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Plonk: a language lover’s guide to Australian drinking

The Conversation

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Here’s cheers: Australians have developed a lot of slang phases for alcohol and drinking. Shutterstock

Howard Manns, Monash University

The hard-drinking Aussie is the stuff of legend and lore. But there’s little proof Australians drank more than other colonials and by some accounts they drank less (points made in Sidney Baker’s The Australian Language).

But, of course, we do enjoy a drink – at times a little too much – and a rich bevy of terms suggest we do it in Australian ways: merrily, tongue in cheek and with a shout or two.

Plinkity plink, let’s see how we drink – or rather the words Australians have used to do it throughout history.

Plonk, chardy and the goon of fortune

Plonk is perhaps Australia’s best-known word for alcohol. It originally meant cheap, fortified wine but over time came to mean any cheap alcohol.

In terms of origins, lexicographer Bruce Moore notes that one account links plonk to the range of sounds the liquid might make hitting the bottom of your glass (plinkity plink, plinkity plank, plinkity plonk).

A more likely story, conveyed by Moore among others, views plonk as a malapropism used by first world war diggers who misheard or had some fun with the French vin blanc “white wine”. The diggers also called or spelled white wine point blank and vin blank. And, of course, these days we drink chardy and champers, lest we give French its full due.

Australian drinkers are known to have a bit of fun with French. Last year the new edition of the Australian National Dictionary (AND) welcomed chateau cardboard to its pages, a tongue-in-cheek reference to cask wine, using chateau for a wine-producing estate in an ironic way.

Australians invented boxed wine and celebrate its invention through games (Goon of Fortune was another addition to the AND) and a rich array of words, including boxie, box monster, Dapto briefcase, Dubbo handbag, red handbag, goon, goonie, goon bag, goon juice and goon sack.

Goon is mostly likely a shortening of flagon, but might also be linked to the Australian English goom, itself linked to an indigenous word gun, meaning “water” in the south Queensland languages Gabi-gabi, Waga-waga and Gureng-gureng.

And then, of course, there’s grog, eponymous with Admiral Edward Vernon who ordered his sailors’ rum to be watered down. Vernon was known as Old Grog because of his grogram-fabric coat, and so this watered-down rum also came to be labelled.

Full as a raging bull

Australians might get on the grog or hit the grog, but there are also many other things we might get or hit. For instance, we hit the piss, slops or turps (short for turpentine) or get on the tiger, get a drink across our chest or get a black dog up ya.

The result of our hitting or getting is to be full “drunk” and there is an even longer list of things we might be full as, including a bull, a bull’s bum, a footy final, a goog, the family pot, a pommy complaint box or a seaside shitter on a holiday weekend.

The important thing is to have lively fun, or a rage with your mates, who might themselves be ragers. Rage and rager were the choice words for lively parties and revellers from the 1970s. These are probably unrelated to the obsolete homophone rager, meaning “an untamed and aggressive bull or cow”, but it’s fun to note the overlap in light of the party animal.

Before the 1970s, Australians called lively parties shivoos. Some thought shivoo was Australians having a bit of fun with French (from chez vous “your place” or shivaree “a serenade of rough music”). Others linked it to British nautical slang, and a word meaning a drunken ruckus or punch-up.

Shivoo’s most likely origin is a British dialect word (by some accounts Yorkshire or Cornwall) shiveau (with the sometimes Frenchified spelling of chevaux).

Of course, some choose to drink alone. Such drinkers are said to be dry hash, Jimmy Woodser, Jack Smithers, drinking on my Pat Malone or drinking with the flies. Pat Malone is merely rhyming slang (for alone) and it’s never quite been clear if a Jimmy Woods or Jack Smithers ever existed.

Lambing down till the horse jumps over the bar

One thing’s for sure: if you drink with mates you’ll probably be expected to shout a round or two (or alternatively stand, sneeze, carry the mail, wally grout, wally, bowl, sacrifice).

If you don’t, you might find yourself accused of an American shout, Chinaman’s shout, Dutch shout, Yankee shout or Yankee. Moreover, people might say of you (s)he wouldn’t shout if a shark bit her (him).

