Post-menopausal? Childless? Unmarried? Paula Coston tries to turn such womanhoods positive
Many groups of women, IMHO, go under-recognised or misnamed. What do you call yourself if you’re a female lexicographer, for instance? ‘Lexicographer’ on its own sounds a masculine term, doesn’t it? Just to get my own back for that, I dedicate my blog this week to Herrad von Landsberg, the twelfth-century Alsatian abbess. Her doorstop of an illustrated encyclopaedia Garden of Delights included German explanations of the Latin words she was using. But I’ll also assign these musings to Erin McKean, the 2007 female founder of the brilliant online dictionary Wordnik, which invites contributions of new words and new uses of words and currently has some 30,000 word lists online (it’s free to subscribe, everyone: if you don’t know it, I heartily recommend it). Someone once suggested the term ‘lexicographette’, by the way; but the problem with that, as with so many feminised terms, is that they have to be longer than the male equivalent – and I just don’t think that’s fair.
While we’re at it on female lexicographers, note also for these same annals Hester Thrale, Dr Johnson’s friend, with her British Synonymy; An Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation (1794) the Aragonese librarian Maria Moliner, b. 1900; Barbara Reynolds; B.T.S. Atkins; Barbara Ann Kipfer; Katherine Barber; and the mine of wisdom Susie Dent of the TV programme Countdown.
It would be great if on reading this women, lexicographers or not, rallied to my cause and helped me build a particular kind of word list. Surely it’s high time that certain groups of women weren’t given unwanted and negative terminology: ‘childless’, ‘post-menopausal’, ‘unmarried’. I fall into all three categories. They try to define me by what I’m not, not what I am. Take my childlessness, for instance: I love children, love spending time with them, and am a mentor and aunt, real and honorary, to quite a few. So why can’t there be terms that reflect some of that?
A mixture of existing words, used more forcefully and in place of others, and some new coinings, could really help. Could we even mount a media campaign? (I’m getting the bit between my teeth now.)
Here are some ideas for positive words to get us started.
Instead of ‘childless’
child-free (especially useful if it’s a life choice)
aunt (and the adjective, auntly; there is also the rarely used materteral, which is apparently the equivalent of avuncular, but it just sounds like someone stuttering really, doesn’t it?)
mentar (rather than mentor: that sounds male again, don’t you think?)
juviaste (my invention: I hope it suggests someone who loves the company of youth without sounding creepy)
polymaternal (another one of mine; for those of us with lots of pseudo-maternal or auntly relationships)
helpmate (for those of us who support friends who are mothers, maybe, as well as ‘younger’ people in their twenties or so)
matronne (again, my coining – love it or hate it)
Instead of ‘childless’ and ‘partnerless’
anti-nuclear (again, if that’s our choice)
Instead of ‘unmarried’ or ‘partnerless’
mono? (or something with that prefix)
(I think we need more or better for this category)
Instead of ‘post-menopausal’
meno-blasted (let’s face it, some of us feel like survivors)
Especially I’d put in a plea for the brilliant word ‘matriarch’. It has such strength and power to it, and all those a sounds make it sound so female somehow.
The more you look at the English language, the more you see how male-dominated it sounds as well as looks on the page. Take ‘mentor’, above, with that male-sounding o; take the problem of having to expand the male terms with suffixes or changes to make our female alternatives. Using Anglo-Saxon might help. What about ‘wordess’ (with the stress on -‘ess’) for ‘female lexicographer’, for instance?
For too long we older, childless, partnerless women have been marginalised linguistically as well as in other ways. Will any of you join me in a campaign to change that?
Do contact me if you’re interested. And do look up my list on the Wordnik website, and contribute or comment, if you can. It’s called ‘Positive Womanhoods’. Coin on…