by Ella Steen ’23

      Language is undeniably a fundamental part of culture and human development; it allows us to communicate, collaborate, and share ideas on a broad scope. Culture and language are locked into a mutually productive relationship. What affects one affects the other, and what one creates manifests in the other. This relationship is essential, and the two are inextricably bound, but sometimes this comes at a cost. Sometimes culture becomes poisoned, tainted with prejudice, hate, and discrimination. This negativity must then appear in the language of the society affected by it 

      An example of this situation is how sexism in Western society has affected the development and current condition of the English language. It takes only a quick glance at English-speaking cultures to see how the language is imbued with prejudice. The pejoration of words like ‘mistress and ‘spinster provide examples of how, when people are categorized by occupation, the female equivalent of a title often becomes degraded into a disrespectful term. (Master and bachelor are not typically insulting or shameful terms.) By examining terms for those in power, we can see that the hierarchy of past English culture favored men, and therefore language was developed around this expectation. We can have a kingdom, but can we have a queendom? Beyond terminology for positions of power, it is evident that even occupations outside the home did not anticipate allowing for women; until recently, we had only firemen, policemen, and chairmen. Many women in English-speaking nations today must face the unfortunate choice between their father’s or husband’s surname at the point of marriage, a not-so-gentle reminder that family units and connections are nominally defined by men. Discriminations like these, which have become so common in English, must be sought out and considered, lest we become unconscious of the effect they have on the way we think. In this essay, I will examine how sexism has become entrenched in the English language, specifically within the area of semantics, as well as in English naming traditions, colloquial speech, and literary tradition.

      Sexism in Western society has its basis in patriarchy. In order to understand how patriarchy has permeated the development of English, we should examine briefly the origins of patriarchy itself. In approximately 7,000 B.C., humans began to settle into agricultural communities in ancient Mesopotamia. In possession of greater physical strength, men gained the upper hand in a society where strength often meant the difference between life and death. Societies continued growing across the ancient world, and a gap of power widened between the sexes. Women were increasingly forced to rely on men for sustenance, status, and safety; thus, the world was built on a tilted foundation, and women became relegated to a secondary social class. European society, as it developed across thousands of years, continued the legacy of this event. As these gender roles were constructed in the civilizations that would later make up England, language developed to support and describe them.  

      The first area of English where sexism can be found is in the language’s semantics. Considering certain nouns in male versus female contexts demonstrates how the masculine and feminine expressions of the same original concept can become separated in meaning, with the feminine gaining a lower status and often uglier connotations. The word pairs witch and wizard, master and mistress, and sir and madam are examples of this. When we consider a wizard, he is probably old and wise, with a long beard and magical powers. When we consider a witch, she is probably ugly, wicked, and bent on some evil agenda. Sometimes there simply is no feminine equivalent to a masculine term. The word ‘queendom’, while generally acceptable and understandable to English speakers, is not used in any serious way. The United Kingdom, though its monarch was a queen, remained a kingdom. The absence of an equivalent generally indicates the historical lack of women within that word’s scope of meaning. The same issue appears with words that do technically have a feminine equivalent, but one which may feel stilted or unnatural in use to the average speaker. ‘Firewoman’ does not flow as easily from a speaker’s mouth as ‘fireman’ does, and may even take the listener a moment longer to gather the word’s meaning. ‘Fire’ + ‘man’ = ‘fireman’, a man who puts out fires, is an endocentric compound word in English speakers’ mental lexicons. ‘Fire’ + ‘woman’ = ‘firewoman’ likely elicits a less immediate understanding of the meaning ‘woman who puts out fires.’ Even when a word is neutral and has no explicit gender marking, sexism can affect the image we have in our minds of who that word typically describes. Though there are more female doctors now than ever before, the average English speaker who hears a doctor referred to in conversation is likely to imagine a man.  

