When Brian and I lived in Arkansas, we had this naughty habit of picking up old books lying around by the grad student Gestetner, an older kind of copier based on disposable carbons - just a notch above those stinky electric-purple mimeograph copies we used to sniff in elementary school.
Well, in this room (just above the old mimeograph, come to think of it) were ancient English texts and some of them were interesting specimens of past pedagogy ie: wow, did they actually used to teach this shit? Some of the books are nothing but old, old essays in the public domain, like the Gettysburg Address. But every now and then you'd find a gem, like the graduation speech by Aldous Huxley on the power of words, or, This Generation (a favorite of mine), a book of essays that includes Churchill's speeches and a description of Hiroshima, after the bomb.
But some of them, though they looked interesting, we never even got around to looking at. Like The American Language in the 1970's, which yesterday I discovered among our books, and cracked (almost literally) open to read.
I'm not sure what I expected from a book of this title. Maybe something playfully examining the use of expressions like, "jive turkey," and "me generation." But instead, I found this:
Women have very little of their own slang. The new words applied to women's clothing, hair styles, homes, kitchen utensils and gadgets are usually created by men. Except when she accompanies her boy friend or husband to his recreation (baseball, hunting, etc.) a woman seldom mingles with other groups. When women do mingle outside of their own neighborhood and family circles, they do not often talk of the outside world of business, politics, or other fields of general interest where new feminine names for objects, concepts, and viewpoints could evolve.This sent me running for the table of contents. What moldy hell had I stumbled into? The essay I'd been reading was called, "American Slang," but Section 7 promised to sort it all out for me: THE LANGUAGE OF WOMEN'S LIBERATION. A section with three essays, three authors, one of them a woman. Okay. Let's read 'em. Essay one, by a Mr., "Is It Possible for a Woman to Manhandle the King's English": this scornful work of sarcasm introduces the laughable concept of the word "Ms.," informing us parenthetically that it is "pronounced ms," and asks such important questions as, what would we do with a female governor? We certainly couldn't call her a governess!
Men also tend to avoid words that sound feminine or weak. Thus there are sexual differences in even the standard vocabularies of men and women. A woman may ask her husband to set the table for dinner, asking him to put out the silver, crystal, and china -- while the man will set the table with knives, forks, spoons, glasses, and dishes. His wife might think the table linen attractive, the husband might think the tablecloth and napkins pretty. A man will buy a pocketbook as a gift for his wife, who will receive a bag. The couple will live under the same roof, the wife in her home, the man in his house. Once outside of their domesticity the man will begin to use slang quicker than the woman. She'll get in the car while he'll get into the jalopy or Chevvie. And so they go: she will learn much of her general slang from him; for any word she associates with her home, her personal belongings, or any female concept, he will continue to use a less descriptive, less personal one.
Essay two by Mr. number two, "Sispeak: A Misguided Attempt to Change History," essentially compares feminists' language use to Big Brother (Sister) from 1984: the title "Ms." in particular is called "newspeak." Don't worry, the word "herstrionics" was substituted in his essay for "histrionics" thus negating any reference to the uterus.
Okay, so, essay number three? The woman in the batch? C'mon, lady: you're outnumbered, but give us a counter-argument with which we can go out with a bang! ... Essay three's title? "A Women's Lib Expose of Male Villainy" - a narrative in which she meets a characature of a "women's libber" for cocktails and barely suffers her "friend's" annoyance at being called a "dish" and a "tomato" by strange men on her way there. The author makes comments about how she WISHES she could be called more names by strange men, implying over and over again that there's something dreadfully wrong with this un-girlie who doesn't like to be objectified, and reveals that she was once called a "knockout" by some construction worker, "and never forgot it." When her friend assumes she was displeased with being assessed by strange workmen on the street, she says her rabid characature of a "friend" was "missing my point entirely."
I looked at the book's copyright: 1974. I thanked freaking God I was born too late for the world when this sort of crap would make it's way into a college textbook.
But curiousity got the best of me. There was a section on THE LANGUAGE OF BLACKS as well, and I thought I should see if they got the shaft as much as women did. Two essays, one by a woman (does it matter? -out of 40 essayists, only three women writers made the book) one by a man. Our lady writes, "New Peak for Newspeak": in short, Black English should be an accepted form of English, at least for teaching purposes, to facilitate teaching black students standard English. Our man? "The Language of White Racism": a helpful essay in which the author advises the reader to please not refer to black men as "nigger" and "boy," because they do not like it, and to please not refer to black women as "negresses," as they may take offense.
Well, at least he knew his audience.