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You are What You Say

Robin Lakoff
(1942- )


The following phrases are examples of sexist language: businessman, lady, doctor, career girl, and congressman. Why are these phrases sexist? What substitutes would you use to avoid these stereotypes?

    We often hear the cliche, "You are what you eat," but we rarely consider how the words we speak describe (and thus limit) our roles. As a social and cultural linguist, Robin Lakoff has studied how language sometimes nourishes us and sometimes malnourishes us. Lacoff was born in Brooklin, New York, and received her B.A. from Radcliffe College, her M.A. from Indiana University, and her Ph.D. from Harvard. Since 1972, she has taught in the linguistics department at the University of California, Berkeley. She has written Language and Woman’s Place (1975), and coauthored Face Value: The Politics of Beauty (1984).
    "You are What You Say," which originally appeared in Ms. Magazine before it was included in Language and Woman’s Place, explains that women face more than a double standard: They face a linguistic double-whammy. Not only does sexist language create reduced expectations and opportunities for women, but women’s own language often reinforces the role society expects them to play.
    "Women’s language" is that pleasant (dainty?), euphemistic, never-aggressive way of talking we learned as little girls. Cultural bias was built into the language we were allowed to speak, the subjects we were allowed to speak about, and the ways we were spoken of. Having learned our linguistic lesson well, we go out in the world, only to discover that we are communicative cripples – damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.
    If we refuse to talk "like a lady", we are ridiculed and criticized for being unfeminine. ("She thinks like a man" is, at best, a left-handed compliment.) If we do learn all the fuzzy-headed, unassertive language of our sex, we are ridiculed for being unabled to think clearly, unable to take part in a serious discussion, and therefore unfit to hold a position of power.
    It doesn’t take much of this for a woman to begin feeling she deserves such treatment because of inadequacies in her own intelligence and education.
    "Women’s language" shows up in all levels of English. For example, women are encouraged and allowed to make far more precise discriminations in naming colors than men do. Words like mauve, beige, ecru, aquamarine, lavender, and so on,  are unremarkable in a woman’s active vocabulary, but largely absent from that of most men. I know of no evidence suggesting that women actually see a wider range of colors than men do. It is simply that fine discriminations of this sort are relevant to women’s vocabularies, but not to men’s; to men, who control most of the interesting affairs of the world, such distinctions are trivial – irrelevant.
    In the area of syntax, we find similar gender-related peculiarities of speech. There is one construction, in particular, that women use conversationally far more than men: the tag question. A tag is midway between an outright statement and a yes-no question; it is less assertive than the former, but more confident than the latter.
    A flat statement indicates confidence in the speaker’s knowledge and is fairly certain to be believed; a question indicates a lack of knowledge on some point and implies that the gap in the speaker’s knowledge can and will be remedied by an answer. For example, if, at a Little League game, I have had my glasses off, I can legitimately ask someone else: "Was the player out at third?" A tag question, being intermediate between statement and question, is used when the speaker is stating a claim, but lacks full confidence in the truth of that claim. So if I say, "Is Joan here?" I will probably not be surprised if my respondent answers "no"; but if I say, "Joan is here, isn’t she?" instead, chances are I am already biased in favor of a positive answer, wanting only confirmation. I still want a response, but I have enough knowledge (or think I have) to predict that response. A tag question, then, might be thought of as a statement that doesn’t demand to be believed by anyone but the speaker, a way of giving leeway, of not forcing the addressee to go along with the views of the speaker.
    Another common use of the tag question is in small talk when the speaker is trying to elicit conversation: "Sure is hot here, isn’t it?"
    But in discussing personal feelings or opinions, only the speaker normally has any way of knowing the correct answer. Sentences such as "I have a headache, don’t I?" are clearly ridiculous. But there are other examples where it is the speaker’s opinions, rather than perceptions, for which corroboration is sought, as in "The situation in Southeast Asia is terrible, isn’t it?"
     While there are, of course, other possible interpretations of a sentence like this, one possibility is that the speaker has a particular answer in mind – "yes" or "no" – but is reluctant to state is badly. This sort of tag question is much more apt to be used by women than by men in conversation. Why is this the case?
    The tag question allows a speaker to avoid commitment, and thereby avoid conflict with the addressee. The problem is that, by so doing, speakers may also give the impression of not really being sure of themselves, or looking to the addressee for confirmation of their views. This uncertainty is reinforced in more subliminal ways, too. There is a peculiar sentence intonation-pattern, used almost exclusively by women, as far as I know, which changes a declarative answer into a question. The effect of using the rising inflection typical of a yes-no question is to imply that the speaker is seeking confirmation, even though the speaker is clearly the only one who has the requisite information, which is why the question was put to her in the first place:
(Q) When will dinner be ready?
(A) Oh … around six o’clock …?

