A few days ago, I tweeted a link to an article in TES:
— Dominik Lukes (@techczech) May 17, 2014
Today, I got the following response back:
@techczech ‘really means’ talks about origins. It doesn’t mean that to me now.
— Elizabeth Hayton (@lizzielh) May 17, 2014
@lizzielh is absolutely right. As the title of an as yet unpublished blog post of mine goes: “Words don’t mean things, people mean things”. I even wrote a whole book chapter on that with the same title as this post.
Indeed, if it had been me writing on the topic, I would have chosen a more judicious title. Such as “The legacy of discrimination behind the humble Miss” or “Past and present inequalities encoded in the simple Miss”.
In fact, the only reason I tweeted that article in the first place was because it was making a much more subtle and powerful point than simple etymology (as you would expect from one based on the work of the eminent scholar of language and gender Jennifer Coates). Going all the way back to Language and the Woman’s Place and even before, people have been trying to peg the blame on simple words. All along the response has been, but these are just words, we don’t mean anything bad by them. Or, these are just words, the real harm is done in the real world.
Many women I meet continue to like the Miss/Mrs distinction despite the long availability of the now destigmatized Ms. It was not too long ago that I set up a sign up form with only Prof Dr Mr Ms and got lots of complaints from women who wanted to keep their Miss or Mrs. So restigmatizing Miss is actively harmful to the self-image of many women whose identity is tied with that label. Feminists tend to make light of the ‘unfeminist’ cry of “I like it when men open the door to me”, or “Carrying my bag for me just shows respect”. Or going back even further, “I don’t need a vote, I exercise my influence through my husband.” But change is literally hard, it takes time and effort, so an attempt at making the world better will always making temporarily worse (at least for some people).
The fact is that Miss is bound up in a network of meanings, interactions and power relations. And even if it takes some mental pain, it’s worth picking at all it covers up.
But not every minute of every day. Sometimes, we need to say something to get from conversational point A to conversational point B and even a laden word may be better than no word. As one of the respondents in the article says:
My response is always that my name isn’t Miss; it’s Mrs Coslett. But if I’m in a school where students don’t know me and they call me Miss, I’m fine with that. They’re showing respect by giving me a title, rather than ‘hey’ or ‘oi, you’ or whatever.
Most of the time contentious words are used, challenging them is not feasible. But she’s wrong in her conclusion:
That’s just the way the English language works.
That’s absolutely not true. Just like words don’t mean anything on their own, language does not just work. It’s used to do things (to riff on Austin’s famous book) by people. It is not always used purposefully but its use is always bound in the many ways and means of people. The way we speak now is a result of centuries of little power plays, imitations of prestige, prescriptions of obedience. When you look closer, they’re all easy to see.
Things have let up considerably since the 1970s. Many fewer people are concerned about how language encodes gender inequality and it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that many of the historical unfairnesses hidden in word histories are still with us. Just like you can’t get away with saying “I didn’t mean anything by the ‘n’ word”, you can’t just shrug off the critique of the complex tapestry of gender bias in ‘Miss’.
Miss does not “really mean” anything. It’s just a sequence of letters or sounds. And most people using it do not “really mean” anything by it. Or it does not “really mean” anything to them. But context is everything.
It is a truism to say that racism will be done away with when people don’t dislike each other because of the color of their skin. But the opposite is the case. The sign that racism has disappeared is when I can say “I really don’t like black people” simply because I don’t like the color of their skin in the same way I may prefer redheads to blondes. Preference for skin colour is then just a harmless quirk. But we’re centuries away from that because any such preference is tied to a system of discrimination going back a long way. (BTW: just to avoid misunderstanding, I personally find black skin beautiful.)
The same thing applies to “Miss”, we can’t just turn our back on its pernicious potential. Most of the time it’s hidden from sight but it’s recoverable at a moment’s notice. Because we live in a world where male is still the default position. We have to work to change that. Change our minds, hearts, cognitions and languages. They don’t just work on their own. We make them work. So let’s make them work for us. The ‘us’ we want to be, rather than the ‘us’ we used to be in the bad old days.