What’s in a word?

I was listening to a years-old Big Ideas the other day, featuring Sheila Jeffreys, radical feminist, professor, and author, and Robbie Swan, founder of the Eros Association, officer of the political Australian Sex Party, and pornography producer.

Predictably, the debate was quite robust. Robust in an intelligent way, not the “robust” debates of parliament that George Brandis speaks so fondly of – grown adults, who are presumably smart, guffawing and carrying on like pork-chops. This was a good debate, both sides presenting some good arguments – as well as a healthy amount of bullshit – while remaining largely civil with each other. I had only heard about Jeffreys from reputation – which isn’t the best – and have yet to read any of her work, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear she wasn’t the misandrist radical that she has been made out to be. At any rate, I will find out next year when I take Sexual Politics at Melbourne Uni, a unit she has presided over for as long as I’ve been hearing her name.

All of this is a rather long and digressive way of getting to the fact that during the debate, Jeffreys mentioned the (well-worn) fact that the word “pornography” comes from the Greek meaning “writing about prostitutes”. (Except, to be accurate, what she actually said was that it meant “writing about whores”, which I think was her way of surreptitiously making everything seem that little bit more negative.)

I had read this before, but thought little of the fact. Etymology interests me in so far that it maps the incredible evolution that language takes. But I don’t feel like there needs to be any great connection between a word’s origin and its common usage today, nor how that word is understood and interpreted by those who utter it.

What does it tell us about pornography that it once meant, “writing about prostitutes”? To me: nothing. Jeffreys raised it as if to make a point of porn’s degraded lasciviousness, but that argument is lost on me. What something was, can be far different from what something is, and anyone who puts pen to paper on a regular basis should have a sound understanding of the evolutionary capacity of language.

Take the word, “polemic”. To me and to most, this probably refers to a piece of writing that has a clear political or social standing. It makes an argument that is often well-researched and its moral compass is never really in doubt. I might presumptuously state that this, what you are reading, is a polemic. The etymology, however, is from the Greek meaning, “warlike; belligerent”. Whilst I will admit to some pieces of writing being antagonistic to the point of redundancy, I do not think of “belligerent” when I regard something as a polemic. “Belligerent” is almost objectively negative; “polemic”, far from it. So too the term “caprice”, meaning a sudden change in mood. Inconceivably, it comes from the Italian meaning, “head with bristling hair”.

None of these histories affords us any insight into how these words are used today. And although the examples I’ve listed are rather obscure (thanks to Anu Garg over at wordoftheday for that), I will – and urge others to – reserve the right of skepticism when someone wants me to alter my perception of a term or concept based on its etymology.

The transitory and amorphous quality of words is a fascinating study, but to my mind, interesting only for the journey itself. And besides, that is probably a topic for another post, on another blog, by another writer. What I wish to take exception to, is the insistence by some that certain words are social no-nos because they have originated from negative sources. Words get most of their meaning and power from common usage, not from historical study that often results in only forcefully reassigning anachronistic definitions.

Take the word “douche” for instance. As discussed over at can be bitter the douche is an actual device that is still (though seldom) used today  to flush out a vagina and keep it all clean and sparkling. It has a birth control purpose (largely ineffective), but some claim it is just another example of the puritanical patriarchy decrying that a woman’s bits are a place where sin and the very nastiest of nasties lives and breeds. Hmmm. So be it.

A douche

I don’t want to argue. At least not now.

But what I will argue with, and what I will take exception to, is that by using this term to refer to someone, I am somehow participating in the continued rejection of the female. Arguments like this have been well raised, asserting that insults like “bitch” and “big girl’s blouse” are denigrating in that they suggest the worst thing to be, is female. I think there is much to be said for this. There seems to me nothing more cringeworthy than hearing, “Stop being a girl. You’re a man!” For the man, this insult indicates there is nothing more anathema to his very being than having the qualities of a woman.

The difference between these insults and others, such as “douche”, is that there is a clear understanding of what is meant by them, an understanding that is irrevocably bound to their universal meaning. When we say “girl”, we do not mean something else. When someone is put down by being referred to as “a girl”, the speaker is literally insinuating that the person has a vagina, wears their hair in pigtails, and plays with ‘My Little Pony’ toys. There is no doubt. No second guesses.

Also a douche

However, when I refer to someone as a “douche”, I am not suggesting that they are an outmoded enema device for front bottoms. I am saying that they are behaving in an obnoxious, rude, and (most often) pretentious way. If someone wishes to interpret my words as something else, they are welcome to, but they will be patently, and eternally, wrong. Put simply, I choose my words based on what meaning has been popularly and culturally assigned to them. My partner was completely unaware of what a medical douche even was (she is an intelligent, worldly woman in her early-30s), but she has a good understanding of the type of person that can be a douche.

Similarly, it would do us well to consider the word “bastard”. For anyone who is, like me, hooked on the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, you have probably read this term more than you thought possible or care to, and so would have a sound understanding that historically it means, “illegitimate child”. But how many of us use this term commonly to refer to someone in this way? I would think very few. When that “bastard” down at the used car lot sells you a lemon, our frustrations directed at him are not wrapped up with an awareness of his parentage. He is not a son without a father. He is a bastard. A scoundrel. A mongrel. A douchebag.

By all means, consider the words you are using and question their meanings. But let’s approach that with a little bit of reason and common sense. If the word you’re using has been well-worn to mean something in particular, you will only send yourself slowly bat-shit crazy by over-analysing its historical implications, especially when that analysis affords us no greater understanding of the modern context. Pornography is not, after all, bad because it is “writing about prostitutes”. It is bad because of what it represents and presents to us in a modern world. Words are wonderful, malleable little things, and rather than become adverse to them by virtue of what they once were, we should embrace their evolution.

So when that guy with the up-turned collar and sunnies atop his head calls you a “faggot” (not as in “a bundle of sticks”), don’t be afraid to imitate George Takei when you confront them.

And that’s what I think about that. Thanks for reading.

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