Don’t Call Me a Mistress


Language Matters: Alamy

Language matters. When newspapers call women mistresses or “homewreckers”, they are not just using an identifying term. They are also making a value judgement about what happened in a relationship – a judgment that often places the blame on women, even though there are two people involved in an affair.

So writes Jessica Valenti of the Guardian in an article entitled “Why we need to lose biased words like ‘mistress’ for good.” Her argument based on Paula Broadwell’s campaign to get news media to stop using that word to characterize (and vilify) her relationship with ex-CIA director, David Patraeus, goes something like this: ‘Mistress,’ which has no male counterpart is one of those words used to blame women for behavior of two consenting adults, presumably male and female, that society condemns.

When we use words that prop men up for the same behavior that we disdain in women, we are sending a very particular message, one that causes harm whether you’re a reporter writing for readers or a parent talking to your kids.

She throws in other loaded terms targeting women like spinster and Oxford Dictionary’s ‘rabid feminist’ as a word definition example along with the usual words used against men to suggest womanly behavior like ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy’ that she concludes are sexist, outdated and harmful. 

So let’s lose “mistress” and words like it. Our language should reflect the world we want, not antiquated ghosts of sexism past.” 

She’s right. The word “mistress” has no male counterpart and denotatively and connotatively female words used to ascribe enculturated female behaviors as insults are loaded with history’s carryover sexist world. She’s also right that “language matters.” 

But history also matters, for that matter. So, rather than cut ties with history by eliminating language that survives the ephemeral fashions, behaviors and ideas of long ago, why not use language to educate people? Rather than deny distasteful history, say, slavery or holocaust, by eliminating the hate words that derived from those horrific institutions and events (nigger, kike, etc.), how about we teach people to be aware of how we use language and why? 

Jill McCorkle writes in the essay, “Cuss Time,” the story of how she resolved her nine year old’s forbidden fruit fascination with profanity by allowing him a 15 minute cuss time each day, a free-to-say-anything break in the day to let it all out. Risking a bad parent label (or even a referral to child protective services, I would imagine), she allowed her son the freedom to swear like a sailor rather than censor his language and lose the power, resource and history of language by eliminating words from her son’s vocabulary. She writes:

 Word by single word, our history will be rewritten if we don’t guard and protect it, truth lost to some individual’s idea about what is right or wrong. These speech monitors–the Word Gestapo (speaking of words some would have us deny and forget)–attempt to define and dictate what is acceptable and what is not.

Valenti also opens her article with language parenting by mentioning her careful language selection, words she wants her children to use like firefighter instead of fireman. I believe these two authors hold the key to the problematic power inherent to language: teach children by mindful use and education rather than by a negative, censorship. The children wield the power to change future language, meaning, action and society.

(Thanks to Laura Steuer of  infidelity counseling network for sending this article my way). 

Sticks and Stones May Break my Bones… but Call Me a Cunt?


It may have been Christmas time three years ago, when, in the daze that was my shopping misery, I finally reached the cash register after a zombifyingly long wait in a Disneyland-like serpentine line. To my shock and then delight, the young ostensibly female Urban Outfitter employee asking me if I found everything “okay” was sporting a medium-sized (not too small and not overly large) white round button pinned to the left of the top of her left breast with the word in bold black capital letters, “CUNT” printed on it. 

After a bit of an eye widening, I settled into a smirk and complimented her on her pin. She said her pal, the manager, made it for her. I thought it ballsy to wear it in a store, hip as the location is–the anti-mall, a hipster haven–with commercial intent, especially one run by Conservative homophobes from what I recollected reading.


I immediately wanted one. Up to that year, my 51st, I had not encountered the word very often and it had an aura about it, something electric and taboo. The word had never been hurled at me as a weapon til then, though it has been since–by someone I could not have ever guessed would use it against me, yet neither could I have ever imagined that he and I could have ever entered into hideous combat the way he had. 


The initial admixture of discordant discomfort, alarm, and delight was titillating and intriguing. Yes, I understood the neutralizing of such terms through ironic deployment as many other terms have been similarly used:  nigger and queer, to name the two powerhouse terms of oppression that have been turned inside out by the intended targets’ co-opting these weapons. No, one cannot harm another with a word she turns on herself happily, so that the term is deflated, neutralized.


My reaction led me on the usual journey of the philologist (a title one graduate school professor knighted his class of comparative literature students with profoundly):  What is the nature of language?


Interestingly enough, I had this discussion about language with my class just yesterday. We had read Susan Allison’s, “Taking a Reading,” which is a playful essay examining the language of measurement, supposedly a very precise endeavor of linguists long ago. However, in it, Allison wryly asks how it is that her yard, the same word for a measurement of three feet, and that of her childhood–two different sized and located spaces–are both yards. Even the language of precision has so much slippage.


I asked my students:  If we woke up tomorrow and the word for cat was now “dog,” would it matter?  Language is merely a referent to something else, so does it make a difference which sounds and letters we assign to the object in mind, and how do we know the object we have in mind is the same referent for everyone using the same term anyhow? And what of the individual raised without a word for “cat” or any language?  Does a cat exist in absence of a word for it, to recall it to mind and give it form? Pretty abstract for a class during the need-for-a-tea-or-espresso hour.


My point was to consider the arbitrariness of language even as it forms and informs our very existence–makes our world. I am not alone in pondering this phenomenon way too much. Philosophy teems with such obsessing considerations.


But how is it that such words like “cunt” contain all that energy, all that power?  Does calling a man a “dick” have the same effect? No, it does not because of the real life power relations between men and women historically and contemporarily in physical, economical and political disparity of exchange. The magic of the term, however, must be steeped in a rich history of which I am not fully aware because calling a female “womb” or “vagina” or “twat” even does not have the same force or violence in my mind. 


Few females wish to be identified as one part of their bodies, I would imagine, and if they did, it probably would not be their vaginas more than their brains. Though, as the wonderful Betty White, comedic tough ass actress long enduring herself, has astutely joked, the vagina is a pretty damned tough body part for its resilience, flexibility and endurance in light of the beatings it suffers.  


For your viewing pleasure, an entertaining comic strip content of attitudes toward and reactions to the word “cunt” on the Nib entitled “Just a Word,” is offered for discussion. Is it just a word? A weapon? Is it enough to own the word, wear it on a pin to neutralize it? Breeze through the cartoon and weigh in. This inquiring mind wants to know.