sexist language

A Beginner's Guide to Language and Gender by Allyson Jule (Multilingual Matters, 2008).


Words and phrases that demean, ignore, or stereotype members of either sex or that needlessly call attention to gender.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "Questions and criticisms of sexist language have emerged because of a concern that language is a powerful medium through which the world is both reflected and constructed. . . . Some have claimed that the use of generics (such as 'mankind' to refer to both men and women) reinforces a binary that sees the male and masculine as the norm and the female and feminine as the 'not norm.' . . .

    "Sexist language also presents stereotypes of both females and males, sometimes to the disadvantage of males, but more often to the disadvantage of females. This sexism is seen universally in all languages. In English, Robin Lakoff (1975) uses the example of 'master' vs 'mistress' to make the point: there are unequal connotations that surround these two matching terms--and to the detriment of those born female--'Master' has strong and powerful connotations, while 'mistress' does not not. . . .

    "Sexist language also includes the depiction of women in the position of passive object rather than active subject, such as on the basis of their appearance ('a blonde') or domestic roles ('a mother of two') when similar depictions in similar contexts would not be made of men. These representations of women trivialize their lives and place an extra level of personal judgment on them."
    (Allyson Jule, A Beginner's Guide to Language and Gender. Multilingual Matters, 2008)
  • "The following practices, while they may not result from conscious sexism, reflect stereotypical thinking: referring to nurses as women and doctors as men, using different conventions when naming or identifying women and men, or assuming that all of one's readers are men.
    Stereotypical Language
    After the nursing student graduates, she must face a difficult state board examination. [Not all nursing students are women.]

    Running for city council are Jake Stein, an attorney, and Mrs. Cynthia Jones, a professor of English and mother of three. [The title Mrs. and the phrase mother of three are irrelevant.]

    Wives of senior government officials are required to report any gifts they receive that are valued at more than $100. [Not all senior government officials are men.]
    (Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002)
  • Language in Context
    "The 'language as sexist' prong of language and gender studies has faded in the last two decades . . .. It was soon realised that a word could not unproblematically be derided as sexist since it could in principle be 'reclaimed' by a given speech community (queer probably being the most famous actual example). Similarly, a superficially gender-neutral word such as people could be used in a sexist way: in an article in The Independent (5/1/90), for example, Richard Adams wrote:
    The commons were popular with Newburians and other locals. People took picnics, 'walked out' with their girls, picked bluebells and primroses in season
    (see Cameron 1994, for other examples).
    Additionally, identification of 'sexist' words did not allow for the fact that these could be used ironically or in other non-literal ways, or that both sexist and non-sexist words could be interpreted in a whole range of ways. Perhaps most importantly, the role of context or 'situatedness' as key to both the production of a given utterance and its interpretation was underestimated."
    (Lia Litosseliti and Jane Sunderland, Gender Identity and Discourse Analysis. John Benjamins, 2002)
  • Sexist Language in The Office
    Michael: Okay, so what I want to engage us in today is a hardcore discussion about women's problems and issues and situations. Magazines and TV shows and movies portray women as skinny, tall goddesses. Well, look around. Are women like that? No. No, they are not. [Points to Pam] Even the hot ones aren't really that skinny. So what does that say? That says that you women are up against it. And it is criminal. Society doesn't care. Society sucks. I don't even consider myself a part of society, FYI, because I am so angry over all of this. . . .
    Karen: What you're saying is extremely misogynistic.
    Michael: Yes! Thank you. That was not necessary, but I appreciate it. And it proves my point: women can do anything.
    Karen: I'm saying that you're being sexist.
    Michael: No, I'm being misogynistic. That is insane, I'm not being sexist.
    Karen: That's . . . it's the same thing.
    (Steve Carell and Rashida Jones, "Women's Appreciation." The Office, 2007)