On the other hand, the best kind of friend is a captain, or someone who lavishly spends on drinks for themselves and their mates, perhaps at the behest of a lambers down, a pub owner who encourages people to drink lavishly (or lamb down).

Failing a captain, you’ll probably have to run a tab, or tie a dog up or chain up a pup. But after time, the publican might want to settle the score or mad dog “unpaid credit”.

A publican who wants a tab paid might point out that the dogs are barking, as this publican did in a 1937 advertisement (from Sidney Baker’s, The Australian Language):

He particularly requests that all dogs tied up at the hotel be released. This reservation specially applies to Kelpies, Alsations and other large breeds.

The ConversationIf you don’t have the cash to pay the publican, you might have to jump a horse over the bar, which is what one did when all they had left to pay with was their horse.

Howard Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Slanguage and ‘dinky di’ Aussie talk in elections

The Conversation

Howard Manns, Monash University

Co-written with Kate Burridge

Bill Shorten’s been telling us he wants to give Australians a “fair go”. Malcolm Turnbull has decried Labor for an “assault on the Australian spirit”.

Of course, they’re not the first pollies to drag the Australian spirit and Aussie talk into the dirty business of campaigning. But why do they do it?

It goes without saying that slanguage has always played a pivotal role in the Australian sense of self. ANU researcher Evan Kidd recently set out empirically something Australians have intuitively known for a long time – “using Australian slang increases your likeability among other Australians”.

And useful campaigning fodder are those distinctively Australian expressions with no easy equivalents in national varieties elsewhere. They might be a bit old hat, but they conveniently package some of those cultural values that many Australians hold dear.

Fair dinkums and fair goes in elections

So, in 2007, Kevin Rudd doubled down by telling us John Howard wasn’t being “fair dinkum” by using a likeable term to tell us about a guy doing something unlikable in Australian terms.

Pollies use Australian slang to draw “fairness”, “honesty” and “authenticity” (e.g. fair go, fair dinkum) into public discussions. Recall when Tony Abbott promised a “fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme” in his 2010 and 2013 election speeches – and in every budget reply speech from 2010 to 2012.

There has been a notable upsurge in the use of Australian slang in politics from the 1970s. When Gough Whitlam became prime minister in 1972, Australia’s highest office took on a distinctly Australian voice. This was the case in terms of accent (compare the speeches of Whitlam and Robert Menzies here), but also in the use of a distinctly Aussie idiom.

Menzies was the first to use “fair go” in an election speech, doing it in 1951, but he did so with some cautious introduction (“…the sound Australian phrase, a fair go”). “Fair go” then took a hiatus in elections until 1974 when Gough Whitlam used it six times in his election speech.

Not to be outdone, Malcolm Fraser used the much-loved phrase a record seven times in his 1975 speech. Since then, fair go has featured “bigly” (to use a favourite Trumpism) in campaigns, well except for 1977 and, for some reason, elections in the 1990s.

Yet, it’s important to note that pollies don’t use Australianisms the same way and some are better at doing it than others.

Mateship, battlers and ‘Team Australia’

The late English professor G.A. Wilkes noted that “no word in the Australian vocabulary has such a wealth of associations as mate” and this has certainly been true in politics.

Former science minister Barry Jones provides an excellent example in the story he tells in his autobiography of a phone conversation with a colleague on whose vote he was counting to retain his ministerial position.

“Mate,” he began and with that word I knew that I was gone. “Mate, I’ll have to break my promise to vote for you.”

The applications of mate and mateship by Australian prime ministers have been wide and varied. In 1983, Bob Hawke launched his famed Economic Summit, in the wake of years of political divisiveness, with an appeal to mateship. A little later Paul Keating linked mateship to Asian notions of community and obligation and used mateship to support his argument that Australia should find “security in Asia, not from Asia”.

As historian James Curran points out, John Howard had a deep affection for mateship (going as far as trying to enshrine it in the constitution). But sometimes he used it in baffling ways, even “extending the hand of Australian mateship” and its links to the Anzac legend to rally Australians against terrorism – a sentiment later echoed in Abbott’s “Team Australia” (short-listed for the Australian 2014 Word of the Year).

