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September 20, 2004



I don't think the p-word and the n-word belong on the same page, let alone the same entry. Verbally comparing someone to female genitalia is crude, offensive, and of course mean to the referent, but it does not imply misogyny on the part of the speaker, any more than comparing him to male anatomy connotes misandry. This is, IMNSHO, an example of someone reading waaaaaaayyyyy too much into things and finding a hidden meaning that simply isn't there.

Nor do I buy into the "ah, but how you say things shapes people's thoughts" meme. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, once popular among linguists, has been dead and buried for decades. It's now pretty clear that the opposite is true: euphemisms take on all the connotations of whatever it was they were supposed to cover up. Time was when it was more polite to say "go to the bathroom" to describe the act of excreting, as opposed. Once you can say "my dog went to the bathroom on my living room carpet," the euphemism has lost its euphemsitic qualities. The same is true here, only in reverse. I'm sure the first use of the p-word invoked a mental image of a vagina (or perhaps a cat?) but it doesn't now.


I don't think we can be certain what connections others will make, XRLQ. Little kids, hearing the word "pussy", may have different images than adults.

Why is it so easy to see the hurtful nature of the "n" word and not the "p" word? Or the even more inflammatory "c u next tuesday"? The intent may not be misogynistic -- but intent is not the only issue here. We are responsible, at least in part, for shaping the perceptions of others around us.


"Dick" is not a word applied to women to say that they are men and degrade them. "Pussy" is a word applied to men in order to say they are like women, and degrade them. That is the difference, XRLQ.


I don't think kids will infer misogyny, either. They name each other after male genitalia at least as often as the female variety, along with the gender neutral a-hole. So I'm pretty sure that if any subtle message is being sent, it's that certain parts of the body are icky and bad. That's not a great message, either, of course, but it's not the same as a gender neutral one.

As to my broader objection to comparing the n-word to c/p, it's quite simple, really. Historically, the n-word denotes that the referent is black, and connotes that the speaker hates blacks. Use of the c/p word, even when meant literally, does not imply hatred of women, their genitalia, or anything else. In most cases, quite the opposite.


XRLQ, your last sentence seems to imply that sexual desire and hatred cannot coexist. But indeed, many of the most deeply misogynistic people are men who are deeply attracted to women. Their use of terms like "cunt" and "pussy" (I think in a discussion forum like this, we can type them safely) reflect how they see women, and what parts of women they are focused on.


Amanda: That's true but it doesn't really affect my argument. My point about the genitalia references was simply that naming people after either sex's genitalia is an insult, which suggests that if there is a bias here, it's a bias against genitalia, not against one of the sexes. True, the uses of the two words are not mirror images, but societal attitudes generally are. Most people who are uncomfortable around effeminate men aren't all that wild about masculine women, either. The preference is for traditional sex roles over modern tendencies to blur such distinctions. It is not for one sex over the other; else we'd either encourage both sexes to be more manly, or we'd encourage both sexes to be more womanly.

Hugo: I don't think sexism and racism are comparable. Yes, there are a few truly deranged individuals out there who genuinely hate the opposite sex in the same sense that Klansmen hates blacks or Nazis hate Jews. But those are a tiny minority, and usually consist of individuals suffering from some mental disease. Healthy, functioning members of society may well be sexist in the sense of not respecting the opposite sex enough, but they don't hate the opposite sex, and they certainly don't hate the opposite sex's genitalia. If anything, they tend to fixate on it and like it too much.

I'd be surprised if there any real correlation between (1) horny men who fixate on women's privates and (2) misogynistic men who compare other men to vaginas to indicate their lack of respect for women. It strikes me as a great example of one of those neat little theories that work great in the ivory tower, but totally belly-flop everywhere else.

You may recall a certain female blogger, who is also a frequent commenter here, who recently compiled a list of "pussy nations." I don't believe for a minute that she was acting out of self-hatred, consciously or sub-consciously. Do you?


