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On women and new words

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New word of the month
by Kerry Maxwell

do-it-herselfer (also handywoman) noun [C]
a woman who makes and repairs things in the home herself instead of paying someone to do it for her

do-it-herself adj

'Move over handyman. Make way for the handyma'am.'
(Reuters news service, April 2002)

It seems that the home improvement industry is having to change its male-dominated image as more and more so-called handywomen in the UK and United States are tackling all kinds of projects around the house. Within the past couple of years, home improvement stores such as B&Q in the UK have launched 'women-only' clubs, and later last year, one of the first do-it-herself books was released; Dare to Repair: A Do-It-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home (Julie Sussman and Stephanie Glakas Tenet, September 2002), with a front cover featuring a woman wielding her fist in a pose of rebellious empowerment.

Of course over many decades now we've observed the introduction of words which are designed to redress the male-dominated balance. This is often done in a rather humorous way, as illustrated in the quote above, but terms like chairwoman, saleswoman, etc as opposed to chairman, salesman and the gender neutral terms chairperson, salesperson are now accepted terminology, long-established in dictionaries. In certain spheres, gender-specific descriptions have been avoided altogether, hence the introduction of words like firefighter as an alternative to fireman. It's somewhat bizarre therefore that do-it-herself has been introduced to assert a female view on what was essentially a gender-neutral term in the first place, ie: we don't talk about 'do-it-himself' but do-it-yourself (and related acronyms DIY noun [U] and DIYer noun [C] to describe the activity and people who engage in it).

On women and new words

Increasingly, it is considered more appropriate to avoid using terms like manageress and actress to refer to women. Instead, we favour terms like actor, which, although at one time was used almost exclusively to refer to men, has now become established as gender-neutral. In the history of neologisms however, the opposite tendencies have prevailed. We seem to have gone out of our way to introduce words which are exclusively female, rather than following the gender-neutral avenue. Compare one-upwomanship noun [U] (the practice of one woman trying to do better than others in order to show that she is superior to them). This term began to enter our vocabulary in the mid-seventies, but it wasn't until ten years later that the gender-neutral version one-uppersonship appeared.

Often the introduction of exclusively female terms embodies ideas of empowerment, observed in words like do-it-herself and mammapreneur noun [C] (a woman (mother) who starts her own business, recently cited on the Internet as a female variant of the gender-neutral term entrepreneur).

Sometimes the idea is simply to react to over-use of morphemes such as man and boy. For instance, take the term boycott (a situation when someone refuses to take part in something). A 1999 article in The Times newspaper quotes the famous female tennis player Billie Jean King talking about a girlcott of tennis championships, in response to protests about lower female prize money. Girlcott noun [C] then, can be defined as 'a boycott in which there are only female participants'.

In the 21st century, it is generally considered slightly derogatory or offensive to refer to any female over a certain age as a girl. And yet we can observe neologisms which include girl and other words which might be considered sexist or derogatory in other contexts. Compare camgirl (and indeed camboy, someone who broadcasts pictures of themselves over the Internet). The term chick is an offensive way of referring to a woman, but we have recently heard talk about the new literary genre chick lit noun [U] (books written by women, usually focussing on young female protagonists). This is presumably a counterpart to lad lit (books written by men, about young men, etc). In the last year we have seen the term chick flick noun [C], coined to refer to films with themes and characters which appeal more to women than to men.

Of course there are many women for whom the very distinction between men and women is something to be celebrated. The term femaleist noun [C], adj (as opposed to feminist) has been in use since 1999 to refer to a movement which acknowledges and celebrates the ways in which women are different from men. In the 19th century, a suffragette was a woman who valiantly fought for women's rights. Also in the late 1990s, the term fluffragette noun [C] was coined to refer to a woman who opposes the feminist view and has only pre-feminist cultural or political heroines.

For more information about new and topical words and phrases, read Kerry's Word of the Week articles on the MED Resource Site.