      A semantic feature of English which lends itself heavily to sexism is the markedness of feminine forms, often appearing through morphology in suffixes. This can be seen in the way nouns applying to men versus women gain a suffix in the feminine form. An example of this is the suffix ess (also, –ette). We see this in actor and actress, where seemingly the default form is actor and the –ess suffix is added to feminize it. Ambassador and ambassadress, and poet and poetess also follow this pattern. Concerningly, the same morphemes can often be used to create the diminutive form of a word. A common example of this is the word pair cigar and cigarette. A cigarette is a little version of a cigar, but what about the word “suffragette”? Is a suffragette a little version of a suffragist? No, it is a female version. There seems to be an overlap of the diminutive and the feminine. What is also interesting about these examples is how the ‘default’ form is the masculine one; we might refer to a female actress as an actor, but we would never call a male actor an actress. The masculine form can also be used as the unmarked or neutral form. This behavior seems to indicate an underlying belief that the default person’ is male; women are ‘other’ from the default, away from the center of meaning, yet can fall beneath the umbrella of masculine terms. Christine Mallinson addresses this idea of feminine markedness in her chapter in The Oxford Handbook of U.S. Women’s Social Movement Activism, titled “Language and its Everyday Revolutionary Potential.” In response to the argument that masculine forms are unmarked simply due to the natural evolution of language, she says, “any linguistic system that privileges masculine forms is a byproduct of historically rooted gender and linguistic inequality” (pg. 422).  

      The concept of the male default extends further into English semantics. An example of this can be seen in how all of humanity can be referred to as “man or “mankind. The use of “man” as “adult male of the human race” came about by late Old English (c. 1000), having succeeded wer, which shortly began to disappear. It began to be used for humanity, generally, by c. 1200 (Online Etymology Dictionary). The meaning of “man” has broadened to encompass all of humanity, but its original meaning of “adult male of the human race” has also survived. Being so close in meaning, the two words likely have some overlap in a speaker’s mental lexicon; this relationship results in a closer semantic association between man and humanity than between woman and humanity in a speaker’s mind.  

      Further evidence of the English understanding of the default person as male can be found in the generic pronoun “he”. In general, the generic pronoun has traditionally been masculine, dating back to the era of Beowulf. Again, English leans on the understanding that the default person is a man. Anne Curzan notes in Gender Shifts in the History of English that, in an analysis of grammatical and ‘natural’ (socially constructed) gender in Old English animate nouns, “grammatical gender and natural gender are indistinguishable” (pg. 62). Words with social gender connotations for one sex (e.g., wer, “man”) generally also had the same grammatical gender; in Curzan’s opinion, this phenomenon is “undoubtedly explanatory in how the masculine continues on as the ‘generic’ pronoun in reference to such nouns after grammatical gender becomes obsolete” (pg. 62). There was no absolute rule in English that the generic pronoun should be masculine for many years, only a convention; it should be noted that there were uses of neuter and feminine generic pronouns, but they were relatively few and did not catch on. In 1850 the British Parliament passed an Act to make the use of “he” as a sex-indefinite antecedent legal in written documents; this gave strength to the arguments of many grammarians of the time.  

      It should be noted that this tradition seems to be gradually declining due to modern English speakers’ acknowledgement of the generic masculine pronoun’s sexist character and their active efforts to change it. However, the generic pronoun’s hold remains, even in its weakened state; it still seems more ‘comfortable’ to see a page full of masculine generic pronouns than feminine ones. Perhaps contributing to this issue is the fact that an alternative has not been satisfactorily agreed upon by grammarians; though common in spoken English, the use of “they” as a singular generic pronoun continues to raise objections among certain academics. Interestingly, gender is the only trait besides number which can be encoded into English personal pronouns, and it only appears in 3rd person singular pronouns; a person’s gender is only noted when they are being referred to, rather than when they are being addressed or when they are speaking about themselves. Gender marking only in the 3rd person singular pronoun is a quality which has been consistent in English since Old English. By saying ‘she went to the store,’ we know the subject is female, but we don’t know how old she is, what she looks like, where she lives, or any other parts of her identity which are arguably just as important as gender.