    It is as though the second speaker were saying, "Six o’clock – if that’s okay with you, if you agree." The person being addressed is put in the position of having to provide confirmation. One likely consequence of this sort of speech-pattern in a woman is that, often unbeknownst to herself, the speaker builds a reputation of tentativeness, and others will refrain from taking her seriously or trusting her with any real responsibilities, since she "can’t make up her mind," and "isn’t sure of herself".
    Such idiosyncrasies may explain why women’s language sounds much more "polite" than men’s. It is polite to leave a decision open, not impose your mind, or views, or claims, on anyone else. So a tag question is a kind of polite statement, in that it does not force agreement or belief on the addressee. In the same way a request is a polite command, in that it does not force obedience on the addressee, but rather suggests something be done as a favor to the speaker. A clearly stated order implies a threat of certain consequences if it is not followed, and – even more impolite – implies that the speaker is in a superior position and able to enforce the order. By couching wishes in the form of a request, on the other hand, a speaker implies that if the request is not carried out, only the speaker will suffer; noncompliance cannot harm the addressee. So the decision is really left up to the addressee. The distinction becomes clear in these examples:
Close the door.
Please, close the door.
Will you close the door?
Will you please close the door?
Won’t you close the door?

    In the same ways as words and speech patterns used by women undermine her image, those used to describe women make matters even worse. Often a word may be used of both men and women (and perhaps of things as well); but when it is applied to women, it assumes a special meaning that, by implication rather than outright assertion, is derogatory to women as a group.
    The use of euphemisms has this effect. A euphemism is a substitute for a word that has acquired a bad connotation by association with something unpleasant or embarrassing. But almost as soon as the new word comes into common usage, it takes on the same old bad connotations, since feelings about the things or people referred to are not altered by a change of name; thus new euphemisms must be constantly found.
    There is one euphemism for woman still very much alive. The word, of course, is lady. Lady has a masculine counterpart, namely gentleman, occasionally shortened to gent. But for some reason lady is very much commoner than gent(leman).
    The decision to use lady rather than woman or vice versa, may considerably alter the sense of a sentence, as the following examples show:
(a) A woman (lady) I know is a dean at Berkeley.
(b) A woman (lady) I know makes amazing things out of shoelaces and old boxes.

    The use of lady in (a) imparts frivolous, or nonserious, tone to the sentence: the matter under discussion is not one of great moment. Similarly, in (b), using lady here would suggest that the speaker considered the "amazing thing" not to be serious art, but merely a hobby or an aberration. If woman is used, she might be a serious sculptor. To say lady doctor is very condescending, since no one ever says gentleman doctor or even man doctor. For example, mention in the San Francisco Chronicle of January 31, 1972, of Madalyn Murray O’Hair as the lady atheist reduces her position to that of scatterbrained eccentric. Even woman atheist is scarcely defensible: sex is irrelevant to her philosophical position.
    Many women argue that, on the other hand, lady carries with it overtones recalling the age of chivalry: conferring exalted stature on the person so referred to. This makes the term seem polite at first, but we must also remember that these implications are perilous: they suggest that a "lady" is helpless, and cannot do things by herself.
    Lady can also be used to infer frivolousness, as in titles of organizations. Those that have a serious purpose (not merely that of enabling "the ladies" to spend time with one another) cannot use the word lady in their titles, but less serious ones may. Compare the Ladies’ Auxiliary of a men’s group, or the Thursday Evening Ladies’ Browning and Garden Society with Ladies’ Liberation or Ladies’ Strike for Peace.
    What is curious about this split is that lady is in origin a euphemism – a substitute that puts a better face on something people find uncomfortable – for woman. What kind of euphemism is it that subtly denigrates the people to whom it refers? Perhaps lady functions as a euphemism for woman because it does not contain the sexual implications present in woman: it is not "embarrassing" in that way. If this is so, we may expect that, in the future, lady will replace woman as the primary word for the human female, since woman will have become too blatantly sexual. That this distinction is already made in some context at least is shown in the following examples, where you can try replacing woman with lady:
(a) She’s only twelve, but she’s already a woman.
(b) After ten years in jail, Harry wanted to find a woman.
(c) She’s my woman, see, so don’t mess around with her.

