Guest post: “I set out to find out: how do women deal with slang on their own terms”
Lexicographer Jonathon Green asks what is the relationship of women to slang
Posted on: Tue 12-Nov-19 14:53:15
(89 comments )
I’ve been researching slang and throwing it into dictionaries for forty years. I’m still at it and have no intention, prior to crashing forward onto the keyboard, of stopping. But while I’ve been able to answer a few questions – e.g. fuck does not come from fornicate under command of the King, and shit doesn’t mean store high in transit –the one has always eluded me is this: what is the relationship of women to slang? We know, all too well, about women in slang and we need only one word to cover all the others: misogyny. But how about women and slang?
There are maybe 10,000 woman-related terms in the English vocabulary, if you include the vagina (1500 words alone, the same as the penis), the breasts, heterosexual and lesbian intercourse and the language of commercial sex. It’s all about the ‘male gaze’: is she sexy or prudish, is she pretty or plain, is she complaisant or argumentative.
For many users – experts and amateurs alike – this is as it should be. Surely slang epitomizes what the linguist Dale Spender, who was looking at every variety of English, called a ‘man-made’ language. Its obsessions – sex (and sex work) and the giblets we do it with, intoxication by drink or drugs, insults, racism, crime and a range of terms that are about as far from ‘woke’ as one could imagine – are seen as male preoccupations. Caring, sharing and compassion: no thanks. And love? Oh FFS! Around 140,000 terms to date, and every one coined by a bloke.
If slang itself is hard enough to research — at least until relatively recently — then the use of slang by women, already excluded from the centres of power, is even harder to nail down.
But slang is noteworthy for mocking rules. Its primary characteristic, in my opinion, is sedition, taking the piss, in its own coarse words. So why should received wisdom actually be wise?
Eighteen months or so ago I set out to find out: how do women deal with slang on their own terms. In my book Sounds & Furies: the love-hate relationship between women and slang, I’ve tried to see whether there actually exists a women’s slang. A female-created, female-used vocabulary that runs in parallel to the ‘man-made’ version. I’d like to proclaim victory, but on the whole I can’t. We have plentiful evidence of women using slang ever since the first small glossaries appeared, around 1530, but if there is a woman’s slang, then, frustratingly, it hasn’t emerged. Or not for me.
It's true that slang has never featured in ‘polite’ society. But that’s what makes it ‘polite’. Women were not meant to use slang, let alone invent it, which meant that those who did have traditionally been outside that world: sex workers, fishwives (thus ‘Billingsgate’ as a synonym for obscenity), entertainers and so on. It also helped badge a succession of ‘new women’: as well as smoking, riding bicycles and, heaven forfend, having sex, they also talked slang.
On the whole they used the same words as the men. But does that make such words ‘man-made’? How do we know whether a man or woman coined a term? Even the ‘F-word’ might have first emerged from female lips, very possibly as ‘Fuck off!’
Of course if this is so important, why has it been left untouched for so long? In short, ease of access. If slang itself is hard enough to research — at least until relatively recently — then the use of slang by women, already excluded from the centres of power, is even harder to nail down. This, I would suggest, is changing.
Today slang seems to be available across the female world. Social media is pretty much run by young women. Slang comes naturally. A core word like selfie may be mainstream now, but it started in slang world. On fleek, looking good, was associated with a teenage coiner, Peaches Monroe.
Finally, a hat-tip to Mumsnetters, whose own in-house vocabulary needs no introduction. But from the lexicographer’s point of view it is showing a take on slang that is something new. Take what some might term the considerate (and others the passive-aggressive) AIBU (am I being unreasonable?) which creates a number of answers: YABU (you are…), YANBU (you are not…) and so on. Can we really imagine men creating an equivalent? Perhaps women-only language does exist after all.
Sounds & Furies: the love-hate relationship between women and slang is available on Amazon
By Jonathon Green
Can't imagine the phrase fanny gallops was created by a man.
Cocklodger strikes me as likely to have been coined by a woman.
Is there even a (single) correct word for natural vaginal lubricant? Maybe there is but it seems to me the medical profession overlooked naming it. I can only think of one slang term too...
