‘Man up’ – Johnson’s Sexist Parlance Continues

This time it’s a phrasal verb that demonstrates Prime Minister Johnson’s fluency in sexist language. While Johnson didn’t invent the phrase to man up, he has borrowed it from the underbelly of popular culture. According to the Google dictionary, it means to ‘be brave or tough enough to deal with an unpleasant situation.’ Yet, the definition is more than that. To man up is one of those expressions that carries its etymology with it – that is, its full meaning is to be brave and tough like a man. Many phrases and words in English (and other languages) linguistically operate in this metaphorical way. We have to break the ice and cherry picking, to name a couple. Unlike these examples, to man up gets its meaning from gender stereotyping, from a world where men are brave and tough and women are the antithesis. It’s a fantasy world that has disregarded women’s work and women’s voices for centuries.

Whenever I see what I think is sexist language or behaviour, I check myself by running the reversal test – I first heard of this back in the early 90s from American feminist Gloria Steinem. It goes like this – replace ‘woman’ with ‘man’ or ‘man’ with ‘woman’ and see what you get. I’ve never heard of ‘woman up.’ Pulling yourself together and acting like a woman is not in our public discourse. Further, whereas the underlying sense of ‘to act like a man’ means to be brave, ‘to act like a woman’ is nearly always used as a slur, saying that someone is emotional or bitchy.

It could be argued that Johnson is merely reflecting in his language the sexism that festers in our society. Maybe Johnson is copying a phrase that has a modern ring about it. But this PM has already leapt farther than that. He recently called Jeremy Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’ when the Labour leader argued against a snap election.  Similarly sophomoric, Johnson referred to former PM David Cameron as a ‘girly swot.’ I find these examples of degradation by feminisation even more disturbing than using man up. These boys’-school-sounding phrases are not found in dictionaries. Both expressions are unique to the Johnson idiolect, no mimicry of popular culture or trying to sound cool involved.

What does that say about the man-child living at 10 Downing Street?

Suzy Kassem

While Johnson has not turned his sexism into misogynistic legislation in the way Tr**p has (e.g. removing funding for women’s health in developing countries), I don’t think we should take the PM’s language lightly. To quote poet Suzy Kassem, ‘Never underestimate the power of a single word, and never recklessly throw around words. One wrong word, or misinterpreted word, can change the meaning of an entire sentence – and even start a war. And one right word, or one kind word, can grant you the heavens and open doors.’


Coming to Terms with Invisible Women

I’m currently reading Caroline Criado Perez’s wonderful book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. She addresses many issues convincingly, such as the way drivers’ seats in cars are made and safety tested with men in mind and the amount of medical research that uses male as the default, leaving women’s health and medicine in the Middle Ages.  Statistics and studies are blended with entertaining – though often infuriating – anecdotes.

But I do have a bone to pick. After discussing the male-voice bias in voice recognition databases, raising some good points, Perez tackles corpora of written texts, which she notes are used by translators, CV-scanning software and web search algorithms. She failed to mention that these corpora were compiled by linguists, who are the main users of these databases for language research.  Because she has missed this point, her own research using corpora comes up short. This is what she did:

‘Searching the BNC [British National Corpus] (100 million words from a wide range of late twentieth century texts) I found that female pronouns consistently appear at around half the rate of male pronouns. The  520-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) also has a 2:1 male to female pronoun ratio despite including texts as recent as 2015.’

From this, Perez criticises the ‘gap-ridden corpora’ for giving ‘the impression the world is actually dominated by men.’

As someone who has used both corpora, I have a problem here. Representativeness is always taken into account when drawing data from these large corpora.  It is as much as part of the discussion as the results of the research itself. If I were looking at gendered pronoun use, I would first isolate my search to newspapers only, where I would expect the ratio of male to female pronouns to be even higher than what Perez found looking at all text types. Newspapers are not only written mostly by men, but report and comment on the world around us – its predominantly male politicians and public figures. And then there are the sports pages, where women’s sports struggle to get even a tenth of the column inches given to men’s sports. That is, newspapers, one of the main sources in the BNC, skew the figures. It might be more accurate to say that the world of news print is ‘actually dominated by men.’

Furthermore, corpus research is not just about frequency – it’s also about the context these search terms appear in. For example, a search on the word ‘hysterical’ will show that it is often in the context of ‘she’ or some women mentioned by name. This for me is more telling than the frequency of ‘she’ in printed texts. There is so much more to learn about gendered pronouns in a more rigorous search. The conclusions could reflect the biases in our societies more than the biases in the collection of data.

Taken from a quick search on Webcorp of internet texts.


Okay, I’ve had my linguist’s rant and I don’t wish to labour the point. Many of the studies in this book – and it is an avalanche of studies – are thoroughly considered against other studies, often revealing gaps in data, where sex difference hasn’t been taken into account, or where it has, women have been deliberately and shamefully excluded.

