Social Sexism Language


There is no denying that communication is one of the keys to success for individuals in a rapidly changing world. Why do mere words carry too much power? First of all, language can develop one’s consciousness from infancy. Children learning the language are likely to absorb the cultural assumptions, myths and prejudice underlying language use. Social inequity reflected in language, thus, can powerfully shapes children’s later behaviors and attitudes.

In this way, language affects socialization of the community where it belongs. The aim of this paper is to develop human perspectives on sexism in language, its manifestations and its negative impacts on women. From theory to practice, the paper, furthermore, equips its readers with relevant guidelines to stay away from unwittingly using sexist language and apply the gender-neutral language.

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1. Discrimination against women

Sexism or gender discrimination means treating people differently on the grounds of their genders, which they were born to be. In a popular old feminist slogan, which goes “You start by sinking into his arms and end up with your arms in his sink”, the prevalence of sexism is beyond question. For years, men have held the dominant position of power and ruled the world while women have been considered inferior and useless. Even in our modern times, millions of women across the world are living in inequality, in injustice: their basic human rights are severely infringed due to no other reasons than their gender.

Discrimination against women is manifested in numerous aspects of life such as education, work, enjoyment of benefits, freedom, power, etc. Take education as an example. Women, who make up 66% of the world’s illiterate adults, may account for 55% of college students but even after they successfully completed the same course of education or training, their equal work opportunities, and equal treatment in their career life are not guaranteed.

Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

According to Women’s World Summit Foundation, globally, women perform 66% of the world’s work, but receive only 11% of the world’s income, and own only 1% of the world’s land. Also, a report released in August 2007 by the US Census Statistics showed that women's earnings in 2006 were 76.9% of men's, leaving the wage gap statistically unchanged from last year

Unequal payment against women

The manifestation of sexism can be found almost everywhere on earth, from most developed countries to developing countries and under-developed ones in Asia and Africa. In parts of the world, like China, India and Vietnam, parents may terminate the foetus or put the baby up to adoption on the basis that it is a girl. Abuses against women are social epidemics throughout the world.

More often than not, men in Pakistan, Uzbekistan, South Africa, and Peru, etc. beat their wives and daughters at home at an astounding rate. In Ukraine, Nigeria, and Thailand, women are bought and sold, trafficked and forced to work as prostitutes. In the meantime, women in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia tackle with discrimination that renders them unequal before the law.

Even in the US, where freedom is believed to reach the extreme, breaking news and articles on polygamy keep showing up frequently in daily newspaper, radio and television. Recently, a huge scandal over a polygamist broke on the front page of all the papers. Warren Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Texas, was convicted after he forced a 14-year-old girl to marry her cousin. That unfortunate girl is not the only case. Hundreds of other girls and women there suffer from the same ill-treatment. Members in the sect led by Jeffs believe that a man must marry at least three wives in order to ascend to heaven. Women are meanwhile taught that their path to heaven depends on being subservient to their husbands.

1.2. Gender Equality

Thanks to the dawn of civilization, the vital roles of women have been recognized and gender equality has received major attention. Since the 1960s, feminism movements began and have blossomed all over the world. People’s attitude and ways of thinking toward women have been changing positively. In many countries, girls have the opportunity to go to school and enjoy the same rights as their male classmates. The number of female employees in the workplace has risen up dramatically.

A peak in social changes is the adoption of Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women by the United Nations General Assembly on December, 18th, 1979. It came into full force as an international treaty after the twentieth country ratified it on September, 3rd, 1981. In its approach, the Convention covers three dimensions of the situation of women. Civil rights and the legal status of women are dealt with in great detail. In addition, the Convention, unlike other human rights treaties, is also concerned with the dimension of human reproduction as well as with the impact of cultural factors on gender relations.

The implementation of the Convention is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Committee's mandate and the administration of the treaty are defined in the Articles 17 to 30 of the Convention. The Committee is composed of 23 experts nominated by their Governments and elected by the States parties as individuals "of high moral standing and competence in the field covered by the Convention".

At least every four years, the States parties are expected to submit a national report to the Committee, indicating the measures they have adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention. During its annual session, the Committee members discuss these reports with the Government representatives and explore with them areas for further action by the specific country. The Committee also makes general recommendations to the States parties on matters concerning the elimination of discrimination against women.

1.3. Language as the reflector of society

Language is not merely a means of communication; rather, it connects people to each other in social relationships and allows them to participate in a variety of activities in daily life. There is a reciprocal relationship between language and the society in which the society dominates the kind of language spoken in its community. And in return, people’s thought is strongly affected by their languages. Every little change in the thought takes language’s influence to the extreme, transcending the whole society. Consequently, under the canopy of sexism world, language in general or English in particular is greatly influenced and turns out to be sexist, creating Sexism in Language. For example, in the Western countries, the manifestation of sexist language emerged on the very early days in the Bible.

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and he blessed them and he named them Man in the day when they were created. (Genesis 5:1, 2)

When Neil Armstrong, the legendary American astronaut, made his very first step on the moon, he uttered a memorable sentence: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." If he had landed on the moon in the mid-'90s, he would definitely have said a much more politically correct sentence: "That's one small step for a person, one giant leap for humankind.” which is less poetic but certainly more literally representative of the whole of the human race.

