Chapter Twenty-Three: Gendered Assumptions in Language
There are many ways to celebrate Women's History Month, but at Noteworthy Communications, it should be no shocker that our method of honoring this month is through the study of words and its impact on storytelling. Language does tell a story, after all, and when that language is feminized to the point of creating an entirely new lexicon, we have to wonder what story is being told and why.
What is feminized language? Well, for the purpose of this conversation, feminized language is any neologism that turns a previously gender-neutral term into a female-centered term. For example, maybe March isn't Women's History Month after all, but instead Women's Herstory Month. This is a prime example of the feminization of language we'll be conversing about here.
The Language and the Linguistics of it All
Language and linguistics, although sometimes used interchangeably, are actually very different. Language is how we communicate information to each other, while linguistics is the study of language, including its evolution over time. Language does change over time, as we well know. We see this in generational slang and the creation of new words as new products, technology, experiences, and understanding demand.
We have proven that when the right word does not exist, we make them up. The feminization of language is what happens when the right word does already exist, but assumptions around the word default to the masculine. The conversation recently has mostly centered around finding gender-neutral terms for the sake of inclusion. What we are discussing is intentionally the opposite.
Girl Power, or Something Like It
Girlboss. Boss Babe. Boss Lady. Lady Boss. She-E-O. Momtrepreneur. Fempire. EmpowHer. Herstory.
We don't want to take anything away from someone who feels confident and empowered by calling themselves a girlboss, boss babe, or a SHE-E-O, a woman who is building her fempire. If claiming these terms makes a person excited to jump out of bed and get to work, then we say, you go, girl! Even still, it's worth considering why these terms came to be when the gender-neutral terms of boss, chief, and empire were already in circulation. The default assumption for a person in power remains masculine, but creating a new lexicon that inserts the feminine in catchy ways won't do anything to change that.
What is it about these feminized terms that so many embrace, while others find degrading? Is it all just about branding? Men deal with these assumptions in language, too. At what point does a bag become a manbag, after all, and can every man pull off a manbun? Is it because accessories and long hair have traditionally feminine undertones that we have to qualify that no, no, no, this particular bag or head of hair actually belongs to a man? Whereas, the gender-neutral words of "bag" and "bun" are automatically understood to belong to women.
At the end of the day, and at the end of Women's History Month, we can remember that all language is just made up by people to serve whatever purpose we need it to. Sometimes, these new words are just trends, quick to leave our vocabulary as quickly as they arrived. Others are in it for the long haul, and very much worth our understanding.