As humans, we speak approximately 16,000 words each day. That’s a lot of talking. Unless we’re learning a new language, by the time we’re adults, we do a lot of it without thinking. There are so many factors contributing to why we use the words, phrases and expressions that come out of our mouths on a daily basis, including differences in generation, geographic location, culture and education. Sometimes you may find yourself using a certain word or expression that now, in 2020, may seem archaic or insensitive. And though there is likely no malintent behind your word choice, it might have questionable origins or applications that you’re completely unaware of – like these 12 common expressions that have surprisingly dark origins.
Considering that much of western culture and civilisation was built upon the assumption (by men) of male superiority, it makes sense that our language reflects that. For centuries, words and phrases have been used as a way to control women and dictate their behaviour. Here are 12 everyday expressions you didn’t realise were sexist.
Have you ever described someone as being “in hysterics” or crying “hysterically”? Now, it’s just part of our everyday vocabulary, but its origin story is probably the best example of the multiple ways women have been silenced and dismissed throughout history. It starts with the ancient Greeks, who thought that a woman’s uterus could wander throughout the rest of her body, causing a number of medical and psychological problems, including, but not limited to weakness, shortness of breath, fragility, fainting and general “madness.”
Centuries later, Victorian doctors (who were, of course, almost exclusively male) really latched onto the idea that the uterus was the source of essentially any health or psychological problems a woman may face. The diagnosis? Hysteria, based on “hystera,” the Greek word for womb. Female hysteria, as it was known, was a catch-all term for anything men didn’t understand or couldn’t manage relating to women, and was a valid excuse for institutionalising them. There is so much more to this story, but even though “female hysteria” was discredited as a condition – which, by the way, didn’t happen until 1980 – the word and its variations continue to be used to refer to someone who displays extreme and exaggerated excitement or behaviour. “Hysteria” can also mean a period where people are extremely crazed about something, not unlike the coronavirus panic buying earlier this year.
According to Karla Mastracchio, PhD, a rhetorician specialising in gender, politics, and language, the etymology of some words – like feisty – may not include a connection to gender, but the cultural history of the word shows that it has been used almost exclusively along gender lines. “A lot of the words that are particularly gendered have animalistic connotations – feisty being one of them,” she tells Reader’s Digest. “It’s usually used to talk about two things: an unruly animal, or an unruly woman.” But, it’s unlikely to hear an unruly man referred to as being “feisty,” Mastracchio explains, because the word has feline connotations, and it’s typically women who are associated with cats.