      While the generic pronoun “he” has traditionally been used to refer to an unknown or generic person, there are many cases in which the pronoun “she” has been used to refer to objects or entities (“personification”). The most common example of this is the personification of ships, the first recorded usage of which can be found in Ben Jonson’s English Grammar in 1640. In the Old English period, when English still had grammatical gender, it was typical for inanimate object nouns to be referred to with “masculine and feminine anaphoric (def. “referring back to”) pronouns” (Curzan, pg. 84). Gender agreement had to be followed, so there wasn’t a question of why an object was referred to with masculine, feminine, or neuter pronouns. As English began to lose its grammatical gender following the Norman Invasion of the 11th century, the number of neuter pronouns used increased and exceeded the number of neuter nouns, indicating that neuter pronouns were being used for grammatically feminine and masculine nouns. The overarching context for this shift was, according to Anne Curzan in Gender Shifts in the History of English, the shift from the grammatical gender system in English to a system of natural (or, semantic) gender. At the beginning of the Middle English period (1150-1250 AD), Curzan states that “It seems to become ungrammatical…to use masculine pronouns to refer to inanimate objects before it becomes unacceptable…to use feminine pronouns in this way” (pg. 108). The effect of this can still be felt in Modern English, as “the majority of gendered references to inanimate nouns in Modern English are feminine” (pg. 111). As the use of feminine pronouns for reference to inanimate objects increased, the use of masculine ones decreased markedly.  

      Importantly, the grammatical use of “she” in reference to inanimate objects like ships cannot be separated from the semantic and social connotations it carries. The contrast between the generic pronoun “he” and the inanimate pronoun “she” presents a disturbing picture; English allows more easily for a person to be male than female, and allows more easily for an object to be female than male. This idea relates to my earlier point where I describe a closer relationship in native English speakers’ mental lexicons between men and humanity than between women and humanity. Though perhaps unconscious, this increased distance in a speaker’s mind between femininity and humanity has the potential to cause great harm. Sexual objectification is frequently discussed as one of largest issues that women face as a result of misogyny in society today; it is important to think critically about how these features of the English language may be supporting this way of thinking. 

      While much of the sexism that can be found in English lives beneath the surface, one sexist feature of English which is not very subtle is the patrilineal naming tradition. The majority of heterosexual women in English-speaking countries still adopt their husband’s surname at the point of marriage, and any children the couple has will also have the husband’s surname. This tradition is long and feels nearly fundamental to the institution of marriage itself. As Deborah Anthony notes in her article “Eradicating Women’s Surnames: Law, Tradition, and the Politics of Memory,” its history being so intertwined with the history of surnames themselves “lends it a kind of mystical legitimacy” (pg. 1). Despite this perceived legitimacy, English surnames were not always adopted and passed down the way they are now. Prior to the 17th century, surnames were more individual, and their sharing was less institutionalized; like men, women sometimes had their own descriptive surnames (“Baker”, “Wood”, etc.) and could pass them on to their children. The introduction of coverture, the legal concept of a woman being a subset of her husband without her own legal identity, dealt a major blow to matronymic surnames. This idea was initially introduced to England by the Normans, gaining institutional authority as time went on. During the Enlightenment period and the crest of Western imperialism, Anthony states, there was growing emphasis on separating the “citizen from the non-citizen” and maintaining traditional values. Keeping up uniformity meant enforcing patriarchal standards, and surnames were an obvious target.  

      The consequences of patrilineal names are extensive. A person’s name is their identity; it is how others know them and distinguish them. A woman is not a subset of her husband, but if she takes his name that is how others are likely to perceive her, consciously or unconsciously. She does not become a different person at the point of marriage, so we should wonder why she should be expected to change the name which encapsulates her identity. Titles reveal sexist traditions as well. A man is Mr. X before he marries and remains Mr. X after. A woman is Miss Y, then marries and becomes Mrs. X; perhaps if we’re feeling progressive, we can split the difference and call her Ms. X. Again, the man must bear no change in his identity, and the woman is completely transformed. Though much advancement has been made in overcoming harmful patriarchal traditions in modern society, these traditions have held on. Modern attitudes toward marriage seem to be shifting in the direction of equal partnership, and several legal advancements have been made throughout the past century to bring this goal closer to reality; it’s important to ask why antiquated traditions like these have held on and consider the role they are playing in preventing further progress. One answer to this question may simply be that people like tradition. It is easier to do what has always been done (at least in recent memory) than to try and change for the better.  

