Book Review: Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language

Recently I read Amanda Montell's thought provoking book, "Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language," and I loved it! 

As a Mother raising both a son and daughter I am very aware women face a lot of unfair names and stereotypes. It is hard to summarise everything that shook me in this book. I want to share some of the information that I thought was important and loved because having more awareness pushes us to question, challenge and break down these biases.

Review of Wordslut by Videris Lingerie

I shared some of this information with my 9 year old son at the time of reading this book. Days later we were playing a game of cards and I said to him on our second game “right, no more mr nice guy” and he called me out straight away; “don’t you mean nice girl?”. He was totally right, I had referred to myself in the masculine as both a mr and a guy! I thought about it and said “well a nice guy seems quite cool but a nice girl doesn’t really have the same meaning.”

What is important about this conversation is my son's awareness, we can change things when we start a discussion, then our children begin to notice these language biases.

Language is more than just a way to talk; it mirrors societal norms, power structures, and cultural attitudes. This book looks at how language shapes our world and often supports patriarchal systems, revealing how our words can keep stereotypes and inequalities alive. From small things we say to outright insults aimed at women. Everything we say, from the words we choose to how we say them, can either lift people up or put them down.

Laurel A. Sutton, a language analyst and copywriter, has built her career on the delicate art of name-calling. Her research reveals the deep-rooted misogyny in the English language, revealing that insulting a woman often targets her sexuality, while insulting a man mainly involves feminising him.

"If you want to insult a woman, call her a prostitute. If you want to insult a man, call him a woman"

I found this utterly mind blowing, that culturally, being compared to a woman or having feminine characteristics is incredibly insulting for a man. Words like motherfucker, sissy, girl, pussy, son of a bitch and even woman itself. Is it that bad to be a Woman? Well I guess in our culture it is; Montell's research highlights that there are simply more negative terms for women than for men.

According to a survey conducted at UCLA, approximately 90 percent of all recorded slang words for women were negative, compared to only 46 percent of recorded words for men.

“Linguists postulate this would also be the case in any language spoken under a patriarchal  system, since language ultimately reflects the beliefs and power structures of its culture.” - Amanda Montell

Laurel A.Sutton has categorised gendered insults for women into four main themes—sexual promiscuity, fatness, evilness, and level of hotness, highlighting the systematic bias against women and society’s attitudes to female sexuality and agency.

Furthermore, a study by Julia P. Stanley from the University of Nebraska found that out of 220 sexual slang terms collected, the metaphors underlying them were predominantly negative for women. Terms like "slut" and "whore" were used to shame women for expressing their sexuality. In contrast, sexual metaphors for men, such as "stud" and "player," often carried positive connotations, reinforcing the celebration of male promiscuity.

Words used to slur female sexuality

Montell discusses how words describing women have undergone semantic shifts over time, often evolving from neutral or positive meanings to derogatory slurs. This linguistic evolution reflects society’s changing attitudes towards women and their roles.

Many words used to describe women have experienced pejoration, transitioning from neutral or positive meanings to derogatory or demeaning connotations. For example, the term "hussy" originally meant a female head of household but evolved into a derogatory term for a lewd or promiscuous woman.  Similarly, "slut," derived from the Middle English term for "untidy," has morphed into a disparaging term for sexually liberated women. The word "bitch" has followed a similar trajectory, evolving from its origins as a gender-neutral term for "animal" to a derogatory insult targeting women. In our inventory of English slang women can’t win, female desire is shameful and you are either one of two sexual objects per our culture's rules: an easy skank or a hard to get prude. Whore or prude

Nearly every word the English language offers to describe a woman has, at a point during its lifespan, been coloured some shade of obscene.  This tendency to disrespect women through language becomes clearer when you compare certain matched pairs of gendered words. Compare, for example, sir and madam: Three hundred years ago, both were used as formal terms of address. But with time, madam evolved to mean a conceited or precocious girl, then a kept mistress or prostitute, and, finally, a woman who manages a brothel. Meanwhile, the meaning of sir remained unchanged. Similar shifts occurred with master and mistress, with the latter term acquiring derogatory connotations over time, reflecting societal attitudes towards women.

Speaking of gendered word pairs, why is it that women are expected to define their identity through their marital status with the choice of Mrs, Ms, Miss whilst men are a Mr regardless of age or marital status? Again a reflection of society's need to label a women’s sexual status.

But to me, the most compelling argument is that young women innovate because they see language as a tool to  assert their power in a culture that doesn’t give them a lot of ways to do that.”

Feminine speech is not the problem, the sexist attitude towards it is.

As a Mother of a daughter I am hopeful for the future, Montell talks about how young women are leading changes in language, even though people often criticise how they talk. Perhaps the next time you hear a conversation between a young group of women instead of cringing, think about who’s language standards you are comparing them to, and if it’s the linguistic rules of middle aged men and our patriarchal society then perhaps a change is a positive thing.

“Today’s sharpest linguists, however, have data suggesting that “teenage girl speak,” one of the most loathed and  mocked language styles, is actually what standard English is going to sound like in the near future. In a lot of  ways, it’s already happening. And that’s making a lot of middle-age men very, very cranky.” - Amanda Montell

The conversational styles between men and women do differ,  women’s speech style can be categorised as “cooperative” and mens as “competitive.” however finding your voice isn’t easy when in our culture, maleness is seen as the default. Women are better listeners and this can be used to their detriment as it can give men more space to assume that their perspective is more important.

“The more one talks and the less one listens, the more likely it is that one’s viewpoint will function as if it were  community consensus even if it is not.” - Cornell linguist Sally McConnell-Ginet

Even when women are speaking they are consistently interrupted by men in an effort to control the conversation in both work and social settings. This is something I have now become incredibly conscious of, at a family xmas gathering I noticed this most in my mothers generation and made me realise that change will happen through our children.

“Teaching young women to accommodate to the linguistic preferences, aka  prejudices, of the men who run law firms and engineering companies is doing the patriarchy’s work for it.”  -  Deborah Cameron

“A small but significant  1975 survey found that men were responsible for almost 98 percent of the interruptions recorded in mixed-sex conversations” - Amanda Montell

So how do we change things? We start by teaching our boys, right from the start, to challenge traditional ideas of masculinity. To learn to understand and support girls and women and stand up for them when others try to put them down, whether it's through words or actions. We teach our girls to use their voices without fear. We teach ourselves to listen to the way we speak and the words we use.

I will leave you with this final quote

“Simply put, slurs go out of style at the same time the underlying belief in them does.”- Amanda Montell

This has occurred with the words old maid and spinster, because, in the 21st century being over the age of 40 and unmarried is no big deal.  However, the matched pair to this word is bachelor, which is still in use and as with most masculine paired words has the quite positive suggestion of an eligible man.