The She in We: Sexism in Language


The question of sexism in language has been gaining momentum across the Western world since the 1970s, bringing with it a call for an English language that does not exclude women.

While it is certainly true that gender differences exist, such that girls tend to be more sociable, or graceful and nurturing, it is important to recognise that these are trends in groups, not truths about every individual. We should not overstate them in our language.

An unsettling fact highlights the growing importance of the issue. Certain female-specific words, unlike their male-specific counterparts, have an uncanny tendency to accumulate negative connotations over time.

Two quick examples: “mistress” meant a person with authority, but now also means “a woman who is having sexual relations with a married man”. “Courtesan” originally meant a woman who attends the court of a monarch as adviser or companion, but now its only meaning is “a prostitute, especially one with wealthy or upper-class clients”. Neither “master” nor “courtier” (the male version) has gained such infamy.

The international push for gender-neutral language is currently afoot through education, the rewriting of the language of law, or the editing of dictionaries. How would you behave when you encounter bias?