Our language is under assault.
An obituary published recently in The World In 2016 is titled, “Elegy for Lost Verbiage.” In it, the writer Ann Wroe uses the “difficult words” that will vanish from SAT tests this year—including words I need to use, such as umbrage, impetuous, denigrate and vituperate.
Is there a link between this loss of words and the title of my favorite magazine, the delightfully outrageous, and frequently revelatory monthly, Bitch?
I don’t like the title. I wince when I hear it or read it.
I understand that we are trying to take back the words that have been used for generations against us: bitch, whore, cunt and so forth. But these words are still slung at us today. Can we afford to pretend that we are taking them back and, in the process, transforming them, when they are still used as weapons against us?
I don’t think so.
The f-word has become so common in writing and in speech that a friend felt free to fling it at me in a fit of bad temper. I took “umbrage”; the attack was “impetuous” and I felt “denigrated,” tempted to “vituperate” in return—four more lost words.
These words that still have weight and meaning for me—the once-forbidden words—are now as meaningless for most people as the words used to describe a rainy day: grey, overcast, chilly… But by what magic has the violence been drained out of them?
Have spaces for these once-forbidden words been cleared when other words were deleted from our common vocabulary?
If we could still sling malignant, bombastic, or truculent at the people who annoy us, would we not feel the need to use the other words?
Of course it is too late for any remedy. The words in the obituary vanished from ordinary speech long before they were cut from the SAT. And because we so often must deal in this society with relatives, acquaintances and friends who are addicted or just plain crazy, the weapon-words will always come ready to their mouths as sticks and stones and even guns come ready to their hands.
I’m reminded of the way our teenaged girls now dress—at least some of them—to display their breasts and thighs in low-cut blouses and very short skirts—outfits that might be described with those lost adjectives, diaphanous, evanescent and ephemeral.
No one seems able to make the case effectively that we are still subject to the objectification of the female body. Any display that might be considered, rightly or wrongly, erotic, will call forth a predatory or even violent reaction. At the very least, these outfits seem to proclaim that the young woman has only her body to offer.
“It is my right to dress this way,” the teenage girl may insist, but then it would also seem to be her right to accept and deal with the ensuing harassment.
Marketing steps in here, with alacrity. You can buy bikini underpants and bras for your two-year-old if you so desire, or skimpy two-piece bathing suits. If you doubt my word, check out the Target website for toddler underwear and bathing suits.
These outfits bring to mind the horrified reaction of vacationers to the narrator’s small children swimming naked in Thomas Mann’s 1929 novella, Mario and the Magician. Yet the children’s nudity seems innocent compared to the way we deck our tiny female bodies, as though we still refuse to admit that sexual abuse of little girls is–do we dare to say it?—common in the U.S.
All this is dispiriting enough. For a bracing alternative, I will re-read an amazing article in the spring anniversary edition of Bitch, Sarah Selzer’s powerful, “It’s Jane’s House—We Just Live in It.”
Mining Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and its literary offspring, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jena Rhys, the imagined story of Heathcliff’s wife, The Madwoman in the Attic—Sandra Gilbert and Susan Guber’s essential analysis of nineteenth century literature by women, first published in 1979 and still without peer—and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, all books continuously read by a large audiences, Selzer concludes,
“The Byronic hero”—Heathcliffe—“intrigued literary women because of his potential for violence against the established order. Today, women writers need no such surrogate; they have their predecessors. The successful woman writer of yore is a rebel, a heroine, a guide out of the forest. But she is also an uneasy presence, a Rebecca whispering in the ears of her successors as they sit at their computers, daring them to replicate her feat. And that colluding and competitive relationship may be why so many women writers are drawn back to Jane’s haunted house and her wild dark alter ego”—the mad woman in the attic—“ the dark ghost of the female literary tradition.”
All of these women would be called by street toughs “Bitches.”