In the progressive, civilized world today, women and men are to be recognized equal. In the same vein, sexist language should not be welcomed and that is the reason why neutral-gender language is preferred to the sexist one by many people.

1.4. Aims and objectives

There is a long way to go until the deep-rooted concept of sexism vanishes completely though a lot of changes have come in subtle ways through our actions, our movements, our laws,. As one more step towards this end, important things like the usage of words should be taken into consideration. If children are exposed to sexist words used by their parents, relatives since their childhood, they will take it for granted that sexism is not a matter, that language is language and that we just swim with the tide.

Clearly, language may shape human thought. Therefore, in this paper, my overall aim and objectives are:

To raise public awareness in using language.

To help English learners to improve their understanding in sexist language.

To provide information that, to some extent, shows English learners to the right track of language usage so as not to unwittingly offend or hurt anyone.

To describe how discrimination against women appears in spoken and written language and explain what sexist language is and what meaning lies behind it.

To manifest sexism in Vietnamese roughly and sexism in English in more details.

Last but not least, to provide English users with some practical tips to avoid sexist language.

Chapter 2 Review Of The Related Literature

The relationship between language and gender has long been of interest within sociolinguistics and related disciplines. The possibility of eliminating sexism from language originally stems from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that language is not only shaped by society, but society by its language. Since the early 1900s, Edward Sapir first identified a new concept, which is language determinism. In his perspectives, language defines the way a person behaves and thinks.

He believed that language and the thoughts that we have are somehow interwoven, and that all people are equally being affected by the confines of their language. Later, Benjamin Whorf, Sapir’s student, picked up on the idea of linguistic determinism and really made it his own. Whorf coined the so-called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which is more properly referred to as the Whorf hypothesis.

Under this hypothesis, language is believed to be more than a way of voicing ideas, but the element which shapes those ideas. One cannot think outside the confines of their language. Whorf put his whole trust in linguistic determinism; that what one thinks is fully determined by its language.

He also supported linguistic relativity, which means that the differences in language reflect the different views of different people. For example, Whorf conducted a study on the Hopi language. He did research on a Hopi speaker who lived in New York City near the place he lived. He concluded that Hopi speakers do not include tense in their sentences, and therefore must have a different sense of time than other groups of people.

On a parting note, the strong form of the hypothesis is not now widely believed. After all, speakers of one language can explain and understand the conceptual systems of another language. And grammatical categories do not thoroughly explain cultural systems. Indo-European languages put gender into a grammatical category, and their speakers may be sexist but speakers of Turkish or Chinese, languages without grammatical gender, are not notably less sexist.

A weak form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language influences without determining our categories of thought still seems justifiable, and is even backed up by some psychological experiments like the finding of Kay & Kempton which depicts, in distinguishing colour triads, a pair distinguished by colour names can seem more distinct than a pair with the 'same' name which are actually more divergent optically.

As a field, prompted by the blossoming Western Women’s Movement, language and gender really took off in the 1970s with particular interest from feminist researchers, in the potential for male dominance of mixed-gender talk such as men interrupting women more often than the reverse case or in the clarification of distinction between female and male speaking styles and in sexism, or sexist bias, in language.

The year 1975 can be regarded as a milestone in the study of language and gender in the West. In that year three important books were published. They are Robin Lakoff’s work Language and Women’s Place, Thorne and Henley’s co-edited collection named Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance, and Key’s book about Male /Female Language.

With a closer look at Lakoff’s book, he focuses especially on female' use of "woman talk" in society and the problems women must overcome to be seen as effective, strong thinkers and speakers. The author uses classroom observations and examples to convey the idea that children are taught to speak politely and to accept people's ideas. Ridicule from older boys causes boys around the age of five to stop using "woman talk" and adopt a masculine language. Girls sustain their old language and are discouraged from using masculine language.

As for adults, a problem arises when women has to handle both business and personal relationships. They use neutral language for business but mostly feminine language when talking to friends. If they refuse to talk like ladies, they are ridiculed for being masculine, but they are also ridiculed when they use feminine language because they are seen as unable to speak forcefully. Basically, women are "damned if they do and damned if they don't." Men, from childhood on, have taken control over the society and speech by using strong expressions while women have had to adapt their language to variations, no matter business or personal.

For instance, a woman may say an idea is terrific in a board meeting, but when she is talking to her female friend she may utter that the idea is divine. The adjectives used vary with a woman's environment. Because women have to make adjustments in their speech, Lakoff observes, most women never really master either language or feel comfortable using both. Therefore, the overall effect of "woman's talk" is to engage a woman's personal identity and her ideas, erasing the chance to take power.

Thanks to observations, the author notes that women outnumbered men in utilizing more tag questions (questions that don't commit the speaker to an idea either way) because they want reassurance that their statement is correct. Lakoff concludes that women's speech is devised by society and taught to girls through socialization to prevent the expression of ideas that may increase women's status.

A writer and administrator at Arizona State University, Nelsin P.A (1977) carried out a study of the dictionary prescribing sexism in English. Using richly detailed historical evidence, she disclosed how often English expresses sexist assumptions among males and females. In her study, she read a desk dictionary and jotted down note cards on every entry that seemed to refer to male and female. Her collection of note cards brought to her mind the association of English with the society.

