Wordwatch Towers

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The natural order?

with 16 comments

Yvette Cooper, British Labour politician and C...
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The UK MP Yvette Cooper is married to Ed Balls MP. Both held senior positions in government during Labour’s time in office before the recent general election (hers more senior). Here’s how the couple were described on TV yesterday by a commentator:

Ed Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper.

Note the usual tired order (male first, female second) and the equally tired insistence on highlighting her role in relation to him as ‘wife’. Never mind the fact that she  held the positions of secretary of state, Department for Work and Pensions, and chief secretary to the Treasury in the previous Labour administration.

How about (heaven forfend) a different order and a different role:

Senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper and her husband, Ed Balls.

Nope — I don’t think the earth just tilted on its axis.

While in office they were often described as ‘Cabinet husband and wife team’; ‘husband and wife Cabinet team’; and ‘husband and wife Cabinet ministers’. Stand well back, I’m just going to try writing ‘wife and husband’ to see if anything happens … er, seems not. The crops haven’t failed and the milk hasn’t turned sour.

Ladies first? Not often

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?


16 Responses

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  1. I’d say the one who has the longer period serving or most accomplishments should come first. Perhaps ‘Married team’ instead of ‘husband & wife team.’ If they’re equal in accomplishments, then uh oh.
    One thing is for sure, I see why she didn’t take her husband’s last name.


    16/05/2010 at 2:23 pm

    • Hi, Lisa — ‘married team’ is a good option, although you can bet your life that in most cases the man would still be named first. Yes — good call on her part re. the married name thing.


      16/05/2010 at 2:27 pm

  2. To me the natural order would be to avoid contradicting the word TEAM with separate rankings of wife or husband, since the positions within marriage should (theoretically) be co-equal.

    They should be referred to as “the team of married MPs” or “These two are teamed inside and outside politics” etc. You are quite right about sexism as a linguistic convention, though.

    Unfortunately, Americans are also more prudish about sex. I doubt the gentleman would even be able to stand for office under his real name.

    Invisible Mikey

    16/05/2010 at 2:26 pm

    • Hi, Mikey — yes, I like your suggested phrases. Although, as with Lisa’s suggestion, you can be pretty sure that the woman would rarely be named first. Many people in the UK would have liked his surname to have precluded him from running for office.


      16/05/2010 at 2:33 pm

  3. This reminds me of why the appellation “Ms” is so useful, in that a woman is not immediately defined by her marital status. I remember having a heck of a time in the late eighties with my male bosses of that time, when I ordered business cards with “Ms” before my name. They insisted that I use “Miss.” However, I’d already gone ahead and ordered hundreds of cards with Ms, not even thinking it would be an issue, so in the end they very grumpily conceded. 🙂


    16/05/2010 at 2:51 pm

    • Yes, so true, Jo-Anne. I use ‘Ms’ but wish it was easier to say! Good on you for sticking to your guns in relation to the business cards.


      16/05/2010 at 2:56 pm

  4. With a name like “Balls,” you’d think the MP would opt to dilute it with “Cooper-Balls” or something. I’d love to write the opposing ad copy. *snickering like a 12-year-old*

    Michael Farrell

    16/05/2010 at 5:46 pm

    • I would have taken the opportunity to become ‘Mr Cooper’. Funny how women are expected to subsume their identity in their husband’s by taking his name, but doing the opposite is unthinkable. Please forward your proposed opposing copy under plain cover on receipt of which it will be considered for publication.


      16/05/2010 at 6:19 pm

      • Sure, but what fun can I have with “Cooper”?

        Michael Farrell

        16/05/2010 at 7:08 pm

        • A whole barrel of laughs, I would have thought.


          16/05/2010 at 7:13 pm

          • If the family name “Cooper” was derived from an artisan who made barrels, what did the first “Balls” do? Juggle?

            Michael Farrell

            16/05/2010 at 7:49 pm

            • Only if the first ‘Balls’ was a woman, as in we may not be able to throw one but have unrivalled expertise in keeping several in the air at once.


              17/05/2010 at 5:21 am

  5. In this case your criticism is not fair. I have no time in particular for either of these people, but there is not the shadow of doubt that Edward Balls is a far more significant political figure than his wife, whose name would have escaped me, had it not been for your mention of it in this place. Political rectitude and paranoia are not always a thousand miles apart.


    16/05/2010 at 10:28 pm

    • Morning, Dai — I knew you wouldn’t be agreeing with me for too long! I think the roles that Yvette Cooper has had in government were considered more senior than those of her husband’s, but that is anyway a slight red herring. The point about women (their names and roles) usually being mentioned second after a man’s still stands.


      17/05/2010 at 5:24 am

  6. I cannot believe that Yvette Cooper is not a name on everyone’s lips. Perhaps only on those of the long-term unemployed, or those who remotely care about them. I couldn’t believe it, just as the whole circus began of who would stand as Labour leader, watching a journalist on the BBC News channel scamper after Ms Cooper as she strode away from Downing Street and asking her: “Ms Cooper, do you think your husband will stand?” Apart from the obvious incredulity, the reporter should have said: ” … do you think THAT your husband will stand?”.

    Lizi B

    19/05/2010 at 9:43 am

    • Hi, Lizi — I didn’t see that clip, but am not remotely surprised. The frequency with which both bad grammar and blatant sexism are exhibited by those who should know a great deal better would make for an interesting study.


      19/05/2010 at 10:30 am

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