Gender Shifts in the History of English

By Anne Curzan | Go to book overview

5 Gender and asymmetrical word
histories: when boys could be girls

5.1 Introduction

Contemporary question

The masculine–feminine dichotomy constructed by or captured in the thirdperson pronouns he and she pervades the lexicon as well as the grammar of English: throughout the history of English there have been gendered pairings of words to refer to male and female human beings, both adults and children. As is often the case with open-class or content words compared to grammatical forms, the histories of words referring to men and women, boys and girls have been much less stable semantically than the pronouns over time. The appearance of the pronoun she and the borrowing of the plural th- pronoun forms are remarkable because such changes in pronouns are so rare. The appearance of boy and girl and the borrowing of numerous words such as husband, bachelor, and damsel, on the other hand, are more typical of the extraordinary amount of word borrowing that English speakers have done over time. What is more remarkable about these words for men and women, boys and girls, are the semantic shifts that so many of the words have undergone, from shifting between positive and negative meanings to shifting genders altogether. In fact, the gender-bending in the title of this chapter – “when boys could be girls” – highlights the opacity of many such semantic shifts for most Modern English speakers, as well as the fact that what is now a more symmetrical pairing of words in English (boy and girl) was not always so symmetrical. The same holds true for several other Modern English word pairs: man and woman (“when women could be men”), husband and wife (“when women could be husbands”), and bachelor and spinster (“when bachelors were married” or “when spinsters still spun”), and the list goes on. Many feminists argue that even these “more semantically symmetrical” pairings are often not symmetrical: for example, man is still often used as a generic (even if it is not necessarily interpreted this way), and spinster carries negative connotations that are foreign to bachelor.

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