Monday, February 24, 2014

Words Matter

This week's guest poster is Irene Soldatos, author of the newly published Bad Bishop. Take it away, Irene!
There is a three-stage process which all social changes go through before an attitude becomes the norm. First we change how we act; then we change how we speak; and last of all we change how we think.

In terms of the equality of the sexes, our society seems to be hovering somewhere between stage two and three – and has been doing so for some time. These days, western society generally accepts that the sexes are equal; not only that they should be treated as though they were equal, but that they are equal, and that societal behaviour should reflect this.
This acceptance was arrived at slowly, and it involved a great deal of argument, philosophical and otherwise, because after all there has been millennia of social conditioning to contend with; but eventually certain things were accepted, and as such acceptable modes of behaviour were agreed upon. For example: An employer may no longer fire a woman for being pregnant. Hurrah! A result! While this became enshrined in legislation, however, it was still perfectly common and acceptable, to call women ‘sweetheart’ at work, and ‘flirt’ outrageously with them.

Eventually, the ‘flirting’ came to be called harassment, and that was put a stop to, though the ‘sweetheart’ endured for a while longer, because, after all, it’s just a word; it doesn’t hurt anyone; it’s a term of endearment after all, what can possibly be wrong with addressing women in such an amicable manner?

By now, of course, the year being 2014, using the word ‘sweetheart’ in the workplace is not really the done thing, because it’s finally been pointed out that men don’t call each other ‘sweetheart’, or ‘darling’, or ‘my dear’, so why should they do so with women who are not their romantic partners or their wives? The fact is, words carry meaning. A shocking revelation, I know; but true. Imagine a man addressing his male colleague, or subordinate, as ‘sweetheart’. Or telling him he looked very nice today. You’ve done something with your hair. Is that a new suit?

Words carry meaning and reflect thoughts – and modes of thought. And that’s what the problem with ‘sweetheart’ is. So, now we’re at the point where certain modes of expression towards women have become taboo, and that goes a long way to making the environment in which half the human population lives (at least in Western secular societies) a bit less unpleasant than it was previously. However, just because a word is not used, it does not go to mean that the thought or mental attitude that would prompt you to use it is gone too. It only means that you censor yourself to comply with acceptable social norms.

Given time, though, the changes in the way we express ourselves will lead to changes in our thoughts and mental attitudes, because words condition our thoughts, just like our thoughts are reflected in our words. In fact, thought and language are inextricably linked: we can only contemplate abstract concepts using words, and words define the concepts themselves. Simply changing the word we use to describe a certain act is enough to change the act itself from acceptable to unacceptable. It changes the way we think about it. This is what has happened since we replaced the word ‘flirting’ with ‘harassment’. Now what I would really like to see go the way of the dodo is the tendency to say to little girls, the moment people meet one: ‘What a pretty girl you are!’ Why don’t people say that to little boys? Why don’t they say: ‘What a good-looking boy you are!’? Because the appearance of boys is not important, presumably, whereas the appearance of girls is. And this is how women, and men, learn from infancy that it’s the most important thing – for women. Because words carry meaning.

The fact is, all we know is what we have words for. As Wittgenstein very rightly said: ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’

So it logically follows: What we say, and what we write, even in fiction, plays a part in forming the world we live in. It matters. 

~Irene Soldatos
I was born in Greece, but growing up lived in England. Then in Greece. Then in England again. Then in Germany. Now I'm back in England. I get about. I have a B.A. in English and a Master’s and PhD in Musicology. I’m a geek, a dedicated pen-and-paper gamer, and a vocal advocate of all things Open Source, and non-commercial sharing.

You can find Irene at:

Available on Amazon



Terri-Lynne said...

Powerful stuff here, Irene. The words we use and choose matter so much--and everyone has different ideas about certain words.

It has always bugged me that HE is the default in the English language. That is changing, kind of, with the accepted use of the plural THEIR in lace of the awkward he/she or default he.

Looking forward to this discussion!

Unknown said...

An excellent post, and one which makes me feel very proud & happy, because the sphere in which I work - archaeology - is really quite enlightened when it comes to gender & sexual equality. If you can wield a shovel with gusto, you can do the job.

