Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

The female of the species

with 29 comments

Petruchio (Kevin Black) and Kate (Emily Jordan...
Image via Wikipedia

But not the human species, sadly. Have you noticed how often women are defined as a type of animal? And not in a good way. The examples are numerous:

Bat

Usually used with ‘old’ as in ‘old bat’. The Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) explains that this is an informal term (sounds so harmless, doesn’t it?) meaning, ‘a woman regarded as unattractive or unpleasant’. It also notes that ‘bat’ can mean ‘prostitute’. No mention that the term might be offensive.

Bird

An informal British word (says the ODE) meaning, ‘a young woman’. That’s OK then.

Bitch

‘A malicious or unpleasant woman’, says the ODE.  It’s cheerily noted as an ‘informal’ term. And just to cover all bases, ‘dog’ is an option, too (see below).

Bunny

Ah yes, the famous bunny girl. A double whammy here — an animal combined with a child. Here’s the ODE’s solemn description: ‘A club hostess or waitress wearing a skimpy costume with ears and a tail suggestive of a rabbit.’

Cat/catty

As in, for example, the phrase, ‘Who’s she, the cat’s mother?’.  One definition of ‘catcall’ is, ‘a loud whistle or sexual comment made by a man about a passing woman’. And it is usually women who are described as ‘catty’ meaning spiteful.

Chick

The ODE describes a chick as,  ‘a young woman’, and helpfully suggests the following use: ‘She’s a great-looking chick.’ I’d be lost without my dictionary.

‘Chick’, of course, refers to a baby bird, thus also helping to infantilise women.

Cow

The ODE provides the following definition: ‘An unpleasant or disliked woman.’ It doesn’t bother to mention that the term might be ever so slightly offensive. Apparently, it’s just ‘informal’.

Crow

Usually used in conjunction with ‘old’ as in ‘old crow’. This apparently became a term of abuse for older women in the sixteenth century, perhaps due to the association of crows with death and witches.

Dog

‘An unattractive woman’, says the ODE, grudgingly conceding that this one might actually be ‘offensive’. Radical.

Filly

A ‘humorous’ term, evidently. ‘A lively girl or young woman’, says the ODE. Unusual in that it doesn’t mean something offensive, but not exactly side-splitting. And who wants to be called a horse?

Fishwife

A loud woman with coarse manners.

Harridan

The word ‘harridan’ probably comes from the French word ‘haridelle’ meaning ‘old horse’. Now, of course, it means a strict and bossy woman. The ODE takes the trouble to suggest the handy everyday phrase ‘a bullying old harridan’. (Note the helpful suggestion to add ‘bullying’ and ‘old’ there — just in case you feel that ‘harridan’ by itself won’t quite cut the mustard.)

Hen

I’ve included this because I think that ‘hen party’ (usually used to describe a woman’s night out before a wedding) makes for an interesting comparison with the male equivalent ‘stag night’. I’ll just leave that hanging in the air for you to ponder.

Mare

A ‘derogatory (and mainly British) term for a woman’, says the ODE. One of the few deemed offensive, then. Well, pass the sherry.

Shrew

Now, go thy ways; thou hast tam’d a curst shrew (from The Taming of the Shrew)

And less poetically from the ODE: ‘A bad-tempered or aggressively assertive woman.’ This is not even termed ‘informal’, let alone ‘offensive’. It does, however, explain that: ‘There is no male equivalent to “shrew” because men are never bad-tempered or aggressive.’ It doesn’t really.

Vixen

An informal (there’s that word again) for a ‘spirited or quarrelsome woman’.

And there are some other truly vile animal-related words used about women which I won’t go into here, but you know what they are.

So — not to get too heavy about it all, but it’s interesting, isn’t it? Just another example of how language is used to denigrate and disrespect women. I challenge anyone to come up with a similar list relating to men.

She’s so intolerant but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

Trilling and shrieking

Top scientist or top female scientist?

Gratuitous modifiers — or the lady bus driver

Excitable and bubbly

Am I allowed to say that?

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29 Responses

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  1. Have you never endured the unwanted attentions of a wolf, shark, old goat, worm, or hairy ape? All men are dogs, snakes, vultures, pigs, or slugs, though I am a lamb.

    (Challenge met.)

    I can’t believe you didn’t mention COUGAR!

    — amusing post, Deborah

    Invisible Mikey

    07/05/2010 at 6:07 am

    • Hi, Mikey — good list! I did originally have ‘cougar’ but after doing some research I couldn’t settle on a clear definition. I think the term’s been discussed somewhere else on Wordwatch, but I can’t currently track it down. (I think I then interpreted it as a negative description of a woman, but I’ve since read other definitions which seem more positive.)

      Good luck with your house hunting — and I hope you’re having a lovely time with Mrs I.

      Deborah

      07/05/2010 at 7:40 am

  2. Hen (also hin or hinnie), occurs in Scotland (in my limited experience of the place, the Western Isles, though I’m sure it’s more widespread), as a form of address for a young woman.

    But does anyone under the age of 90 still use filly?

    Ron

    07/05/2010 at 9:02 am

    • Hi, Ron — yes, I just looked up ‘hen’ in the ODE, and one of the definitions is an affectionate term of address to a girl or woman (Scottish). ‘Filly’ does sound very outdated, I agree. (My Dad, who is 182, uses the term jokingly as in ‘a fine filly of a woman’.)

      Deborah

      07/05/2010 at 10:32 am

      • When did the OED become the ODE? Seems a pedantic change. But then, I suppose if they’re anything at all, dictionary compilers are pedantic by nature.