Ignoring the historical links to trade unionism, Howard also used the narratives around mateship to justify neoliberal economic pragmatism. Along these lines, and perhaps most confusingly, he labelled the famed 1907 Harvester judgement (one which obliged workplace to pay a fair, basic wage): “mateship gone wrong”.

Howard’s economic redefinition (or for some corruption) of mateship and his redefinition of another word, battler, hint at his close relationship with George W. Bush. The American president contributed to the neoliberal redefinition of freedom in a manner similar to Howard’s rebranding of mateship and the little Aussie battler.

Howard took ownership of the word with “Howard’s battlers” or disenfranchised, blue-collared voters who had switched their allegiances from Labor to Liberal. Battlers then moved on from working families to include anyone trying to better themselves.

Suddenly, even bankers and property magnates came under the umbrella of “battlers”, as did, in the words of Bush, Howard himself – it’s a long away from the Dale Kerrigan-type underdog, working hard and struggling to make ends meet.

This leads us to our final questions: who has the right to use Australian slang? When does it work and when doesn’t it?

Larrikins, malapropisms and drunken dorks

Authenticity is the most critical factor guiding the use of misuse of Australian slang, regardless of the speaker (a fact hinted at by Evan Kidd’s research mentioned above).

For instance, Barnaby Joyce caused a stir when he said the Johnny Depp apology video was “going off like a frog in a sock”. People get quite excited about pollies using Australian slang, especially in reference to an international incident. Yet, people weren’t that surprised to hear frog in a sock coming from Joyce – he’s a bit of a larrikin.

Rudd, and his use of Australian slang, offers a stark contrast to Joyce. Rudd’s a dork (this was part of his appeal in 2007), and he didn’t start using Australian expressions (at least publically) until things started to go badly in the polls.

And when Rudd did begin using these expressions, he did so awkwardly and conspicuously. His use (three times) of “fair shake of the sauce bottle” was reported and criticised far and wide – “Antiquated Australian slang, recently deployed by the country’s prime minister” (The New York Times, June 17, 2009). More so, it muddled the earlier idiom (“fair suck of the sauce bottle”), a possible or even likely reference to booze.

But we shouldn’t judge Rudd too harshly. Do we really want an Australian prime minister saying everyone deserves their fair share of booze? (Well, there was that time a drunken Bob Hawke told the nation they could go into work late, but then he was another larrikin.)

Anyway, fair shake of the sauce bottle goes back at least to the 1990s, and as lexicographer Bruce Moore points out, it’s been well-entrenched in politics and beyond (senator Rod Kemp famously used it in 1995).

Besides, we love to play with slang expressions – fair suck of the sav/fair suck of the sausage and even fair suck of the Siberian sandshoe are just some of the variants about. And who could forget Norman Gunston’s “fair bite of the pineapple donut”. So why shouldn’t equality be measured by even distributions of dollops of tomato sauce (and not grog!).

This certainly wasn’t the first time Australian slang has been “adapted” in politics. The swagman took the expression greasing one’s swag straps to mean time to move one. Bruce Moore writes that when Bob Hawke was being advised to step down as prime minister, Gareth Evans is reported to have said to him:

Pull out, digger. The dogs are pissing on your swag.

Well, the dogs are pissing on our swags and we’re due a fair suck of the sauce bottle ourselves.

The ConversationHoward Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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The vaudeville, impact and substance of political name-calling

The Conversation

Howard Manns, Monash University

Scott Morrison would have us think politics is more war than performance whereas names like ScoMo tell us quite the opposite. When pollies, in the words of Paul Keating, “turn the switch to vaudeville”, we like nothing more than to slap names on our political heroes and villains, and to sit bemused and amused at the names they give one another.

Moreover, political nicknames hint at the overlap between politics and performance. Lady Macbeth has been applied to ambitious female politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard. As an aside, it’s worth noting that that the word ambitious has links to the Latin ambitiō meaning “to go around soliciting votes”.