As for her, “Language and society are intertwined as a chicken and an egg”. The values and beliefs of a culture can be revealed through its language. A language may change fast as new words can be easily introduced but it also takes a whale of time for old words and usages to disappear. Based on Nilsen’s note cards, she found out three main points about the comparison between men and women: “Women are sexy and Men are successful”, “Women are passive and Men are active” and “Women are connected with Negative Connotations; Men with Positive Connotations.”

More recently, Marlis Hellinger and Madumod Bussman (2002) (as cited in Ansary and Babaii 2005), two German linguists published their work “Gender across Languages – Linguistic representation of women and men”. They have managed a long time of intensive preparation to create an outstanding project gathering linguists to present research on gender representation across 30 countries, namely China, Norway, Spain, Finland, Holland, Vietnam, etc. The project provides an incredible huge amount of new insights into the topic of linguistic representation of gender in different languages.

Various pieces of linguistic research from different countries have been collected in three volumes. Each of the three volumes is introduced by an identical article of the editors giving some general information about the project, the topics to be discussed for the different languages in the volumes and the terminology used.

Take Vietnamese research as an example. Ms. Hoa Pham manages to show in her very informative article in Vietnamese the role, social status and traditional values play for person reference forms. She focuses in her study on terms women and men use in various relationships in urban settings among young and/or educated people. Her study therefore emphasizes the role concrete communicational situations play in person reference.

Vietnamese as a classifier language expresses gender mainly by special morphemes used as modifiers. The role gender specific reference takes and the way it is expressed is dependent on the communicational context including the relative status and age of the people addressed, speaking and referred to. Nevertheless, social changes play an important role here as well. Terms of address, self-reference and reference have changed in the last few decades with the change of women's roles in society.

Chapter 3 Sexist Language

3.1 Background & Definition

Research on sex roles conducted by Swim, Mallett and Stangor (2004) indicates that sexism comes out in many forms, which are blatant, covert and subtle sexism. Both blatant sexism and covert sexism are defined as intended but differ from each other in the visibility. Blatant sexism which means unjust and discriminatory treatment of women relative to men is showed up obviously while covert sexism inclines to invisible ill-treatment of women.

Compared to those two kinds, subtle sexism represents unfair treatment to women, which is hardly recognized for it is perceived as normative and conventional. Similar to covert sexism, subtle sexism is hidden away but it is not unintentionally harmful. In fact, subtle sexism is of particular interest of researchers due to its wide prevalence and adverse impacts on its victims.

Sexist language is part and parcel of subtle sexism. It is the “language which devalues members of one sex, almost invariably women, and thus foster gender inequality”. In other words, sexist language consists of speeches and utterances that strengthens, perpetuates gender stereotypes and status differences between women and men.

In a human life chart, sexist language may appear in the very first lines. Kids learn it from their parents, siblings, neighbors and as time passes by, it mutates and evolves into a linguistic habit. People may use sexist language for a handful of reasons. It may be owing to the tradition, the norm ingrained in current written and spoken language and hard to change. Some people lack the knowledge about what makes up sexist language. Some do not believe that such language is sexist. Others may attempt to uphold the hierarchism in their societies.

3.2 Sexism in English

Is English sexist? There is nothing denying it. English, one of the world’s most spoken languages indeed proves to be sexist through its historical and current use. It has been a norm in the past to refer to individuals in general terms as being male as in the sentence: “When an average British goes out in the rain, he takes an umbrella with him.” To the ear of most of English speakers, the use of “she” and “her” in that context would sound a little strange. In deed, the word “woman” in English is defined in terms of “man”. From the Old English, the word “man” means “person” while “woman” clings to the view of “wife of a person”. In his translation of the Book of Genesis, which explained Eva was formed by a “spare rib” of Adam and Adam made his declaration:

“This is now bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

And the fact remains till today that “woman” derives from “man” as Winston Churchill put it: “In grammar, as in love, the male embraces the female” when he was asked by a feminist on this point.

Ambiguities may occur when using only one word “man” for both sexes like in the following examples:

Eg 1: Like other animals, man nourishes his baby with milk.

Hearing such sentence could make people roll on the floor laugh because it sounds contradictory to the common sense.

Eg 2: The Company only employs experienced men with good English command.

The sentence could make listeners confused since they do not know what the exact sex that the Company wants to employ. Can experienced women with good English command or with much better qualities get a job in the Company?

3.3 Sexism in Vietnamese

Under a thousands-of-years feudal regime, especially the prolonged domination of China, patriarchal ideology was adopted, nurtured and practiced by the whole Vietnamese society. Such ideology dominated the Vietnamese culture for quite a long time, breeding malicious disregard and contempt of women. Though Vietnam has endeavored to develop a country of gender equality, sexism still exists in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas. This is, to some extent, reflected through the society’s conceptions of women in general and the sexist language people used when it comes to women in particular.