      An examination of colloquial English speech reveals sexism as well. Expletives, insults, and all manner of nasty language are often more severe on women. A glance at quantity is very telling. At the moment I am writing this, these are all of the feminine-specific words I can think of that are used to degrade and abuse women: Slut, tramp, whore, b*tch, tart, hussy, and slag. In this moment I can think of these masculine equivalents: Player, man-whore, son of a b*tch, and mother-f*cker. Assuming my command and knowledge of the English language is equal to that of the average speaker, there are on average more insulting terms for women than for men in the average speaker’s lexicon. Some of the terms I was able to come up with for men are even indirect insults for women (e.g., son of a bitch and mother-f*cker disparage mothers). There are also several adjectives that are used against women that are not feminine-specific, but are rarely if ever applied to men. Examples of these include bossy, catty, sassy, feisty, ditzy, frigid, pushy, emotional, and hysterical. Again, when we look for masculine equivalents of these words, we come up short. According to how adjectives are commonly assigned to men, a man isn’t bossy, he’s a natural leader. A man isn’t frigid, he’s reserved. A man isn’t pushy, he’s assertive.  

      English idioms and colloquial sayings often reveal sexism as well. Examples such as “No man is an island”, “Every man for himself”, “Man up”, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and “Renaissance man” demonstrate the generalized masculinity of an unknown subject. Phrases like these that have a man as the subject also generally tend to have a positive or neutral tone, and can be used in reference to women when “man” is replaced with “woman”. Many idioms and colloquialisms that have distinctly feminine subjects are disparaging toward women, and often take on a negative tone. Examples include “A woman’s work is never done”, “Behind every successful man stands a woman”, “Loose woman”, “Make an honest woman of her” and “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. There are of course exceptions to this pattern (e.g., “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” and “woman of substance”) but the pattern remains. Additionally, there are generally more idioms with male subjects. In a review of more than 300 English idioms with gendered subjects, when ranked by frequency, “English idioms with the gender component man are ranked first, because it is the most common component of English gender-marked idioms” (Galina, et al., 2018). Similar to the masculine generic pronoun, many colloquial phrases like these are falling out of common usage; whether due to the simple passage of time, or English speakers’ recognition of their sexist connotations, it’s unlikely they will be mourned. 

      Beyond spoken language, evidence of sexism in English can be found within the English literary tradition. Due to the barriers to education, independence, and serious consideration that women faced for much of Western history, the masters we look to as pioneers of English prose, poetry, language (etc.) are by and large male. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Keats, Dickens, Tolkien, Hugo, Poe, Twain, etc. These authors’ and poets’ accomplishments are certainly not diminished by the fact that they were male in a patriarchal society, but it is still instructive to read their work through this lens. This means that what we read and esteem as the best literature the English cannon has to offer must be affected by bias to some degree, a bias which favors men, often to the detriment of women. Women were often written about, but less often had the opportunity to write themselves. In this tradition, we got used to women as the object of discussion rather than as a participant in it; creatures which could receive but not express. A male perspective of women’s lives, feelings, and motivations has been the most commonly read. One example of this can be seen in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In Act 1, scene 5, lines 41-42, Lady Macbeth cries, “come, you spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here…” She wants to harden herself in preparation for her planned murder of King Duncan, and so asks the “spirits” to divest her of the qualities of her sex. There is an assumption here that the qualities which identify a woman include delicacy, weakness, and flowing compassion. Any male reader of this passage may have as much right to be offended as a female reader, as the “masculine” qualities Lady Macbeth appears to be seeking include bloodthirstiness, unfeelingness, and cruelty.  

      An issue which appears in English literature and perhaps reveals bias in male authors is the common construction of flat female characters, devoid of development or characterization outside of the purpose they play in the (male) main character’s story. An example of this can be seen in Of Mice and Men, with the character Curly’s wife. The first obvious signal is that she doesn’t actually have her own name, and is only identified by her relationship to her husband. Throughout the story, Curly’s wife is not shown to have any deeper thoughts or motivations beyond her prettiness and her eventual desire for the character Lenny. The way women are portrayed in media affects how they are perceived in real life; if they are not portrayed with the full scope of human emotion and intelligence, an expectation will arise that real life women are not in possession of these qualities either. Media portrayal is perhaps more important now than ever; instead of just books, we have TV, movies, social media, and more.  

