Monday, October 15, 2018

More words for women than anyone can imagine


I've been collecting them for ever, since I discovered the Historical Thesaurus online and read it voraciously, gathered synonyms for 'woman' from there and other sources and put them together in a kind of word search format, on a postcard. There were no gaps between the words. Perhaps I felt embarrassed by the sheer misogyny they illustrated collectively, despite the loving, respectful and sweet words, which I wanted to put in too. 

Recently I've been bothered by social media viciousness, by an unfettered resurgence of misogyny, enabled by the politically naive and by cowardice. My upbringing, my political education emphasised mutual respect. Yes, I'm as flawed as you, but I believe in debate and as a writer, respect for people, for the languages we speak, for how we communicate, for differences we have. Dr Seuss, among others, is good on the insanity of wars about differences between us. When I put the first Words for women together, I wasn't sure how to define it. Not a poem, although it eventually went in Woman's Head as Jug. Not prose. There's no narrative.  It went into Binders Full of Women, the publication that was assembled when another US politican made an incendiary sexist remark. 

I feel the words being used against women now need to be more visible, less cryptic than a word search and so there are spaces between them in my latest version. The spaces represent hundreds of years of thought, abuse, love and hate. These are just the words in English and my lists are not comprehensive. They don't include swathes of slang from US or Australian English or from English spoken elsewhere in the world.

I'm no academic and wish I'd concentrated more in linguistics lectures when I was doing a degree. I have the Royal Literary  Fund to thank, in part, for the first Words for women, which germinated during a fellowship at the University of Surrey. My office was tucked away, the librarians didn't rush to promote what I was doing so I had time to browse the library. I found the linguistics section. There are so many lives I might have had and these shelves held one of them. But rather than regret, what came out of it was a card, imperfect, nearly in alphabetical order, of synonyms. My open mouth. 

Last night I went through my lists, ticking and adding. They need to be read together. The font on the most recent is Gil Sans MT. There are synonyms for girl, for prostitute, for mistress and old woman here. The oldest word is from Old English. Let's take care. 

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