    Another common substitute for woman is girl. One seldom hears a man past the age of adolescence referred to as a boy, save in expressions like "going out with the boys," which are meant to suggest an air of adolescent frivolity and irresponsibility. But women of all ages are "girls": one can have a man – not a boy – Friday, but only a girl – never a woman or a lady – Friday; women have girlfriends, but men do not – in a nonsexual sense – have boyfriends. It may be that this use of girl is euphemistic in the same way the use of lady is: in stressing the idea of immaturity, it removes the sexual connotation lurking in woman. Girl brings to mind irresponsibility: you don’t send a girl to do a woman’s errand (or even, for that matter, a boy’s errand). She is a person who is both too immature and too far from real life to be entrusted with responsibilities or with decisions of any serious or important nature.
    Now let’s take a pair of words which, in terms of the possible relationship in an earlier society, were simple male-female equivalents, analogous to bull : cow. Suppose we find that, for independent reasons, society has changed in such a way that the original meanings now are irrelevant. Yet the words have not been discarded, but have acquired new meanings, metaphorically related to their original senses. But suppose these new metaphorical uses are no longer parallel to each other. By seeing where the parallelism breaks down, we discover something about the different roles played by men and women in this culture. One good example of such a divergence through time is found in the pair, master : mistress. Once used with reference to one’s power over servants, these words have become unusable today in their original master-servant sense as the relationship has become less prevalent in our society. But the words are still common.
    Unless used with reference to animal, master now generally refers to a man who has acquired consummate ability in some field, normally nonsexual. But its feminine counterpart cannot be used this way. It is practically restricted to its sexual sense of "paramour." We start out with two terms, both roughly paraphrasable as "one who has power over another." But the masculine form, once one person is no longer able to have absolute power over another, becomes usable metaphorically in the sense of "having power over something." Master requires as its object only the name of some activity, something inanimate and abstract. But mistress requires a masculine noun in the possessive to precede it. One cannot say: "Rhonda is a mistress." One must be someone’s mistress. A man is defined by what he does, a woman by her sexuality, that is, in terms of one particular aspect of her relationship to men. It is one thing to be an old master like Hans Holbein, and another to be an old mistress.  
    The same is true of the words spinster and bachelor – gender words for "one who is not married." The resemblance ends with the definition. While bachelor is a neuter term, often used as a compliment, spinster normally is used pejoratively, with connotations of prissiness, fussiness, and so on. To be a bachelor implies that one has the choice of marrying or not, and this is what makes the idea of a bachelor existence attractive, in the popular literature. He has been pursued and has successfully eluded his pursuers. But a spinster is one who has not been pursued, or at least not seriously. She is old, unwanted goods. The metaphorical connotations of bachelor generally suggest sexual freedom; of spinster, puritanism or celibacy.
    These examples could be multiplied. It is generally considered a faux pas, in society, to congratulate a woman on her engagement, while it is correct to congratulate her fiancé. Why is this? The reason seems to be that it is impolite to remind people of things that may be uncomfortable to them. To congratulate a woman on her engagement is really to say, "Thank goodness! You had a close call!" For the man, on the other hand, there was no such danger. His choosing to marry is viewed as a good thing, but not something essential.
The linguistic double standard holds throughout the life of the relationship. After marriage, bachelor and spinster become man and wife, not man and woman. The woman whose husband dies remains "John’s widow"; John, however, is never "Mary’s widower."
    Finally, why is it that salesclerks and others are so quick to call women customers "dear", "honey", and other terms of endearment they really have no business using? A male customer would never put up with it. But women, like children, are supposed to enjoy these endearments, rather than being offended by them.
    In more ways than one,  it’s time to speak up.


1. What sentence in Lakoff’s introductory paragraphs best expresses her thesis?
2. According to Lakoff, what specific words and speech patterns used by women and about women undermine their self-image?
3. How does Lakoff define the terms tag question and euphemism?
How does she define each of the following pairs of terms: master versus mistress and bachelor versus spinster?


1. Is Lakoff’s purpose to inform us about sexist language? To explain why certain phrases and words have a derogatory effect on women? To argue that we should avoid using language that unfairly assigns roles or attributes behavior to people on the basis of their sex? Where in the essay is each purpose most apparent?
2. Where in the essay does Lakoff develop her ideas through comparison and contrast? Where does she use examples to illustrate her points? Where does she analyze the causes or effects of language?
3. In her second sentence, Lakoff says, "Cultural bias was built into the language we were allowed to speak, the subjects we were allowed to speak about, and the way we were spoken of." Is this sentence an essay map? Where does Lakoff develop each of these three points?


1. Lakoff’s essay was originally published in Ms. Magazine. Who was her audience?  Could or should this essay have been published in Esquire or Playboy?   
2. Describe Lakoff’s tone, her attitude toward her subject. Is she calm, reasonable, and analytic? Is she defensive, angry, or emotional? Cite specific passages to support your answer.


1. What are other examples of sexist language? Can sexist language be derogatory to men as well as women?
2. In discussing tag questions, Lakoff says they help explain "why women’s language sounds much more polite than men’s. It is polite to leave a decision open, not impose your mind, or views, or claims, on anyone else." Is Lakoff advocating that women should be less polite? Why shouldn’t men be more polite?
3. At a social gathering where both men and women are present, take notes or use a tape recorder to gather evidence about how people use language to characterize themselves, to stereotype other people (men, women, minorities, young people, old people, students). What conclusions can you draw from your evidence?
4. Describing specific scenes from your own life, explain how your parents, friends, and teachers have or have not created expectations about your behavior or your career based primarily on your gender.  



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