“Nhất nam viết hữu, thập nữ viết vô”

The above sentence can be read literally “One boy child, write “yes”, ten girl children, write “no”. Right at birth, a gender discrimination barrier was set up between a male and a female. The saying affirms the dominant role of the male the family clan and yet if the baby turns out to be a daughter, her existence would mean nothing: her name will not be registered in the family tree. This perspective of the Vietnamese older generations, unfortunately lingers on. In reality, it is common in Vietnam that a poor couple may already have a dozen of daughters but still wish for more until they have a son who will be considered the only heir to the family’s property and tradition.

The concept of “Tam tòng” adopted from Confucius philosophy has been spread out widely from generation to generation in Vietnamese families. "Tại gia tòng phụ, xuất giá tòng phu, phu tử tòng tử" means a girl, since her birth, is a belonging of her father; after she gets married, she becomes a property of her husband and even when her husband passes away, she belongs to their son. In all the stages of her life, the woman has never lived, even for a minute, as an independent human being but an item passed over from one man to another. She cannot make a decision for her own life. Vietnamese literature contains a staggering amount of sexist proverbs and folk- songs where men are deemed to be superior to women.

"Phận gái có hai bến sông, Bến đục thì chịu, bến trong thì nhờ . "

The two sentences in the folk-song describe the unpredictable fate of women. They have to accept and unconditionally obey the decision made by her parents whether it is right or wrong one. If , for example, a woman was fortunate enough to marry a good man, she could live a happy life. Otherwise, she would have to endure all the hardships, misery or even sufferings for the rest of her life. The unpredictability of a woman’s life in the past can be found in many other folk-songs and old poems such as:

“Thân em như hạt mưa xa Hạt rơi xuống giếng hạt vào vườn hoa.”

Thân em trắng phận em tròn

Bay nổi ba chìm với nước non

Rắn nát mặc đầu tay kẻ nặn..

Not only Vietnamese women lost their freedom, did they also suffer from the disrespect for their intelligence and education.

“Đàn ông nông nổi giếng khơi. Đàn bà sâu sắc như cơi đựng trầu.”

Literally translated, a man may act hastily but his thought is likened to a deep well whereas a woman may think deeply but her thought is just as narrow as the platter of betel. These two sentences implied a gross underestimate of women’s mind in comparison with men. In the old days, women had almost no access to education and very few opportunities to communicate with the outside world. For this reason, women at that time were not as knowledgeable as men who were granted a preference to pursue their study.

Women can also mean misfortune or bad luck, which is clearly expressed in the following tip-of-the-tongue saying: “Ra ngõ gặp gái.” This expression says when you go out in the morning, if the first person you meet is a female, you are deemed to fail to gain what you planned to do or you may face with some trouble or even with an accident. A lot of Vietnamese, especially old and rural people, remain sexist in their language usage.

They now often say, for example, “Đàn bà thì làm được gì!”, which covers the idea that women are worthless and women are never able to do anything serious or important. The word “gái” which used to refer to the prime time of a female now comes to be used in many contexts as a derogatory term, for example: gái đấy (that’s a whore.), gái gọi đấy (that’s a call girl), đồ gái góa (that’s a stuff of widow), đồ gái đĩ (that’s a promiscuous stuff), etc.

Those judgements, nevertheless, no longer holds water in the 21st century Vietnam society, in which women enjoy the same right to go to school and interact socially with others. It is a society where men and women are equal in all aspects: a great number of women are now members of Parliament, senior officials in the government, leaders in a number of industries, honoured professors and doctors.

Chapter 4 - Sexist English & It's Manifestations

Language can be likened to a social phenomenon, closely related to social attitudes. What happens in our daily life is partly reflected in our language. The existence of sexist language depicts in the pervasion of sexism in our day-by-day conversations, in our messages, and in our thoughts. In the past, women were supposed to stay at home, remaining powerless and generally subordinates to men whereas men were the focus, the centre of the family and even the whole society. Women have been looked down on as “the weaker sex” and should be dependent on men. Language simply reflects social facts.

4.1. Ways of addressing

Addressing practices for men and women are asymmetric. Inequality is implied when different endearments “Mrs.” and “Miss” are used for women in different situations while men are associated with only one endearment “Mr.”

Choosing a title for women depends on their marital status. If a woman is still single, she will be called “Miss” but after she gets married (or was married as with widow), the title will be changed into “Mrs.” Thereby, when noticing how a woman is addressed, people can tell that woman has made a wedding vow or not. Using title “Mr.” before the name of a person, on the other hand, merely shows that the person is a male adult. The term “Mr.”, used for both single and married men, has perfectly masked the marital status of a man.

This linguistic distinction implies that it is more important for woman than man to show whether one is married. However, in a modern and civilized society, a woman’s avowed commitment to another human being which characterizes a marriage is a personal and private matter that bears no relevance in the public sphere. Hence, women should be able to enjoy the same status with the male counterparts who do not need to define themselves in terms of marriage.

4.2. Terms ending in “man” refer to functions performed by both sexes

In English, there is a huge amount of male-oriented words (those contain the element “–man”) that can in fact apply to both sexes. In deed, when referring to students newly joined a university, the word “freshmen” is used as if all new students were male.

For example:chairman congressman councilman

newsman foreman freshman

policeman salesman mailman

Occupational nouns and job titles ending in -man obscure the presence of women in such professions and positions. For a long period of time, women are deserted from power and the right to voice their opinion in such fields as politics. Hence, it is common sense to view jobs like “congressman” as for male only, discounting the fact that the number of women making contribution to the political arena is skyrocketing.