Pronoun Problems

Schools in Brighton have begun issuing gender pronoun badges in an attempt to support trans students. The badges read: ‘My pronouns are she/her/hers,’ ‘My pronouns are he/him/his,’ ‘My pronouns are they/them/theirs.’  Hang on a minute. How can ‘my’ a singular pronoun match up with plural pronouns ‘they/them/theirs’? I have seen this number-agreement abomination a couple of times recently but only in publications of the sort that still want to spell ‘woman’ as ‘womyn.’  It was easy to ignore ‘I interviewed them’ instead of ‘I interviewed her’ thinking this trend would fade. But putting ‘My…they…’ on a badge – that’s another matter.

Sidebar – really, when it comes to language, like any self-respecting linguist, I’m a descriptivist and not a prescriptivist. Language is not about correct versus incorrect. I describe language – warts and all, changes and fashions – language is constantly growing and developing. And I love it for those reasons.

At the risk of sounding like a prescriptivist, referring to a single individual as ‘they’ rubs me the wrong way. I don’t see it as being inclusive as much as I see it as annoying and potentially confusing. I appreciate the sentiment of not wanting to be identified by ones birth gender if you are transitioning, but messing with number agreement seems a linguistic step too far.

Ideally, one could follow the principles of number agreement and refer to oneself gender-neutrally as ‘it.’ No, of course not. In English, ‘it’ is the table, the chair, the concept and a multitude of other things. People are offended if they are referred to as ‘it’ – they don’t even refer to their pets as ‘it.’

Is it just number agreement or do I have a subconscious dislike of ‘they’? It is something of a weasel word, used without specific meaning for all of those people out there, used by armchair commentators, used by racists.

Language aside for a moment, this badging business has another problem built into it, or should I say ‘them’? When I was a child if someone had offered me a badge, I would have gone for the ‘My pronouns are he/him/his,’ not because I wanted to change my sex (such options weren’t on the table in those days), but simply because I didn’t want to be treated like a girl. I loved baseball, science fiction and chess. I preferred go-carts and photography over dolls and make-up. My badge would have been making a point about equality. Given the ubiquity of sexism these days, I could imagine young women feeling the same way today.

These days, I find myself more disposed to the ideas of gender hybridity, fluidity and neutrality.  This might not suit everyone, but I think in a liberal society, we have to respect our differences. As for language, I’d be quite happy to get rid of ‘he’ and ‘she’ altogether. That would leave us with ‘I,’ ‘you,’ ‘we,’ ‘it’ and – oh, dear – ‘they.’

Paola 1972 001
Me, aged 10, on my go-cart.

Online Book Groups – The People’s Literary Criticism

When we think of book groups or clubs, our first thoughts are likely to be of a group of suburban women gathered around a coffee table with sweet snacks and hot drinks. Or we think of libraries and bookshops, were such groups draw on more diverse and urbane memberships. Common to these face-to-face groups is the idea of socialising around books – indeed, linguistic studies of face-to-face book groups have pointed out that a great deal of social interaction takes place that is not about the book at all. Online book groups are a different matter altogether. With the exception of private book groups on social media sites, online participants usually don’t know each other offline. These groups cultivate discourse often devoid of personal stories that aren’t book related. More book talk than social talk, might online discussions about books become a new form of literary criticism?

I wouldn’t have asked this question some five years ago when I started my research on online book groups (published as The Discourse of Reading Groups). First of all, book groups are largely about readers’ opinions of books. Which books they liked and which they didn’t. Genre book groups, such as crime, thriller and romance, tend to focus on book recommendations and comparing one book to another. Some readers appear to use these groups to build identities as fans of one author or another, listing all of the books they’ve read. This was my introduction to online book groups and hardly the stuff of literary criticism. But that was me being a professional reader – academic/reviewer – or perhaps just a snob.Discourse Book-best

Some professional readers also look down upon the emphasis on reading for pleasure that can dictate opinions and impressions in book group discussions. This is specially the case with genre books. But this is where I break ranks. Reading as a leisure activity goes back to the days of Aristotle – the first literary critic. Though he may not have used those exact words, the relationships between learning, aesthetic experience and pleasure were fundamental in Aristotelean thought.

Once I moved on to other types of online book groups, I discovered that in giving opinions, what often emerges is a sense of empathy – the ways that books reflect the narratives of our own lives or have characters whose reactions, feelings of pain, love and fear touch our own experiences. But online book groups, unlike face-to-face, are inadvertently recording these opinions and experiences. They make them available to anyone with internet access to read. From these postings, consensus and debate flourish. And from them we can see cultural trends and ways of thinking – much like the job of the literary critic.

