Wordwatch Towers

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

Protesting too much?

with 6 comments

Regular visitors to Wordwatch Towers will know I have — er — an incy wincy problem with women being referred to as ‘girls’. It would be fair to say that I have banged on about sexist language at some length (a few relevant posts are listed below).

However, (you may need to sit down for this) even I think that sometimes such complaints are a little frivolous and therefore counterproductive. A prime example appears in today’s Guardian online in a piece introduced with the following assertion:

Stieg Larsson’s being ironic, but generally ‘girl’ book titles demean women  

The writer, Deborah Orr, cites various book titles including Martina Cole’s Hard Girls and Jane Green’s Girl Friday.

She claims, among other things, that:

The message is that women are dreary and past-it, while girls are dynamic and exciting. The queasy worry is that in a big swath of popular culture, women are still being infantilised, and that they prefer it that way.


A cursory inspection of Amazon will reveal any number of book titles referring to men as ‘boys’ including Stephen Hunter’s Dirty White Boys, Douglas Reeman’s The Glory Boys and James Follett’s The Tiptoe Boys.

My soapbox is never far away, but I wouldn’t bother getting on it for this. Po-faced complaints of this nature can, I think, encourage wholesale dismissal of far more important and legitimate analyses of the way language can be used to exclude and undermine.

Sorting the women from the girls

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

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

She’s such a tomboy

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

When is a man not a man?

Am I allowed to say that?


6 Responses

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  1. Ah… Ms Orr grinding her tedious axe as usual. It’s a wonder there’s anything left of it. A great shame that wasn’t posted in CiF – she’d have got a little – erm – perspective, I think.


    08/06/2010 at 3:23 pm

    • Hi, Ron — hope you’re doing OK. Yes, you’re so right about CiF. It’s strange how the great unwashed Guardian punter is only deemed fit to comment on some stories and not others. It’s usually the latter that are most annoying.


      08/06/2010 at 3:29 pm

  2. She must have scraped the bottom of the barrel to pull that one out.


    08/06/2010 at 11:08 pm

    • Hi, Lisa — yes, I agree. The trouble is that these spurious arguments detract from and invite dismissal of the real ones. A bit like crying wolf…


      09/06/2010 at 6:09 am

  3. I like it when you illustrate larger cultural biases, such as sexism, in your posts. Language is dynamic, and usage is partly a by-product of historical change.

    Invisible Mikey

    10/06/2010 at 12:13 am

    • Hi, Mikey — thanks for stopping by, I’m always glad to see you here. And thanks for your kind words about the blog. You’re right, of course, about language being dynamic — which can be both a curse and a blessing.


      10/06/2010 at 7:45 am

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