29.Mai 2010

Of Words and Women: Dictionaries and Their Discontents

Each morning my Inbox greets me with a new word from A.Word.A.Day; it’s my vocabulary-building bulletin from Anu Garg of Wordsmith.org. Through these daily missives I have gained passing aquaintance with such interesting terms as “prandial” or “ploce” – passing because they always pass out of my mind before I can apply them against my sister in our weekly contest for superiority at Scrabble or UpWords.

Yesterday’s word, “tabby,” was not so new to me, but the list of meanings gave me a jolt. Here’s the mail:

Subject: A.Word.A.Day—tabby
Date: Friday, May 28, 2010 12:19 AM
From: Wordsmith

To: Ritta Jo Horsley

This week’s theme: Words having many unrelated meanings


1. A domestic cat with a striped or brindled coat.
2. A domestic cat, especially a female one.
3. A spinster.
4. A spiteful or gossipy woman.
5. A fabric of plain weave.
6. A watered silk fabric.
7. A building material made of lime, oyster shells, and gravel.

For 1-6: From French tabis, from Medieval Latin attabi, from Arabic attabi, from al-Attabiya, a suburb of Baghdad, Iraq, where silk was made, from the name of Prince Attab. Cats got the name tabby after similarity of their coats to the cloth; the derivations of words for females are probably from shortening of the name Tabitha.
For 7: From Gullah tabi, ultimately from Spanish tapia (wall).

“I was playing whist with the tabbies when it occurred, and saw nothing of the whole matter.”
Charles James Lever; Jack Hinton, the Guardsman; 1857.

Although Mr. Garg presents “tabby” as a “word with many unrelated meanings” and suggests the meanings for females derive from the name Tabitha, I’m suspicious. It’s all too common for women to be associated with animals (for example, think “bitch,” going all the way back to Semonides, not to mention the rest of his entire catalog of women based on animal-types). We have been taught to think of cats as quintessentially feminine: we remember the “cat on a hot tin roof”  and have learned that women are “catty” and possess a “pussy.” In a more than $1 billion global business, the Japanese have marketed “Hello Kitty”  products to girls and young women. (In 2010 Bank of America brought out a Hello Kitty debit card to teach girls 10-15 years old “to learn great money-management skills.” ) Thus, it seems more likely that the word “tabby” derived its application to females as the result of all too familiar and dehumanizing associations.

What struck me especially, though, was the uncommented use of the term “spinster,” a word I had thought would be characterized by now as dated or derogatory. But when I looked it up in my American Heritage Dictionary (copyright 1985-91, it’s the “revised edition” of the 1976 version), it was similarly listed without any suggestion that it had become outmoded or offensive in meaning: a spinster is “1. A woman who has remained single beyond the conventional age for marrying; 2. An unmarried woman; 3. A woman whose occupation is spinning.” Additional terms were listed but not defined: “spinsterhood,” “spinsterish.” Apparently the negative associations with “spinster” were assumed to be commonly held and understood. Even worse, when I looked up “tabby” in the same dictionary, the meanings included “old maid,” and “a prying woman; gossip.” 

I am happy to report, however, that both the Oxford American Dictionary (Version 1.0.2, Copyright Apple Computer 2005) that is part of my software and the dictionary that is part of my Microsoft Office 2008 suite are more enlightened. They inform us that the term “spinster” should be regarded as “derogatory” or “offensive” and “dated”; even the female occupational spinner of yarn has become “archaic.” 

This little exercise reminds me of Luise’s seminal essay from 1983, “’Sie sah zu ihm auf wie zu einem Gott’ – Das Duden-Bedeutungswörterbuch als Trivialroman” (“‘She looked up to him as though he were a god.’ The Duden Dictionary as Romance Novel,” reprinted in Luise F. Pusch, Das Deutsche als Männersprache, edition suhrkamp, 1984, 135-144). In it the 1970 edition of the Duden, Germany’s standard, most authoritative dictionary, is analyzed with delicious irony as a sentimental novel presenting an “ideal” vision of German society, one in which women are contentedly confined to the traditional 3 K’s (Kinder, Kirche, Küche). Only the first “chapter” of the novel (the letter A) is discussed, but the evidence, based on sentences illustrating the word-meanings, is overwhelming. Males are mentioned some 920 times, while females occur in 180 examples, mostly suggesting subordination and inferiority. And while the male “characters” Ulrich, Klaus and Ludwig occur in sentences showing a wide range of activities, professions, abilities and emotions, Christine’s roles are limited to those of wife, mother and homemaker. (The entry specifying a female physician is such an egregious exception that Luise recommends excising it from future editions to avoid disrupting the image of harmonious domesticity.) Moreover, women are never shown interacting with other females, only with males or children, in contrast to the countless examples of men who help, trust, threaten, or impress another man, often a friend. The Duden, Luise Pusch concludes, now without irony, presents deep insights into the soul of the German (male), an abyss filled above all with contempt for women.

In a recent article in the scholarly journal Zeitschrift für Germanistische Linguistik Damaris Nübling cites Pusch’s essay, now standard reading in German linguistics courses, as the first pathbreaking examination of gender in German usage as it is promulgated by a standard dictionary. And she goes on to analyze the “lexicographic construction of gender in more recent editions of German dictionaries,” demonstrating that the Pusch critique did not remain unheard.  According to Nübling, the 2002 edition of the Duden Bedutungswörterbuch (edited by a team of 14 women and 5 men) is indeed much less sexist than the version critiqued by Pusch.

As far as the bulk of other recent dictionaries is concerned, however, the news is less good. Nübling concludes: “The study shows that a surprisingly high degree of stereotypes still exists, including grammatical differences such as men occurring more frequently in subject positions and women dominating in object positions. While some dictionaries represent clear progress with respect to the representation of gender over time, others are dominated by androcentric attitudes.”

I guess we’d have to put Anu Garg and my 1991 American Heritage Dictionary in the androcentric basket.  Feminism has indeed changed the verbal landscape, but they must have been “playing whist with the tabbies when it occurred, and saw nothing of the whole matter.”

(See Damaris Nübling, “Zur lexikografischen Inszenierung von Geschlecht: Ein Streifzug durch die Einträge von Frau und Mann in neueren Wörterbüchern” Zeitschrift für Germanistische Linguistik. Volume 37, Issue 3, Pages 593–633, ISSN (Online) 1613-0626, ISSN (Print) 0301-3294, DOI: 10.1515/ZGL.2009.037, /December/2009
Published Online: 24/03/2010 )


# | Joey Horsley am 29.05.2010 um 18:52 • Permalink

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Hedwig Dohm