Graphic by Anya Wotton

Fighting for four-letter words

From rejecting feminine forms to reclaiming slut, Dr Amanda Laugesen outlines a very brief history of women’s linguistic activism. 

The English language is full of derogatory words for women. From the negative connotations of Jezebel, spinster, and shrew to the slurs of slut, harlot, and bitch, women have been subject to language that has degraded them, often on the basis of appearance, sexuality, character, or marital status.   

Australian English includes a number of unique epithets for women including bit of skirt, old chook, blokess, sheila and ockerette. Women’s professional status for a long time was considered separate to that of men, with feminine forms for occupations such as policewoman, conductress, and usherette, while some occupations were frequently modified in the style of lady doctor.   

Since the 1970s women have actively campaigned for change to our language. The most frequent target — and the primary goal through the 1980s — was a change to the sexist language in use in the media and used by the government. Here some change was achieved, with pushes for government and media style to exclude sexist language such as feminine forms. While there was resistance and the changes were frequently mocked in the press, by the 1990s ‘official’ language had gone some way towards erasing its sexist dimensions.  

Women also laid claim to the use of language that was traditionally considered to be the province of men, such as the use of swear words. While women have a long history of swearing, the dominant norms of respectability tended to inhibit women from swearing more so than men, and women who swore were frequently condemned for it.   

The 1970s feminist movement laid claim to the ‘four-letter words’ as both a means of empowerment and defiance, but also to reclaim words such as f**k and c**t as words that were biological descriptors rather than taboo. Yet the battle for women to own this kind of language continues — gendered norms around the use of ‘bad language’ persist.  

In recent years, women have campaigned against sexist definitions in the dictionary, they have reclaimed words such as bitch and slut (although not without controversy), and they have sought to unearth the hidden histories of women’s use of words and language in the past. There are also ongoing battles to be fought to ensure that discriminatory language of all forms is eliminated.   

Language is political. It has reflected and even shaped the prejudices of society; actively calling attention to this and effecting change remains an ongoing necessity.  

Dr Amanda Laugesen is Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre at ANU and Chief Editor of The Australian National Dictionary