Gillard and Rudd as a pair garnered the moniker Kath and Kev (a cheeky reference to Kath and Kim) and Belgian-born Mathias Cormann has been called The Cormanator (a tongue-in-cheek reference to another accented politician, The Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger). Cormann’s reference to Bill Shorten as a Girly Man only served to strengthen these links.

In sum, it’s difficult to take the war metaphor seriously when the supposed warriors are desiccated coconuts (Keating on John Howard), half-baked crims (Keating on Wilson Tuckey), unrepresentative swill (Keating on the Senate) or a shiver looking for a spine to run up (Keating on John Hewson).

Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating

Election 2016’s monikers – e.g. Bill Shorten’s moobs,a blend of man boobs, Electricity Bill; Malcolm Turnbull’s out of touch; daddy – do nothing to dissuade us from this view.

But do names and nicknames matter?

The impact of political name-calling

Political inclinations aside, research says yes.

On a positive note, we Aussies are found of our shortenings, so it’s hardly surprising we say Albo, Bracksy and Plibbers for Anthony Albanese, Steve Bracks and Tonya Plibersek respectively.

On a negative note, research has shown we’re less apt to vote for someone named Dewey or Buchanan simply because their names have the same “disgusting” vowel sound as putrid.

Ethnic names have historically carried negative connotations for US voters but it’s worth noting this is changing. For instance, Republican pundits have gone to great lengths to highlight Barack Obama’s middle name Hussein. Research showed this was an effective strategy for right-leaning voters but actually backfired for left-leaning and moderate voters, who found it to be transparent dog-whistling.

This is why, while the media pundits kept using Hussein, sometimes even adding (a non-existent) Muhammad to Obama’s name, Republican pollies began to shy away from this practice.

Australian pollies generally avoid explicit race baiting (but it’s disgustingly present in other electoral domains). That said, the American-born senator Norm Sanders notably took umbrage to being told “Go home, Yank”, calling it an “ethnic slur”.

While explicit race-baiting is a no-no in modern politics, some pollies garner nicknames because of their dog whistling. For instance, Tony Abbott is known by some Indigenous people as The Gammon Man (“pretender”) and he is known by other groups simply as the number 5265617 (the arrival number of one boat not stopped by the Australian government, the one Abbott arrived on from the UK).

In Australia, we like our pollies not too larrikin but not too rich. Consequently, political name calling has often made reference to class or, lack thereof. For instance, former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu has varyingly been called the Toff from Toorak, Tanty Ted and Cottee’s (because he’s “thick and rich”). Notably, this isn’t the first time ‘thick and rich’ has come up in Australian politics, with Senator Shirley Walters being called creamy for the same reason.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, Bob Hawke went too far at times but his silver bodgie label certainly wasn’t the worst insult to emerge over the course of Australian politics. Australia’s more “articulate” (or rather posher) pollies have often mocked their less “articulate” (or rather working class) colleagues.

For instance, in the 1890s, one member of the NSW legislature, Sir Henry Parkes, mocked a colleague for his (mis)pronunciation of “h” at the start of words, saying:

Ho, the honourable member for Balmain, who for once – and, of course, but haccident – has made a sensible hobservation.

This, too, conjures Robert Menzies’ famous response to a working-class constituent, who upon asking, “wotcha gunna do about ‘ousing?” received the answer, “Put an ‘h’ in front of it”.

The substance and victims of name-calling

So why name call in politics? It’s part and parcel of the political landscape and it goes back a long time.

For instance, essayist Amber A’Lee Frost points out that the Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette was “singled out for especially inventive and vicious taunting” via pamphlets known as libelles (with links to our modern libel). Authors of these libelles coined the word Austrichienne “Austrian bitch”, a word which resembled the French word for “ostrich”. The authors accentuated this pun with drawings of the queen committing sexual acts with ostriches.

Our modern pollies use name calling to demonise, weaken and create doubts about honesty or loyalty in their competitors. At times, political name-calling can seem quite petty. For example, physical traits often come up. Menzies was called Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon’s nemesis) in part because of his oversized eyebrows. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has been called shrek and lurch because of his size.