4.3. Sex-linked modifiers

While male-oriented words are used for both sexes, some other words, especially name of some professions which can be applied for both sexes, are habitually associated with male only. In order to refer to female of those professions, we have to add a modifier such as “woman”, “lady” or “girl” before each name of profession albeit those names of common gender.

Common Gender Female

Doctor Woman doctor

Professor Woman professor

Engineer Woman engineer

Lawyer Lady lawyer

Reporter Girl reporter

The addition of modifier is a piece of evidence for discrimination against women as it reflects the perspective that women are appendages of men.

4.4. Bound morpheme used for a feminine form of a noun

Gender discrimination in language also shows in the fact that a feminine noun of some words can only be obtained by adding a bound morpheme.

For example:


Man Woman Manager Manageress

Prince Princess God Goddess

Author Authoress Mayor Mayoress

Count Countess Shepherd Shepherdess

Host Hostess Steward Stewardess

Poet Poetess Usher Usherette

Heir Heiress Sailor Sailorette

Hero Heroine Conductor Conductette

4.5. Words that point to Marriage issue

In a wedding ceremony, after the couple exchange their rings, the priest will utter his last words: “I pronounce you man and wife” to officially recognise the connection between two human beings. In the priest’s sentence, there is a lack of parallelism in “man and wife”. After marriage, the man remains the status of a “man” while the woman shifts her status into the “wife of a man”. In a traditional Christian wedding, the official asked “Who gives the bride away”. And the father would reply “I do” or “Her mother and I do” but there in the question lied an inherent problem. The idea that the bride is something to be handed over from one man to another conjures up images of the day when wife and children of a man were considered his properties and establishes the woman in the subservient role of wife.

More interestingly, there is much linguistic evidence depicting that weddings are more important to women than to men. A woman cherishes the wedding and is considered a bride for a whole year, but a man is referred to as a groom only on the wedding day. The word “bride” appears in “bridal attendant”, “bridal gown”, “bridesmaid”, “bridal shower”, and even “bridegroom”. The word “groom” comes from the Middle English word “grom”, meaning “man” and in the sense is seldom used outside of the wedding.

With most pairs of male/female words, people habitually put the masculine word first, Mr. and Mrs., his and hers, boys and girls, men and women, kings and queens, brothers and sisters, guys and dolls, and host and hostess, but it is the “bride and groom” who are talked about, not the “groom and bride”. The importance of marriage to a woman is also shown by the fact that when a marriage ends in death, the woman gets the title of “widow”. A man gets the derived title of “widower”, which is not used in other phrases or contexts, but widow is seen in “widowhood”, “widow's peak”, and “widow's walk”. A “widow” in a card game is an extra hand of cards while in type setting it is an extra line of type.

Another way in which male are treated differently from female is the contrast between “bachelor” and “spinster”. A “bachelor” is used to describe a man who is single and who may or may not be divorced. “Divorcee” refers to single women who were previously married while there is no such word for single women who have never been married. The term “spinster” is highly pejorative since it tells about a woman who has been left unmarried, to make it clear, “who has been left unmarried” in this case is a lesser being than a male who “chooses” not to be married. A “bachelor” does not bring to mind the image of failure, relegation and rejection as the word “spinster” does. Does anyone look for a spinster? Mostly not.

4.6. Less favourable meaning in a pair of words derived from same root

It is discriminatory when a pair of words may have the same denotation but differ in connotation and in most of the cases, the female word has less favourable meaning than the male one. Take the pair “master” and “mistress” as an example. The surface meaning of “master” is the “host” while “mistress” means the “hostess”. The word “mistress”, however, must possess another underlying meaning in the sentence “That young guy is fed up with his wife and usually goes out for a mistress.” Clearly, “mistress” in this context no longer contains the meaning of a “hostess” but a partner for adultery.

Similarly, female meaning of the pair “governor” and “governess” carries a negative connotation. “Governor” means the person who governs a state or a province whereas “Governess” simply refers to a “nurse maid.” Another word of this type is “professional.” When someone says “That man is a professional”, the listener will think of a professional boxer or football player. By contrast, when saying “She’s a professional”, the speaker wants to imply that the woman is a sex worker. Same situation occurs to the word “tramp.” It is another slang used to denote a prostitute.

But when the word “tramp” goes with a man, it definitely does not refer to a sex worker but a homeless person, who always has to move from one place to another and stays jobless most of the time. The case is no different to the phrase “The woman in the street”, in which the woman are supposed to work as a prostitute. Meanwhile the phrase “The man in the street” has no other meaning than an ordinary man. “Wizard” and “witch” contrast almost as much. 

The masculine “wizard” implies skill and wisdom combined with magic, while the feminine “witch” implies evil intentions combined with magic. In the same vein, the word “shrew” taken from the name of a small but especially vicious animal is defined in Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary as "an ill-tempered scolding woman," but the word “shrewd” taken from the same root is defined as "marked by clever, discerning awareness" and is illustrated with the phrase "a shrewd businessman."

