: from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, c1386. 

Linguists call it collocation: the likelihood of two words occurring together. If I say “pop”, your mental rolodex will begin whirring away, coming up with candidates for what might follow. “Music”, “song” or “star”, are highly likely. “Sensation” or “diva” a little less so. “Snorkel” very unlikely indeed.

What do you think of when I say the word “rabid”? One option, according to the dictionary publisher Oxford Dictionaries, is “feminist”. The publisher has been criticised for a sexist bias in its illustrations of how certain words are used. “Nagging” is followed by “wife”. “Grating” and “shrill” appear in sentences describing women’s voices, not men’s.

One of the points of Oxford Dictionaries, part of Oxford University Press (OUP), is to show how words are used in the real world. And that is their response to allegations of sexism. “The example sentences we use are taken from a huge variety of different sources and do not represent the views or opinions of Oxford University Press,” they said in a statement.

In other words, it’s not the dictionary that’s sexist, it’s the English-speaking world. Why choose “feminist” over, say, “rightwinger”, “communist” or “fan”, though? As if not quite convinced by its own explanation, the OUP is now “reviewing the example sentence for ‘rabid’ to ensure that it reflects current usage”.

That can only be a good thing. But a word of warning: it might not deliver the answer you’d hope for. Perhaps “rabid” is collocated with “feminist” more often than with those other words (if the data the OUP uses includes online discussions, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case). Sexist assumptions find their way into speech and writing for the simple reason that society is still sexist.

Language, as the medium through which we conduct almost all relationships, public and private, bears the precise imprint of our cultural attitudes. The history of language, then, is like a fossil record of how those attitudes have evolved, or how stubbornly they have stayed the same.

When it comes to women, the message is a depressing one. The denigration of half of the population has embedded itself in the language in ways you may not even be aware of. Often this takes the form of “pejoration”: when the meaning of the word “gets worse” over time. Linguists have long observed that words referring to women undergo this process more often than those referring to men. Here are eight examples:


The female equivalent of “master”, and thus, “a woman having control or authority” – in particular one who employs servants or attendants. It came into English with this meaning from French after the Norman conquest. From the 17th century onwards, it was used to mean “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship”.


This once neutral term meant the female head of a household. Hussy is a contraction of 13th-century husewif – a word cognate with modern “housewife”. From the 17th century onwards, however, it began to mean “a disreputable woman of improper behaviour”. That’s now its only meaning.


The female equivalent of “sir”, a woman of high rank, is still used in formal contexts as a mode of address. From the late 18th century it was also used to mean “a conceited or precocious girl or young woman; a hussy, a minx”, alternatively, a kept mistress or prostitute, and finally, from the late 19th century, the female manager of a brothel.


From the 15th century onwards, “a woman who holds or exercises authority over a place, institution, or group of people”. Compare it with “governor”. Over time it drastically narrowed in scope and fell in status, coming to mean “a woman responsible for the care, supervision, or direction of a person, typically a child or young lady”.


This occupational term originally meant simply someone, usually a woman but possibly a man, who spun yarn or thread. Since a woman without a husband might have to rely on spinning as a source of income, the term became associated with unmarried women, eventually becoming the legal way to refer to one. The more loaded use of it to refer to “a woman still unmarried; esp. one beyond the usual age for marriage, an old maid” begins in the early 18th century.

A woman in traditional costume at a spinning wheel.
 Spinster originally meant simply someone who spun yarn or thread. 


One of the most dramatic shifts in meaning, from the female equivalent of “courtier” – someone who attends the court of a monarch – to a form of prostitute, which is now its only meaning.


A 13th-century word meaning a female infant or a young unmarried woman quickly acquired negative connotations: from the late 14th century, in Langlandand Chaucer it is used to mean “a wanton woman; a mistress”.


Collins dictionary says that this is a 19th-century contraction of “sweetheart”, a term of endearment, particularly to women. From 1887, however, it is attested as meaning “a female of immoral character; a prostitute”.

Thinking about the male equivalents of some of these words throws their sexism into sharp relief. Master for mistress; sir for madam; governor for governess; bachelor for spinster; courtier for courtesan – whereas the male list speaks of power and high status, the female list has a very different set of connotations. These are of either subordinate status or sexual service to men. The crucial thing to remember is that at one time, they were simply equivalents.