        Ron

        07/05/2010 at 10:53 am

        • I don’t think it did — it’s just that the very heavy tome I have on my desk is pleased to call itself ‘Oxford Dictionary of English’. I’m not sure why and I find it slightly irritating — why not just stick with OED?

          Deborah

          07/05/2010 at 10:58 am

  3. I had a look on line, and it appears that both forms are in circulation, but I think ODE is more recent. It’s hard to tell for sure that it’s not just a variant, though. Oh well, no doubt some consultancy was paid an unseemly amount for suggesting the change.

    Ron

    07/05/2010 at 11:12 am

    • Yes — you can imagine a bunch of ‘creatives’ having a few extended meetings to come up with that one.

      Deborah

      07/05/2010 at 11:15 am

  4. Another one is “duck”. I think it’s usually used to refer to an older lady?

    I always read all your posts. Thank you!

    Tracy Todd

    07/05/2010 at 12:23 pm

    • Hi, Tracy — you’re so welcome here! Yes, ‘duck’, ‘ducks’ or ‘ducky’ is quite common here in the UK — used generally as an ‘affectionate form of address’ (ODE), and not necessarily exclusively to women. I’ve heard women use ‘duck’ or ‘ducks’ as an affectionate term when addressing men.

      Deborah

      07/05/2010 at 12:32 pm

  5. Deborah – what’s your position on “babe”?

    Ron

    07/05/2010 at 12:49 pm

    • Interesting. I think this is one where context is all. ‘Babe’ and ‘baby’ are often used as affectionate terms of address, and I have no problem with that. However, a man calling a work colleague ‘babe’? No. A male manager calling his female staff ‘babe’? Even bigger no.

      I am generally alert to words which infantilise women, ‘babe’ or ‘baby’ being examples, along with my bête noir ‘girl’. ‘Doll’ is another example. Women are often infantilised in a sexual context, ‘babe’ and ‘girl’ being common in the lexicon of pornography and strongly suggestive of an imbalance of power.

      Deborah

      07/05/2010 at 1:16 pm

      • Crivens!

        Ron

        07/05/2010 at 1:22 pm

        • What does that mean? Not heard that expression before!

          Deborah

          07/05/2010 at 1:24 pm

          • It’s a Scottish expression of – erm – dismay…

            Ron

            07/05/2010 at 1:37 pm

            • Sorry — I’ve put my soapbox away in the shed now and have put the kettle on. Milk and sugar?

              Deborah

              07/05/2010 at 1:38 pm

      • Forgot to mention that in the more working class areas of Liverpool, “girl” (or, rather, “gerl”), is extremely common and has no baggage or subtext at all. It’s used indiscriminately by both men and women.

        Ron

        07/05/2010 at 2:57 pm

        • Thanks, Ron. As I say, my soapbox is now in the shed (until tomorrow). Plato said: ‘Unmitigated seriousness has no place in human affairs’ and so — tempted as I am — I won’t start boring on about ‘girl’ (you’ll be relieved to hear).

          Deborah

          07/05/2010 at 3:09 pm

  6. “Women are often infantilised in a sexual context, ‘babe’ and ‘girl’ being common in the lexicon of pornography and strongly suggestive of an imbalance of power.” Wow! (British: Oi!) That’s a rather strong, sweeping statement, Ms. Bennison.

    Michael Farrell

    07/05/2010 at 2:43 pm

    • In what way? As a quizmaster on a popular satirical show in the UK was wont to say before he was sacked for nefarious extra-curricular activities.

      Deborah

      07/05/2010 at 2:48 pm

      • In the way that “babe” is also common in kids’ movies about cute piglets and “girl” is common among Girl Scouts.

        Michael Farrell

        07/05/2010 at 5:40 pm

        • And the relevance of that to the lexicon of pornography is…?

          Deborah

          07/05/2010 at 5:44 pm

          • The lexicon of porn contains all kinds of words, like “pizza delivery man.” That doesn’t mean the words are inherently bad or laden with hidden content.

            Michael Farrell

            08/05/2010 at 3:36 am

            • I expect the girls ordered extra topping from the adult male who delivered the pizza.

              Deborah

              08/05/2010 at 6:38 am

  7. When I’ve raised this subject with men, even the most egalitarian and progressive men, they look askance and a little nervous and bewildered; (I can tell, because their eyes dart about & they start to sweat) I’ve come to think that it’s an ingrained experience for women that we grow resigned to, just like nervously looking over your shoulder in a deserted parking lot at night is. That feeling of vulnerability is something we’ve grown up with. I guess what I’m trying to say is, that perhaps it’s hard to really understand it when it’s not part of your reality. However..*bundling Deborah back onto her soapbox*, we must persevere!

    Jo-Anne

    07/05/2010 at 9:46 pm

    • Hi, Jo-Anne — thank you very much for your thoughts on this. I do agree with you. Also — thank you for your supportive words and encouragement, which mean a lot. Fear not — the trusty soapbox is never too far away.

      Deborah

      08/05/2010 at 6:43 am

  8. great post! pigs and bears are used to describe men sometimes as in chauvinistic pig etc…but there are def more derogatory animal linked words for women around…in all parts of the world!

    varad

    20/09/2010 at 2:53 pm

    • Hello, there — you’re very welcome here. I just read the ‘About us’ page on your blog and loved it. I will return to read some of your posts. Thanks for commenting — and for your kind words, which I appreciate.

      Deborah

      20/09/2010 at 3:02 pm


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