Philip Hensher

Why are we so squeamish about describing women’s everyday experiences?

Words relating to women have been so obscured by euphemism over the centuries that they sometimes risk being incomprehensible, says Jenni Nuttall

‘Interior with a Childbirth Scene’, by Lucas Cranach the Younger – a vivid portrayal of female camaraderie [Bridgeman Images]

The way that language is shaped by the facts of biological sex is a rich subject. (The way that biological sex is framed, and sometimes refuses to be shaped, by language is perhaps one for another day.) Some languages have evolved forms which are distinctly those of male or female users. Japanese has speech patterns described as male or female, such as (male) the informal use of da instead of desu. There are scripts used exclusively among women, such as the syllabic Nüshu in Hunan, China. Many languages have gendered grammatical forms in ways that are not just metaphorical. Nouns such as ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are masculine and feminine in French, but ‘girl’ is neuter in German. Some have masculine and feminine forms of adjectives and other parts of speech. English, on the other hand, has fewer sexed grammatical forms, largely restricted to pronouns such as ‘he’ and ‘she’. Other languages don’t even go that far. Bengali doesn’t have different pronouns for men and women at all, and Bengali learners of English often find it initially difficult to distinguish between ‘I gave it to her’ or ‘to him’ when referring to a man.

Arcane vocabulary was a disaster for simple people needing to understand what pregnancy and childbirth entailed

Those are the formal, enshrined distinctions where sex difference may be observed. There are more elusive ones, where social pressures may make themselves felt and where current anxieties start to show themselves. German, for instance, has until recently been much stricter than English about indicating whether a student or colleague is male or female. I’m informed that, comically, hipsters in Spain can’t simply declare themselves to be ‘non-binary’; they have to be non-binario or non-binaria, rendering their efforts null and void. In English, we might describe a man as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘tart’ with the intention of breaking sexual convention, but we are much less likely to be consciously aware of how rare it is to describe anyone other than a woman as ‘feisty’, say.

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