Wordwatch Towers

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

Housewife’s choice

with 14 comments

A pepperoni pizza.
Image via Wikipedia

The rather unfortunately surnamed Tam Fry of the UK’s National Obesity Forum is keen on the word (and by implication, I guess, the concept) ‘housewife’. He used it recently when being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 and here he is again being quoted on the BBC news website:

We have too much food now on the supermarket shelves which is too high in salt and fat and sugar. Until that comes down to reasonable levels I think the average housewife going to do her shopping will be picking up stuff which is not altogether healthy and if they pick up that kind of food then the problem of obesity will persist.

Well, where shall I begin? Let’s start with that word ‘housewife’. I had no idea it had been retrieved from the word museum as a generic term for people who buy groceries, but there you go; my finger is evidently not on the evolving English language pulse.

And what, exactly, is an ‘average housewife’? ‘Average’ in this context meaning ‘having qualities that are seen as typical of a particular person, group or thing’ (Oxford Dictionary of English definition). What would those qualities be in this case? An inability to read the packet? A blatant disregard for the health of anyone who will eat the food she is buying?

Ah yes, the food she is buying. And here we get to the heart of our obesity problem: women are to blame of course. (Pizza with extra guilt on top, please.) The ‘housewife’ doing ‘her’ shopping is responsible for making her family fat. Glad that’s sorted then.

All those men I see in supermarkets buying white bread, ready meals and gargantuan bags of crisps must, I take it, be a figment of my imagination.

Am I allowed to say that?



14 Responses

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  1. Morning Deborah,

    Rather more serious, I think, is the all-pervading view, which this fathead shares, that over-eating and/or a poor diet are the only causes of obesity. They are not.

    It’s not obvious from my pic, but I’m fat – obese, even – yet my diet, just one meal a day, averages around 800kcals a day (even when beer is factored in), and I have an extremely healthy, low-fat, diet. No sugar, fried food an occasional treat, and I eat only the finest bread (I know that – I make it; currently I’m using an organic unbleached spring wheat flour from Sweden).

    OK, you know I like crisps, but they’re just a once a week treat.

    Food plays no part in my obesity. There are just two causes – chronic serious illness, which makes it impossible for me to exercise, and a high steroid intake.

    Almost everyone makes the assumption that a fat person is guilty of pigging out on crap food, whether bought by a “housewife” or not and, all too often, that’s just not the case.

    Now racial and religious minorities, gays, and most other minority groups are protected by law, fat people are in real danger of becoming the untermenschen of the 21st century http://ronsrants.wordpress.com/2009/06/30/fat-people-and-the-language-of-oppression/


    19/07/2010 at 9:47 am

    • Hi, Ron, thanks for this and for the link. I think you make an excellent point. A while back, I was working in an office with an overweight person. I heard the manager say, quite openly, to someone else that it ‘can’t be very pleasant to sit so near someone who’s so overweight’. I was quite shocked. You are so right about the comparison with other groups now protected by the law. That manager would never have said that it ‘can’t be very pleasant’ to sit so near a black person or a disabled person, for example. Seems it remains open season, no holds barred (to mix my sporting metaphors).


      19/07/2010 at 10:51 am

      • Actually, Deborah, that attitude is probably more common when disabled people are involved, because they’re seen as an easier target.

        The fact that this view might be wrong often comes as a surprise . . .


        19/07/2010 at 1:55 pm

        • You could be right. But are people as open now about their prejudices against disabled people? In the example I cited, I know that the manager concerned would not, in a million years, have made a similar comment about a disabled person. And certainly not as openly and loudly.


          19/07/2010 at 2:03 pm

          • I shall ask my public 😉

            There was, though, the case, last year, of the woman who was driven to kill both herself and her disabled daughter as a result of extreme and sustained persecution, about which the police did precisely nothing (the fact that the offenders were teens is NOT an extenuating circumstance). And that is just the conspicuous tip of a very large iceberg.


            19/07/2010 at 3:27 pm

            • I’d be very interested to hear, Ron. I remember that terrible case. Maybe there is a difference between environments such as offices where a thin veil of civilisation prevails and more public areas?


              19/07/2010 at 3:30 pm

  2. OK, I’ve just appealed for info. I’m not confident of an early result – I asked for ESA feedback last year, I’ve just had my first response.

    And you might just have sent my blog off in a new direction!


    19/07/2010 at 4:34 pm

    • I hope you do get responses, Ron. It would be so interesting to hear what people have to say. Good luck with it! Are you going to publicise it on the WP forums?


      19/07/2010 at 4:35 pm

      • Oops – forgot to answer that one. No, comments will be included in the post, anonymously, rather than in Comments.

        By the way, Googling disabled abuse, uk shows, partially at least, the extent of the problem. And that’s only the cases that are publicised.


        21/07/2010 at 3:13 pm

        • No — I meant to ask people to respond via the forums, not to publish the comments there.


          21/07/2010 at 4:53 pm

  3. The average American grammarian would edit Baked Fry’s comments to “food … that is too high in salt” and “stuff that is not altogether healthy.” I know the British practice varies — but then what do you save “that” for?

    Michael Farrell

    19/07/2010 at 5:57 pm

  4. ‘Baked Fry’ is very funny. The average UK grammarian would probably do the same. I don’t think British practice varies, does it? (Except when I get it wrong.)


    19/07/2010 at 6:03 pm

    • I hesitate to comment on British practice. I just see “which” used more often (incorrectly, I think) in a restrictive clause. (A restrictive clause defines or restricts the core meaning of the sentence, instead of adding a less important comment or interjection about the sentence. In the latter case, especially where bookended by commas, “which” is correct.)

      Michael Farrell

      19/07/2010 at 6:26 pm

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