Rhyming and wordplay can lead to some positive and negative names. Kevin Rudd on the one hand built a campaign on a rhyme (Kevin07) but on the other hand found himself derisively labelled Keven 747, Heavy Kevvy, Kevin 24/7 and Rudd the Dudd.

Perceived and playful ways of speaking and presentation can also become targets for insults. For instance, Bob Carr was known by colleagues as Wottha, as in “what’s he saying this time?”, and Kelly O’Dwyer has been called Whytha as in “why the long face?”. Sometimes the name of the politician develops into an insult in its own right as did former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett’s name (e.g. a Jeff’d up economy, Jeffing awful)

And, of course, some of these insults can be downright mean. In recent decades, John Howard (e.g. the rodent, dead carcass, unflushable turd) and Julia Gillard (e.g. Juliar, witch, bitch, old cow) have perhaps copped it worse than most. As an aside in light of space, it’s worth also noting the kinds of words that get used to describe male and female politicians, as these words certainly reflect prejudices in the wider community.

So then, should our pollies avoid name calling? Essayist A’Lee Frost argues no, writing:

If we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility.

Yet, in closing, we reckon it’s worth defending one creature hard done by political name calling. There is reputedly a brush turkey in Whale Beach, NSW, named Barnaby Joyce. No animal deserves to suffer this indignation.

The ConversationHoward Manns, Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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Posh accents, discrimination and employment in Australia

The Conversation

Howard Manns, Monash University

UK researchers recently reviewed the hiring practices of 13 elite law, accountancy and financial companies, and found that applicants with posh accents were favoured over their working class counterparts.

So, does a similar process hold in the Australian context? Are your employment chances rooted and rooned by not having a posh accent?

Not in Australia. But the UK study serves as a caution of sorts, and it’s worth reviewing the dynamics of accent and employment in the UK, Australia and beyond.

How we judge accents

We don’t judge accents themselves, but rather the speakers of those accents and our perceptions of those speakers’ qualities. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (1519-1556), reputedly spoke Spanish to God, French to men, Italian to women and German to horses.

We commonly judge accents and their speakers along dimensions of prestige and pleasantness.

To these ends, Brits with posh accents may be doubly advantaged. Many are born into these accents or acquire them at elite public schools. And, on the pleasantness spectrum, we tend to be drawn to accents most like our own.

Therefore, if you happen to be one of the estimated 3-5% of Brits who has a posh accent, and you’re reviewing the application of poor Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, then, yes, for poor Eliza, a job will ardly hever ‘appen.

My Fair Lady.

But accents index both positive and negative attributes to employers and potential customers, and posh accents have been fraying in the British sphere since the 1990s. Studies have shown while posh accents index “intelligence” and “success” they are also considered “less friendly” and “less trustworthy” than regionally marked or difficult-to-place accents.

This has led, among other things, to the emergence of what has been labelled Estuary English, a mix of a posh accent and certain Cockney features, such as glottal stops. Tony Blair and Princess Diana were well known speakers of Estuary English.

Linguist Emma Moore talks about Tony Blair and Estuary English in the following video:

Alongside this process, Scottish accents have emerged as having a certain value add in British society. For instance, a 2008 survey found Scottish accents to be the most reassuring and soothing in a crisis. And a 2012 survey found them to be hardworking and reliable in business.

‘Posh’ accents in Australian English

Australian English is judged variously and inconsistently throughout its history, both at home and abroad.

Winston Churchill called Australian English “the most brutal maltreatment that has ever been inflicted on the mother-tongue of the great English-speaking nations”.

Historian Joy Damousi notes American writer Mark Twain, for his part, was fond of the English spoken in Ballarat.

Twain was impressed with how Ballarat speakers rendered thank you to a simple Q and you’re welcome to km. Such shortenings he mused, give the tongue “a delicate whispery and vanishing cadence which charms the ear …”.

Within Australia, there has historically been a clear social distinction between Cultivated (British-oriented) and Broad or General, distinctly Australian ways of speaking.

