This is the first entry in Five Dollar Words, a new Independent.com column about words, with a specific focus on those used particularly often in Santa Barbara. Yes, Indy reporter Drew Mackie acknowledges that writing about words is the kind of navel-gazing effort that makes writers feel good about themselves and, given the nature of online columns, will only result in reader comments - or writing about writing on writing. And Drew thinks that’s funny.
Those readers who scour every printed inch of last week’s edition of The Independent may have noticed that we ran a correction apologizing for use of the phrase “Lady Gauchos” to refer to the UCSB women’s basketball team. Our bad. Newspapers should make the effort to communicate that name accurately, in order to avoid adding connotations the group doesn’t want. (Though, for the record, if the women’s basketball team decided to call themselves the Super Spectacular Women of Glorious Basketball Derring-Do and Daredevilry, I would protest.)
But the correction brings light to a problem that English-speakers must cautiously tread around when picking their words: Why is it considered wrong to call the women’s basketball team “the Lady Gauchos” when “lady” accurately and respectfully describes the athletes as female? After all, did Tom Jones not once praise ladies by singing, “She’s all I’d ever want / She’s the kind I’d like to flaunt / And take to dinner”?
In English and other languages, certain groups of words grow pejorative over time - specifically words that define an “other” or the stereotypically negative half of a pair. Right and left, up and down, male and female, for example. In each, the one people are socialized to perceive as being less than the other becomes a dirty word.
Just because someone expresses himself or herself with words that show this bias does not mean he or she actually endorses, for example, the idea that female basketball players are a departure from the norm and therefore should be subject to suspicion and distinction. However, gender equality and other such egalitarian ideas are relatively new and must be expressed using some very old words that reflect the old bias of women representing the fairer, weaker, inside-the-house gender. The idea is old. The ancient Chinese yin-yang symbol comes to mind, with its two complementary sides representing the male-light-active and the female-dark-passive properties. Since these notions are ground so deeply into our brains, it stands to reason, then, that even the most socially progressive among us would make the occasional slip of the tongue.
Though “lady” is technically a respectful term for a woman, the word’s use in reference to a basketball team is awkward in that the counterpart to “lady” - “gentleman” - when applied the men’s basketball team. No one would want to see the Gentlemen Gauchos play, regardless of dunk potential. More to the point, singling out the female basketball players with the modifier “lady” marks the group as a departure from the norm, thus necessitating extra words to explain the difference.
During my time at UCSB, I took a class with linguistics professor Arthur Schwartz, a man I credit with pushing me to take a closer look at words and, thus, pushing me over deadline on countless occasions. In example of how unnecessarily gendering a word can express a bias, Prof. Schwartz explained that the late conservative Republican Congressman John Schmitz had famously dubbed attorney Gloria Allred a “slick, butch lawyeress.” In calling Allred that dreadful phrase, Schmitz ascribes what he sees as two negative qualities to her - being slimy and unfeminine - and then add the suffix “-ess” to “lawyer,” as if to specify that Allred was not even a lawyer, but something less than that - a lawyeress. This kind of word choice affects language in contemporary English in more subtle ways. The difference between describing a Norah Jones as a “singer” or a “chanteuse” can arguably shade one’s perception as her as a mere melody maker or a woman known for singing sensually.
The notion of shading the specifically feminine to sound smaller, lesser, or otherwise unimportant by virtue of being specifically feminine isn’t new, of course. (Most of our bad lingual habits seem to have been around as long as tongues were being used to make sounds.) In fact, there’s a trend for any inherently feminine word to become downright pejorative over time.
Think about it.
A princess should be an esteemed member of society, but more often you hear the term being used to describe an entitled brat - as in “spoiled pop-culture princess Paris Hilton - yet “prince” still signifies a man of courtly manners and refinement.
Calling a woman “Miss” can get you into trouble because it assumes a lot about the marital status of the person it refers to, but the alternative - “Mrs.,” or its longhand original version “mistress” - carries enough negative connotation on its own that we now have the pared-down “Ms.” in their place. “Mister,” on the other hand, hasn’t changed.
Technically, the female counterpart to the rather innocuous word “bachelor” is the horrendous “spinster.”
“Bitch” has become so disrespectful that most pet owners would rather take the time to spell out “female dog” than profane their pooch.
I’m no expert on magic, but I’d posit “witch” and the female version of “wizard,” even though the former has a connotation with warty unpleasantness that the latter does not.
“Queen” - a word that out of context can conjure any number of meanings - seems to have snuck in its own unpleasant association through the existence of the little-known word “quean.” Pronounced identically and related etymologically to the regal word, “quean” refers to lowly female servants and prostitutes. At various points throughout the history of English, people have doubtlessly had fun with the ample puns that arise from the two.
Even “suffragette” - the word for women who strive to get the right to vote - takes the “-ette” suffix, which simultaneously implies femininity and smaller size, as in “statuette,” “launderette,” and “diskette.”
As I mentioned earlier, this tendency to lend the “other” an increasingly negative connotation over time applies to other sets as well. The best example I can think of is words for “left” and “right.”
Another gem Professor Schwartz left me with was the idea that words for “right” in various countries throughout the Indo-European language group generally resemble each other. (The Indo-European languages are the various tongues that have developed in the landmass bordered by India on the east and Britain in the west. Hindi, Arabic, Swedish, Gaelic - they’re shockingly more alike than you might think.) Look at the various takes on “right” and note the similarity in letters.
- in Latin: dexter
- in Italian: destra
- in German: recht
- in French: droite
- in Spanish: derecho
- in Persian: rast
Now look at the same languages’ words for “left” and note the general lack of similarity.
- in Latin: sinister
- in Italian: mancino
- in German: links
- in French: gauche
- in Spanish: izquierda
- in Persian: chap
Some linguistics conjecture that the reason for this disparity is that words for “left” - much like the increasingly disparaging words denoting femininity - become so associated with awkward, profane or unsanitary actions that various languages have to adopt new words for polite conversation. It’s even happening in modern-day English in spite of the realization that left-handed people are not necessarily wrong, awkward or evil. Think about the expression “left-handed dealings” to denote a shady transaction or “goofy-footed” to describe someone who skateboards or snowboards predominantly using their left foot. I find the similarity between this trend and the movement toward “Ms.” among modern English speakers pretty striking.
So, ladies and gentlemen, the need to refer to UCSB’s female basketball players as “the women’s team” instead of “the Lady Gauchos,” “the Gauchitas” or any other term like this is one that arises from language trends begun long before balls were being tossed anywhere near baskets. To my ears, “lady” reminds me more of the contemptuous “Would you sit down and shut up, lady?” sense of the word more than anything else.
Words are weird, simply put. I look forward to elucidating the ones that affect us here in Santa Barbara soon.
Drew Mackie also makes words regularly as an Independent reporter and on his pop culture blog, Back of the Cereal Box.