6 Common Phrases You Didn't Know Were Sexist (That You'll Now Want To Ban From Your Vocabulary)
The English language is a tricky beast — this we know. How else can you describe a linguistic system in which the word "colonel" is pronounced "KER-null"? But perhaps the most deceptive thing about it is the way it lulls you into a false sense of security. Just when you think you've got it pegged, you discover a ton of common phrases you didn't know were sexist, racist, or otherwise horrifyingly offensive. Plus, your super empowered self has totally been using them. (Like, a lot.) What's a girl to do? Wasn't English supposed to be smooth sailing after you nailed that whole "'i' before 'e' except after 'c'" concept? Alas, 'twas not so. We have all been deceived, and it's time to do something about it. In that vein, I dug up some phrases we're quite probably all guilty of using from time to time that have sexist origins, undertones or, hey, they're just outright misogynistic and we never knew it.
But first, don't feel bad if you store one or two (or all) of these phrases in the back pocket of your vernacular. I'm not exaggerating when I say I was shocked finding out how many idioms I toss out in casual conversation that have sinister, subversive, or sexist etymologies. It was a bit of an awakening, to be honest. Still, while it obviously doesn't make us bad people for inadvertently perpetuating phrases we didn't know shouldn't be perpetuated... now we do know. Although there are many, many large scale issues facing women today that need to be addressed, tackling something seemingly small scale such as sexist language is an important step toward overcoming gender inequality. That's reason enough to quit these expressions "cold turkey" (couldn't resist), right?
1. "Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride"
Today, this expression is often used in reference to women who are commonly in the weddings of others, but who have yet to walk down the aisle themselves. Remember that 2008 Katherine Heigl rom-com 27 Dresses? It was basically the embodiment of this idiom's modern incantation (spoiler alert!) right up until the ending.
All that is bad enough as it is, since obviously no one is required to become a bride at all if they don't want to — but it gets even worse when you consider the history of the phrase: When the phrase was first coined in the mid-1920s, it was part of a marketing ploy playing on some pretty dicey gender tropes. A mouthwash ad in 1925 titled "Often a bridesmaid but never a bride." The ad, which featured a forlorn looking young woman, touted Listerine as the cure for poor Edna's woes. I kid you not — this is how it began: "Edna's case was a really pathetic one. Like every woman, her primary ambition was to marry. Most of the girls of her set were married — or about to be." The ad went on to say that, despite having unparalleled charm and grace, Edna couldn't land a man of her own and — gasp! — "as her birthdays crept toward that tragic thirty-mark, marriage seemed farther from her life than ever," adding, "She was often a bridesmaid but never a bride." Fortunately for poor Edna, though, the ad had a possible explanation for her perpetual state of undesirability: Unbeknownst to her, she had bad breath! Oh, glory be the day when Edna used that ambrosial rinse and discovered that mouthwash brings all the boys to the yard.
2. "You Guys"
On a scale of one to I'm-a-horrible-feminist, how bad is it that I actually wanted to start this paragraph about the phrase "you guys" with, uh, the phrase "you guys"? For shame, I know. Here's the deal: While the phrrase doesn't have an idiosyncratic and wildly inappropriate backstory (that we know of), the phrase "you guys" totally reinforces gender inequality by not only unnecessarily gendering people, but even worse, assuming that the default gender is male. Furthermore, since it's used so often, it's actually one of the most commonly perpetuated sexist phrases. I'm embarrassed to admit how much I myself use this expression although, if you've read any of my writing, you already know it ranks right up there with "for sure" on my list of things I probably shouldn't say but do entirely too much anyway. This phrase in particular falls in with a large group of words clearly created to pander to our patriarchal society, such as "mankind," "freshman," and the like. The sexist undertones are starting to catch flack, though, with some colleges launching campaigns to educate students about the oppressive impact phrases like "you guys" have on our culture.
3. "Don't Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water"
I've personally used this expression, like, a thousand times without giving it a second thought. But, you know, perhaps I should have spent at least a minute considering its origin. These days, we use this expression to remind someone to be careful not to throw out anything important when they are cleaning house, metaphorically speaking. But any way you look at the origin or this expression, it's bad. The most popular theory is that in medieval times, an entire family would take a bath using the same tub water. The man of the house was always at the top of this heirarchy, followed by any sons. By the time the woman of the house and any small children made it to bathing time, the bath water was so dirty you could potentially lose a baby in it. Both misogynistic and gross — super! For the record, The Phrase Finder refers to this etymology as "complete twaddle," insisting the phrase originated in an essay denouncing slavery. So... at least there's that.
Using this word is kind of rude anyway — it is defined as "showy but cheap and of poor quality" — so here's a legitimate reason to ban it from your vocabulary for good. We can trace the word "tawdry" all the way back to 7th century England and the story of a queen of Northumbria named Etheldrida, who was best known to the people as Saint Audrey. Sadly, Saint Audrey died in 679 AD of a throat tumor. Here's the kicker, though: Her cause of death was recorded by the Venerable Bede in Ecclesiastical History as retribution "for vain show adorned her neck with manifold splendid necklaces." That's right — St. Audrey supposedly died because she was a woman who liked to wear pretty necklaces. Beware to thee, Stella and Dot fans!
So you're probably wondering what this has to do with the word "tawdry," huh? Well, in a later Ecclesiastical History, Godly women were deemed to wear only a certain kind of necklace made of thin and fine silk. These necklaces became known as Saint Audrey's laces. Over time, that term was merged to form 'taudrey lace,' which eventually was shortened to its present form of "tawdry." Why "tawdry" is now a marker of cheapness when Saint Audrey had a taste for the finer things in life, we may never know. So the implications here are that women who like to wear jewelry should and quite possibly could be struck down by karmic retribution, and/or that women who favor flashy baubles are overly ostentatious and also apparent cheap.
5. "As Pleased as Punch"
How, and I repeat, how were Punch and Judy Shows ever popular? Dating back to 16th century Italy, these puppets were one of the most beloved forms of comedic entertainment — and they clearly left a lasting impression, seeing as the idiom "as pleased as Punch" refers to the male half of this puppeting duo. While this phrase now widely means "very pleased," a quick recap on what ol' Mr. Punch was all about likely won't make you very pleased. In fact, Mr. Punch is what you might call a sadistic dillhole. I mean, it's a bit surprising such folk affection for this guy still exists, considering his main shtick was beating his poor wife Judy (with a stick, no less). Punch's plot for these popular puppet shows was pretty predictable. Something silly would enrage him, at which point he'd go on a murderous rampage during which he'd kill Judy, their baby, and any authority figure who tried to intercede. For good measure, he'd then laugh maniacally after each murder, saying, "That's the way to do it!" So, yeah. Sweet dreams tonight?
6. "Rule of Thumb"
There's a bit of debate surrounding the etymology of the expression "rule of thumb," thanks to the most prevalent theory, it bears mentioning. Today, this phrase is used often to mean a common benchmark or guiding principle. But it is posited that the expression first surfaced in the 1700s, during which time one Judge Sir Francis Buller ruled that British common law permitted a man to beat his wife as long as the rod was no thicker than his thumb. Even though no record of this ruling was ever recorded, it became an urban legend of sorts, gaining credence when it was made into a 1782 caricature by British satirist James Gillray called Judge Thumb and, later, cited in an 1868 North Carolina ruling. The far less sexist theory of the expression's etymology, however, is simply that carpenters have historically always used their thumbs to approximate an inch — but maybe it's still worth retiring the phrase anyway. We can do better than cliches with murky origins, right?