This distinction can be traced to the early decades of the colony. In the early 19th century, GA Wilkes notes new arrivals from Britain garnered the label stirling after money with official standing.

Conversely, those born in the colony bore the label currency, a money with less standing and less value. By 1827, one British observer noted the currency could be identified by their Aussie pride, poor teeth and “nasal twang”.

The tide arguably turned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when, as lexicographer Bruce Moore observes, Australians derided the migrant whinging poms, who the Australians believed were often openly and vocally disappointed by the new country.

Among other things, Moore links the word “pom” to the fondness of early 20th century Australian children for giving nicknames, and the subsequent playground rhyming of immigrant, jimmygrant and pomegranate for Brit children. The term whinging pom itself had emerged by 1962.

The late 20th century saw the decreasing relevance of British-oriented, cultivated ways of speaking. This can be linked to a number of factors, including increasing Australian nationalism and the establishment of an Australian Language Research Centre. The ABC first permitted distinctly Australian accents in its broadcasts in 1952.

The prime minister’s office maintained a cultivated feel until 1966 with RG Menzies, who, as Moore points out, described himself as “British to the bootstraps”:

British to the bootstraps.

But, by 1972, Gough Whitlam had given the prime minister’s office a distinctly Australian voice:

In contemporary Australia, linguist Felicity Cox observes that a cultivated accent might work against you. She writes, “many Australians feel that that Cultivated accent is not reflective of Australian values”.

“Vowel cancer” and crabs in the workplace

While posh accents are less relevant in Australia, the UK study does illustrate a critical point which is valid in Australia. Accent remains fair game when it comes to racism and classicism. Where it might be unacceptable, to pass comment on ways of dress or manner, ways of speaking tend to fly under the radar.

This process is well-studied within the US and the British spheres. For instance, Rosina Lippi-Green has famously argued that accents in Disney films draw on as well as reinforce minority stereotypes.

Lippi-Green notes that African American accents leading up to the 1990s are predominantly attached to animal rather than humanoid characters in these films. More so, the male minority characters in these films are generally unemployed, and seem to be concerned with nothing more than having fun and please themselves.

This is instructive for the Australian sphere, where speakers of any number of non-standard or broad accents might have the potential to be marginalised.

Writer Kathy Lette (with Gabrielle Carey) brilliantly documents the Australian vernacular the 1979 novel Puberty Blues. Yet, Lette has also been known to warn teens off such colloquial ways of speaking, calling them “vowel cancer”, and encouraging teens to practice “tongue fu”.

It can be dangerous and misleading to judge a job applicant along a single social dimension such as accent. Perhaps this is best illustrated in closing with the 19th century writer Price Warung’s yarn about an Echuca steamboat deckhand named Dictionary Ned. Warung’s stories often focus on the inequities of the convict system.

Ned loved words and carried a dictionary with him wherever he went. Over time, Ned came to memorise the entire dictionary. Yet, Ned found his Aussie pronunciation of these words constantly derided by College Bill, a man of position and the town drunkard.

In the yarn’s climax, Ned, realising his Aussie accent will never be accepted, shocks the town by shifting into French. From that point onward, College Bill is known in town as Ned labels him: “mo-va-soo-jay” (mauvais sujet “evil”). And more relevantly, the town folk come to realise that their myopic focus on Ned’s accent has led them to underestimate his wit and linguistic prowess.

The ConversationHoward Manns is Lecturer in Linguistics at Monash University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Mansplaining the word of the year – and why it matters

The Conversation

By Howard Manns, Monash University

The Macquarie Dictionary last week named “mansplain” its word of the year for 2014. The Dictionary defines mansplain as:

verb (t) Colloquial (humorous) (of a man) to explain (something) to a woman, in a way that is patronising because it assumes that a woman will be ignorant of the subject matter. MAN + (EX)PLAIN with s inserted to create a pronunciation link with explain.

Since its coinage in 2008, mansplain has varyingly been flagged as sexist or a powerful means for calling out something men do, especially on the internet. Is it sexist or a powerful tool in the anti-sexism arsenal?

Society-at-large ultimately determines this. But here are some things to consider.

