Matthew Parris

Is ‘woman’ now an offensive word?

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

I do not know whether the Speaker of the House of Commons called the present Leader of the House a ‘stupid woman’. It certainly wouldn’t have been a nice thing to say, but I’ve found it hard to decide whether MPs should boot him out. Many Tory friends seethe with dislike for the man; there are plenty of allegations of partiality or vindictiveness towards individuals, and one does get the impression he doesn’t much care for the present government. Yet few Speakers in recent decades have stood up to ministers more resolutely, or done as much as Bercow in opening up the building and its institutions to a wider public.

I can add little, then, beyond remarking that it would be sad if a Speaker with a good deal to be proud of were to be dragged unwillingly from the Chair, so hopefully he will recognise when it would be best to quit of his own volition. He should be remembered as a bold and innovative, if opinionated, Speaker whose time in the Chair was a lively one in the history of the Speakership. It may be rather up to him whether that legacy is to be overshadowed by forcible ejection.

My interest in this latest fuss is not political but concerns a deeper problem that has exercised me for years. It relates not to the word ‘stupid’ but (in this example) the word ‘woman’. In ‘stupid woman’, what is insulting about the second term in the alleged insult?

A word may be used neutrally as a description: ‘American’, ‘cyclist’ or ‘engineer’, for instance. Desiring to insult someone who happened to answer any of those three descriptions by calling them (say) ‘stupid’, you would add nothing to the offensiveness of your remark by coupling ‘stupid’ with ‘engineer’/‘cyclist’/‘American’.

Some words, though, are considered inherently insulting. ‘Idiot’, ‘bastard’, ‘slob’ or ‘coward’, for example. Coupling an insulting adjective like ‘stupid’ to these will compound the insult. I should like to be called a stupid slob even less than to be called just a stupid individual.

There is, however, a third category, and it is these words that concern me. They are chameleon terms, taking their colour from the presumed intention of those who utter them. These are words that should carry no baggage and should be straightforward and useful descriptors, but refer to a group against which there is, or was, prejudice or belittlement. Such terms can therefore be used both in the capacity of being true, and also the capacity of insulting those they describe.

‘Woman’ is an example. ‘Man’ is not.

Andrea Leadsom’s five immediate predecessors in office were all men, the most recent being David Lidington. If, in a row between the two, Bercow had called Mr Lidington a ‘stupid man’, would this cause the fuss that his calling Leadsom a ‘stupid woman’ (if he did) has proved? Indeed if Leadsom had called Bercow a stupid man, would that have been a matter for press headlines?

So why does ‘woman’ cause a stir? It can only be because some quite wrongly think this a demeaning term. But here’s my question: do we, by being indignant at its use, unwittingly validate its derogatory meaning? I’m genuinely unsure of the answer.

There are many other examples. Here are a few. ‘Welsh’, ‘homosexual’, ‘Jew’, ‘dwarf’, ‘Tory’, ‘Pakistani’, ‘Boer’ (in South Africa) and (in South America) ‘indio’ (meaning ‘Indian’) are descriptors that can usefully be used neutrally but which in some contexts will indicate a derogatory intention on the part of the speaker.

Thus you may have noticed that politicians have almost stopped talking about ‘the Welsh’ and use the expression ‘the people of Wales’ — although ‘the Scots’ and ‘Scotsman’ remain in general currency and one rarely hears ‘the people of Scotland’. When Neil Kinnock was so damagingly dubbed ‘the Welsh windbag’ I’m afraid it was not just the alliteration but both the words in that duo that carried the insult. ‘English windbag’ not only fails to alliterate, but would puzzle its audience as to what the adjective ‘English’ added to the mockery.

I am, equally, afraid that (in the circumstances in which the insult might be hurled) the offensiveness of ‘stupid Pakistani’ does not derive from ‘stupid’ alone. Yet Pakistanis who notice people skirting round the noun in search of substitutes like ‘Asian’ must feel sad that to name their country of origin is now taken as an insult. I baulk a little (though really we shouldn’t) at saying someone is a Jew and catch myself recasting the sentence so that ‘Jewish’ can be used. There is a gain: no unintended discourtesy is risked. But there is a loss: one has implicitly accepted that it could be insulting to call someone a Jew.

The word ‘dwarf’ has now become so polluted by mockery that a new expression ‘little people’ is now preferred by those who might once have been content to call themselves dwarves. ‘Spastic’, likewise, has had to be abandoned as a neutral descriptor. In Peru the polite word for a South American Indian is the Spanish for ‘peasant’. In Scotland (at least before Ruth Davidson) the very word ‘Tory’, spoken in a certain way, was an insult.

As for ‘homosexual’, I have become accustomed to spiteful online comments beneath my columns that add a reference to sexuality as reinforcement to a string of terms of disapprobation. Should I protest — ‘how dare you call me a homosexual?’ I think not, but if I were the sort to take offence I should be in difficulty framing the cause of my complaint. The Leader of the House would face the same difficulty were she to complain that the Speaker had called her a woman.

What’s the answer? I can only propose hanging on to your pride in the word for what you are. Called a stupid woman, Mrs Leadsom should dispute the adjective and, as to the noun, congratulate Mr Bercow on his powers of observation.

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