How many times have you heard someone say, “It’s just a word, it doesn’t matter.”? Typically, this is said in defense of saying something that might be considered offensive. For a lot of people the idea of certain words being trivial and insignificant might make perfect sense. However, the fact that we find it difficult to change the way we talk can actually be the biggest indicator of just how significant the words we use are and how they can shape our world.
As explained by sociologist Sherryl Kleinman in her article “Why Sexist Language Matters”, we live in a society that normalizes and condones sexist language to such a degree that it becomes completely invisible to us. The word ‘man’ is used to refer to all of humanity, a female mail carrier will be given the title of mailman, and groups of girls will respond if you address them with, “Hey you guys!”. This all boils down to male generics becoming the basis of our English language, and women being slowly removed from our everyday speech.
When ‘man’ becomes the anchor in our language it consistently reinforces the message that there is a higher-status gender, one that is always assumed to exist in our speech. Therefore, it makes women invisible because they simply do not exist in the language anymore. This then poses a threat because by making a group invisible it ultimately makes them easier to oppress. It’s sexist and it needs to end. But what happens when sexist language becomes violent language?
When we describe women specifically, the words we use are often unknowingly violent and aggressive. Words like “bombshell”, “knockout”, and “stunning” are all terms that are used to refer to women, more specifically the female body. While they are meant to be flattering ways of describing someone, they are inherently violent terms. They construct a woman’s sexuality as if it is a weapon or an assault on someone else. This is just one example of an invisible form of violence within our language that we don’t realize because of how normalized it has become for us.
It’s no coincidence that violent language is used to refer to a woman’s sexuality. Feminist author Timothy Beneke once asked, “Ever notice how the words we use to describe women’s beauty — bombshell, knockout, stunning, femme fatale — are words that connote violence and injury to men?”. When we talk about and describe women and their bodies in such violent terms, it becomes easier to justify violence that is done against them. Assault becomes a reaction, instead of a crime, and men’s violence against woman is treated like a natural response because, “she started it”.
The truth is that words matter. They have weight to them. They are the tools that we use to construct the world around us and create our own realities. That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the words we use. Sexist language is all around us. Sexist language is violent language. And violent language condones violent actions.