How Sexist Is The English Language?

By Jessie Dowlatt-Moxey

The English language is a powerful and far from neutral tool in the hands of its users, and its powers in relation to the understanding that people develop about the value, importance and status of human beings, according to their sex, are the outcome of the sexist biases that is inherent in the language.

There are several ways in which this has manifested itself.

The English language in fact systematically discriminates against women and girls, both syntactically and semantically.

I will demonstrate and illustrate how certain words with negative or limited connotations are applied to women; how language is used to label people with words that are sex specific and thus imply judgment about how women are excluded from large number of theoretically neutral words such as “chairman”.

Generic forms like he/man are used as terms which are meant to include women.

Grammatically, it is argued, the male form is unmarked, the female marked, and therefore specific.

In this way, the female form is immediately marked as an exception. A doctor is assumed to be male, although as an unmarked form the word doctor should include both sexes. A woman in medicine becomes referred to as “lady doctor” – an exceptional.

The use of the generic “he” is also problematic because it is often ambiguous and at times, when apparently used generically, can only refer to the male.

Apparent generic references to “mankind” or “man and his world”, which occur frequently in textbooks, could be misunderstood by inexperienced readers to mean that only men are being referred to. Thus, the presence of men everywhere in the public world is accepted, while that of women is not. This use also leaves the actual inclusion of women to the whim of individual interpreters of the certain terms, as many legal judgements excluding women from legal rights have shown.

Men are valued, women are...?

A profusion of words are found in the English dictionary to describe a woman who is promiscuous. In fact, a whole dictionary of those terms could be made. Words like slut, bitch, dog, whore, prostitute and many more describe women, yet there are hardly any equivalent words that can be used for men. The derogatory ones are rather mild and portray men with a kind of macho image that is accepted.

Look at these words and expressions that tend to be associated with women talking:

• Spreading of stories about people

• Chatter

Birds and monkeys chatter. Your teeth chatter when you are cold. Chattering does not involve much intelligence. It does not communicate anything important.

• Nag

No other animal does this. We usually use nag to describe a kind of pain or worry, for example, “I have a nagging pain” or “He had a nagging worry that he had forgotten to lock the door.”

Our language reflects the kind of physical world we live in. One thing that is very clearly reflected in our language is that men are highly valued and women are less important. It carries this message in many ways: In reference to humanity at large, language should operate to include women and girls. Terms that tend to exclude women should be avoided whenever possible.

The word “man” has long been denoted as a person of the male gender, but also generically to denote humanity at large.

To many people today, however, the word “man” has become so closely associated with the first meaning that they consider it no longer broad enough to be applied to any person or human beings on the whole.

In deference to this position, alternate expressions should be used in place of man (or derivative constructions used generally to signify humanity at large) whenever such substitutions can be made without producing an awkward or artificial construction. Here are some the problematic expressions:

• Mankind

We are used to this word and the use of the word “man”, which is supposed to include men and women

• Goodwill to all men

• Man invented the wheel

• The history of mankind

• Man and his environment

• The man in the street

• The working man

The only problem is that sometimes “man” means men and women. The Christian message in goodwill to all men is presumably meant to include women as well, but it is not really safe to rely on it always meaning that.

“Man” cannot always represent the human race. You would never accept a sentence like, “Man breastfeeds his offspring.”

Alma Graham, a lexicographer, summed up the problem like this:

“If a woman is swept off a ship into the water, the cry is, ‘man overboard’. If she is killed by a hit and run driver, the charge is manslaughter, but if she strives at a place marked ‘men only’,

she knows the warning is not intended to bar animals or plants or inanimate objects. It is meant for her.”


Here are some possible substitutions for man words:

• People, humanity, human beings instead of mankind

• Human achievements instead of man’s achievements

• The best person for the job instead of the best man for the job

• Artificial, manufactured or of human origin instead of man-made

• Human power, human energy or work force instead of man power


One of the conventions of our language is that you don’t know whether someone is male or female you refer to her/him as “he”. For example, many people talking about teachers say things like: “When the teacher plans his lesson he must try to ensure that each student has all the help he needs.”

This suggests that all the students and all the teachers are male despite the fact that there are more female teachers than male. The US state of Connecticut went as far as to use this convention of “he” when framing a law about abortion: “The person who is to have such abortion shall receive counselling – concerning HIS decision to have such abortion.”

Man first

You must be forgiven for thinking that women are invisible or they are inferior or second best. Our language suggests that they come second. We always hear and read: He and she; male and female; boys and girls; ‘Dear Sir/Madam’; men and women; his and hers; man and wife, and John and Mary.

What is implied here is that man somehow is more important. Our language works according to patterns. One pattern is that you name species before a sub-species. For example, the species is flowers, the sub-species is geranium.

The order tells us which is the main category and which is the subordinate. All geraniums are flowers, but not all flowers are geraniums. The English language does not include the following words in the dictionary: Husband swapping, chargentleman, boyfriday, woman-power.

It compares women to types of food: tart, honey, sweetie pie, sugar or animals: fox, vixen, bitch, crow.

Even when the language seems to be treating men and women equally, there are differences:

• Master – mistress

• Governor – governess

• Bachelor – spinster

Is mistress equal in value to master? The words of our language carry messages about what men and women are worth. Our society is one in which men generally have more power than women and our language reflects this. Of course, as women get more power the language might change.

Women and men should be treated with the same respect, dignity and seriousness. Neither should be trivialised or stereotyped.

In descriptions of women, a patronising tone should be avoided as should sexual innuendoes and puns. Women should not be described by physical attributes when men are being described by mental attributes and professional positions. Instead, the sexes should be dealt with in the same terms.

• Jessie Dowlatt-Moxey is a teacher of the English language and English literature with the Ministry of Education. She holds a Master of Arts and will be pursuing her doctorate.


lisajohn 4 years, 6 months ago

Talk about reading something into nothing!


FeloniousMonk 1 year, 5 months ago

"Nothing," huh. Well, they do say fish have no word for water.


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