Strangely enough, I have no problem with 'Man' being used as a default expression as in 'chairman', etc. I'd have more of a problem with people shifting the terminology to differentiate my gender, full stop - so I'd be more insulted to be described as a 'chairwoman'.

I don't know what should generate a different response from me in this respect, because if anyone called me 'sweetheart', I'd probably deck them. In Scotland, there's a ghastly habit that older working class have of referring to women as 'hen' - whenever I get that heaped upon me while working on a construction site, I want to start clucking, or to say, "I'm sorry. I don't lay eggs."

These days, I just sigh inwardly, and refuse to rise to the bait. I'm sure my gender has held me back to some extent, but my mother and I have progressed much further forward along the equality route than my grandmothers did, and I'm quite happy with that.

There. You wanted some lively discussion. Here you go!!

Terri-Lynne said...

Hen? Really???? Wow, that's not just condescending, it's outright insulting.

Personally, I do have a problem with chairman and its kin. I also have a problem with men who call other men, "ladies" when they're trying to make some point. (ie, the coach who says, "Hey, ladies! Let's get something going on that field!") It makes me want to chew someone's face off.

IreneSoldatos said...

Thank you so much, both for the extremely kind words!

I have to say that this new tendency to use "she" as the default pronoun that I see all over the place annoys me no end. People are not by default female, any more than they are by default male. It's difficult, though, since "their" is ungrammatical. Being a bit of a pedant, I have to say that I'd choose the he/she option, despite its awkwardness.

Where I live, in W. Yorkshire, no one calls women 'hen', but everyone, male and female, call each other 'love'. It's so gender-neutral in its usage that it doesn't bother me at all!

(The men calling other men 'ladies' makes me fume! But it's not common in the UK.)

Terri-Lynne said...

I have to say, I am guilty of calling people endearing sort of names. I call everyone love, hon, sweetling--etc. To quote Homer Simpson, "But when I do it, it's cute!"

IreneSoldatos said...

:D Of course! :P

Karin Gastreich said...

In Costa Rica, "amor" is used for both men and women. I've never been comfortable with either context, but to be fair it seems a harmless enough practice and appropriate for a society accustomed to the open expression of affection.

Once when I was coming back to the U.S. through Houston, one of the airport workers called me Darlin'. I have to admit, that made me smile.

I have a habit of telling girls they are pretty. I also tell boys they are handsome, in equal measure. I won't apologize for either. I think it's important for everyone to know they are attractive, whether they fit the current conventions or not.

All in all, I agree that words are important, but it's the intention behind the words that gives them weight and meaning.

Thanks so much for this thought-provoking post!

IreneSoldatos said...

Just to clarify: What I object to is the knee jerk reaction to a first introduction: "Hello. Aren't you pretty?" Which invariably is the greeting reserved for little girls. I have rarely, if ever, heard little boys being greeted by people they don't know in a similar way.

Terri-Lynne said...

Agreed, both Karin and Irene. It's the condescending "honey" said by some guy who is marginalizing a waitress or a co-worker or what have you, it's frustrating. A friendly "darlin'" doesn't bother me. And, as I said, I'm quite guilty of doing the same.

The "Aren't you pretty thing," as Irene objects to is infuriating to me. As a "pretty little girl" who was never supposed to amount to anything other than remaining pretty, it grinds my gears. But, like Karin, I make it my business to make all kids feel not just beautiful, but brilliant.

Ha! Cute story--I was Program Aide Director for the local girl scout camp for eons. I trained--gads--hundreds of girls over the course of my years. We used email a LOT, and I opened every email to them, "My brilliant and beautiful ladies." When I 'retired,' the girls wrote me a song and sang it (all 65 of them!) at camp fire the last night. It was called, "Ladies, my brilliant ladies."

And now I'm crying to remember it! Wah!

Unknown said...

What I find extremely interesting & also valuable about this whole exercise (and the hornets' nest thus disturbed) is how it's caused each of us to examine behaviours and trends which are submerged and implicit in our routine lives and to dissect them! If you can take a step back and take an objective look at these routine practices (as we used to call them in the obfuscatory world of post-processual archaeology), it can shed a whole lot of light on who we are today and where we came from. Which is always fascinating - especially when you're wearing a writer's hat!

