Womanwords: A Dictionary of Words About Women

by Jane Mills, Free Press, 1992, $22.95.

Mills takes a scholarly, entertaining and feminist look at the etymology of 300 words relating to women, including some selections that lend themselves distressingly to compartmentalization: Woman as container (“dish,” “bag,” “honeypot,” “vessel”); woman as edible (“cherry,” “cheesecake,” “tart”); and woman as animal (“hen,” “pussy,” “bitch,” and “shrew”). Over time, many words perambulate from having positive meanings that pertain to males to having pejorative ones that refer to women. Once a word is associated with females, it is unlikely to be used again for men—except in contempt (see, for example, “wimp”).

Besides the obvious fact that language both reflects and creates our misogynist social reality. Mills speaks to the issue of semantic reclamation. Language can be used “in the struggle against patriarchy,” she writes, citing the positive roots of many now-negative distaff words which feminists might work to revive affirmatively. “Definitions are not static,” she reminds us. “Understanding our language is the first step to reforming it so that it will no longer insult or exclude women.”

A nice little weapon for the bookshelf.