What’s in a Name? The History of Sexist Language—and How It’s Changing

What’s in a Name? The History of Sexist Language—and How It's Changing
It’s time to take a deeper look into sexist stereotypes, why female names are used when describing negative personality traits and, more broadly, why the language we use to refer to women is often derogatory. (Hillary Clinton @HillaryClinton / Twitter)

Whether from videos on the internet, or first hand at a local store, we all know of ‘Karen’: the entitled, often racist, individual whose go-to is calling the manager—or, worse, the police.

However, as the U.S. celebrates Women’s Equality Day, it seems fitting to take a deeper look into these stereotypes, why female names are used when describing these negative personality traits and, more broadly, why the language we use to refer to women is often derogatory.

In part due to social media and the rapid transmission of cultural norms through the internet, the phenomenon of using women’s names as insults has become commonplace. But while the internet, it seems, is rife with derogatory terms about women, the issue goes back much further than the dawn of forums and memes.

There’s the aforementioned ‘Karen’—used to describe a privileged woman overreacting to often mundane situations. Then there’s ‘Stacey’—an attractive but ultimately shallow woman who wants to live a life of luxury at a man’s expense—and ‘Becky’—a term now used to refer to a clueless, socially unaware woman, popularized by Beyonce’s 2009 song “Sorry” (though thought to date back to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” from 1992).

There’s also ‘Debbie’—a shortening from the negative phrase “Debbie downer” that describes a woman with a negative attitude (popularized in a Saturday Night Live sketch in 2004), and ‘Moaning Myrtle’—the whiny ghost from the Harry Potter books, written into existence in the 1990s.

Negative tropes about women are everywhere, and we can see this in the language used about them outside of specific names. Words like: “cougar,”
spinster” and “gold-digger” do not have offensive male equivalents—and their usage has made it into our day-to-day language.

Insults, too, are often biased against women. For example, consider the following phrases: “Don’t be such a girl.” “Don’t be a drama queen.” “You’re acting like a bitch.”—all phrases that suggest femininity is bad, or loaded with hysteria and malice.

What happens when we translate derogatory words about women to their male equivalents?

  • Spinster“—an unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage—becomes “bachelor“—a man who is not and has never been married, usually considered eligible.
  • Mistress“—an unmarried woman having a relationship with a man—converts to “master“—a man who has people working for him, especially servants or slaves.

There is a gendered pattern here: Words often reveal the sexist attitudes of society’s past. Many women-associated words or references hold insulting and disrespectful connotations, while the male terms are associated with power, wealth, high status and sexual superiority.

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So, what’s a woman to do in a world that associates her gender with all kinds of negative attributes? The answer is simple: Change the way we speak.

This is already happening all around us. Take, for example, the word “bossy.” Formerly a derogatory term associated with women in positions of power (when equivalent men would be described as “authoritative” or “decisive”), “bossy” is now being used to celebrate women who take charge.

Taylor Swift recently reclaimed the phrase and similar sexist language in her song “The Man”—and is joined by other famous celebrities (including Beyoncé, Sophia Amoruso, and Lizzo, among others) doing just that.

The word “slut” is also a prime example: Since its inception in the 15th century, the term has been used almost exclusively in a negative context to label a woman as promiscuous, amoral or sexually active. In recent years, the term has been adopted by the founders of SlutWalk, a movement which aims to end rape culture and victim blaming, who have embraced the term to protest the slur and its unacceptably negative use in society.

What’s in a Name? The History of Sexist Language—and How It's Changing
Slutwalk in Seattle, 2013. (Studio5Graphics / Flickr)

Reclaiming language doesn’t have to be entirely about taking back words—it can also be about reinventing them. The word “spinster” has historically referred to an unmarried woman, typically beyond the usual age for marriage and often used within a negative context to make women feel undesirable.

Now, empowered single women are labeling themselves as being “self-partnered” rather than single, alone or a spinster. Emma Watson famously used the term in an interview with Vogue in November 2019, stating: “I am very happy being single. I call it being self-partnered.” It’s a step in the right direction, because it’s changing the discourse and reframing single womanhood in a positive light.

Naturally, this shift won’t come overnight. Cultural and linguistic change takes time, effort and consistent work from people who are trying to change the way words are used. But it’s possible.

If we are willing to pay close attention to the way that we speak about ourselves as women, and to call out those people who use femininity to insult others, then we can begin to change the conversation—and make sure that the language directed towards women (insults included) is more egalitarian in nature.


Jennifer Dorman is a sociolinguistic expert at Babbel.