Your Vocabulary’s a Turn Off, Bro

[rant]

There are many things about guys that I find to be complete turn offs. If it weren’t for my strongly heterosexual inclination, I’d consider being in a relationship with myself because I really get me. I know what I like and I remember all the important dates. I also know when I’m needed and when I need to distance myself. And I’m also pretty goodlooking. So it’s just win-win all around. Unfortunately, my ‘pheramonal’ persuasion leads me towards the male sex and I’m stuck with their perpetual general idiocy which, at my least hormonal, can be somewhat endearing.

But if there’s one thing in a guy that serves to be the greatest, perhaps ultimate, turn off it’s his unintentional sexism and objectification of my sex. By ‘unintentional’ I mean the sort of sexism and objectification they don’t realize they’re participating in and perpetuating because the language and mentality they’re espousing and practicing are just so normalized. For instance – chick? Last time I checked, I didn’t spend three semesters as a fetus toasting in an incubator while my mother was served, her skin fried, to an overweight greasy-faced college IT undergrad. Some guys will follow up this with even more sexist language while others will just use it in casual conversation not meaning any intentional hurt. But guess what? I don’t care – to reduce my sex to a, albeit cute, non-human creature whose name connotes its infancy and defenselessness is not funny. Or cute. Nor will it incline me to have a conversation with you.

Plus this whole infancy thing is just plain creepy as shit. Chick. Babe. Baby. Baby girl. Baby boy. Num Nums.

What the hell is num nums?!

Language reflects community, history, mores and ethics. Language also reflects ‘realities’ and ‘perceptions.’ It is ultimately a reflection of the community from which it emerged and the community within which it continues to evolve. Language depends wholly, not partially, on context. For this reason we find that when texts are translated from their original languages to others – especially if poetic – the meaning so originally profound becomes somewhat obscured; lost. Ideas, concepts, words become harder to grasp when the context of history is not present. For instance, the word ‘patriarchy’ does not exist in Arabic, Urdu and countless other languages. Thus the concept of patriarchy (and forget terms and concepts like homosocial, heteronormative and the Lesbian scale) fails to exist in these languages (in original form) and is not as easily transferable in meaning. Other words and explanations can be used to explain what patriarchy means – but it must be explained in those languages, with words that create a comprehensible meaning to non-Latin-derived-language-hearing ears.

Another example – and I use Arabic as I’m forced to study it – is the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book. Revealed to the people of Arabia in the 7th century, the book is filled with agricultural references and language. For instance, the term ‘shari’ah‘ itself is taken today to mean ‘Islamic Law’ or in MSA/colloquial “path/street.” It, however, actually means “path to the watering hole” – something that connoted basic survival to the 6th century desert dwelling Arabs. The Qur’an is filled with references to a reality that did not exist for the Arabs of the Hejaz – a reality of which the importance they knew all too well. Scarce water, scarce fruits and scarce shade to protect from the sun – the Qur’an spoke to them in a language which emphasized salvation, charity, good will- amongst several other virtues and concepts- through words which heavily resounded with them. Water is the most basic requirement for survival – for Divine Law (in terms of ethics, etiquette etc) to be referred to as shar’iah thus implies an irrevocable importance to one’s livelihood.

Anyway, to get back on track as this is a late night/early morning rant, language is context. When you refer to something or someone in a certain way it is not solely reflective of how you see them but also how your particular community or society perceives them. Imagery and language go hand in hand, as well. Certain images illicit certain words in my mind and from my tongue -consciously or unconsciously and these words reflect how I am interacting with the subject of my sentence/conversation.

So, when a guy – however unintentional in meaning anything harmful – refers to a woman as a ‘chick’ or ‘milf’ it reflects something greater than himself and even what he believes about women. He may believe he respects women and he most likely does – but that language does not because our community and our society do not respect women. The words and images used to describe women and prescribed to be used by women reflect the objectified nature awarded to them by a language and society heavily created and sustained by ..well ..guys. Perhaps most importantly for our discussion language also connotes strong power relations – whether gendered or racialized or ..uhh ..classified?

