One or two more items, by way of mopping up. (And just in case there is any doubt on the matter, as apparently there was for at least one commenter: no I don’t think the importance of the subject is in proportion to the time I’ve spent on it; no the fact that I’ve done several posts on it doesn’t mean that I think words are more important than, say, marrying a child of 8 to a man 52 years her senior. I’m just interested; and there is a lot of disagreement and a lot of testimony. I’m interested in language – this is not a big surprise, surely; one of the first things I did with B&W was to start the Fashionable Dictionary. I write about what interests me, in the full faith and confidence that if any reader or readers find a particular post boring, they will know they don’t have to read it. There’s no exam, there’s no exit question, nobody has to read any of this.)
Jeremy told me an anecdote last week. He (you may or may not know) is from London, now lives in Toronto.
“I was at soccer, and some guy on the opposing team was acting the tough guy, and I said something like – “You couldn’t hurt pussy, mate”, which to a UK person kind of makes sense (it just means you couldn’t hurt a small furry animal – though I think I picked it up from my father, so it isn’t something that many people say).
Anyway, there were gasps all around, and someone on my own team said:
“What did you just say!?”
Of course, I’d just said something that (a) was just very bizarre – suggesting a penchant for sexual violence or something; and (b) probably a violation of numerous taboos. Luckily, people guessed that in the UK it didn’t mean what it means here, so I escaped with my life. But it was a close thing!”
So apparently in Toronto it’s risky to assume it means kitty-cat.
But then you move farther east…He told me this yesterday:
“Strange thing. I mentioned this stuff to a Canadian woman tonight (born here), she said that hearing ‘pussy’, even as an insult, she would only really think of cats. She’s aware of the female genital meaning, of course, but denied it would be what came to mind.
When I expressed surprise, she claimed that there’s a difference between the way in which people in the Maritime provinces – where she was brought up – understand this stuff and people in the rest of Canada. It’s less Americanized (so she said).”
Another friend of mine, who has emigrated the other way – from California to Surrey – made this point, after discussing the oddity of ‘how gay’:
“I’m away or I’d look up some quotes about how words ‘chime’, they carry overtones of meaning because they mean more than one thing. In essence, if you know multiple meanings of ‘gay’, then you cannot mention one without invoking the overtones of the other.”
That’s a crucial point, I think. After this discussion I might not go so far as to say you can’t (if only because I’m so sick of Adam yelling at me), but I would at least say that you should realize the possibility is always there.
That’s not even very controversial, is it? Aren’t there quite a few words (like tea-bagging!) that have overtones one doesn’t always want to invoke? Don’t we all know that? Don’t we hesitate over certain words? I think we do, and I don’t think this is particularly different.
And then there’s some just plain stupidity. From the comments:
Look, I can call another bloke a twat just as I can call a girl a prick and neither have any more significant meaning when the terms are reversed. I think you’re just being a massive prude with this whole sexist epithet thing.
It’s got nothing to do with prudery – that’s just a category mistake. It’s not about swearing, it’s not about obscenity, it’s not about blasphemy, it’s not about genitalia as such, it’s about epithets; name-calling; pejoratives. That’s a different subject.
And then just to top it all off we get a guy wondering if women are really all that badly treated – and then I lose my temper. Yes – women are all that badly treated. I’m not, of course, but I’m fortunate; women in Uganda and Pakistan and DR Congo and Nicaragua and Saudi Arabia and a lot of other places are not. Do me a favour: don’t play ‘comparative oppression’ with me. I’m not in the mood.