Public Comment

Some Notes on Herstory and Humankind

By Helen Rippier Wheeler 
Thursday February 25, 2010 - 09:08:00 AM

In-group jargon refers to specialized language that is used by groups of like-minded individuals. The Global Language Monitor (GLM) is a nonprofit Texas group that analyzes and tracks trends in language. Its criteria are a minimum of 25,000 citations in the global media and breadth and depth of citations. 

GLM has named herstory the third most politically incorrect word, rivaled only by macaca and Global Warming Denier. These folks can’t stand the fact-of-life point that is underscored by an occasional reference to herstory, during Women’s History Month, for example. March is National Women’s History Month; March 8 is International Women’s Day; March 18 is Reproductive Freedom Day.  

The word history comes from Greek roots for such concepts as inquiring, knowing, learning. Tongue-in-cheek herstory was coined to emphasize that women’s lives, deeds, and participation in human affairs have been neglected, undervalued, or distorted in standard works. Why bother? Mean what you say and, whenever possible, say what you mean, is why. 

Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941)’s principle of linguistic relativity—the way in which an individual's thoughts are influenced by the language(s) she or he has available to express them—has been criticized on the basis that he supposedly claimed that language determines thought. Whorf himself wrote that language provides “habits” of thought that influence cognition. He maintained that the structure of a language tends to condition the ways in which a speaker of that language thinks. This position and its opposite—that culture shapes language—have been much debated.  

Gender-neutral is a term invented to acknowledge sexist messages that continue to be conveyed by many languages. But gender and sex are often confounded. Gender is sociological—feminine, masculine; sex is biological—female, male. Ms (instead of Missus and Miss) is just plain logical. Women Studies is syntactically comparable to Black Studies, American Studies, etc., whereas Women’s Studies implies home economics. Poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker contends that “to say ‘poetess’ is and always has been a gentle insult… In the future our poetry, literature and art may become genderless.” 

“Strident” and “militant” are frequently used to label non-submissive threatening women. Shorthand terms often disparage a person who supports a liberation movement, especially a woman, e.g., women’s libber. Out of habit, local custom or because they think of themselves that way, some women refer to themselves and their women friends as girls. The old women and men who refer to “the girl” (in the office, behind the counter, doing the laundry) long ago prudently dropped “the boy” from their vocabulary. A girl is a pre-teen woman; a bitch is a female dog.  

I was thrilled when an old, deaf and almost-blind woman apprised me regarding the day’s mail delivery: “He or she hasn’t been here yet.” Does it make any difference if one refers to the “mailman,” just so the mail gets delivered? Or to “fireman,” just so the fire is extinguished? My theory is that constant reference (thinking, writing, saying) to “mail carrier” and “fire fighter,” as two examples, is conducive to additional qualified females being hired and advanced in male-stereotyped jobs and roles. In this case, the feds have been out front for some time. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ biennial Occupational Outlook Handbook, a classic reference about occupations, uses nonsexist job titles. 

Euphemisms are words that veil the truth and are often deceitful doublespeak. They usually substitute a mild, indirect or vague term for one considered harsh, blunt, or offensive. “Collateral damage” for unintended destruction of civilians and their property, “passed on” instead of died, “enhanced interrogation technique” for torture—they tend to consist of language that is stereotypical or biased with racial, ethnic, group or gender bias. 

On the bright side, figures of speech are good stuff because they serve to seize our attention and to inform. They can be useful enhancements to facilitate communication, feeling, emotion. They appear in both prose and poetry, in fiction and nonfiction. What matters is the skill with which the writer incorporates and finesses a figure of speech. Three major figures of speech are alliteration, simile, and metaphor.  

Alliteration is the repetition of an initial sound. It appeals to the reader’s or listener’s ear and binds the phrase. For example:  

• Mistress Mary, quite contrary. (English nursery rhyme) 

• Big breasted broads, feisty females, dumb dames, damsel in distress. (the media) 

 In a simile, one thing is likened to another, dissimilar thing, usually in a phrase introduced by like or as: 

• A heart as big as a whale / Her tears flowed like wine (M.F.K. Fisher) 

• “...the girls like young horses eyeing the track.” (Rita Dove’s “Wingfoot Lake Independence Day, 1964”) 

Metaphor involves non-literal use of words and contains an implied comparison: 

• the stiff heart/ quartz contentment / the hour of lead (Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”) 

• “For 47 years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, ... only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children... . “ (Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me A Riddle”) 


Helen Rippier Wheeler is a feminist and a Berkeley resident. She can be reached at