4 words we need to stop using right now


Photo by Ale_Paiva.WARNING: This post contains lots of cuss-words, including the really bad ones – not for shock, but for discussion. Well, mostly for discussion. If you are unable to cope with the sight of a swear word, best to head off now.

This week Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame, gave a very impassioned speech at the United Nations in support of a new campaign – “He For She” – for gender equality. Crucially, she called on men around the world to pull their damn fingers out and support feminism (she might have put it slightly more delicately).

As I’ve stated before, I believe this is absolutely critical, and the only way we’ll really be able to move forward to greater equality. And it was in that spirit that I’ve been working on this post for a while now – but Watson’s speech gave me a little nudge to actually finish the damn thing.

So, in the interests of making the world a better place for women AND men, I present a short list of words which I believe we could all usefully drop from our vocabularies, thus cutting down the low-level sexist radiation we’re all subjected to.

(Actually, it’s kind of a mix of words and phrases, and there’s more like 11 than four – but that didn’t sound so good in the headline. So sue me. Also, if you’re tempted to shout at me for being a language Nazi or some such, please read this first.)

Alright, everyone ready? Set… GO!

1 – Cunt / Twat / Pussy

Yep, let’s dive in at the deep end – it’s time for female genitalia!

A lot of people really, really love using these words as insults, don’t they? “Cunt” was explained to me as being the worst word it’s possible to use. Despite meaning the exact same thing, “twat” isn’t quite as bad for some reason, and it seems like “pussy” has made it all the way into the safe-for-children lexicon.

But all of them are said on a daily basis, used as pejorative terms against people, politicians, phone companies, pets, hot irons, buses, or even (if sufficiently intoxicated) lamp-posts, pavements and rubbish bins.

Let’s step back for a moment here and think about this. We have somehow convinced ourselves that slang terms for female genitalia are THE WORST THINGS WE CAN CALL SOMEONE.

That’s messed up. Really, really messed up.

If we took a vote on ‘the worst thing in the world to be compared to’, I don’t think the vagina would really be in the running. Even if we restricted it to ‘the worst bit of the human body’ it’s still out of luck, considering there’s another hole not very far away that is literally full of shit.

We can go further – I’d suggest quite a lot of people might describe the vagina as quite a good bit of human anatomy, on the whole. For a start there’s that “giving life” function, as well as a capacity to give pleasure. Compare that with an organ like the appendix, which sits around doing sod all, and one day may decide to explode and kill you – what the fuck, appendix?

So why do we say “you [slang for vagina]” instead of, say, “you [slang for appendix]” when we want to insult someone? I’m sure there are many, many theses and dissertations on the subject, arguing everything from “the patriarchy” to “Quentin Tarantino” – but when you get down to the basics, it doesn’t look good from the “not hating women” perspective.

And then there’s “pussy” – now a general synonym for “wimp” or “weak”. Again, a synonym for female genitals – and often now a synonym for “woman” – is used to embody many of the traits stereotypically ascribed to women, firmly in a negative way. Again, what the hell?

So, let’s cut them out of the language. Let’s stop using them. Never again will we recite the classic Derek and Clive track in a misguided attempt to make people like us. Done.

Well, almost.

Some people say these words are used as affectionate greetings (hiya, North Wales!), and there’s also a movement to reclaim them, similar to the way the n-word has been (partially) reclaimed by black people. And that’s fine, I think – it’s an uphill struggle, but go for it.

But in order for it to succeed, I also think it would be much easier if there weren’t so many pejorative examples of the c-, t- and p-words floating around, polluting everything. So the main ban still stands.

And for parity’s sake…


2 – Dick / Cock / Knob / etc

This may be more controversial. But the way I see it, if we can’t use female genitals as insults, then we shouldn’t use male genitals either.

(Notice, though, that these are generally much, much less taboo than the examples above –in swearing, there’s nothing worse than being part of a woman.)

Now, one argument against this is that the male member IS generally much more objectionable than its female analogue. Men do nasty things with their penises, starting with sending unsolicited pictures of them to unsuspecting people, and working up from there.