These eight words show how social conditions leave their mark on the language. The process of pejoration may take place below the level of consciousness, but in historical perspective, the direction of travel is obvious. Have the achievements of the feminist movement percolated down through the many layers of our language? The Oxford Dictionaries controversy suggests not. Can the words we use to describe women avoid the fate of hussy, mistress and courtesan? There’s hope, but only time will tell.


How language can affect the way we think


Keith Chen (TED Talk: Could your language affect your ability to save money?) might be an economist, but he wants to talk about language. For instance, he points out, in Chinese, saying “this is my uncle” is not as straightforward as you might think. In Chinese, you have no choice but to encode more information about said uncle. The language requires that you denote the side the uncle is on, whether he’s related by marriage or birth and, if it’s your father’s brother, whether he’s older or younger.

“All of this information is obligatory. Chinese doesn’t let me ignore it,” says Chen. “In fact, if I want to speak correctly, Chinese forces me to constantly think about it.”

This got Chen wondering: Is there a connection between language and how we think and behave? In particular, he wanted to know: does our language affect our economic decisions? So he designed a study to look at how language might affect individual’s ability to save for the future. According to his results, it does — big time.

While “futured languages,” like English, distinguish between the past, present and future, “futureless languages” like Chinese use the same phrasing to describe the events of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Using vast inventories of data and meticulous analysis, Chen found that huge economic differences accompany this linguistic discrepancy. Futureless language speakers are 30 percent more likely to report having saved in any given year than futured language speakers. (This amounts to 25 percent more savings by retirement, if income is held constant.) Chen’s explanation: When we speak about the future as more distinct from the present, it feels more distant — and we’re less motivated to save money now in favor of monetary comfort years down the line.

But that’s only the beginning. There’s a wide field of research on the link between language and both psychology and behavior. Here, a few fascinating examples:

  1. Navigation and Pormpuraawans
    In Pormpuraaw, an Australian Aboriginal community, you wouldn’t refer to an object as on your “left” or “right,” but rather as “northeast” or “southwest,” writes Stanford psychology professor Lera Boroditsky (an expert in linguistic-cultural connections) in the Wall Street Journal. About a third of the world’s languages discuss space in these kinds of absolute terms rather than the relative ones we use in English, according to Boroditsky. “As a result of this constant linguistic training,” she writes, “speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.” On a research trip to Australia, Boroditsky and her colleague found that Pormpuraawans, who speak Kuuk Thaayorre, not only knew instinctively in which direction they were facing, but also always arranged pictures in a temporal progression from east to west.
  2. Blame and English Speakers
    In the same article, Boroditsky notes that in English, we’ll often say that someone broke a vase even if it was an accident, but Spanish and Japanese speakers tend to say that the vase broke itself. Boroditsky describes a study by her student Caitlin Fausey in which English speakers were much more likely to remember who accidentally popped balloons, broke eggs, or spilled drinks in a video than Spanish or Japanese speakers. (Guilt alert!) Not only that, Boroditsky argues, but there’s a correlation between a focus on agents in English and our criminal-justice bent toward punishing transgressors rather than restituting victims.
  3. Color among Zuñi and Russian Speakers
    Our ability to distinguish between colors follows the terms in which we describe them, as Chen notes in the academic paper in which he presents his research (PDF).  A 1954 study found that Zuñi speakers, who don’t differentiate between orange and yellow, have trouble telling them apart. Russian speakers, on the other hand, have separate words for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy). According to a 2007 study, they’re better than English speakers at picking out blues close to the goluboy/siniy threshold.
  4. Gender in Finnish and Hebrew
    In Hebrew, gender markers are all over the place, whereas Finnish doesn’t mark gender at all, Boroditsky writes in Scientific American (PDF). A study done in the 1980s found that, yup, thought follows suit: kids who spoke Hebrew knew their own genders a year earlier than those who grew up speaking Finnish. (Speakers of English, in which gender referents fall in the middle, were in between on that timeline, too.)

How language can affect the way we think

How English Became English by Simon Horobin review – ‘OMG’ was first used 100 years ago

Modern usages that horrify linguistic purists in fact have deep historical roots, argues this Oxford scholar who praises texting, Tesco’s grammar and ‘amazeballs’

‘What’s wrong with totes amazeballs your such a sarcastronaut, get on my ironocycle and have some fun BTW!’ tweeted Jack Whitehall.

