Friday, September 24, 2010

Men who Gossip

Nicole Weir wrote me a very informative note about my remark that men aren't said to gossip.  She points out that, in the Navy, the noun scuttlebutt is used to indicate 'rumor.'  That term is in general use as well, as is shoot the breeze and shoot the shit.  The point is that all the terms for men's gossip have a semantic marking on them of [+power].  That is, they give the activity an aura of strength or power. To scuttle a ship is a very powerful action.  Butt, in the naval sense, the object that is removed to get water, is itself a strong object.  Shoot is a powerful action as well, even if it's the breeze that's affected.  However, gossip is trivial.  It is female and associated with females, and words that are associated with females have one of two connotations: triviality or sexuality.  So, a man is a king, but the present powerless ruler of England aside, a woman who is a queen is a drama queen, or a tranvestite dressed like a woman, as in drag queen.  He's a prince means he's a real nice guy.  But if she's a princess, she's a spoiled brat, and if she's a Jewish princess she's a materialistic, nasty, lazy bitch.  I've discovered that a woman who is not Jewish can be called a JAP (Jewish American Princess) if she loves to shop and gossip and is selfish. Needless to say, Jewish women not only do not have the monopoly on behavior like that, they are, in fact, more likely to have serious careers and be highly educated than women in other ethnic groups.  The expression then conforms to the myth that Jews are not nice people and women are vacuous.

What's disheartening to me is that when I first wrote of the disparity of vocabulary in Language the Social Mirror, 1st ed. in 1982, this was all true.  But, when I wrote the 4th edition in 2007, it was still largely true.  The one big exception is that back in '82, a woman who was a professional was a whore or a loose woman, and now she is a doctor, lawyer, or accountant.  Still, however, people refer to prostitution as "the world's oldest profession," and they're clearly referring to female prostitutes.  The implication is that professionals are taken to be mae, but females who wanted to be professionals could only be professionals in sex.  Since women today,like me, are often professionals in the same sense that men are, why hasn't that phrase demeaning female professionals disappeared?  If women are really taken seriously today, I'd expect the term "the world's oldest profession" to die out.  It hasn't.

One note: in my 2007 edition, I do talk about new studies that show that female conversational styles have proven very effective in businesses.  Women, for instance, are less oppositional and more cooperative than males in the same positions of authority.  So, "talking like a woman" may someday not mean to speak of trivial nonsense.  Alas! Just recently a man remarked to me that I think like a man -- and talk like one, too.

What can you find about the connotations of the phrase "to talk (or think) like a woman?  According to very respectable researchers who have measured results of feminine styles in organizations, that should be a very positive expression, but I suspect it is not.