What Happens When Words Disappear? Part Four

The obsolete words treated so far in this my mini-series – Jelly-bean, Fop, Heel, Rake and Mountebank – have tended to be for male types. If we want to study obsolete words for female types, however, the list is vastly longer. About some of these words I myself would say “good riddance”, but other omissions have serious consequences that deserve unpacking.

Long before the term Woke was invented, I had a straw boss who forbade the use of the word “bitch”, not merely as a synonym for one’s girlfriend or woman in general – something I find utterly revolting anyway – but to describe certain a kind of behaviour in either sex. The same applied to “bitchy”, and it was absolutely no defence that I could confess to being sometimes bitchy myself. Her reason for the ban was that the use of a female canine to derogate anybody or anything was inherently offensive. Calling someone a dog or a pig would have been all right, as this would not involve femaleness. I did not essay the term “catty” for a kind of behaviour, indeed a related one; no doubt this would have been prohibited but only if used about a woman, as I would then be implying that she was an animal. “Vixen” would have gotten me into even worse trouble; and indeed it is rarely heard now. How fortunate I was to be able to “kvetch” about something instead of bitching.

It should be immediately obvious that this was a game with two objectives. The one was self-assertion by convicting the other person of having said a Bad Word (Wash out your mouth with soap and water!), a form of pure one-upmanship that has always been with us and that is never going away. We might call it Critical Mothering. The other deserves more attention: its aim is to render impossible any mention of a well-known but unpopular kind of behaviour, whatever the gender of the perpetrator. Next comes the cui bono? – who benefits from this? Anyone who wishes to be bitchy, of course. Or, if female, catty. Until we develop some other word, universally understood, to denote vicious put-downs badly disguised as sympathy (or however else you might define being a “bitch”), we have ourselves a Bitch’s Charter.

It is a common myth that the medieval ducking stool was used only against praiseworthily assertive women, but in fact malicious gossips of either sex could be thus punished. The result is to make it harder to talk about malicious gossip, an immensely destructive force both in villages and on the Internet. It is equally misguided to imagine that only women can be “scolds”; husbands can be scolds to their wives and fathers to their children. Precisely the same applies to “nagging”. The crux is when occasional scolding turns into compulsive behaviour, and when a calm rebuke for not taking out the trash or whatever turns into a tirade built around “You always” and “You never”, which psychologists tell us is deeply toxic. We may thus imagine the medieval “scold’s bridle” with its tongue-depresser as the last resort of a community containing a member who just would not shut the hell up. There is no reason why such a person should necessarily be female, but if the bridle fits, wear it.

Again, the net result of the way people think they know all about the word “scold” is to make it very difficult to name and rebuke compulsive negging, as we now call it. And that obstacle means normalising and encouraging the behaviour. Even anyone who objects to such degradation without using either word can be dealt with by saying, “Ah, I suppose you would put me in the ducking-stool, right?” In these days there is no possible come-back to that without sounding feeble.

Yet another word for an aggressive female is “shrew”. Unless you are putting on a certain Shakespeare play – if we are still allowed to do that – this word is pretty well defunct. Once again, there is no particular reason why the behaviour, objectively considered, should be confined to women. But unfortunately the word meant what it meant, which means that anyone with the appropriate genitalia who wishes or is inwardly compelled to be shrilly aggressive can employ the unfortunate fact of it having been gendered language to forbid all criticism of her unpleasantness.

This does not even exhaust the list of special words for female bullies. It is many years since I have heard of a “minx”, and perhaps this is just as well, as it seemed to correlate not with any real nasty trait of personality but with female inconvenience to the male speaker. “Banshee” had an independent meaning in Scots folklore and still persists in the language as a dead simile for shrieking. Because of that, however, it could be used of a woman who shrieked ¬– perhaps for the perfectly good reason that she was being mistreated. Or for the less good reason that she was out to silence anyone who differed or was uncooperative. Another mythological background gave us “gorgon”, which could mean either a very unattractive face or a sociopathic style of behaviour in a female.

“Termagant” is equally dead or perhaps even deader, which means that anyone wanting to be one has a free run. Yet another dead word was much more specific: a young and slender woman, however much a bully, could not be a “battleship”. This word of my youth meant a middle-aged woman who used her big bust as an icebreaker or snowplough to push in queues. The penultimate word I will list is so extinct that it is not known to most online dictionaries (oh for the days of the dead-trees OED!) except with quite different meanings. It is doubtful that any of the parents who named their daughters “Jade” knew that this word used to mean something other than the green semi-precious stone; a jade used to be an overbearing or unspecifically unpleasant woman. It is now so forgotten that not even I would use it to stir things up.

With my last disappeared word I shall change tack away from the theme of defunct words making it impossible to call out female bullies, as it has different implications. That “virago” has gone extinct is less interesting for the permission-giving aspect than for what it tells us about men; why should a man-like woman (for that is what it meant) be identical with an uncouthly dominant person unless that is what we ourselves know ourselves to be?

Posted on January 10, 2022 at 17:30 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

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