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Cuss Words and Patriarchy

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Cuss words are somewhat an integral part of the language we use in our daily lives. However, this aspect of language often shows particular genders or sexual orientations in a negative light.

In 2016, the Oxford University Press (which also publishes the Oxford Dictionary, one of the world’s most preferred references with respect to English) was the topic of a heated row online. The row started because a Twitter user pointed out that certain words that have negative connotations, were explained using sentences that featured women. For example, the word ‘nagging’ was followed by a sentence that involved ‘nagging wife’, ‘housework’ (not necessarily a negative word but a stereotype) was used in a sentence ‘she still does the housework’ and ‘rabid’ was followed by a sentence that used ‘rabid feminism’. On the other hand, the word ‘research’ was followed by ‘He prefaces his study with a useful summary of his own researches.’

Responding to this, Oxford Dictionaries said that the sentences do not reflect the views of the publisher but instead are picked from ‘real world’ usage. While that may be an explanation, it begs the question, how often do we see our common usage of language represent women in a distasteful manner? And how does this misogynist language creep into the part of language that is generally frowned upon, that is, cuss words?

My mother tongue is Hindi, and when you’re a Hindi speaker, the worst thing you can possibly say to a man is possibly a remark involving some combination of his mother’s/sister’s/wife’s/daughter’s genitalia. Of course, if you think about it, the usage of body parts that relate to women’s sexuality goes in line with the narrative that the patriarchy has been trying to establish- that women are primarily sex objects and the idea of women indulging in sex is deplorable, to say the least.

Similarly, in English, several words that had a different meaning altogether when they were made, have been transformed to mean something else altogether, right now. ‘Pussy’ was originally a word for a woman with qualities similar to a cat, except it later became a term for a vagina and subsequently for a non-assertive male. Similarly, ‘mistress’ was the female equivalent of what we know as a ‘master’, that is, someone who’s in a position of authority. However, over time, it has been used for a woman other than a man’s wife who a man has sexual relations with. Same goes for words like ‘cunt’, ‘cuck’.

This linkage of women’s sexuality with words that are generally used to insult shows how deeply the patriarchal mindset has become a part of our daily lives and how we also often use words like these without realising it’s implications. That, however, is problematic because of two reasons.

Firstly, as we’ve already mentioned, it reinforces the patriarchal notion that women are merely sex objects. This is a huge disservice to what women, and people in general are. One could argue that sex isn’t a bad thing except in most cases people have been conditioned to think of it as something that’s immoral, and even in that case, it doesn’t cater to the fact that women can be so much more too. Reducing them to just one thing is antithetical to the idea of human dignity, which is intricately linked to the idea of a person’s capabilities.

Secondly, by creating a perception that women are merely sex objects, the usage of these words also normalises the idea of sexual oppression against women. Sexual assault happens not because of short clothes or women roaming around at night (as some politicians from India would like you to believe) but from the fact that the offender sees themselves as more powerful than the victim. When women are linked to an act that is in general considered immoral or inferior, the power dynamics that enable oppression are reinforced and thus it becomes easier to accept the idea of forcing oneself on someone.

To truly achieve equality, it is incredibly important to build a gender-neutral version lexicon of profanity. It’d be really unfair to say that our society is equal unless that’s reflected in the deepest layers of our language too.

Image Credits: Twitter/The Hindu

Khush Vardhan Dembla

[email protected]

Journalism has been called the “first rough draft of history”. D.U.B may be termed as the first rough draft of DU history. Freedom to Express.

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