X, don't deliberatly miss the point on insider vs. outside usage. The "n" word is not a white person's to use, but a black person can in certain contexts. Women are free in certain circumstances to reclaim words that exist to hurt us.
Anyway, that it's a sexual organ doesn't change the fact that it's still a word that is used to disparage women. It just means women's sexuality is being used to disparage them.
Slurs around men's genitals tend are qualitatively different, something you have to ignore to equate the two. Calling a guy a dick isn't nice, no. It generally means that he's being mean. Calling a man a pussy means he's a sniveling coward. In our culture, coward is worse than mean.


I don't know what culture you live in. Mine looks down on nastiness much more than cowardice.


I disagree, XRLQ. Why did everyone call the 9-11 terrorists "cowards"? They obviously didn't mean the dictionary definition of the term. We call men cowards because cowardice emasculates in a way that meanness doesn't.

Look at the way the Hussein boys died -- guns a' blazing. Compare that with the way their father was pulled from his hole. No question where the honor lay! Nastiness is nasty, but one can be nasty and still retain one's manhood. One can't be a coward and do so.


Nah. No one declared war on Afghanistan or Iraq because they thought al Qaeda and the Ba'ath Party were a group of cowards. If we declared war on that basis, we'd have invaded France long before that.

It is true that some criticized the 9-11 hijackers as "cowardly" because they went after civilians rather than military targets. That doesn't mean we hated them primarily because they were cowards, it means we were desperate to say something about them - anything - that had some chance of hurting their egos. Calling them evil wouldn't do it - they intended to be evil. Calling them cowards might have actually hurt THEM, if anyone had believed it, which they didn't.

If we really hated cowardly countries more than evil or nasty ones, we wouldn't have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. We'd have invaded Canada and Mexico instead. Much more cowardice there, and plenty of oil to steal, as well. If you just rolled your eyes while reading that, I think you see my point. We don't care much about cowardice. We're annoyed when our "allies" demonstrate it, but that's about it. We certainly don't choose our enemies on that basis.


Xrlq, I don't give the Bush administration much credit for anything, and I'm none too impressed with the reasons they gave for invading Iraq. But when they're picking countries to invade, I think they actually put a little more thought into it than just choosing them based on the level of some abstract unquantifiable negative quality. Your second paragraph reenforces Hugo's point--calling them cowards, despite the dubious definitional issues, is a desperate attempt to rhetorically emasculate them (which I think was as much for our sake as it was for their sake, if not more so), and that's the way we do it. I simply don't get your final paragraph at all.


You know, something similar happened to me at work tonight. A male co-worker who is American-Mexican (and admittedly gay) and I found out we grew up in the same general geographical area... halfway across the country from where we are now. I spoke about how the neighborhood where I grew up just wasn't the same during my last visit. He replied, "[his town's] decline started before I left. When all the Mexicans started moving in, you knew it was all going downhill." I just sort of looked at him and wasn't sure how to react. So, I smiled a little bit but didn't say anything, and he, being of great humor and having a gift for making those around him smile even more, said with a big grin, "But don't YOU ever say that. I can because I'm Mexican." I'm of white Euro descent. I mentioned that was a lot like black guys using the n-word for each other and how I can't even SAY that word, even in an academic situation because I've been so conditioned somehow that saying it makes me feel filthy and guilty. So, I say "n-word" in those rare specific cases and sound like a five year old. :P

Here's the biggest thing that interested me, though. I started thinking about "bitch" which is a word that could be applied to me in different contexts as I'm female. My female friends and I use it with one another as a playful comment, or we use it in an impish, obviously silly way. If a man were to call me that, nine times out of ten, I'd be offended. However, if a GAY man I was friends with, like my co-worker, tried to use it in the same context as I and my female friends do, I think I'd be completely comfortable with it and take it as I would coming from one of my female friends.

Am I weird or am I thinking there's something interestingly profound here when there isn't? Just because he is gay doesn't mean he's necessarily effeminate. He is a little bit, but not terribly much, and even joked that something today was much too feminine for him.


Ah, I knew this day would come. Hugo, I gotta disagree with you.

Now I swear like nobody's busy. Not because it makes me feel powerful but because, well probably for the same reasons that you don't.

