Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, by Amanda Montell

Nine stars

Linguist Amanda Montell grabs the reader by the shirtfront with this book, slapping them with a title that opens the eyes before inundating the mind with so much on the topic of the way English is used and the divide it creates amongst its users. Montell opens her narrative by exploring the role that certain words have had over time in the English language, particularly those of an offensive nature. She points out that many either depict women in the negative or weaker role, thereby turning them into the group at the core of debased or lesser sentiment. How ‘bitch’, ‘whore’, and even that lovely ‘c-you-next-Tuesday’ are meant to depict women in such a negative light, while the worst that many men will receive is ‘dick’ or ‘sissy’. From there, Montell takes the reader through some of the history of words and their connotation have sought to turn women into the fairer and weaker sex by subjugating them to the power of men in the English language. Take, for example, the attempts to offer a degree of formality between the sexes. While men are given ‘sir’, a term that has remained relatively strong and the same for the centuries, women are given ‘Miss’ (sounds too young and flighty), ma’am (sounds too old and crotchety), or ‘madam’ (which has become a sexualized term). There is no inherent explanation, but Montell makes it clear that women are getting the short end of the stick on this one.

Montell shows the real struggle of gender identity, where the traditional masculine role is dominant and everything else seems hard to accept or grasp. She gives the reader some real examples of how to tackle these 21st century gender depictions in language and pulls in some wonderful ways in which other languages and dialects have handled things. Sandwiched into the narrative was a discussion of grammar and how it is used to highlight intelligence or standing in society. While Montell explores hypercorrection of some sentiments, things that people use when they want to correct what appears to be bad grammar but is actually just as incorrect on the other side, she shows how certain groups (namely middle- to lower-class women) find themselves scorned and ridiculed. Language and grammar is a means of trying to classify people, though it is society’s way of classing people in a world where the rules are always changing. What is not ‘right’ now will one day be the norm that all will follow, though no one seems to accept that. Of particular interest to me was a chapter on trying to comprehend gendered nouns in languages other than English and how that works to assign some role to a ‘table’ or ‘eye’ in order to make it correlate to any adjective (French and Italian come to mind), while English has none of this, save inherent words of implied gender (king, queen) or those things by which men may feel threatened (countries, storms, large vehicles) that automatically receive a ‘she’ pronoun. As Montell furthers her argument, there is a push to understand the role of catcalling and debasing women through objectified speech, as though men need to do so in order to hold onto their sexuality, by puffing out there proverbial feathers and beat their chests. Montell pulls on both academic studies and personal insights into how women have handled this over the years.

Montell is prepared to shock some readers as she explores the societal roles women have taken in English, particularly when it comes to the seedy underbelly of curse words. She makes some wonderful points about how ‘unladylike’ it seems to be for some reason, then debunks it all with some great studies, sure to open the eyes of many. There needs to be an end to promoting this view of women as the gentler and more delicate sex, where ‘gosh darn’ would be the strongest word to cross their lips. I thoroughly enjoyed this analysis, as I could hear the society and linguistic walls falling faster than a ‘sky is falling’ Trump edict on immigration barriers. The latter few chapters pull the reader in for some wholehearted discussions on, of all things, the linguistic depiction of genitalia and how this varies across both the sexes but also by the various genders. This is an interesting look into how one self-defines and the clash with societal norms. Montell does not shy away and has left the reader with a plethora of terms to use, perhaps also seeking to buck the trend of how to communicate about themselves and others, especially in moments of intimacy. While the entire book pushes the limits of what might be known or accepted by many readers, Montell does so with ease and as much class as possible. Recommended to those who enjoy academically-inclined tomes, as well as the reader who wants to spark a conversation at the next dinner party or family gathering.

In a book that pushes the social norms and seeks to educate as much as it will shock, Amanda Montell makes some powerful points from the perspective of language as an oppressive tool. Her explorations are well suited to the discussions and offer full-circle analysis, keeping the reader on their toes from the outset. Not a tome to inculcate as much as educate, Montell holds nothing back and helps to show things that may be so ingrained and inherent that many had no idea they were taking place, or at least took them for granted. I, for one, took so much from this book and will seek to better understand and use words of a more appropriate type moving forward. Montell’s extensive reference to studies and the work of others on the subject lends it to being a somewhat academic work, though the dedicated reader can push their way through and learn a great deal, as it is penned in a layperson’s terms to ensure the point is made. With paced chapters, full of poignant arguments and humorous asides, Montell makes her point and keeps the momentum going. Nowhere in this book did I get a sense of a gender or language revolution, but it is better to know what literary weapons are out there, to arm one’s self, if not to blunt them and level the playing field. That being said, my head hurts from all the computing I have done and will be doing to be better aware, particularly since my buddy reader will hold me accountable every single day!

Kudos, Amanda Montell (for I learned not to call you, Madam), for this insightful book that forced me to open my eyes and brain to new ways of comprehending language.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons