Sexism in the English language

Updated: May 21, 2020

As I was watching a TedTalk on feminism, the speaker used the term ‘emasculated’ to describe the process of making a male feel less than a man by taking away his sense of power and confidence. Then it occurred to me that there isn’t an obvious female equivalent for this term. In the English language, there isn’t a term describing the process of making a female feel less than a woman by taking away her power and confidence. Or is it called everyday life for a woman? Not wanting to accept that, I did a bit of research and came across the word ‘defeminise’. However, its definition is not the exact equivalent of ‘emasculate’. So it made me think, is the English language a sexist language? Below are 7 words that show some of the sexism present in the language:

Mistress: which should be the female equivalent of ‘master’. So logically, the word ‘mistress’ should describe a woman with power and authority. Well. it doesn’t. From the 17th century, the term was used to describe a woman engaged in an affair with a married man. In other words, ‘the other woman’. What do we call a man engaged in an affair with a married woman? A lover…

Hussy: the original meaning of ‘hussy’ was the contraction of the word ‘housewife’, therefore meaning the head of the household. However, from the 17th century, it started to mean a woman who had a bad reputation and didn’t behave properly. This is the only meaning for this word today.

Madam: this should be simple enough and be the male equivalent of ‘sir’. Today, a ‘madam’ is the manager of a brothel. So the term is directly associated with prostitution and therefore loose morals, whereas, ‘sir’ is respectable and honourable.

Spinster: originally, the word meant someone whose occupation was to spin yarn or thread. It was usually a woman, but could possibly be a man too. In the old days, as a woman without a husband might have had to rely on the professional activity of spinning to earn some money, the noun became associated with unmarried women. Now, it has a strong negative connotation. When one thinks of the term spinster, one imagines an unmarried woman over the age of what might be considered the ‘usual age to marry’ with loads of cats. This woman is imagined as plain, dreary and unattractive, possibly a teacher. What do we call an unmarried man, even in his fifties? We call him a bachelor. The connotation and association that we might make are very different to the ones we make with the term ‘spinster’. A bachelor is powerful, handsome, has money and a very famous TV show!

Courtesan: originally, this noun was used to describe someone who attends the court of a King or Queen and was the female equivalent of the noun ‘courtier’. Then at some point, the meaning of the word changed to mean prostitute. This is the only meaning of this word nowadays.

Wench: initially this meant a female baby or a young unmarried girl. Then as all the words mentioned above, it started to acquire a negative meaning in the Middle Ages to mean a cruel and inconsiderate woman who shows no care at all.

Tart: no, I don’t mean the French pastry! The Collins dictionary says that ‘tart’ was the contracted form of ‘sweetheart’. From the late 19th century, the definition of the term shifted to a more negative meaning which described women of loose morals and prostitution. Nowadays, the term is associated with women who wear clothes and make up in order to attract some sort of sexual attention in a very obvious manner. Very far from the sweetheart it was meant to refer to initially.

When we look closely at the male and female equivalents of these terms the former speaks of power, high status and morality whereas the latter is linked to nastiness, lower and subordinate status as well as sexuality as service for men. There was a point in time where these words were simply male and female equivalents, however, social conventions, history and morals put their marks on the language. Let’s hope that with a society which is trying to get away from gender definition these terms might come back to their original meanings or be replaced by positive terms that shows equality between men and women.

(inspired by and adapted from

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