It is worth noticing that in his writing, Liu (2001) affirmed that the sexually promiscuous words used for female are far more popular than for male. In North American, the English sexually oriented words for women reach 220 while the number of such type of words for men remains at 20. Schoolchildren in London extend their huge vocabulary on the offensive terms against women (which are often related to sexual behaviour) outstrips that against men.

4.7. What’s in a name?

The name that people give to their children show their hopes and dreams they cherish for them. This explains why perusing the differences between male and female names of a culture can somehow unfold the cumulative expectations of that culture. Based on Nilsen’s proposition, in Western world, girl names normatively stick with small, lovely, precious items like Ruby, Jewel, Pearl. Esther and Stella mean “star” while Ada means “ornament” and Vanessa means “butterfly”.

Names with meanings related to strength and power, on the other hand, are more likely to be applied to boys. e.g., Neil means "champion," Martin is from Mars, the God of War, Raymond means "wise protection," Harold means "chief of the army," Ira means “vigilant," Rex means "king," and Richard means "strong king." A couple of generations ago, Beverly, Francis, Hazel, Marion, and Shirley were common boys' names. As these names were given to more and more girls only, parents feel odd when using them for their sons these days, and some elderly men who have been given these names long time ago prefer to go by their initials or by such abbreviated forms as Haze or Shirl.

4.8. Singular Masculine Pronouns

From the very first moment of one’s life, the sex of newly born baby is hidden behind the pronoun “he”. In the hospital instructions, new parents are reminded: “When bathing baby, never leave him unattended.” Plainly, in theory, “he” refers to members of either sex. In the shadow of the dominant masculine pronouns like “he”, women are often linguistically invisible.

The common use of “he” is believed to be resulted from the male-centered world view and male cultural dominance since the 16th and 17th centuries. During that period, the first grammars of modern English were written. The male authors of these grammar books wrote mainly for male readers as very few women were literate. However, grammar of that period contained no indication that masculine pronouns could refer to both sexes.

Only when some grammarian tried to shift the long-established tradition of using “they” as a singular pronoun, did “he” start to be used as a generic pronoun. In 1850 an Act of Parliament gave official sanction to the recently invented concept of the "generic he”. In the language used in acts of Parliament, the new law regulated, "words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females." Since then, language used in similar contracts and other legal documents helped reinforce the exercise of the generic use of “he”. However, most people in English speaking countries considered “he” as men only.

Consequently, sentences like “You should take your daughter to see a dentist, he can help her relief the toothache” imply that all dentists are men. To push the point further, think of this sentence: “The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day." The first image comes to mind when hearing this sentence is a weird man putting on female clothes, not an American woman. The use of “he” confuses many people, who generally do not consider it a generic pronoun but a masculine pronoun. In fact, the male pronouns “he”, “him”, “his” are used automatically as a representative for all humanity like in the sentence:

“Every good citizen should love his country more than himself; he should be ready to die for it if the need arises.”

Is there any country on earth which consists of men only and without any woman? It is impossible. This means that using the generic “he” is problematic because it often leads the users to omit the appearance of female elements.

4.9. Sexism in proverbs, idioms & quotes

According to wikipedia, “a proverb is also called a byword, a simple and concrete saying popularly known and repeated, which expresses the truth, based on common sense or the practical experience of humanity.” Although proverbs are said to be pearls of wisdom of a nation, some of them are not true wisdom, but misleading notions which uphold prejudice against women.

In an English proverb, “He who follows his wife’s advice will never see the face of God,” we can clearly feel the wicked underlines by which men show their prejudice towards women. But this is not the end. We have sayings even worse, like:

“A neck without a head, buttocks without a hole and a girl without shame are not worth admiring or marrying.”

“A woman has even cheated the devil.”

“A woman is like a lemon; you squeeze her and throw her away.”

“Seven women in their right senses are surpassed by a mad man.”

“Women have long hair and short sense.”

“A woman’s tongue cracks bones.”

Some proverbs are built based on the misunderstanding about women like myth that women are much more talkative than men in the following examples:

“A woman’s tongue wags like a lamb’s tail.”

“Many women, many words; many geese, many turds.”

“Words are women, deeds are men.”

“Three women and a goose make a market.”

Furthermore, sexism can also be found in idioms. . “Good food! Delicious women!” was once quoted as an example by the linguist Nilsen (1977) to explain the feminine role in the American culture and their image in people’s mind. He points out that it is common to compare the female with delicious food in English. Obviously women’s role is not appreciated as much as men’s.

Some other examples are:

When an ass climbs a ladder, we may find wisdom in women.

A man is successful, a woman is sexy.

A man of straw is worth of a woman of gold.

Shakespeare once said, “Frailty, thy name is women”. English satirist Swift once pointed out that the saying “a married woman has nothing of her own but her wedding-ring and her hair-lace reflected the low status of women.” Words uttered by renowned respectable philosophers carry numerous meaning and extend overwhelming influence on the rest of the world.

“The female is a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities.” (Aristotle)

“Women should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear and bring up children.” (Martin Luther, 1483-1546)

“The souls of women are so small that some believe they've none at all.” (Samuel Butler, 1612-80)

“What a misfortune to be a woman.” (Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-55)

Chapter 5 - Guidelines To The Use of Non Sexist Language

Our Language and Society reflect each other so it is important for us as communicators to recognize, respect and adapt to changes in the meaning and acceptability of words. Concern about sexist language is part of increased awareness that the meaning of some words have been transcending in response to the changing roles of men and women in today’s world.