 ‘What’s wrong with totes amazeballs your such a sarcastronaut, get on my ironocycle and have some fun BTW!’ tweeted Jack Whitehall. Every year, in Britain at least, the bestseller lists seem to bring news of another hit book on how our language is going to the dogs. As the eye-popping sales figures of authors such as Lynne TrussSimon Heffer and NM Gwynne show, it’s an irresistible subject.

The Oxford scholar Simon Horobin’s new volume, by contrast, is part of an opposing genre of books by serious linguists on why, essentially, we shouldn’t care. Unfortunately the text sometimes slips into tutorial mode. We are treated to quite a lot of Old English, and talk of “preterite” tenses, “weak verb classes”, “inflexional endings”, and so on, as well as intermittent flashes of professorial humour (these days, would you believe it, “trolls are not just found lurking under bridges preying on unsuspecting billy goats, tweeting is not limited to birds, and surfing no longer requires a surfboard”).

But Horobin is also on a laudable and more interesting mission – to educate the wider public. Like David Crystal, Henry Hitchings, Mark Forsyth, and a host of other learned and witty authors before him, he has set himself the dual task of explaining why our linguistic standards are arbitrary and changeable and why we are nonetheless so invested in upholding them.

In seven brisk chapters, he hurries us through the development of Old, Middle and Early Modern English, the increasing 17th and 18th-century concern with correct usage and standardisation, and the 19th and 20th-century heyday of language manuals, prescriptiveness and verbal snobbery. As George Bernard Shaw observed a century ago: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”: like most modern philologists, Horobin is keen to dispel all remnants of such dialectal prejudice.

As in his previous book, Does Spelling Matter? (the answer was yes, but not all the time), he is at his best when illustrating how modern usages that horrify linguistic purists in fact have deep historical roots. “OMG” was used by a septuagenarian naval hero, admiral of the fleet Lord Fisher, in 1917: so get over it. Long before Facebook, Thomas More, Shakespeare and Alexander Pope all wrote of people who’d been “un-friended”. Though Tesco was shamed by grammatical purists into altering the wording of its checkout signs from “10 items or less” to “Up to 10 items”, there’s no sound historical or logical basis for such pedantry. (As Horobin points out, the fact that the tills of its upmarket rival, Waitrose, read “10 items or fewer” cleverly confirms its customers in their false “sense of social and intellectual smugness and superiority”).

Instead of bemoaning the supposed illiteracy of texting and social media, Horobin prefers to highlight their creativity and playfulness. (Like any up-to-date media don, though he doesn’t mention it in the book, he himself tweets: you can follow him @SCPHorobin.) He is keen to stress the value of everything from the use of “amazeballs”, to the Brummie accent, to Singlish, Chinglish, Japlish and other mixed tongues.

All the same, the book’s perspective is very much the view from an Oxbridge high table. If, as I did, you grew up happily paging through the different editions of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, or if you still worry about the distinction between a jack and a knave, or can’t abide the way that Tony Blair speaks, this historical survey will help you understand why.

But its approach will be less illuminating to anyone who enjoys hip-hop, or revels in the prose of Junot Díaz, or has ever wondered why all the tannoy announcements at Heathrow airport are nowadays made by a woman (or, rather, a robot) speaking English with a Dutch accent. The fact that English is a world language, even more than it is the mother tongue of most people living in the UK, is gestured to at the beginning and end of the book, but otherwise largely ignored.

Looking ahead, Horobin’s focus is likewise on “what the future holds for standard British English”. Other varieties are portrayed mainly as threats to the status of this privileged dialect. As he concedes, there are now far more speakers of English in the United States than in Britain, and American English dominates the world. Yet, like all those British politicians desperate for their nation to punch above its weight in world affairs, he persists in arguing that we plucky Brits are still a linguistic superpower. As English spreads across the world, Horobin fantasises, it’s possible that the upper-class British accent (“received pronunciation”) will end up becoming the new global standard, trumping all others. It’s an oddly parochial stance for a self-proclaimed champion of pidgin and creole languages, emoticons and emojis.

He has, of course, set himself an impossible task. The brevity of How English Became English means that it inevitably raises more questions than it can answer. Why did the mania for regularising spelling and grammar take off in the 18th century? How far have other European languages evolved in similar ways over the last 500 years? Why have the English always been more obsessed with linguistic class-indicators than other cultures?

Inside this svelte tract are several larger and more polemical volumes struggling to get out. But we all need to start somewhere.

 Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex is published by Penguin