International Women’s Day Special – Some pejorative terms for women and their non-pejorative origin

We at the HLC want to recognise International Women’s Day by doing what we do best – talking language.

Did you know that many of the pejorative terms we have for women, in the English language, weren’t always pejorative? For example, the word ‘hussy’ is an abbreviated form of ‘housewife’ which used to be a neutral female equivalent of ‘husband’, i.e. referring to the mistress of a household. In today’s blog post you may have sighted the infamous “c-word” (you know the one). This word’s original form was mostly used in place names and landscape descriptions, its meaning being something like ‘cleft’. Female terminology undergoing pejoration is not only the case in English, of course; the Swedish equivalent of the c-word originally had the meaning ‘wet meadow land’ – we’re not convinced that these nature descriptions originally had the pejorative meaning they developed once they began to refer to something female.

Not entirely surprising, we find the opposite pattern for male terms: the word ‘boy’, for example, used to be a pejorative term for male servants, which then developed into today’s neutral term. The term which used to refer to young males before ‘boy’ is the word ‘knight’, which developed into meaning ‘boy servant’ before it finally reached the heightened meaning we associate it with today. (Of course, ‘boy’ unfortunately survives as a pejorative term reserved to address certain groups in society).

Words are powerful, so we should choose them wisely.

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