Things in the UK must be different to things over there, because I often hear women referred to as dicks and cu next tuesdays and I hear men called pussies and cocks. These things can be meant in the ways suggested, but I don't think that's there meaning.

The meaning of a word does not just derive from it's etymology, surely. To call someone a sucker does not mean that they actually engage in oral sex with men. It doesn't even mean that they display effiminate qualities. It simply means that they've been duped. (Actually, it probably is used just as punctuation in a sentance without this meaning at all.) The only link I can think of between what it means here and now and it's derivation is perhaps the scenario of a man thinking that he was with a woman, but being duped and actually being with a man.

If I call my brother a tit I am neither suggesting that he is a woman or an actual tit. If I say that something is bollocks it means its crap - and that sentance doesn't even make sense! :o) But if I can call my brother by both male and female body parts - with neither suggesting that he is stronger for being a man or weaker for being a woman - what's the problem? Let me re-phrase that, does there need to be a problem?

To forbid the use of *female* body parts in expressive language of this kind seems a bit like the British Government legislating against the production of black and brown dolls under Margaret (bless her evil heart) Thatcher. So we're left with just white dolls and that is somehow less racist?

If women's names or body parts or clothing were *never* used in this way would that be better, or would it be a sign that we were ashamed, embarressed, distinguishing inappropriately?


You'd be amazed how few understand that "suck" is derived from "cocksucker", and thus to say something or someone "sucks" is to use anti-gay/anti-woman language.

I think there's some disagreement about this, actually--some people have told me that it's derived from "sucks hind tit," ie, "is the runt of the litter." But whatever the real origins, this might be one of those cases where perception is more important than reality.

La Lubu

Wow....cursing. Like I said on Amanda's blog, I'm probably not the one to have this conversation, 'cuz in my local, I'm known as a veritable virtuoso of vulgarity (which really isn't quite true.....there are brothers and sisters whose cursing packs a lot more punch than mine...I'm just a fast-talker capable of unleashing a rapid-fire assault-weapon charge of 'bad words' when called upon...it's the speed, not the caliber, that gets noticed).

I agree somewhat that "context is everything" in cursing---that people sometimes don't literally mean what they say when using curse words. Who is using what words means a lot too, as Amanda pointed out. I would add that most people in the United States view cursing differently when performed by a woman...no matter what words are said. And again, context. On the jobsite, my cursing signals both, "I am one of you" and "You can be comfortable around me and treat me like any other journeyman; go ahead and be yourself". I would be viewed much differently if overheard cursing on the street (which isn't likely to happen, unless I'm verbally or physically assaulted).

Des femmes brings up a good point, IMHO. Inveterate cusser that I am, you still won't hear me calling men "pussies". Pussy is powerful! We entered this world through one. I take issue with the insults directed at men that are designed to question their masculinity by calling them women, or by referring to them as women's body parts. Women are courageous. We are fearless. I've never met a cowardly woman in the flesh-and-blood; have you? We're not the ones cowering behind mama's apron strings, y'know? And it is tiring hearing this same-old same-old crap, and being told that we have to excuse it 'cuz so-and-so didn't really mean it "that way". Seems like a simple solution is to say what you mean!

But I don't know about overanalyzing cursing. I always thought "asshole" was gender-neutral, and referred to defecation...the stigma to "asshole" being that well, that's where the shit comes from! And it stinks! And I wonder, like Graham, how much of this "translates", even between speakers of English. I mean, the English-speaking world is a composed of many peoples, most of whom learned to translate curse words from different languages and/or locations.....like Hugo's take on "asshole" and mine.


Etmology doesn't cause meaning, but it clearly influences it through the history of its usage--it's a very complex sort of thing.
The complaints I'm hearing from men who don't feel that women have a right to speak up and complain about language that disparages us interests me. If I started disparaging maleness via casual use of language, I have a funny feeling they would think it's such a small thing anymore.

La Lubu

Exactly, Amanda. If we women bloggers were to gratuitously male bash throughout our blogs on a daily basis.....with vigor, and once again with feeling!...then they'd probably get it. It's grating on the nerves to be insulted on a regular basis, even if indirectly, even if the perpetrator "didn't mean it like that."

