by Hugh Rawson
In Connecticut, where I live, women’s basketball is one of the most popular sports. Many people arrange their lives around the schedule of the University of Connecticut’s women’s team. Fans (the word is short for fanatic, by the way) don’t want to miss a game even though the outcome is rarely in much doubt.
The UConn women are good shooters, of course, but their success over the years has always depended a lot on their defensive skills. They switch between zone defenses, where players guard particular areas around their basket, and man-to-man defenses, where each player is responsible for a different member of the opposing team. And man-to-man, if you pause to think about it, is a bit odd in the context. After all, there are ten women on the floor. No men. Why don’t sportscasters say woman-to-woman or, since these are young women, girl-to-girl?
The answer tells us a lot about the English language and how it works. In brief – and this will come as no surprise to most women — the rule over the centuries has been that masculine words have higher social status than feminine ones. This is revealed in a couple of ways. First, masculine words that develop negative meanings tend to be converted into feminine ones. Second, as women strive for equality, the tendency is for them to cast aside feminine terms in favor of masculine ones.
A prime example of a word that underwent a sex change as its negative meanings became dominant is harlot. When this word surfaced in the early thirteenth century, it had various masculine meanings, typically referring to a beggar, vagabond, boy, servant, rascal, or buffoon. As the worse meanings became dominant, the word was extended to women, especially those of dubious reputation, such as jugglers, dancing girls, actresses, and strumpets. By the sixteenth century, harlot became what it is now, a euphemism for the blunter, harsher whore.
Hoyden followed a similar progression. The earliest examples of the word in writing, from the late sixteenth century, refer to a rude or ignorant fellow. Before the end of the next century, it had become a feminine term, meaning a bold, saucy girl or woman, a hussy (another word that has dropped down the social ladder, hussy began as a variant of the respectable housewife).
Girl itself evolved in much the same way. The word originally referred to a child of either sex. Back then, prior to the sixteenth century, girls generally were divided into knave girls, which were boys, and gay girls, which were female girls. Once the word became limited to females, a host of more-or-less negative meanings became attached to it. A girl might be a maid, a servant, a prostitute, or a woman in an inferior position; for example, a factory-girl, office-girl, shop-girl, or telephone girl. Even girlfriend is tricky, innocent enough in some contexts but a euphemism for “mistress” or “lover” in others. The bottom rung on this particular linguistic ladder is the man who is regarded as being not quite a man, the so-called girly man.
Today, the demeaning connotations of girl have become so strong that it is dangerous for a man to refer to a woman as such unless he knows her very well or she is a pre-teenager. This also applies to the slangy, once-common gal. Nowadays young women are more likely to be addressed as guys, as in “So long, guys,” or “You guys thirsty?” Guy is another gender bender, of course. It was once a purely masculine term. A nineteenth-century Americanism for a man, a fellow, it derived from the British guy, meaning one of the grotesque effigies of Guy Fawkes that were traditionally burnt on November 5, the anniversary of Fawkes’ failed plot to blow up Parliament in 1605.
The slow movement of the sexes toward equality, linguistically at least, also is evidenced by the fading away of feminine suffixes. One rarely hears of a poetess or authoress nowadays; the formerly all-masculine poet and author are preferred. Same goes for sculptor as opposed to sculptress. Most actresses prefer actor (except when accepting Academy Awards). Meantime, flight stewardess has been replaced by the asexual flight attendant. If Amelia Earhart were living today, she would be known as an aviator, not an aviatrix. Some feminine endings live on, but mainly in conservative circles, such as the nobility (baroness, countess, duchess), the church (abbess, prioress), the law (conservatrix, executrix) and other specialized callings (dominatrix).
In a sense, women basketball players who play man-to-man defenses are turning back the linguistic clock since man originally referred to a human of either sex. In Old English, the sexual distinction was between wer and wīf for male and female. Gradually, males took the generic man for themselves (the wer survives in werewolf) while wīf-mann, female human, evolved into woman and the lone wīf was diminished into wife (the original general sense of wīf survives in such terms as fishwife and midwife). Of course, the generic man usually is avoided today because it is widely thought to deprecate women or, at the very least, present a hurdle to their advancement in society. Thus, chairmen have turned into chairs, firemen into fire fighters, college freshmen into freshpeople, spokesmen into spokespersons, and so on and on.
Some benighted males may argue that they do not intend to imply that their sex is superior when they employ man in such phrases as “Man is a tool-making animal” (a line that James Boswell credited in his diary to Ben Franklin), but they are fighting a losing battle. Meanings of words shift over time and what is important today is how they are understood by most people today, off the basketball court as well as on.