Close readings of the type found in literary criticism are also not lost in online book groups. This is because not only is social talk diluted among strangers, but also because most online communication is asynchronous. The time between postings in online conversations could be as little as a few minutes and as long as several weeks. These time gaps allow readers to think about their interpretations of books and about their responses to other readers’ points. Readers can draw from other written sources, including other books by the same author or with similar themes, journalistic book reviews and literary criticism, and can comment on language in ways more considered than in synchronous face-to-face contexts. For close readings, I recommend the online book group Booktalk.org and the discussion group around The Guardian book blog.

Could the array of online book group discussions from the highly empathetic, Oprah-style book club, to the analytical be harnessed in a way to give it credence as a new wave of literary criticism? To answer this, we need to recognise the unspoken opposition. It’s not just about the absence of professional readers, the self-identification or the idea of pleasure reading lurking in the background. It’s the internet. Open to all, the web has become the world’s soapbox. It’s abundant with opinions masquerading as news, unsourced arguments and photos of people’s cats. Literary criticism, on the other hand, has been cultivated in universities and has been spread through the written word in the required peer-reviewed publication. But there’s an overlap going on here – traditional literary criticism in its peer-reviewed forms is also a part of the internet, accessible to all.

It was Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, who said that he had hoped the internet would ‘cross barriers and connect cultures.’ I share this hope.  I’d like to think that online book groups and other online discussions about literature will help to bridge the gaps – educational, social, class-based – between professional and ordinary readers.

Fire, fury and Trumpspeak

I’m not calling it language – that would give it too much dignity. As a linguist I’ve been intrigued by the utterances of the current US President. Of course, they wouldn’t be so interesting if they came out of the mouth or the tweet of a teenage boy. I haven’t written about this topic sooner because, not only have satirists done much of the job for me, but I was secretly hoping it would all go away – Trump’s presidency would be so brief, a glitch in the history of US democracy, weird, amusing, at times angering, but a mere footnote in popular culture.

Stripped to its bones, language is about communication. But with Trump, he isn’t communicating as much as he is posing. He has positioned himself as a racist, a sexist, no-nonsense tough guy, but one who is a victim of witch hunts at the same time. What he says – or tweets – is often so lacking in substance that it is more slogan than idea. And then there’s the hyperbole. In Trumpspeak, his proposals are the greatest, the most, the best, the largest. Trump has also completely ruined the word very for me. Okay, very isn’t much of a word anyhow.  It’s one of these thin adverbials used to plump up an even thinner adjective.

He now seems to be posing as a comic book villain with his claims that if North Korea continues their threats – just threats, not military action – “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen … he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

The world is understandably concerned as Trump seems to be saying that he is ready with a pre-emptive strike if these threats continue. He is fitting the persona of the thin-skinned villain who you dare not call chubby or bald. And like the two-dimensional villain, he uses a formal diction – ‘the likes of which.’ This is from someone who has referred to the complicated Russian interference in the US election and more broadly in cyberspace as ‘the Russian thing.’ Trump also, as he does so often, repeat himself, as if the repetition makes the point stronger. Though it is obvious to most of us, this penchant for repetition is likely to come from an inability to understand, let alone articulate the situation this accidental president finds himself in.

The words ‘fire and fury,’ for what we can assume means some sort of military action, are tired metaphors. If Trump were a reader, I’d suspect this came from the Bible or from Shakespeare. My guess is that Trump’s source is more likely the film version of the comic book villain. That’s also where the hyperbole comes from as Trump’s actions will be something the world has never seen before.

While Trump uses words to grandstand or to act out a character, the rest of the world thinks he’s trying to communicate something. As Hillary Clinton said to Trump during one of the debates, as her opponent was being flippant about something he had said, ‘Words matter, Donald.’ He still hasn’t understood that message.

There is a silver lining though. We saw this week how Trump was reluctant to criticise white supremacists for their violence against anti-racism protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of a young woman. After public pressure and attacks from influential politicians, Trump finally condemned racism, pointing the finger at the KKK and neo-Nazis. This was delivered at a press conference atrump cartoon 2nd not via Twitter or during a staged rally of his supporters. The statement was obviously written for him – not his usual hyperbolic words, repetition and vague slogans. He was clearly uncomfortable reading the teleprompter. And that’s the good news – behind the scenes, there are people trying to control him and limit the damage. Sometimes he has to answer to them. This could be America’s and the world’s best hope against a man’s whose tendency to ride roughshod with the English language could lead to catastrophe.

Gertrude Bell in Persia

She’s been described as ‘the female Lawrence of Arabia.’ I confess that I’ve used that glib and convenient phrase myself. But it doesn’t do her the least bit of justice.  One could argue that she accomplished a great deal more than T.E. Lawrence and that she had more barriers to overcome along the way.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was an archaeologist, scholar, writer and a political advisor, helping to establish modern-day Iraq and the National Museum of Iraq. As a contemporary of Lawrence, she worked with him at one point in Egypt. Both were British born and both developed a love and consequently insider’s knowledge of what was then called Arabia and Persia (or even more broadly and strangely to modern ears ‘the Orient.’) While Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is still read by British and American forces stationed in the Middle East, Bell’s writings on Iraq and Syria are studied by military experts and scholars the world over.

