Bitchin on Mumsnet

Bitchin on Mumsnet

Thu 29 Mar

If one counts the definitions relating to women recorded in my slang database, there are around 3,100; with a further thousand for female sex-workers. If one adds those categories for which slang most commonly characterises them – the vagina and breasts – there are a further 1,500 of the former and 325 of the latter. Sexual intercourse, where the woman is almost always the fucked and not the fucking, 1,750. There are, of course, gradations, nuances even, but there is a single overwhelming fact: all assess the woman as object, not subject. Woman as agent is absent from the slang lexis. (One may see the whore as an agent of her own career, but it is rarely that slang acknowledges the fact).

If any one thing defines women’s role in slang it is the unremitting sexism with which it depicts girls and women. The slang term “a good woman” describes a pub sign: it depicts a headless matron, her “goodness” equated with her compulsory silence.

To steal from the Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael (apostrophizing gender roles in the Sixties” revolution), the only position for women in slang is prone.

That slang epitomizes what the feminist author Dale Spender has termed as a “man-made language” has always been a given. It is nasty and brutish and if its records are relatively short, they seem consistent. Slang thinks in stereotypes: the penis is a boy’s toy: a gun, knife, club, dagger; the vagina his nightmare: a dark and twisting tunnel, teeth always an option. Intercourse, reduced to basics, equals man hits woman.

It is time, I believe, to look harder at this story. That may be woman in slang. What about woman and slang, as coiners and users?

The term “slang” remains hard to define. Both lexicographers and linguists – those who write dictionaries and those who write about the way language works – have their own, sometimes contradictory thoughts, as do those who have no language-related expertise. In my book – quite literally so since I write dictionaries of the register – slang may be seen as non-standard speech, with an underpinning of sedition, albeit non-political. It is, thus, a “counter-language”, used by those beyond society’s mainstream.

If that is so, then slang, whatever its origins, ought to be a woman’s ally. It occupies the margins of the language, far from the centrality of standard language. It rebels against linguistic norms. Given that women remain a marginal group in social terms, slang would seem an ideal medium for expressing their rebellion. 

If it is hard to discern slang’s etymologies – the stories behind the words – then it is almost impossible to gender the lexis. Who can place hand on heart and declare X a male-generated term, Y a female one? On the whole we are forced to look at the users and forget the origin. 

This is not a wide-ranging view. Language is not generally gendered – and we have none of the male and female terms as do many European neighbours (even if, for instance, this gives French a “female” penis and a “male” vagina) – but if it is, then the default is set to “male”. Nowhere more than in the context of slang. Created by men, used by men and off-limits to the “gentler sex”. Coarse, obscene, confrontational, mainstream slang takes the opposite position to the traditional stereotypes of “femininity”: caring, sharing and compassion. In language terms, this means restrained, polite. Such “modesty” is supposed to be natural to a woman; it is also reinforced by social sanctions: well-brought up women do not use slang. The very speaking of it from her lips was enough to condemn her. She was “fast,” and doubtless “loose” as well. Slang, in short, is not “ladylike”.

Though perhaps it is, if one looks at the usage of the term "lady" in slang:

https://greensdictofslang.com/entry/l2noosq).

Slang is “immodest” in every sense. Talk slang and you lose out in social terms. Irrespective of gender, it is not seen as “talking proper”. Nor, though for quite different reasons, does “talking like a woman”. Though quite what “like a woman” means is far from cut and dried.

It is an old debate (and launched, of course, by men). Writing in the London journal The World in 1754, Lord Chesterfield, regulator of social acceptability, upheld the common stereotype of women’s talkativeness, describing their use of language as “promiscuous” and without regard for grammatical propriety. They talked too much and, even worse, the words they used were often of their own invention. Many were adverbs: vastly, horridly, amazingly, abominably... all too excessively emotional, it would appear. As for flirtation, defined asexually as “a quick sprightly motion,” it was, as Johnson’s Dictionary of 1755 made clear, “a cant (i.e. in-group jargon) word among women”.