      Legal language in English speaking countries, too, has been affected by sexism. In her article “Sexism, Language, and the Law,” Mary Ellen Griffith describes her experiences with sexist language in law. In her investigation of the subject, her findings included “an unyielding gender bias among male practitioners of the law [and] an interweaving of two patriarchal institutions, language and law…” (pg. 2). Advanced knowledge of and experience with the American legal system is not required to perceive how its language is permeated by sexism. An example can be seen in one of the most important documents in the American legal tradition, the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776. The famous line, “…all men are created equal…” encapsulates a sort of bitter irony; the delegates to the Continental Congress didn’t really mean all men, and no mention of women was made at all. Certainly, it could be argued that “men” in this case could be an umbrella term for men and women (at least, in later interpretations), but it requires the modern reader to go into the reading of the Declaration with that intention. Though it is safe to call the language of the Declaration antiquated, its influence and fame in the American legal tradition remains. Griffith concludes her article saying, “By rethinking the largely unconscious ways in which language reflects and perpetuates patriarchal values, we can act to change the way we perceive the law and ourselves as participants in the legal system” (pg. 22). 

      After investigating sexism in English, we should consider why it is important to do so. As Guimei He notes in “An Analysis of Sexism in English,” people are socialized from birth to understand the world in a certain way; much of this socialization is done through language and role models. Children are intelligent listeners and will internalize the behaviors and speech of the adults around them; if they observe that men have societal power and women do not, this becomes a part of their reality. It is important to investigate how sexism affects the English language because, as we know from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the way we speak and the way we think are closely intertwined. The language we speak has the power to shape the way we perceive the world. This is a relationship in which we can choose to be passive, or we can choose to be active; if we wish to be masters of our own thoughts and actions, we must think critically about how they may be influenced by our language use. The issue of sexism in English is made even more concerning when considering the language’s global status. It is widely considered the first world language, the language of international business, and the first global lingua franca. Over a billion people speak it worldwide (L1 and L2 included), and this number will only continue to get larger in future years. As the language continues to grow, the culture that English cultivates will continue to grow as well; any idea, or bias, that is contained within English will be spread to its new learners.  

      In this essay I have examined how sexism has become entrenched in the English language, specifically within the area of semantics, as well as in English naming traditions, colloquial speech, and the written word. Language is heavily impacted by culture, and culture is in turn impacted by language. When culture becomes negatively influenced, as in the case of sexism, it’s important to monitor how that manifests in language. Sexism in language is a complex and multi-faceted issue; the interaction between unconscious bias in the language we speak and the intentions with which we speak it can become complicated. From the perspective of a linguist, it is not for me to suggest language revisions, but merely to point out how sexism has affected English and to encourage critical thought. There is danger in becoming desensitized to discriminatory language. If we fear the label of “sensitive,” we risk slipping into a passive relationship with language, which can only serve to injure us in the future.  

Works Cited 

Anthony, Deborah. “Eradicating Women’s Surnames: Law, Tradition, and the Politics of Memory.” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1–35.  

Curzan, Anne. Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 

Galina, Nezhelskaya, et al. “Expression Plane of English Idioms in Gender Semantics Studies.” SHS Web of Conferences, vol. 50, no. 01117, 2018.  

Griffith, Mary E. “Sexism, Language, and the Law.” West Virginia Law Review, vol. 91, iss. 1, 1988.  

He, Guimei. “An Analysis of Sexism in English.” Journal of Teaching and Research, vol. 1, no. 3, 2010, pp. 332–335. DOI: 10.4304/jltr.1.3.332-335  

Jiang, Wenying. “The Relationship between Culture and Language.” ELT Journal, vol. 54, no. 4, Oct. 2000, pp. 328–334.  

Mallinson, Christine. “Language and Its Everyday Revolutionary Potential.” The Oxford Handbook of U.S. Women’s Social Movement Activism, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 419–435. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190204204.013.38  

“Man: Online Etymology Dictionary.”, 

Tian, Lan, and Jingxia Liu. “On the Gender Discrimination in English.” Advances in Language and Literacy Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, June 2019.  

Umera-Okeke, Nneka. “Linguistic Sexism: An Overview of the English Language in Everyday Discourse.” AFFREV LALIGENS, vol. 1, no. 1, Mar. 2012, pp. 1–17.