Wo’man’ and language change

Linguistic change suggests that the English language or rather its speakers haven’t always been kind or equitable to women.

English language scholar Geoffrey Hughes notes that there is a “jocular grammatical precept that ‘man embraces woman’”. This is evidenced in English by words such as “lion” and “tiger” vis-à-vis “lioness” and “tigress”. In both cases, the male word is morphologically less complex and may be used to refer to the species in general, male and female alike.

The word “man” reflects this pattern. It has two meanings, the first of which refers to an “adult male” and the second “humanity” more generally. The latter meaning meant that at one time man relied on context or compounding to determine the referent’s sex or reference to humanity.

The Old English compound wīf-mann was used to clarify that a reference was a woman, and wer-mann that the referent was a man. Man arguably won out here with wer dropping out of use save its subtle appearance in words such as werewolf.

Wīf narrowed in meaning from “woman” to the modern “wife”, and wīf-mann became phonetically simplified to the modern “woman”.

Women’s efforts to battle implicitly and explicitly sexist processes of this sort have yielded results from the latter part of the 20th century.

Linguist David Crystal points out that opposition to “man” as a reference to all humans, and to the pronoun “he” and its inflected forms for both men and women led to a dramatic reduction in the use of these forms. Specifically, a survey of these forms in 1970s magazines showed their use fell from 12.3 per 5,000 words in 1971 to 4.3 in 1979.

The tide has clearly turned against some sexist words and usages. But one needn’t look long and hard to find that this issue hasn’t entirely been redressed.

Whores, chair-things and the subtle world of sexism

Racist and sexist attitudes persist in our implicit or explicit language choices, even where they seem to be have been addressed on the surface in society.

For instance, last year, a female scientist blogging for Scientific American was called a “whore” by a male editor at another blog. This was in response to the scientist’s polite refusal to contribute free work to this blog.

This might have been acceptable if the editor was using an earlier meaning of whore, a term of endearment for either sex, related to the Latin cārus (“dear”) and the Sanskrit kamah (“desire”) – as in Kama Sutra. Words that refer to women are particularly prone to deterioration in meaning (see also, among others, “slut”, which once merely meant “dirty, slovenly” or referred to a “kitchen maid”).

The blog editor’s use of whore’s 21st-century meaning with a scientist blogging for Scientific American is merely one of many examples of some lingering issues.

Women’s attempts to redress these issues have sometimes been met with ridicule. Tony Abbott, while at university, notably called a female colleague “chair-thing” rather than “chair-person” as she had requested. There has been considerable serious and not-so-serious discussions of what to call a “manhole” in the last few decades (e.g. “person hole”, “sewer cover”).

On top of playing semantics, differing conversational styles suggest men’s voices could end up being heard the loudest. Men are more likely than women to compete for control of a conversation, interrupt, to dispute what’s been said or to respond poorly.

Libfix de résistance

With all of this in mind, women have often taken creative, aggressive and, to some, seemingly extreme stances to redress power imbalances and perceived weaknesses in language.

Writer/ linguist Anthony Burgess notes that scathing feminists and feminist dictionaries have defined the first “males” as “mutants [and] freaks produced by some damage to the genes”.

Science Fiction novelist Suzanne Haden Elgin created the language Làadan for her 1982 novel Native Tongue. Làadan had a wider vocabulary to encapsulate the female experience, including a series of words to express whether one’s period (oshàana) was weshàana (late), hushàana (painful) or àashàana (joyful), among other things.

As for mansplain, we might view this as one more tactic for combatting perceived or actual male behaviour. It sits alongside attempts to own or redefine the word slut and a recent Super Bowl commercial that asks men, women, boys and girls to deconstruct the insult “throws like a girl”.

It is clearly a useful word for flagging something happening in society. Mansplain has already spawned a popular libfix (a blend of liberated and affix): – “splain”. We already see its use expanding to include “whitesplaining”, “rightsplaining” and even, in the 2012 US elections, “Mittsplaining” (for the Republican candidate Mitt Romney).

To these ends, it is certainly a word for the times.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.


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