Women's Hour host Jane Garvey recently complained about the inherent sexism in the term "guys". It's a term many people (I do it constantly) drop into every day conversations without paying much attention to its gendered nature. If "guys" is slipping past without much notice, then it follows that other questionable terms are too. So I've rounded up seven of the most sexist British phrases I can think of, for closer inspection. And while no one has to automatically rid their vocabulary of all the words and terms in the list below, it certainly doesn't hurt to have an awareness of just exactly what coded misogyny is creeping through in your everyday chat.
While "guys" is a recognisably American-derived term , Brits don't get off scot-free when it comes to sexist slang. There are all kinds of Britishisms which sound nice, but when you look closer reveal themselves to be rather nasty. And as a nation with a rich selection of regional accents, that means sexism with plenty of local flair thrown in for free. From "love" and "the missus" all the way to "Debbie downer" here are a few of the phrases you might want to give the swerve in future.
There are some exceptions to this one. If you're from the North or West of England and you use this term to refer to people from both genders, then you are absolutely fine to continue. You have my blessing, go forth and spread the pet name, err, love. If however, you use the word "love" to refer to women and only women, with whom you do not have a loving relationship, then it's time for a rethink. Like its close relative "darling", the word "love" implies a level of familiarity. If you are using these words towards women alone, then you are suggesting a level of familiarity towards women that you aren't suggesting you share with men, which means you aren't giving women the same respect as men. It's that simple and that patronising.
For 11 months of the year I live in blissful ignorance that the word "bird" is still used in relation to women. And then Love Island returns and it starts falling out of the mouths of 20somethings from up and down the country almost as often as the likes of "graft", "muggy," and "crack on". Except why do we only call women "birds" and not men. Could it be that, eagles and other large birds of prey aside, that birds are generally seen as small, weak, fluffy creatures? Whether or not that's how you see women, if you use this word then you are comparing a woman to an animal, one of the oldest misogynistic tricks in the book.
3. "The Missus"
Not such an obviously sexist term, the issue here isn't usually the phrase itself but the context it's often used in. See Prince William's toe-curlingly cringe response when asked in an interview with BBC One whether he'd be taking Prince George to any football matches. He said: “I don’t know, I’ll have to pass that by the missus, see how I can get away with it!" The problem here is that the phrase paints Kate Middleton as restrictive of William's freedom, stopping him from doing what he really wants to, a fun sponge if you will. It also implies that Kate takes control of parenting decisions, and why would that be? Nothing to do with her gender, I hope.
A bit like "love", "dear" is an unnecessary and patronising overfamiliarisation. But it also comes with the added sexist weight of those awful Michael Winner adverts in which he belittles his wife with the same phrase. Again, fine if you use it to refer to people who actually are dear to you of either gender, but most certainly not acceptable used towards women in professional or impersonal interactions.
6. "The Ball and Chain"
A close relative of "The Missus" but even worse because it actually implies that the women that men have chosen to be with are chains around their ankles. It shouldn't need repeating but here goes, the idea that men are fun and carefree and women are boring and restrictive is sexism, pure and simple.
7. "Lock Up Your Daughters"
Ugh. This one actually makes me feel queasy. There's just so much to unpick. This phrase is usually used to mean a man is attractive to members of the opposite sex. Ok fine, but why are the women in this metaphor seemingly underage, as adult women generally don't tend to have their whereabouts controlled by their parents? And even if they're not underage then there's still the suggestion that the sexuality of these women needs to be policed by a parent. This is so weird. It's not just sexist, it's also quite obviously creepy, and if you catch anyone saying it, then either call them right out on it or run a mile in the other direction.
8. "Debbie Downer"
Answer me this: why no "Danny Downer", or "Dave Downer", or "Diego Downer"? Because, as we have learned, women suck the joy out of everything, while men are nothing but sunshine and light at all times. If you need me, I'll be out there in the world trying to make Diego Downer a thing. It may not catch on, but I won't be saying Debbie Downer again, that's for sure.
Americans might say everything sounds better in British. But as far as I'm concerned, sexism sounds just as bad in every accent. So the next time you find one of these phrases on the tip of your tongue, maybe pause and find something a little less sexist to say.