I just saw a Guardian article about this research. www.theguardian.com/media/shortcuts/2019/nov/12/mumsnet-new-language-book-parenting-website-vocabulary-female-perspective
OP, I hope it's been really badly edited/reported, because it's pretty shallow (though the last line did make me grin).
Btw, as a medievalist, I am 99% sure you didn't 'answer' the question about the etymology of fuck, did you? It's not actually a serious controversy; it's a common misconception medievalists have been patiently correcting for bloody ages.
(Oh, and that isn't me being pedantic and chippy. Well, chippy, yes. But it's mainly me being irritated that I feel as if you're talking down to us. I also find it telling and annoying that the first few posts here have come up with much more interesting and revealing examples of MN-specific slang than the excuse for an article in the Guardian did.)
Oh ffs, spoony fucker.
See also ‘a Wendy’ or ‘being Wendied.’ Might be MN-specific, but a million+ strong.
With all of this, I just wonder whether slang is structured differently by men and women, and thus men don't recognise it when they see it. A bit like the way prey animals get good at being subtle (or like that Chinese women's language that was embroidered on shoes). I reckon what passes for women's 'slang' is out there in the real world, but it's conveyed with a tone of voice or a gesture, and all the women in the room get exactly what is meant. The men are busy looking for secret words or overt jargon, because - not being prey animals - that's the only way they can imagine slang working.
In this area I immediately think of the girls' books I was given which were in fact of my mother's youth rather than mine - particularly the Chalet School series, the Susannah of the Yukon series and the Louisa May Alcott books, especially Eight Cousins. Girls' use of slang was seen as dangerous and, subtly, polluting of their purity and innocence in all these works. Girls shouldn't be in public life enough to pick up slang, basically. It was interesting that all these books focused on girls having some kind of education away from their parents. They showed or were trying to placate a huge persisting anxiety about what education would do to girls imo.
Women were until quite recently still expected to be the guardians of pure language, standing in for chastity, and not to use anything that implied they had any kind of secret or coded life, which IIRC is often the origin of slang. See Georgette Heyer writing in the 50s where any lady allegedly of Regency times who used slang is described as 'affecting a mannish diction'.
My mother, born in the 30s, remains shocked if anyone swears in front of her. She therefore has a range of non-swear euphemisms, and I'd think there would still be female euphemisms in use if people looked: oh Christmas, oh sugar for example. On the internet generally, some local slang gains more international currency - I've never heard/seen a man say/type vajayjay or craycray for example.
CF for cheeky fucker is an MN usage I'm fond of.
Fuck off to the far side of fuck and then fuck off sone more.
Far more effective than Fuck Off.
Definitely fanny gallops, cocklodger and ltb.
Have a biscuit
Mum jeans/hair/face/house etc
GF (goady fucker)
All the words used in those swashbuckling threads that I don't understand
I have often wondered where the phrase “gets on my tits” comes from. What does it actually mean? <goes off to google>.
What an over long and faintly patronising OP BTW.
I have a lot of things to deal with but I don't really think slang is one of them. Slang is just slang.
I feel myself to be slightly patronised by the OP too. As if slang is a male invention with a tiny but potentially lucrative (for him) female subset that he in his male wisdom can study.
Women I suspect did indeed have their own slang from the get go but possibly not recognised or recorded by the overwhelmingly male types doing all the important stuff.
It's because we only use our secret slang when men aren't around.
I would expect to find women's slang terms around things that they wanted to discuss amongst themselves like
Periods-on the blob? Auntie Flo? etc
Crap men-wank-badger, cock-lodger.
The OP has more than a hint of colonial explorer observing the natives. Bit of a blind spot for someone who’s supposed to be looking into language, no?
FW - Fuckwit
Mansplaining (OP <head tilt, tinkly laugh>)
We have plentiful evidence of women using slang ever since the first small glossaries appeared, around 1530, but if there is a woman’s slang, then, frustratingly, it hasn’t emerged. Or not for me.
There may be reasons for that...
The OP has more than a hint of colonial explorer observing the natives.
I feel this too. Well, go for it - the whole site is free to view so pitch your camouflage tent, get your binoculars out and do your research instead of getting us to give you shortcuts.
BTW I would be unlikely to give much credence to a book on women's slang written by a man. It's just not the time for it - maybe 30 years ago you'd have been fawned over but truth to tell, we're fed up with men now.
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