Language, Gender, and Slang
If the feminist critique of language is correct, and much of language reflects and embodies masculine and male experience (Cameron 1998, 9), then it should come as no surprise that slang, which is one particular mode of language, should reflect the same masculine and male experience. However, it seems that little quantitative research had been done on slang directly until relatively recently. The first study was Kutner and Brogan’s research (1974), just over 30 years ago.
The object of this study is to test my peer’s knowledge of slang, and how aware they are of its usage. One of the common ideas about slang is that slang words change fast, from generation to another; the other is that slang is not mainstream. But where it comes to gender and slang, slang words have proven rather stable and common, even the vulgar slang – being a virgin or a whore has had meaning since time immemorial.
But first, I will define slang and give a little bit of background about its study since the 1970’s. What is slang? Slang refers to worlds and dialects that are not used in mainstream culture. As such, it can be the marker of a subculture, or of areas of discourse or ideas that are taboo in mainstream thinking. A subset of slang are what we normally take to be slang, namely vulgar, sexualized, or derogatory language. For the purposes of this paper, we will focus on slang that has a particularly gendered aspect – that is, words that are used to designate “male” and “female” genders in slang language. These slang words include, but are not limited to: Chick, bitch, babe, and guy, dude, and stud. The fact that these slang words are common where it comes to talking about the relationships between the sexes, on topics such as sexual attraction and gender relations (activities and relationships).
According to Flexher (1975), who produced the first dictionary of slang, the use of slang and the creation of new slang is almost exclusively the purview of males (xii). Women tend to use the language that is invented for them by males. This may account for the disbalance of terms in a gendered distribution: there are more slang terms to designate female or feminine behaviors, and more of these terms are negative, and much more negative than its male/masculine counterpart: for example, compare bitch and asshole. First off, you would almost never call a man a bitch unless you were trying to feminize him, but you can call women assholes without masculinizing them. Second, bitch has a more negative charge than asshole, which might even carry a positive charge. These are just some informal observations that may or may not holdup under the scrutiny of a quantitative study.
Males may use slang more because they are more at home in all of language, and so this violation of language norms becomes possible. There is a sense in which the use of slang is a daring thing to do, and doing brave things is consistent with masculine patterns of behavior and development. Young women tend to want to abide by the rule, be these rules linguistic or otherwise. That they are already not wholly at home in language means that they already risk not communicating, which does not afford them the room to play with language in the daring way that slang demands. In this same vein, the use of profane language is more expected and praised of boys and men than it is of girls and women.
These ideas, which could be summarized as the general thesis that gender slang is the domain of males is one that has come to be evidenced and accepted by many scholars, women, men, feminist and not, since the 1970’s. For example, one study quoted in the text (Stanley, 1977) found that whereas there were 220 ways to designate woman in English slang, there were only 22 comparable ways to designate men. More interesting is that both men and women share the use of these same terms – there are not two set of slang terms, each appropriate for each gender, but only one that is determined and reflect men’s experience. This has lead some feminists to argue that women need to develop and independent lexicon (see Irigaray in the Cameron, 1998). And while this disparity is completely obvious once you start to think about it and investigate language and slang use, it seems to be rather transparent to the everyday language user – or at least, this is what this project has set out to test.
Cameron, Deborah. (1998) The Feminist Critique of Language. New York, Routledge.
de Klerk, V. (1992). How taboo are taboo words for girls? Language in Society, 21, 277-289.
Eckert and McConnell-Ginet. (2003) Language and Gender. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Flexner, S. B. (1975). Preface to the dictionary of American slang. In H. Wentworth & S. B. Flexner (Eds.), Dictionary of American slang. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.
Kutner, N. G., & Brogan, D. (1974). An investigation of sex-related slang vocabulary and sex-role orientation among male and female university students. J of Marr and the Family, 36, 474-484.
Risch, B. (1987). Women’s derogatory terms for men: That’s right, “dirty” words. Language in Society, 16, 353-358.