A Feminist Ideography

Ending is such sweet sorrow. Yesterday the alphabet series over at Bad Reputation came to a close. Its task: “..to address (with reasonable neutrality), the make-up of the English mother-tongue, to consider how the language has evolved over the centuries, and in the process to prompt some questions about how gender issues are woven into the fabric of the language we use everyday.”

And what an unravelling it was. Here are some disordered excerpts. Direct your thanks at Hodge.

Z is for Zone:

The Medieval West was not to be left behind in all this sexy-talk: no right-thinking female of the thirteen-hundreds considered herself fully sexed-up without a gipon, a type of corset designed to flatten the breasts and emphasise the stomach. And in case this proved insufficient, she might also pad her belly out for extra effect – well-rounded bellies appear again and again in contemporary art – and, as with the Cranach Venus, a decorative zone was the perfect way to emphasise its shape, making this a garment no less sexually charged in the 1340s than the 1940s (when, of course, its job was to hold the belly in). Like a garter, then, a girdle could serve as a fetishistic focal point for erotic (and indeed erogenous) zones, marking them out and keeping them restrained at the same time.

H is for Hysteria:

One explanation for [Hysteria’s] seeming explosion during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is its use as a catch-all term for Generic Women’s Troubles (hence calling it, essentially, ‘womb-problem’), and indeed, it does seem to have been partially conflated with chlorosis (a type of anaemia), which is perhaps better known to Renaissance drama fans as ‘green sickness’. Thus, in John Ford’s play ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore (you’d think you couldn’t top that title, wouldn’t you?) Annabella is thought to be suffering from ‘an overflux of youth’, in which case ‘there is no such present remedy as present marriage’. Translation: get a willy in her, quick.

A is for Amazon:

For those readers who never owned the Greek alphabet on a tea-towel, the ‘maz’ sound mid-Amazon is the same ‘maz’ you find in ‘mastectomy’ and its (mostly medical) cognates. This is because the Amazons in question – a race of female warriors alleged to have lived in ancient Scythia…were said to have been rather expert in just this procedure. Or, as the dictionary puts it, rather dryly – and, indeed, euphemistically – ‘they destroyed their right breast to avoid interfering with the use of the bow’…

…I particularly like the further sense amazon acquired sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth century – now, alas, obsolete – as ‘the queen in chess’, who I always thought of as quiet sort of feminist icon, maintaining, as Francis Beale asserts, ‘alwayes…her owne colour’, and zipping around the board with an alacrity denied to her technically more important consort.

E is for Emancipate:

Thus, emancipate‘s second meaning, ‘to set free from control; to release from legal, social or political restraint’, which, as the dictionary points out, has in modern use acquired a primary application to slavery, with ‘other uses felt to be transferred from this’. In ancient Rome, female slaves (‘libertae’), of course, had less options, and generally ended up marrying their former masters (oh, the liberalism), suggesting that they might need emancipation in the third sense – ‘to set free from intellectual or moral restraint’, and in fact getting into its fourth and final meaning, ‘to enslave’, via the explanatory quotation, ‘a wiues emancipating herself to another husband’.

Q is for Queen:

As is often the case, plenty of forebears inevitably only leads to plenty of embarrassing cousins, and many of these roots (cwen and the Greek gyne in particular) have also been claimed as parents to cunt ( =  ’the vulva or vagina’), spelled quaint and sometimes queynt by Chaucer, just to illustrate the fluidity of ‘cw’, ‘qu’ and ‘cu’. When you know that portcwene ( = literally ‘a public woman’) means ‘prostitute’, the association of quean / quean and cunt may perhaps become somewhat clearer: it’s what you might call synecdoche. This may also throw some light on quean/queen‘s gay associations: inevitably, words that suggest penetration of the female (pussy, bitch) are eventually seized upon to denigrate an ‘effeminate’ man. Queen as ‘a flamboyant homosexual’ is from the 1920s (as is queer, which originally means ‘oblique, off centre’), thus coinciding with a modicum more gay visibility than its sixteenth century usage.

G is for Girl:

Sometime around 1290, the word girl appeared, used to signify ‘a child or young person of either sex’, alongside clarifying compounds knave girl and gay girl (‘boy’ and, er, ‘girl’ respectively). Like some tantalisingly similar words – lad, lass, boy – its provenance is unclear, although some cunning linguists would have it derive ultimately (via some torturous and dark history) from the Greek ‘parthenos’ (=’virgin’). But yes, uh huh, you read right: in its earliest incarnation, girl was ungendered. In fact, it was not until the 1530s that its more specific application to XX chromosomes surfaced, with girl meaning ‘a female child’ – and even then, it still had its enduring reference to ‘a roebuck in its second year’, with roebuck being, naturally, the male equivalent of roe (a deer, a female deer)…

…So, actually, as girl grows up, it sexes up: indeed, once gendered firmly female, its sexual identity becomes more complicated, and this is something that seems to go alongside a developing idea of what early youth actually is.

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