Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional cleverly named series on words I'm looking up)


I came across this word today, used in earnest – not in a comedy context like the Wealthy Dowager character on The Simpsons.

Per American Heritage online, "dowager" means: 1. A widow who holds a title or property derived from her deceased husband. 2. An elderly woman of high social station.

Those aren’t bad things to be. “Dowager” may not be an enviable status, as it requires a woman to have lost her husband or lost her youth. But it doesn’t mean “ugly,” “uptight,” “mean,” or anything deserving of contempt or warranting shame.

Yet the thought of being labeled a “dowager” is perfectly icky. And I’d bet lots of other women would feel the same way. We 21st century types are awfully invested in NOT identifying with “old” – especially not with “old woman.”

That, in turn, got me thinking about other words used for woman – none of which I’d want slapped on me:

* matriarch (Hard-faced, old, mean)
* dame (Fraternizes with guys who still listen to Sam Spade radio broadcasts)
* lady (Once an honorable term even for the young and beautiful, but now somehow conjures images of pastel-suited biddies who subsist solely on gossip or quiet judgment)
* broad (See Sam Spade reference above)
* gal (Should be a perfectly good alternative to calling a grown woman “girl,” yet it remains stuck in the past)
* chick (A glimpse into my own sexism in that I hate it primarily when women use it. A man saying “chick” reminds me of Ritchie Cunningham. Coming out of a woman’s mouth, “chick” often seems venomous.)

I won’t get into those famously sexist words – babe, hon, bitches, etc. on down to beaver and worse. That’s not exactly the issue that interests me here. (If only because I don’t feel I can add anything new to that discussion.)

What interests me is how FEW words for women seem devoid of negative connotation. And though we could sniff out negative connotations in guy, fellow, dude, bro, chap, or bloke, it’s not the same. They’re not on the same scale.

Maybe we should take “lady” back. Then again, to do so, we would have to admit we can no longer go by “girl.” And that would be motherfrickin' icky.

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