Collocation and Pejoration.

‘I am a gentil womman and no wenche’: from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, c1386. Photograph: Alamy.

Linguists call it collocation: the likelihood of two words occurring together. If I say “pop”, your mental rolodex will begin whirring away, coming up with candidates for what might follow. “Music”, “song” or “star”, are highly likely. “Sensation” or “diva” a little less so. “Snorkel” very unlikely indeed.

What do you think of when I say the word “rabid”? One option, according to the dictionary publisher Oxford Dictionaries, is “feminist”. The publisher has been criticised for a sexist bias in its illustrations of how certain words are used. “Nagging” is followed by “wife”. “Grating” and “shrill” appear in sentences describing women’s voices, not men’s.


Perhaps “rabid” is collocated with “feminist” more often than with those other words (if the data the OUP uses includes online discussions, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case). Sexist assumptions find their way into speech and writing for the simple reason that society is still sexist.

Language, as the medium through which we conduct almost all relationships, public and private, bears the precise imprint of our cultural attitudes. The history of language, then, is like a fossil record of how those attitudes have evolved, or how stubbornly they have stayed the same.

When it comes to women, the message is a depressing one. The denigration of half of the population has embedded itself in the language in ways you may not even be aware of. Often this takes the form of “pejoration”: when the meaning of the word “gets worse” over time. Linguists have long observed that words referring to women undergo this process more often than those referring to men. Here are eight examples:

Those examples are Mistress, Hussy, Madam, Governess, Spinster, Courtesan, Wench, and Tart. I’ll just include Hussy here:


This once neutral term meant the female head of a household. Hussy is a contraction of 13th-century husewif – a word cognate with modern “housewife”. From the 17th century onwards, however, it began to mean “a disreputable woman of improper behaviour”. That’s now its only meaning.

My whole lifetime, hussy has carried a negative meaning only. I had no idea it actually meant head of a household, much like my surprise over the primary definition of paraphernaliaClick on over for the full article and to see the rest of the words, and how they have changed over the years! (I got to this article from another interesting one, on how American is taking over English all over the world. I get teased a lot for using English spelling rather than American, but that was how I was taught, and I’ll keep using it.)


  1. rq says

    So many words to be reclaimed! Women in positions of power of some kind, can’t be making that sound positive, I guess. I do like ‘hussy’ in its original meaning, better than ‘mistress’, because it sounds less high-class but still in power and control.
    Also neat (and unneat) -- ‘spinster’ used to be ungendered.

    (I was surprised at ‘rabid’ -- the first thing that comes to mind, for me, is still ‘dog’. Or ‘fox’, but mostly ‘dog’. I have a hard time applying it to any group of humans, except maybe a certain kind of religious fundamentalist.)

  2. says

    Yeah, rabid, first thing for me is rabies, of course, so animals; after that, I apply it some behaviours or beliefs, but not people.

    I quite like hussy in its original meaning, too.

  3. rq says

    They mention that one in the article, too -- the version we think of as the original, even though not derogatory a such, is still several levels below the masculine term.

  4. says

    I was surprised by wench, too, being that it was applied to female infants. That’s an association I never would have made.

  5. johnson catman says

    For “pop”, I first thought of “corn”. For “rabid”, “dog” was the first thing that came to mind, though “christian” or “republican” fit well.

  6. blf says

    ‘spinster’ used to be ungendered

    I never realised that, in current-day usage, it is considered gendered. Seriously! It’s not a word I use much, if at all, myself; nor do I have much recollection of ever seeing it used. (That is very possibly a defective recollection; on the other hand, it may hint at the sorts of things I do and don’t read.)

    Interestingly, the Online Etymology Dictionary notes: “Unmarried women were supposed to occupy themselves with spinning, hence the word came to be ‘the legal designation in England of all unmarried women from a viscount’s daughter downward‘ […] in documents from 1600s to early 1900s […]” (all emphasis added). Good grief, why not throw in colour of skin and size of left nostril?

  7. says

    In Medieval times, everyone who had a spare moment was supposed to spend some time spinning, it was an occupation for all, as the need for thread was damn near constant.

    As for hearing spinster, I expect women hear it more than men.

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