The misogyny of languages

Cristina_Fernández_de_Kirchner_-_Foto_Oficial_2My previous post on the diplomatic furore caused by the most charming president of Uruguay, José Mujica, aged 77, when he called his Argentinian  counterpart, Christina Fernández de Kirchner (right), who is a very spritely 60, a vieja, or “old hag“, raises some interesting issues about attitudes to gender and sexism in language.

In reply, one of the followers of this blog and a blogger whom I follow, “Le Cul en Rows” (If you are not sure what a cul is let me tell you that her cul is precariously balanced between two chairs representing different languages, and you should check out her blog here) offered this pertinent observation:

The translation of “vieja” as “old hag” is correct. When used as an adjective, “vieja” is indeed “old feminine X” but as a noun, it has distinctly negative connotations and can also mean “washed up” as well as “no longer sexually viable.” This may have been a pot/kettle case as you suggest, but there aren’t really any male equivalents that I can think of. (Crotchety, grumpy, etc. not being nearly as extreme.)”

My gut feeling (I have not done any formal study of this) is that in English at least and possibly in many other languages there are many more pejorative terms or expressions applying to women, to gays and to effeminate men (regardless of their sexuality) then there are applying to men. If you used the masculine equivalent of vieja in Spanish, viejo, for example, would it imply that the man was “washed up and no longer sexually viable”? I doubt it.

Australia pinnacle

It’s a man’s world. (Photo credit: Kenny Teo (zoompict))

What, in English, is the male equivalent of “hag”, which in some dictionaries is defined as “an unpleasant or ugly old woman“? I can’t really think of one. As noted above, “grumpy old man“, “dirty old man” etc don’t really have the same venom. Another perjorative term that comes to mind is “fishwife“, which apart from meaning a woman who sells fish can also mean “a woman regarded as coarse and shrewishly abusive“. Do you think fisherman or fishmonger have the same connotations? Absolutely not. The word shrew is another example: it can mean “a bad-tempered or aggressively assertive woman“. I guess the male equivalent must be shrewd (um, I am being sarcastic).

The French translation of “vieja” was “bonne femme” which has a perjorative sense (maybe “old duck” would be a kinder translation into English than “old hag“). I asked a French teacher if you could also say “bon hom” about an old man, and he said you could use that expression, but it was more affectionate than bonne femme. So, old men get affection, old women get despised. And of course there is the word bonhomie, which even English has adopted, meaning “a pleasant and affable disposition; geniality“. Aren’t men linguistically lovable!

Prime Minister Julia Gillard (25)

Julia Gillard

There has been much debate here in Australia about misogyny (defined as “hatred of women”) because the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has had to endure some stinging attacks in Parliament and from male members of the media (including some radio “shock jocks” who are usually grumpy old men), and she herself has said they were misogynists. Among the attackers were Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and radio announcer Alan Jones, whom I nickname Alan Moans because basically, like other talkback radio jocks, he is a professional whinger. He caused an outcry when he said that her father had died of shame at her “lies and deceit” in parliament. You can read about the saga here. Gillard’s speech attacking Tony Abbott (“I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.”) caused quite a stir worldwide. You can read The New Yorker‘s account here. Other members of the Australian parliament have also caused a stir with sexist language … read about Peter Slipper’s crass offering here.

former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatche...

Margaret Thatcher

Would Mujica have said the same kind of thing about an Argentinian male president? Look, too, at all the vitriol that has arisen this week about another tough woman in politics, Margaret Thatcher, whose funeral was held today. When news broke of her death, there were banners proclaiming “Hooray, the bitch is dead” and there has been the campaign to make the song Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead go to number one on the charts. It failed, as you can see here. Sure, Thatcher was a very divisive and controversial politician, but the point I am making here is do the male equivalents of bitch and witch dog and wizard – have the same nasty implications?

If there was a study to see which languages in the world had the most sexist terms, it would certainly make interesting reading. I wonder whether some cultural patterns would emerge. Would Western languages prove to be more sexist than Eastern/Oriental/Asian languages, for example? How would Arabic, Polynesian or African languages rate? Are there any languages that don’t have any perjorative terms at all?

Catherine Lara

Catherine Lara

Anyway, rather than focusing on the negatives, I thought I would try to pay homage and show some appreciation for women (who I think are generally the unsung heroes of the world) and tie it in with my Romance languages theme by drawing your attention to a “sung hero”, that is a woman singing a great song in one of my five featured languages. I opted for a tuneful pop song, Nuit Magique, by an acclaimed French violinist Catherine Lara (you can read about her in French here or English here). It’s a smash hit from about 1986, and I have done a rough translation of les paroles below. But that will not be the end of this post, please read through to the finish!

Here are les paroles

OK … il n’y avait rien à faire   – OK, there was nothing to do
OK … dans cette ville étrangère   – in this strange town
OK … tu étais solitaire  – you were alone
OK … j’avais le cœur à l’envers   – my heart was upside down (i.e. in turmoil or somesuch)
OK … tout ça n’était qu’un jeu  –   it was all only a game
OK … on jouait avec le feu   –  we were playing with fire
OK … on s’est pris au sérieux  –  we took ourselves seriously
OK … le rire au fond des yeux  –   laughter deep in our eyes

Nuit magique  –  Magical night
Une histoire d’humour qui tourne à l’amour – a story of humour which turned to love
Quand vient le jour  – when the day came
Nuit magique
On perd la mémoire au fond d’un regard – we forgot everything in the depth of a look
Histoire d’un soir – the story of an evening
Nuit magique
Si loin de tout sans garde-fou  – so far from everything without a safety-rail/handrail
Autour de nous  – around us
Nuit magique
Nuit de hasard on se sépare  –  a random night (or a night of randomness) we separate
Sans trop y croire –  without believing in it too much

OK … c’est une histoire de peau   – OK, it’s a story of skin
OK … on repart à zéro   – we go back to square one
OK … on oublie aussitôt   – we forget everything
OK … qu’on s’est tourné le dos  – when we turn our backs on each other.

Below I have pasted another of her clips, a relatively recent performance of another big hit,  La Rockeuse de Diamant. You will notice that in this one she is older and greyer, but she is as lively as ever and appears full of joie de vivre, so don’t anybody dare call her an old hag or bonne femme, OK!

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