Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Zoosemic Terms Denoting FEMALE HUMAN BEINGS: Semantic Derogation of Women Revisited (1)

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Zoosemic Terms Denoting FEMALE HUMAN BEINGS: Semantic Derogation of Women Revisited (1)

Article excerpt


This article aims to discuss semantic history of selected zoosemic terms targeted at the conceptual category FEMALE HUMAN BEING in the light of cognitive semantics (e.g. Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Lakoff 1987; Lakoff and Turner 1989; Langacker 1987). In the body of the paper, Schulz's (1975) observation, that of semantic derogation of women, is reconsidered and supported by further examples from English and other Indo-European languages. Specifically, it is shown that meaning pejoration of lexemes used with reference to women is not only a frequent semantic mechanism but a productive linguistic process.

1. Introduction

This paper is a pilot study designed to signal and delineate the scope of a larger research field, that of English animal metaphor (2) (henceforth: zoosemy) from the standpoint of cognitive semantics. Thus, the aim here is to examine some of zoosemy data, Domestic Animals Metaphors, in particular. Specifically, it will be argued that the three conceptual categories, i.e. CANIDAE, FELIDAE and EQUIDAE are particularly abundant in metaphorical developments targeted at the conceptual category FEMALE HUMAN BEING where pejoration of meaning is an extremely frequent semantic mechanism.

In this paper we will reconsider Schulz's (1975: 65) observation that, not infrequently, a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or woman may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but gradually, it acquires negative implications. At first perhaps, these may be only slightly disparaging, but after a period of time, becoming abusive and ending up as a sexual slur. We will show that Schulz's (1975: 65) observation, holds perfectly true for the range of metaphors that are of interest to us. We hope to give evidence that virtually every originally neutral lexeme designating women has at some point in its history acquired debased connotations or obscene reference (Schulz 1975: 65). The data we will examine in what follows originate in Middle English/Early Modern English (henceforth: ME/EME) (1050-1700) and, in various cases, continue their metaphorical development in the present.

2. Theoretical background

Using some of the tools and insights of cognitive grammar adopted in, e.g. Kardela (1992), Kleparski (1996, 1997), Krzeszowski (1997), Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Lakoff (1987), Lakoff and Turner (1989), Langacker (1987), Martsa (2001), we will analyse those lexemes linked to the categories EQUIDAE, CANIDAE and FELIDAE which in their semantic history have undergone zoosemic development, targeted at the conceptual category FEMALE HUMAN BEING.

In their analysis of proverbs, Lakoff and Turner (1989) employ the concept of the Great Chain of Being whose theoretical bases were developed by the ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle (cf. Nisbet 1982: 35), and which has not only survived into our times but, more importantly, its mechanisms have been reflected in various evolutionary theories and, recently, also in semantic investigations. The basic Great Chain is defined by attributes and behaviours, arranged in a hierarchy.

Lakoff and Turner (1989: 172) point out that the Great Chain of Being Metaphor is "a tool of great power and scope" because "it allows us to comprehend general human character traits in terms of well-understood nonhuman attributes; and, conversely, it allows us to comprehend less well-understood aspects of the nature of animals and objects in terms of better-understood human characteristics". Specifically, Lakoff and Turner (1989: 195) make use of the mechanism of the Great Chain of Being to explore the meaning of such metaphors as Achilles is a lion or Man is a wolf i.e. metaphors of the form A is a B where B is a concept characterised by a metaphorical schema. In the metaphor Achilles is a lion certain instinctive traits of a lion are perceived metaphorically in terms of human character traits, such as courage. …

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