However casually used, ‘chick,’ ‘babe,’ ‘bitch’ ‘cougar’ and ‘milf’ – amongst countless others – designate all women a restricted space within their relationships with men and with themselves as well. These words take away the agency of women and overpower their sexual sovereignty – she’s either infantile or a canine or a feline or a woman who’s pushed out a few human beings from her vaginal passage yet has amazingly been able to not falter below the apparent “acceptable beauty standards” required for – and pardon my vulgarity – “fucking” as per the obscene acronym. Sexual agency is completely masculine; men are the subjects that ‘do’ and women are the ‘objects’ to which a certain action is done i.e. designated as a non-human delicious dessert vis a vis honey buns.

The language you use shows what you deem important but, most importantly, reflects the community you choose to affiliate yourself with – by continuing to speak in a certain vernacular of it or use certain words, you help perpetuate not only that particular vernacular and language but the values and ‘realities’ engrained into the language, particularly power relations and history .

This is also why White people need to stfu about the word ‘nigger.’

8 thoughts on “Your Vocabulary’s a Turn Off, Bro

  1. Sana, I always enjoy reading your posts. They make me think. Plus, your wit and humor are great too. A few points: chick has been used to refer to people since at least the 16th century. It was transferred to a derogatory/sexist meaning toward women circa1940.

    I agree with the overall message of this piece. Words have power and can be used in a positive or a negative light.

    As a queer linguist , I vehemently disagree with this part: “For instance, the word ‘patriarchy’ does not exist in Arabic, Urdu and countless other languages. Thus the concept of patriarchy (and forget terms and concepts like homosocial, heteronormative and the Lesbian scale) fails to exist in these languages (in original form) and is not as easily transferable in meaning. Other words and explanations can be used to explain what patriarchy means – but it must be explained in those languages, with words that create a comprehensible meaning to non-Latin-derived-language-hearing ears.” and this part: ” For instance, the term ‘shari’ah‘ itself is taken today to mean ‘Islamic Law’ or in MSA/colloquial “path/street.” It, however, actually means “path to the watering hole” – something that connoted basic survival to the 6th century desert dwelling Arabs. “.

    Firstly, a word similar to patriarchy probably exists in those languages. If not, it can be made up just as patriarchy was. If one is going to be nitpicky with translation than no word, or at the very least very few words (yes and no are the only examples that come to mind. But even those might not, because some languages have three or even four: German has Ja (yes) Nein (No) and Doch (yes, in certain cases)), can be translated from one language to another without losing a bit of its meaning, especially at the pragmatic level. Secondly since, we are being nitpicky English is not a “Latin-derived-language”, it does have borrowings but it is Germanic in essence. (also patriarchy is Greek). Your argument, if I understand it correctly, is essentially Whorfian in nature; which, although it has merit, is overtly flawed. Lack of a word does not equate to lack of a concept or understanding.

    I did not know the original meaning of the word shari’ah. While that is quite interesting, if it is not used commonly in that meaning (path to the watering hole) then that meaning is obscure or archaic and no longer valid for the current language.

    Language reflects all aspects of a society. It does not inherently take away the sovereignty of a person. It is the word/language in the context of a society with its semantic (akin to literal) and pragmatic (akin to figurative) meaning along with prosody (tone, pitch, sarcasm, etc) that give it its meaning. It is problematic when people use words without thinking of their myriad meanings and intentions. Anyway, the point being one should not boil down the problems of society to language or vice-versa.Societal interactions are much more complicated than that.

    Hope you’re well and that you keep contributing thought-provoking pieces. (I apologise for any typos or grammatical mistakes…I’ve been up for about 24 hours now)

  2. Instead of worrying about the futilities of “chick” and its inherent sexism, isn’t it more pressing to think about what kind of message forcing women to hide under a burqa net, with not even the dignity to see her face? Isn’t that more serious? You choose to avoid the concrete pressing matters, and instead focus on the superfluous subtleties of language, which albeit illuminating, do not quality as a danger and are being overstated by this post. I really like the overarching point about language reflecting community views – very true on an epistemological level – but you lost me on the whole feminist critique and pervasive sexism YOU display towards men. Perusing through this post, it seems like you are the anti-masculinist, borderline misandry one, as you make hasty generalizations.

