7 Gendered Terms to Stop Using — And What To Say Instead
Sometimes, sexism involves overt acts of aggression. Other times, it's as subtle as the language we use. Certain words carry sexist connotations that we're not even aware of, and when we use them, we unintentionally perpetuate gender norms.
"The language we use says a lot about how we expect men and women to behave," Ted Mentele, expert in didactics at the language-learning app Babbel, tells Bustle. "Men are often positively described with words that relate to strength, agency, power, virility, intelligence, and independence (analytical, logical, confident, practical, Casanova). Women, on the other hand, are often described positively with words that carry a meaning relating to a nurturing, loving, non-confrontational, or even meek demeanor (compassionate, enthusiastic, lady-like, bubbly, demure)."
In addition to the compliments we use differently for people of different genders, some words are used as compliments for some people and insults for others. "The patriarchal bias is clear to see when looking at words that describe sexual power or promiscuity," Mentele says. "While a man is a ladies’ man or a playboy, a woman is a [...] scarlet woman, or Jezebel. It’s perceived as normal, even commendable, for a man to have multiple sexual partners, as it’s seen as a marker of his power, while a woman who is promiscuous is generally considered to be dirty or untrustworthy."
To show how gendered the English language really is, Babbel put together a list of words with subtly sexist connotations. Here are some of them, along with less gendered terms that we can use instead.
1. Instead Of "Feisty," Say "Go-Getter"
When you hear "feisty," it's usually to describe either a cat or a woman. And while it can have some positive connotations, it also tends to mean someone's overly aggressive or argumentative. To convey the positive connotations of "feisty" without the negative, you can describe someone as a "go-getter."
2. Instead Of "Sissy," Say "Coward"
"Sissy" is often used to call someone, particularly a man, a coward by implying that they are feminine — which, in turn, implies that women are weak. Rather than criticize a man by pretending he's like a woman, precisely express what you are trying to say with "coward."
3. Instead Of "Frigid," Say "Cold"
"Frigid" usually describes a woman who is uptight or sexually closed off. Traditionally (AKA in Sigmund Freud's vocabulary), it's been used to classify women as sexually dysfunctional, often for unfair reasons. If somebody is emotionally distant, a better word would be "cold." And if a woman actually is struggling sexually, it would be better to directly address what she's experiencing, not label it as a character flaw.
4. Instead Of "Ditsy," Say "Spacey"
The word "ditsy" goes along with the "dumb blonde" stereotype: It conjures a woman who is unintelligent and unable to be serious. If someone is making lots of little mistakes or not paying attention, a more accurate word would be "spacey."
5. Instead Of "Bombshell," Say "Attractive"
"Bombshell" originally meant a "shattering or devastating thing or event" — an objectifying and somewhat demonizing term for an attractive woman. If you want to express that you're attracted to someone, you can simply say they're attractive or even super attractive. By using an adjective rather than a noun, you don't define the person so much by their looks.
6. Instead Of "Bubbly," Say "Cheerful"
"Bubbly" is almost always used for women, and it contains somewhat sexist connotations: A bubbly person is usually not just friendly but affectionate, adoring, and inoffensive the way women are prized to be. The word "cheerful" still carries the positive, gender-neutral aspects of the word without the gendered ones.
7. Instead Of "Grow A Pair," Say "Grow A Heart"
"Grow a pair" implies that someone needs male genitalia to be strong or tough, which they most definitely don't. "Grow a heart" focuses on kindness, something that actually matters.
These terms may not seem significant to everyone, but if you're a woman who has been on the receiving end of them, you can likely tell the difference. When you're addressed no differently than a man would be, it helps you feel like you're on equal footing.