Diana Munoz Stewart said...

Really interesting post. Yes, we have made so much progress in our country. I guess that's why it's sad to see some states trying to roll back some of this progress. And it's not just here, but in many other countries. One of the first things that seems to go when there is global financial instability is benefits for women.

Terri-Lynne said...

Diana, the world NEEDS your angry woman book!

IreneSoldatos said...

We do and say so much, everyday, without examining what it means or where it arises from, which is normal of course, otherwise it wouldn't be routine. But I think one of the main purposes of fiction is also to flag up some of these attitudes and/or mentalities, so that we at least can become aware of them, if nothing else. And sometimes, the best way to flag up and challenge long accepted mentalities is to do it through fantasy and/or historical fiction,

Wm. L. Hahn said...

Great discussion. Not sure if I'm arguing or not. But two things:
1) I have been in a diner perhaps a billion times in my life. I have never been served by anything other than a woman in her 30s or 40s- I often think it's the SAME woman- and only when it was clear I was the one to pay the check did they all immediately start calling he "honey". I always emphasize that point to my lovely wife after the waitress goes away, and she invites me to take off my ring. End of discussion- but STILL.
2) I was CERTAINLY declared "handsome" umpty-billion times as a child, so no soap there, throw that complaint out. And I fumed because it was indeed belittling and I had zero interest in the title- having no earthly idea what use there could be in it, any more than in eating a worm.

Unknown said...

When I taught college writing, I used an exercise in which students brainstormed all the words -- positive or negative -- used for male and female. They were surprised to find a pattern of referring to women as infants of some kind, like kitten or baby. They were shocked that the proportion of insulting names for females was greater than for males.

About the time my older daughter started college, she told me that women had achieved equality, so feminism was irrelevant. Then she entered the business world. It didn't take long for her to admit the barriers and discrimination women still face.

Eric T Reynolds said...

Ah, Deb--though it made me happy, in a way, when my eldest daughter thought the same thing yours did (after all, if they felt equality, it meant they lived a life that fed that notion.) Then she took a history class that showed TV ads through the history of television, and how the ads reflected the attitudes toward women. While some of those old commercials were truly offensive, the core of them hasn't really changed overly much--they simply became more subtle. When my youngest recently saw an add wherein the DAD was the one doing the laundry and getting all excited about it being clean, she thought it was fabulous, and so do I, but it's waaaay overdue.

Terri-Lynne said...

Dammit! I did it again. I was signed in as Eric. I was going to delete it, but it would still say, "comment deleted by Eric T Reynolds." Ah, well--let's pretend it was him!

Terri-Lynne said...

Now, for MY comment, and it goes back to something Louise said on Monday--the "chairman" thing, and how it doesn't really bother her, while it does irk me a bit, and the plethora of MAN tags on everything. BUT! I just learned something today.

In old English, "man" simply meant "person." In fact, the word "woman" came from wif (female) man (person.) So, while I don't know that all those "man" attached to words is in fact a throwback to old English, maybe they are. I'm going to have to look into it more.

Terri-Lynne said...

Trekelny--I wish I'd been smart enough as a kid not to let the "pretty" thing matter. I was under the delusion it was EVERYTHING for far too long. Thankfully, I did find my brain along the way--a fairly good brain, I might add--and came to my senses.

IreneSoldatos said...

Wow, this really has sparked quite a conversation. That's wonderful!

Deb, that is a wonderfully clever exercise! I'll keep it in mind!

Trekenly, maybe it is more common in the US to declare little boys 'handsome' on first introductions, but in my experience this side of the pond it is extremely rare. I have younger twin brothers, who, even if I say so myself, were and still are quite stunningly handsome. I can't remember anyone ever telling them they were handsome on a first meeting. Of course they were told they were very "good-looking young men" by family members and close friends, usually when they were dressed up for special occasions.

Terri, the etymology of 'man', yes, I'm not surprised at all. If you look at old texts it is very often used in the sense of "people" or "humanity", as well as in reference to the male of the species. Of course over time words acquire new meanings or their meaning subtly changes, but that doesn't mean they cannot be reclaimed, if people decide to make a concerted effort to use them in a specific way.