But here’s the thing – aside from simple parity and equality, I’d argue that using these terms helps enforce the idea that a) men are ruled by their sexual organs, and b) penises are inherently bad things. Which, they’re not. (Again, life-creating, pleasure-giving, etc.)

So, out go the penises. Bye, penises!

(I was very tempted to include “bollocks” and “balls” in this section as well – but I decided against it. I think it’s a marginal call, but it seems to me they’re not used in the same way, as slang for bad people or behaviour . Instead, they’re used to describe things that are useless or pointless – which testicles, of course, are not – and so don’t have the same negative impact. Maybe we need to add a female equivalent – what’s a good slang word for “ovaries”? However, there is one testicular reference we need to talk about…)


3 – Grow A Pair / Man Up / Be A Man / etc

This is basically the inverse of “pussy” up in number one – what do you need to do to become braver, bolder, better? Become a man, of course!

The subtext of “be a man”, then, is “don’t be a woman” (given that slang hasn’t yet evolved beyond the gender binary – give it time). This implies, as with “pussy”, that women – or anyone that’s not a man – is insufficiently bold and strong for difficult tasks.

Now not only is this deeply insulting to women, but it’s also deeply emasculating for the men it’s directed at. “Come on, Jim – be a man. Smash those windows already!” – does this mean that Jim is not an adequate man? What does some particular action have to do with masculinity?

For that matter, why is “masculinity” such a wonderful thing? There are many women in the world who would think nothing of, say, punching a bear – just as there are many men who (sensibly) would run away shrieking if confronted by said bear. But the doctrine of “grow a pair” may shame these men into feeling they are somehow inadequate.

I – and many others before me – would argue defining bold or strong behaviour as a distinctively male trait harms both women AND men, by forcing particular modes on people who are far more than just their gender.

Speaking of gendered behaviour…


4 – Hysteria / Histrionics

Quick history lesson: long ago in the happy days of centuries past, medicine was slightly less advanced than it is today. Back then, doctors sometimes struggled to work out what was going on, or how to cure it (hence cupping, leeches, exorcisms, etc).

When it came to women, though, doctors had a good fallback – “wandering uterus syndrome”, where said organ moved around the body, messing things up and generally making the woman crazy. And guess what the Greek word (all the best doctors spoke Greek) for uterus is?

Hystera (ὑστέρα for purists)

And lo, that’s how we get “hysteria” and all its derivations – they all mean “womb wobbly”. How about that. Oh, and this only went out of fashion in the 19th century.

The reason for that, amazingly, is that “wandering womb” is not really a thing. No – instead, it was just a convenient way of blaming a woman’s medical problems on her anatomy, instead of whatever might actually be the problem. (Note that “problems” sometimes included “not shutting the fuck up when her husband was talking” and similar issues.)

There’s a good argument to say the origins of these words have largely been lost, making them non-gendered – so what’s the big deal? To a degree I think this is true – but there are enough words in the language (think “hysterectomy”) that call back to the same root to associate “hysteria” with “women’s stuff”, even if only unconsciously.

In the end, as with all of these words, it’s up to you. I’ve stopped using “hysterical” and the like as much as possible – and to be honest, it’s created a hole in my vocabulary which I haven’t yet quite figured out how to fill.

But I really believe it’s worth it – because if we can dampen down some of the background noise of everyday sexism, I think it will be easier to achieve something like equality, and bring forth an era of meadows and rainbows and kittens and such. And everything will be great.

Except, y’know, for all that poverty and suffering and such.


Afterword – on language Nazis:

I hate Lynne Truss. Or at least, I hate the public persona she projects through her books and writing, such as Eats, Shoots & Leaves – a sort of quivering mass of grammar and contempt, prone, when confronted by linguistic lapses, to barely controlled outbursts of righteous fury such as might be provoked by an appearance from David Cameron in a Glasgow pub.

I don’t believe we should try to hold back the evolution of language, and I’ve also come to believe the most crucial thing in writing is effective communication. Being prissy about minor lapses in grammar and spelling is a luxury usually afforded to the well-off and well-educated, at the expense of those not able to afford a private education.

So, fuck that shit.

Please bear this in mind, then, when reading all the stuff above – this is in the spirit of evolving English, not constraining it.

Back to the list.

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