In his book Language (1922), the linguist Otto Jespersen claimed in a chapter devoted to “The Woman” that women’s vocabulary was poorer than men’s, and that female speakers were much more careful and polite. He cited women’s supposed preference for refined, euphemistic, and hyperbolic expression, and men’'s alleged greater use of slang and innovations. Such a division conveniently reflected and reinforced the prevailing stereotypes allotted the respective genders. He too saw female speech as over- emotional, not just those adverbs but adjectives – divine, charming, cute – as well. And again one thing was beyond debate: women’s speech deviated from a male “norm”.

With the second-wave feminism of the mid-20th century, women joined the debate. In 1975 the American academic Robin Lakoff presented her theory on “Women’s Language”, based on introspection and conversations with her female friends. The features of this language included politeness, hesitation and hedging, plus a richer vocabulary to describe typically “female” fields (e.g. colours).

The debates have moved on (Lakoff both refuted and refined) and research has never backed the theory but the idea of distinct “men’s” and “women’s languages”, and the sense that, as John Gray put it, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, continues to flourish in popular media. As slang has it, men are “butch” and women “femme”. 

Neither debates nor research have looked at slang. Had this been done there might have emerged a very different picture. One that showed how women have always used slang, both between themselves and in conversation with men. That many of the themes underpinning such slang have been seen as male-generated does not diminish this truth. Research would also show that those themes are being expanded, with what are seen as “female interests” bringing in a new world of slang creation.

Once one starts looking, historical representations of female slang users are not hard to find. Slangy morts and doxies appear in 16th century pamphlets; the 18th-century slang subset “flash” was acknowledged as born in Moll King’s celebrated coffee house in Covent Garden. A century later the show people of Helen Green’s fictional “Maison de Shine” in New York were all vociferously slangy, irrespective of their gender; meanwhile in contemporary Sydney the all-female workforce of Edward Dyson’s creation “Spats’s Factory” used the “counter-language” for nearly all their communications. Check out the language of female blues singers. Examples are legion and only increase with the passage of time.

Who coins slang? When? Where? Slang being rule-free to its core doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete history. We know that in June 2014 a Chicago-area teen, Kayla Newman, under her user name “Peaches Monroe”, posted a video online in which she described her newly beautified eyebrows as “on flick”, and pronounced it “on fleek”. It had been used, as simple “fleek” five years earlier, but not until the video went viral did her coinage. Since then fleek, its fifteen minutes expired, has been abandoned by the disdainful, ever-innovative young.

Ms Newman is undeniably female but as a proven creator she is an exception. The slang of female groups – factory girls, prostitutes – will be “female”, just as that of male ones – boxers, soldiers – will be “male” but we may have to rest on generalities. In a pamphlet of 1650 we read how, threatened with rape, a barmaid promised to cut off her assailant’s clatterdevengeance. Whether she or he thought up the term is unknown. 

Thanks to the online world there has recently emerged, and continues to develop, a type of all-female slang that can be seen as something new. Social media, unfettered by traditional gatekeepers, has seemingly become a playground for female language users. Female-dominated web sites such as Mumsnet, for instance, have evolved their own non-standard vocabulary. Social media offer the slangs of a predominantly female user-base: Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter all have a greater percentage of female users.

Here the themes are those that concern girls and women. This development may well represent a new, even revolutionary change in the way we speak. That said, and only research can give an answer, such language may have always been there, merely another aspect of women’s lives subjected to what is most kindly termed “under-reporting”.

Finally, “tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”: men may have the edge in coinage, but women lead the way in use. What differentiates female slang from male is form, i.e. intonation/pronunciation rather than content, i.e. lexis/vocabulary. Thus such “female” phenomena as “uptalk” (raising one’s voice at the end of a sentence so as to make a simple statement sound like a question) and “vocal fry” (formally “laryngealisation”; a creaky tone of voice which is largely associated with young women, and, depending on commentator, seen either as adding to or substracting from their credibility).

Article by Jonathon Green.

Jonathon Green is the world's leading lexicographer of anglophone slang. His dictionary - updated every three months - can be found on line at

https://greensdictofslang.com.

He has also created a number of Timelines of Slang, accessible here: 

http://thetimelinesofslang.tumblr.com/.

His most recent print publication was Language! (2o14) a history of "500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue" and this piece will form part of his current project, a study of the relationship of women to slang. 

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