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Dear Amy:

I have a question about English-language words used to designate women, as commonly used by Americans.

English is not my mother tongue, but I have been living in the United States for over 10 years. As pretty much everyone knows (except maybe children until they find out) there are a handful of words commonly used as synonyms for 'women'. Most of these words are commonly accepted as offensive (at least by most American women) although they're still widely used and tolerated. For example, in one of today's widely-circulated newspapers published in New York City, a woman who frequently contributes to this paper refers to another woman as "that broad".

My question to you is, would you consider this an expression that's insulting to the woman in question? I think it is meant to be really insulting, the verbal equivalent of hitting the woman discussed as well as indirectly but clearly implying there is something inferior in all women. I know this expression hails back to Frank Sinatra whose current Hollywood 'mirror-image' is George Clooney who still continues to use this term to refer to women. What makes it confusing is that there seems to be no social censure for this kind of expression. I have never heard anyone say that it is wrong or hateful to use this sort of word, although many people readily acknowledge the wrongness of using racist epithets.

When public people or any well known publication express any kind of bias against ethnic minorities in the US, there's usually an outcry. Yet anti-woman words are used daily without anyone raising an eyebrow (that I know of, or most people for that matter). Do you think this has to do more with a cultural/language difference, or with prevailing attitudes of contempt toward women? And if the latter, why do not American women (born and raised here) speak against it? Do they see it differently than I do?

That's it, that's my question. I thank you for taking time to read my email and hope to hear from you.

All the best,

AJ

 

Dear AJ --

Obviously the confusion with language is that it basically comes back to context and who is entitled to own language. I think that feminists have to be more sensitive to this since they sometimes use language, knowing that it's in jest but then give a mixed message.

That said, however, I do think that it's possible to use words and not mean harm, but to honestly be reclaiming them or challenging them. I think that language can be very damaging and even has harmful as physical violence, however, I think that's a fine line and I think the person being called such names is really the one who has to decide if it was dangerous or not.

I hope that's clear -- and it certainly doesn't have an easy answer -- good luck.

- Amy

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