  3. Wait, what? What does the burqa have to do with my late night rant? And I have addressed that issue repeatedly – in various ways on this blog and others. Sexism and racism, regardless of what form they take, must always be addressed. What sexism have I displayed, pray tell?

    And I don’t think language is futile.

  4. OK the issue with linguistic relativity is that it’s a spectrum, from a lighter form of the theory that says certain things in our lives and interactions are made more salient than others because of how the language we speak works to linguistic determinism that says our lives and experiences therein are determined by language.

    And Whorf’s hypothesis came out while he was working insurance for an insurance company looking at a fire that erupted out of “empty” gasoline drums. The issue was that there drums, though void of gasoline, were filled with volatile gases and the “empty” label was the reason behind the carelessness around them (I tried to find a link to the story and this is one of the links so far: http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/Benjamin_Lee_Whorf).

    So yes, even though this theory is difficult to prove/disprove since it deals with things that seem intangible, most scholars believe in some attenuated form of this theory. I remember when I TA-ed Language and Gender someone had a quick experiment where they asked a bunch of younger children to draw “cavemen” vs. “cavepeople” (don’t recall exact wording, sorry). Well, not to anyone’s surprise the class that was asked to draw cavemen drew men exclusively while the class what was asked to draw “cavepeople” drew a combination of genders, ages, etc.

    Language/words matter, read Butler’s Excitable Speech (’97) for a more philosophical approach to how words matter.

    And to the first Burqa response, what about freeing women from clothes in general? The US is so oppressive in that if a woman walks around topless she is censured – legally! What makes one form of “covering up” more acceptable than the other? both are directed towards women, and both are enforced.

  5. I like this rant, especially the openness with which you write.

    I find ‘Response’s’ comment up there interesting. Is it that every time a Muslim woman talks about patriarchy, she must necessarily take on the cause and be responsible for women who are forced to wear the burqa? Of course many do speak out/write about it/take it on which is great, but can’t it be that a North American Muslim woman can speak about specifically North American issues that relate to women in her country? And we struggle against more than simply issues related to our bodies and the control of other women’s bodies.

    My own rant! Sorry…

  6. when ur in love with an absolutely awesome sweet guy, retarted, idiotic names like “num nums” and “sugar booger” sound like royal titles and make you want to squawk with joy. they’re imbecilic, yes, but then again, have u ever seen the way two people in love ogle at each other? it’s as sickening as the pet names “baby doll” and “buttermuffin”.

    as for terms like “bi***” and “fu**”, those of course have as little place in a healthy relationship as a mistress would.

  7. Interesting and thought provoking article. Whereas I previously may have agreed with the general thrust of your argument – that nicknames may serve as a hidden mechanism that pre-defines a female’s role in a relationship – I having increasingly taken the opinion that the analysis has be to be a bit more nuanced. For one thing, a sincere exploration of gender roles within relationships needs to be pursued (I can feel right now the eye-brows raising and keyboards being set for some tip-tapping away at this suggestion of “gender roles”).

    Take for example the booked “Fascinating Womanhood”. The author details qualities that men generally seek in women (and vice versa), which include charms if femininity, tenderness and girlishness. A quick skimming the table of contents reveals the title of two chapters: “Childlike Anger” and “A Childlike Response”. It’s very easy to brush off such a book with an argument that it totally sexest or that it trivializes women by asking they fit a specific mould within a masculine paradigm. However, what is harder to brush off is the fact that the book has sold over 2 million copies, and has been so popular that it even has its own following – the Fascinating Womanhood Movement – a Movement being comprised of women.

    Hence, an analysis of gender roles may be revealing in bringing out the more nuanced realities of gender relation – including childlike nicknames.

  8. This is probably just a cultural thing, but coming from Australia, most of this doesn’t apply. Examples such as “chick”, “babe”, “bitch”, etc. are most commonly used by female friends referring to each other. “Babe” in a relationship is equally applicable to either the man/boy or the woman/girl, although I have noticed (and this is no scientific study) that it is often the female that is most willing to use such pet names.

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