I recently read the first book she wrote, Safar Nameh: Persia Pictures.  It’s a journal of her travels in 1892 to what was then Persia, covering modern-day Iran and much of Turkey. She was accompanying her uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, the British Minister to the region, which gave her access to people and places unavailable to most Westerners, especially women.Gertrude bell

Persia Pictures shows us a travel writer at the naissance of her writing life, before she knew herself the role writing would play in her career and the mark it would leave on her legacy. She relays impressions of the landscape, the towns and villages and the people that inhabit them with a sense of wonderment – that first discovery – of a part of the world few in the West knew much about. With this is her discovery of the Persian language and some of its most revered writers – in preparation for the adventure, she became highly proficient in Persian. (At this point in her life, she was already fluent in French and had begun studying Arabic.) Among the gems of this book are her fragments of translations of the Persian poet Hafiz into English. A few years later she published her translations of The Divan of Hafiz.

Bell concludes this short volume with what can be best described as a meditation on travelling. Here, she summarises her encounters with the locals in her role as traveller: ‘Although your acquaintance may be short in hours, it is long in experience; and when you part you feel as intimate as if you had shared the same slice of bread-and-butter at your nursery and the same bottle of claret in your college hall. The vicissitudes of the road have a wonderful talent for bringing out the fine flavour of character.’

With the films Queen of the Desert and Letters from Baghdad, Bell is slowly emerging from obscurity, but still appears to be relegated to ‘women’s studies’ as opposed to the writer, scholar and historical figure that her feats deserve. Yet, the day might come when T.E. Lawrence is referred to as ‘the male Gertrude Bell.’

Tautology is Tautology

PM Theresa May does like her tautologies. First it was ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and now ‘Enough is enough.’ In semantics such expressions are treated as p →p. In pragmatics, where context comes in, it’s p →p ~>p (that is, saying p →p implies something greater than just p). But I can’t say this is the case with May’s use of this rhetorical device.

‘Brexit means Brexit’ was rightly criticised by many as being weak and uninformative as the public didn’t (and still don’t) know what Brexit means. In the months following this confusing declaration, the May government has hinted at a Brexit that would take the UK out of the single market altogether – the one thing that most of the country, including a portion who voted to leave the EU, don’t want. What else does Brexit mean? Leaving the EU will affect a large range of statutes and issues, which still haven’t been addressed by Theresa May. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has become a blanket  to hide either the indecision and incompetence of those working on the Brexit project or to hide plans that would be unpopular with the electorate. Time will tell.

When I first heard May spouting out ‘Enough is enough’ in the aftermath of the latest terrorist attack to besiege the UK, I had a personal recollection of the last time I heard someone say that to me. It was actually in an email, so I hadn’t heard it, but I had heard the writer’s voice in my head. Without going into the unpleasant details of the long email thread, I was being attacked by someone with emotional and learning disabilities, who – being a relative – I felt obliged to respond to. My efforts to defend myself and clear the air were met with even more hostility and false accusations. My emails became shorter and shorter, saying that I wasn’t going to engage in this type of communication. And then it came – ‘Enough is enough!’ I was being scolded. The person who had scolded me had run out of things to say when she saw that I wasn’t sparring with her. I fear that Theresa May has reduced herself to this. Like my reaction to the relative scolding me, I find it amusing and a sign of weakness.

Have tautologies ever worked? First of all, I should say that I’m thinking of tautologies in the strictest sense. I’m excluding expressions such as Yogi Berra’s infamous ‘This is like déjà vu all over again.’ I would call that a redundant expression used by an inept speaker. For some, Hamlet’s  ‘I’m reading words, words, words’ is also a tautology – for me, it’s repetition that effectively avoids and mocks Polonius.  Yogi Berra is not saying ‘déjà vu is déjà vu’ and Hamlet is not saying ‘words mean words.’ With that aside, here are a couple of notable examples of tautologies that do work.  Sometimes I find myself saying  ‘It is what it is,’ perhaps much to others’ annoyance.  For me, it’s a polite way of saying that you can’t change the situation so stop trying.

And finally, there is ‘love is love.’ It was just about to become worn out, having been  the name of a Culture Club song and appearing on cheery posters, etc, when it was rescued by LGBT activists. This soft approach reminds those who are against gay rights that it all boils down to love. What kind of monster would be against that or argue with that? Of course, the monsters still exist, but the vast majority of people have come to accept gay rights. This has proved itself a meaningful and worthwhile tautology.