If one writes with non-sexist language, one will represent the fairness of gender in many words. Gender-fair language minimizes unnecessary concern about gender in the subject matter, allowing the readers to focus on what people do rather than on which sex they happen to be. For example, the practice of using “he” and “man” as generic terms poses a common problem.

Rather than presenting a general picture of reality, “he” and “man” used generically can mislead the audience. Research by Wendy Martyna has shown that the average reader's tendency is to imagine a male when reading “he” or “man”, even if the rest of the passage is gender-neutral. Therefore, no one can be sure that their readers will see the woman on the job if they refer to every technician as “he”, or that the readers will see the woman in the “history of man”.

5.1. Titles and Naming Practices

The title “Ms.” was introduced so as to not disclose the martial status of a woman and clear out qualms for people when having to guess between “Miss” and “Mrs”, which should be used to address a strange woman. “Ms.” should be used for a woman whose title preference is unknown. It should be followed by the woman’s own name, or if she prefers, her spouse’s name.

Any given names or initials used in connection with the title “Ms.” should be invariably the woman’s and not those of her spouse. The title “Ms.” does not change whether singular or plural. The pronunciation of “Ms” may vary but Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionaryrecommends /mz/. However, it is worth noting that when a woman spell out her own preferred title (whether Ms., Mrs. or Miss), her decision should be respected.

Additionally, many women, these days, have gained professional and academic titles previously associated mainly with men. It is therefore important not to assume that all holders of titles such as “Dr.”, “Professor”and “Captain” are men and therefore address them as “Sir” or refer to them as “he” or “him.”

When it comes to letters, notes, reports and the like, the writers frequently know very little about the contact person or people. Without any idea about the sex of those people, it is hard to choose the correct title to address them. In such cases, the use of the salutation like ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Sirs’ is no longer acceptable. The following are some suggested ways of addressing:

Dear Sir/Madam; Dear Sir or Madam; Dear Madam/Sir; Dear Madam or Sir

Dear Principal; Dear Householder

Dear Officer; Dear Customer

Dear Colleague; Dear Subscriber

Dear Gentlemen and Ladies; Dear Ladies and Gentlemen

Dear Mackenzie Pty Ltd (in case of a company); Dear People (informal)

Dear Mr. Benetti; Dear R. Benetti (sex unknown); Dear Mr./Ms. Benetti

Dear Mrs. Braun; Dear Ms. Braun (if title preference unknown)

It is also acceptable to address reports and references to ‘To whom it may concern’ if the recipient is unknown to the writer. The use of the person’s first name and surname only in salutations, e.g. Dear Pat Katspouski, has become popular in cases where the person’s title (and/or sex) is unknown.

Writers when replying to correspondence signed jointly by a man and a woman, should bear in mind that they need to acknowledge both the man and the woman in the salutation in the same order and form in which their names appear in the correspondence.

5.2. Gender-neutral Pronouns

Beware of the problems and confusion that the masculine pronouns “he”, “him”, “his” may cause, it is recommended to not use those pronouns as for generic use and shift to other alternatives.

The first alternative is to use “they” as a singular in informal communication. Most people, when writing and speaking informally, rely on singular “they” as a matter of course:

"If you love someone, set them free"


"It's enough to drive anyone out of their senses"

(George Bernard Shaw).

"I shouldn't like to punish anyone, even if they'd done me wrong"

(George Eliot).

Some people are annoyed by the incorrect grammar that this solution necessitates, but this construction is used more and more frequently.

Secondly, instead of using “he” alone, it is possible to create an option “he or she” to make a gender-neutral sentence. Despite the charge of clumsiness, double-pronoun constructions have made a comeback:

"To be black in this country is simply too pervasive an experience for any writer to omit from her or his work," (Samuel R. Delany).

Overuse of this solution can be awkward, however. On the flip side, replacing every “he” with “he” or “she” attracts even more attention to gender and defeats author’s purpose.

Pluralizing can be another safe way to be considered. A writer can often switch a statement from singular form to plural form and thereby, change the whole writing into gender-neutral plural pronouns. For instance, instead of "As he advances in his program, the medical student has increasing opportunities for clinical work," the writer may try "As they advance in their program, medical students have increasing opportunities for clinical work."

A small trick that can be applied is eliminating pronouns. That means the communicators should avoid having to use pronouns. If the sentence "a first grader can feed and dress himself" sounds sexist, why does the speaker remake it as "a first grader can eat and get dressed without assistance."? The audience still gets the message of the speaker across while the corrected sentence prevents them from hastily jumping into conclusion that the first graders are all men. Moreover, try to avoid conditional structures, usually introduced by “if” or “when”, which normally requires for the use of pronouns. Last but not least, passive voice can be useful in case of removing gender-inclusive pronouns. For instance, in stead of “If a students wishes to avoid sex bias in his writing, he should examine these alternatives,” the writer may recast it by using passive voice “These alternatives should be examined by any students who wish to avoid sex bias in writing.”

