Names People Play
by Donna Gomes
I’m an English major and I find words and their many layered meanings to be fascinating. I am a woman. So what does it mean for me when I’m called “honey” or “darling?” Should I be offended if someone calls me a “tart” or a “babe” or should I allow myself the amusement that inevitably bubbles forth from a mixture of resignation, bemusement, and even a certain sense of flattery? When does a casual endearment become offensive? When I study women’s history and read literature I come across a variety of names, used to describe women, which still enter into language today. Almost invariably sexual in nature these names are coined by men to describe women, a certain type of woman, often offensively. But does it matter? Do we, as women, take these names and make them ours? We’ve done it with the corset, turned a symbol of female imprisonment, repression and objectification into a symbol of freedom and sexual liberty. I have a professor who proudly displays her “the BITCH is BACK” coffee mug during every class. I know a lot of women, including myself, who have turned an offensive term into one they proudly use to describe themselves, denoting toughness and refusal to accept ‘crap’ from anyone, especially a man. But what do all these words, all these names, in reference to women really mean…?
“Babe”: usually used to describe an attractive woman (wiktionary.com). I’d say the offensive comes in with the whole a babe is also a baby thing.
“Tart”: “slang for a prostitute or a promiscuous woman” (dictionary.com). Personally I’ve heard it used a little more positively, but does that make up for where it came from?
“Tart with a heart”: a stock fictional character of the reluctant and virtuous prostitute (Wikipedia).
“Darling”: “one who is dear to one” derived from old English (wiktionary.com). I like this one.
“Angel in the House”: The idealized Victorian woman, coined by poet Coventry Patmore in 1854, came to symbolize a woman who was meek, submissive, chaste, obedient, calm, powerless, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, and pure. Above everything the “Angel in the House” symbolized a wife’s sexual purity, fidelity, and submission. Now shortened to Angel.
“Angel”: often used as an endearment to describe a perfect and pretty girl or woman. (As I’ve heard it, never really cared for that one).
“Broad”: a (usually offensive) term for a woman. A Promiscuous woman. (dictionary.com) Guess we can all tell where the “offensive” comes in.
“Loose”: Lacking in moral integrity; sexually promiscuous (dictionary.com). In Victorian times “loose” morals and ‘character’ were often portrayed as loose clothing etc, especially on women. A loose dress, for example, is used to portray a fallen woman in the painting “Awakening Conscience” by William Hunt.
“Fallen Woman”: Another Victorian term (very descriptive they were) to describe women who fell from their natural state of grace into sexual promiscuity and prostitution.
“Ruined”: “To deprive of chastity” (dictionary.com). Bring on the deprivation!
“Honey”: a term of love or affection; a familiar term of address, sometimes offensive when used by a stranger (dictionary.com); a colloquial term for an attractive woman (wiktionary.com). I’m confused.
“Slut”: originally used to describe a slovenly or untidy woman which evolved to include sexually promiscuous women. Still means the same thing now.
“Bitch”: A malicious, unpleasant, selfish person especially a woman; a lewd woman (dictionary.com) Possessive slang used between women; denotes forced submissive behavior in a relationship and (my personal favorite) “In professional circles, the noun bitch is sometimes used to refer to intelligent and ambitious women with a high level of sex-appeal who use those qualities to achieve their goals.” (wiktionary.com). Well, when you put it that way…