What I keep hearing in the blogosphere discussion, is "but that's not what I mean." Good point. Work with it. What do you mean? Why are you using negative images and terms of females, instead of saying what you mean? Des femmes is calling for some much-needed consciousness-raising, not a lockdown on cursing.


Good discussion.

Everyone here is pointing out the importance of CONTEXT, which is what my story about Scott was intended to illustrate. In an English context, it's entirely possible for words to have a very different meaning (fag for cigarette being an obvious example) that makes them less harmful.

The point is, we have an obligation to be aware of how our language might affect others. Good intentions don't count for squat, ultimately. And we have to be aware that we have come much farther in removing racially charged language from our discourse than we have with gender-based language.



Merriam-Webster's online dictionary supports the fellatio origin of cocksucker, by the way. When I get home to my etymology dictionary, I'll see if we can't trace it back all the way.


"confined to our brethren on the right"

i should mention that when i once used the word "pussy" to describe cowardice on my own blog, it was a regular conservative commenter who told me i should change it.


"The point is, we have an obligation to be aware of how our language might affect others. Good intentions don't count for squat, ultimately."

Surely it works both ways, Hugo? Do others not also have an obligation to see how our language was intended?

Of course good intentions count, or else all conversation is pointless. You are bound to use words that I don't like - or say them in a way that I don't like. I can either ask you to always season your conversation with salt - and define exactly what that means and how you do it - or I can add it to your words as they reach my ears.

I personally think it's bollocks (not a male insult but a bodily one) when people complain that male bloggers are somehow offended when women question the use of these female parts as swear words. Sure women bloggers can quetion it, but can male bloggers question their questioning of it, or do I just sit back and assume that you're right?

La lubu wrote:

"Women are courageous. We are fearless. I've never met a cowardly woman in the flesh-and-blood; have you? We're not the ones cowering behind mama's apron strings, y'know? And it is tiring hearing this same-old same-old crap, and being told that we have to excuse it 'cuz so-and-so didn't really mean it "that way". Seems like a simple solution is to say what you mean!"

If we're gonna deal with sexism, let's do it properly. You've never met a cowardly woman? Really?! Woman are not all fearless. Some are complete... oh, wait, I shouldn't say. But I presumably could say that some men are complete wankers and some are not.

No one ever says what they mean in the sense you suggest. Language doesn't work like that.

Is the implication that *men* are the ones hiding behind mamas apron strings? Incidentally, my mama worked full time and I never got to hide behind her apron strings, but I can decide not to make an issue about that because I know what you meant.


Some good points. Me, I was a chubby child. I would never have fit behind an apron string.



Incidentally, I've just re-read my post and seen that it could come across as quite angry. It wasn't written like that at all, so sorry if it got anyone's back up. (No idea where that saying originates, btw!) :o)


Wow, I've learned a few things from this comment thread:

1) Xrlq somehow believes that the pentagon is a civilian target. Go figure.

2) A few men in this comment thread have spent a gratuitous amount of words basically telling women that they shouldn't feel uncomfortable when men use these words.

Not too long ago, I used the word 'prick' to describe how someone was acting to me (a man) on a comment thread. He had a conniption fit over the use of the word to him, and I had a great feeling of shadenfreud. So ladies, perhaps if we just started pointing out how small a dick these men must have, they'll get the point (no pun intended).

If using a word makes someone feel uncomfortable, then you have a choice: Continue using the word, alienate the person and eventually cause them to dislike you (not a good idea if you're a politician or political analyst), or Stop using the word out of respect for that individual.

If you don't have enough respect for someone to stop using a word that hurts them, then you might want to look over the golden rule again.

Etmology doesn't cause meaning, but it clearly influences it through the history of its usage--it's a very complex sort of thing.

Actually, it's not complicated at all. If you call somebody a sucker, it means they're gullible. It matters not a whit whether the word once meant he/she engaged in fellatio, any more than calling an evil person "sinister" implies he is left-handed.

There is no evidence that etymology of a word influences its present meaning. Etymology makes for interesting discussions, but that's about it. It tells us nothing about what a word means now.

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