5.3. Alternative for “man”

By using man as representative for a group which include women, the writer misrepresents the species as male. The best solution to this problem is to replace “man” with a variety of non-sexist words like “human”, “person”, “mortal” and their variations such as “humankind”, “human beings”, “humanity”, “human race” and “people”.

For example:

From the original sentence:

“The effect of PCBs has been studied extensively in rats and man.”

Into a gender-neutral utterance:

“The effect of PCBs has been studied extensively in rats and humans.”

It is also recommendable to use a more descriptive or inclusive words like “worker” in replacement for “work-men”, “adult-sized” or “sizeable” for “man-sized.”

For example:

From the original sentence:

“The governor signed the workmen's compensation bill.”

Into a gender-neutral one:

“The governor signed the workers' compensation bill.”

The use of ‘man’ should also be avoided in idioms and phrases when the author or speaker clearly intends the expression to include both women and men. Expressions such as ‘the best man for the job’ or ‘the man on the land’ not only make women’s presence and achievements in the workforce invisible but can also lead to discrimination. Alternatives for some common expressions are suggested below:

“The man in the street”: the average citizen, the average person, an ordinary person, ordinary people;

“The best man for the job”: the best candidate or applicant, person for the job, the best man or woman for the job;

“Man to man”: person to person.

“Man of the year”: ‘citizen of the year’ or ‘employee of the year.’

In gender-specific contexts, expressions such as ‘man to man,’ ‘woman to woman,’ ‘one-woman show’ and ‘one-man show’ are appropriate.

5.4. Occupational nouns and Job titles

Many job titles trivialize women or diminish their stature by using feminine suffixes such as “-ess”, “-ette”, “-trix”, or “-enne”, making unnecessary reference to the person's sex. Those suffixes suggest triviality, unimportance, or inferiority of women occupying such a position. Thus, the best way to assure gender equality is to eliminate those suffixes and use the general titles that can be applied for both sexes.

For example:

Current Usage Alternatives


Aviatrix Aviator

Comedienne Comedian

Executrixes Executors

Heroines Heroes

Hostesses Hosts

Proprietress Proprietor

Suffragette Suffragist

Similarly, the use of sex-linked modifiers like “lady” or “girl” sounds gratuitous. Occupational words or job titles with sex-linked modifiers suggest that the norm for some occupations is for a particular sex. For women should be shown as participating equally with men, generic terms, such as ‘doctor’, ‘lawyer’ and ‘nurse’ should be assumed to apply equally to a man and a woman.

For example:

Current Usage Alternatives

Lady Doctor Doctor

Woman writer Writer

Female lawyer Lawyer

Male nurse Nurse

5.5. Stereotyped images describing men and women

If women and men have similar characters, parallel language should be used to describe them. Avoid stereotyped generalizations about men’s and women’s characters and patterns of behaviour. For instance, if a man or a woman each has a determined and strong attitude, do not describe him as ‘forceful’ and her as ‘pushy.’

Portray and describe both women and men in a variety of roles and occupations. Take care in the description of people whose main or sole occupation consists of doing unpaid work in the home. They should not be described as a ‘woman/man who does not work.’ Their work should not be depicted as unimportant or worthless. Terms such as ‘working mother’ and ‘working wife’ should be used with care because they may imply that non-wage-earning women do not work.

Expressions such as “the weaker sex”, “the fair sex”, “he acted like an old woman” and “old wives’ tales” should be avoided as they are belittling and insulting to women. Sometimes it is implied that women are naturally less competent than men. When describing a couple (man and woman), treat both partners as equals. If mentioning women and men together, do not always list the man first but try to alternate the order in which women and men are described.

Chapter 6 – Conclusion

Sexism in language is a social phenomenon that happens around the world. Not only in English and Vietnamese, but in many other languages, women are the victims of evil-intentioned jokes or proverbs. Afghan jokes and folklore are blatantly sexist, such as this proverb: “If you see an old man, sit down and take a lesson; if you see an old woman, throw a stone.” Confucius, one of the most influential figures in China in particular and Eastern world in general perpetuated the patriarchal society with his sexist statements like: “A hundred women are not worth a single testicle.”

Language is like an X-ray in providing visible evidence of invisible thoughts. Sexism has existed in people’s mind for decades. It is impossible to make people transform their mindset over one day or one night. It requires numerous and unceasing efforts of the whole society. Since language is the reflector of human being’s thoughts, to eliminate sexism in language, the most crucial work which needs to done first and foremost is to eliminate the concept of prejudice in human thoughts.

As Maggio R. (1989) (as cited in Liu, 2001) puts it: “It is also necessary to acknowledge that there can be no solution to the problem of sexism in society on the level of language alone. Using the word ‘secretary’ inclusively, for example, does not change the fact that only 1.6% of American secretaries are men. Using director instead of directress does not mean a woman will necessarily enjoy the same opportunities today a man might.”

As stated in the beginning of this paper, one of my aims is to raise the awareness of people or in other words, to avoid errors may unconsciously have when using sexist language. The best thing about people being interested in and discussing sexist language is that, as they make conscious decisions about what pronouns they will use, what jokes they will tell or laugh at, how they will write their names, or how they will begin their letters, they are forced to think about the underlying issue of sexism.

The mandate is don’t succumb to social old bad habits and be more intelligent and more progressive in promoting change.


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