Dot Wordsworth

Mind your language | 7 July 2012

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For a moment I thought it odd that Sam Leith should use the word ballsy of Lillian Hellman in reviewing her biography here a couple of weeks ago. Then I thought, hang on, one never hears the word used of men. Sarah Crompton, writing in the Telegraph recently, noticed something similar, listing other words used only about women: feisty, bubbly, bolshie, hysterical, emotional, irrational and bitchy.

In the same paper Ed Cumming added another woman-only adjective in his description of a character in Prisoners’ Wives: ‘blowsy, ballsy Francesca’. Another paper previewed an episode of Silk in which ‘ballsy new QC Martha (Maxine Peake)’ appeared. So it goes on.

Earlier this year, India Knight hinted in the Sunday Times that overt ballsiness had its limit. Commenting on Sally Bercow’s performance on Celebrity Big Brother, she remarked: ‘If you have to say, “I’m feisty! I’m ballsy! I am my own woman!” all the time, chances are that goal is some way off.’

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest record of the word is from 1959, from Norman Mailer, for the term is American in origin. It belongs to the same world as Hemingway’s cojones: ‘It takes more cojones to be a sportsman where death is a closer party to the game,’ he wrote in Death in the Afternoon, in 1932.

But ballsy is not a word that the OED would once have listed, not because it is rude, but because it classifies it as ‘slang’, which, along with technical terms, the dictionary could not hope to encompass successfully.

It is odd that ballsy is the best compliment that men can come up with for women. It’s as if we called them titty. Until recently the most popular praiseworthy term for a woman was feisty, a word formerly applied only to dogs, and deriving from the verb fist, meaning ‘to break wind’, which is the meaning that Palsgrave and Cotgrave and other grave Renaissance lexicographers recorded for it.

Given the choice I’d just about prefer to be called feisty than ballsy. I can’t imagine using either, myself, but words in vogue are impossible to arrest.