Archive for August, 2011

07
Aug
11

The language problem

I’ve been trying to put into words exactly why I hate my job. I love my job – I love having one, that is, but also just can’t stand it. It is so hard to explain why I would be upset by what is really a good job. Logically I know I have no right to complain when so many are suffering and looking for work. But, it is normal to bitch about jobs, right? So, I have been in a serious malaise – upset and depressed at work for quite some time. Trying to find the right word to express that, however, led me to another train of thought. The one word that gets at the heart of my issue at work is “emasculated”. But, there is no female equivalent for that feeling of powerlessness that the word represents. Sure, technically, I guess you could say infertile but that is really another meaning of the word. What I am looking for is a word that means stripping away of one’s power, one’s self-determination. Emasculation fits the bill. Yet, the word itself and the fact that there is no similar word for a woman just speaks to the history of powerlessness of women in general. Even the language reflects it. If there was a “de-feminate” word, would it not be a compliment for a man? I used my Merriam-Webster’s app to look up the exact definition: “To deprive of strength, vigor, or spirit: weaken”. Then there is this example of usage: “He plays the role of a meek husband who has been emasculated by his domineering wife.” Nice.

It is not the only example of “language misogyny”. When someone is bold, we say they “have balls”. When we want someone to stand up for themselves, we tell them to “grow a pair”. Both of these are even used for women. Conversely, when a male cries out or is startled, we say he “screamed like a little girl”. If someone is weak, they are called a “pussy”. This one just drives me crazy! Seriously! Women shoulder so much of the burden in the household and work… how in the world could a female body party be a synonym for weak!

The world may now be open to women to enter any field or work any job, but the gender roles remain deeply engrained. We do not tell a young boy, “Oh you are so pretty!” as a compliment. You may say he is “smart” or “strong”. You do not complement his appearance. Yet, invariably, “Oh, you are pretty.” will be a standard compliment for a girl. It is seemingly harmless, but how does this train us? If we complement a girl’s appearance, especially to the exclusion of others, then we are telling her that that is what she is – pretty. That becomes the goal – to be pretty.

Words do matter. They shape us and direct our development. They are more subtle than the images that are foist upon us. And they tell the story of where we have been and how far we still have left to go.