Archive for the ‘Language and gender’ Category


September 26, 2023

Received in e-mail this morning, from Dave Sayers on the Variationist mailing list:

We are delighted to announce the next in the 2023-24 series of online guest seminars here in the English section at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland — open to all!

On Tues 10 Oct at 11:00 East European Summer Time Mie Hiramoto (National University of Singapore) and Wes Robertson (Macquarie University, Australia) will give a talk titled ‘Framing masculinity and cultural norms: A case study of male VIO hair removal in Japan’.

That’s it. I was baffled by VIO hair removal; it has two possible parsings, and some large number of possible interpretations. And I was baffled by what looked like an unfamiliar initialism, VIO. Masculinity and cultural norms being one of my areas of interest within the G&S (gender and sexuality) field, I wasn’t willing to let these puzzles just slide.

Two parsings (and many interpretations).

 [ VIO [ hair removal ] ‘hair removal related to VIO’, where VIO is one of: a social group, the removers of hair (cf. born-again hair removal, transsexual hair removal, Ainu hair removal, Japanese hair removal ‘hair removal by Japanese (people)’), a method of hair removal (cf. laser hair removal), a philosophy of hair removal (cf. Buddhist hair removal), a place where hair removal is practiced (cf. Japanese hair removal ‘hair removal in Japan’), or any number of other interpretations

[ [ VIO hair ] removal] ‘removal of VIO hair’, where VIO hair is hair related to VIO, VIO admitting of a wide variety of interpretations: an area of the body (cf. armpit hair, pubic hair), a racioethnic group (cf. Black hair, Jewish hair), an evaluative characterization (cf. ugly hair, unwanted hair), a physical characterization (cf. kinky hair), a color (cf. gray hair), and much more

The (apparent) initialism VIO. Acronym dictionaries list a great many unpackings for VIO, but none even remotely hair-relevant. Searching on “VIO hair removal”, I eventually discovered that VIO is Japanese terminology for the bikini zone, with the initials standing for

V line (the pubes and genitals), I line (the perineum), O line (the anus)

So: the three Latin letters are to be understood as iconic signs, as (highly abstract) pictures of the three bodyparts, not as an acronym, not as the initials in an abbreviation. I don’t think that such an interpretation would ever have occurred to me.

No doubt it never occurred to Hiramoto and Robertson, steeped as they are in Japanese sexual culture, that the letter-sequence VIO would be utterly opaque to outsiders, but it is; I had no clue as to what their paper is about, except that hair removal and males are involved, and that the removal takes place in Japan.

Missing lexical items. A recurrent theme on this blog is that languages regularly lack ordinary-language, widely used lexical items for referential categories of things that are in fact relevant in the sociocultural context the language is embedded in.

So it is for English and the body region that extends from the waistline under the crotch to the anus: the pubes, genitals, perineum, and anus, taken together. This is a region of modesty, and it’s socioculturally highly salient in English-speaking communities generally, but English has no lexical item covering just that territory.

The composite phrase private parts would have been a good choice, but it’s already taken, as a euphemism for the central portion of the region of modesty, the genitals. In this case, it’s hard to see how we could get by with a narrow sense of the phrase (the current usage) alongside a broad sense (for the region of modesty). So we’ll bump along with things as they are, as we do in lots of other cases; people cope. Maybe someone can start a fashion for VIO in English.

Cover your VIO, dude! Were you born in a barn? (And while you’re at it, close the front door!)

Barthropods seeking silverfish

August 8, 2023

Today’s Wayno / Piraro Bizarro, a complex composition in which two centipedes look for bar snacks:

(#1) First bit of language play: the portmanteau barthropod = bar + arthropod, centipedes being arthropods, creatures in the gigantic phylum Arthropoda — also encompassing insects (including silverfish and springtails as well as flies, butterflies and moths, beetles, and more), spiders. crustaceans (among them, shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and barnacles), and millipedes (if you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 3 in this strip — see this Page)

Then there’s a more subtle bit of language play in silverfish serving as bar snacks in a world in which centipedes drink in bars — given that Goldfish crackers (gold fish, silver fish, bring out the bronze) are often served as bar snacks in the real world.


Maternal shrillness on Zits

January 29, 2023

Today’s Zits strip manages to assemble three disparate bits of assumption about cognition into a joke about maternal shrillness:

(#1) So shrill — in particular, so high-pitched — that it takes a ladder to get up there and read what’s in the speech balloon

Whoa! You might not have subscribed to any or all of these cognitive stances built into the strip:

— conceptualizing speech and thought balloons as physical objects

— perceiving women’s speech as shrill — an impression that incorporates (among other things) sociocultural associations of high pitch and loudness with various personal and interactional states, and also the association of high pitch with femininity

— (metaphorically) associating high pitch with height above the ground


Briefly: exocentric V + N

September 20, 2022

(Warning: a vulgar term for the primary female sexual anatomy will end up playing a big role in this posting.)

Where this is going: to an alternative name for an American President (#45, aka TFG); and to an alternative name for a classic American novel (by J.D. Salinger) — both names being exocentric V + N compound nouns, the first in English, the second in French. (I’ll call them exoVerNs for short.)


Extended cisgender

June 19, 2022

A physician writes to the NYT Magazine‘s ethicist about a patient who used a racist slur (the N-word) to his Black nursing staff and a homophobic slur (probably the queer F-word, but maybe the queer D-word) to his receptionist, and contemplated ways to support these staff members as an outsider, explaining in the letter that he’s “a Hispanic, cisgender male”.

The first identifier, Hispanic, is a racial / ethnic identifier, counterposed to Black, White, API, Indigenous, etc. The second identifier, cisgender, is clearly intended to be counterposed to homosexual / gay / queer, terms that refer to same-sex (rather than other-sex) sexual orientation; but that looks like some kind of category mistake, since the standard usage of cisgender (with the prefix cis– ‘on this side of’, opposed to trans– ‘on the other side of’) is for a sexual identity that aligns with birth sex (and so is opposed to transgender) — a matter that’s orthogonal to sexuality / sexual orientation. Indeed, most same-sex-oriented people are cisgender; I myself am a cisgender queer, one of millions, though we’re hugely outnumbered by the cisgender straights, who are all over the place. And while some transgender people are sexually oriented towards their own sex, some are oriented towards the other sex. (more…)

Vote for me!

May 13, 2022

From yesterday’s posting “Three responsibilities”:

I voted today in Palo Alto — in the primary election whose official date is 6/7; official results are to be reported by 7/15, and then the top two candidates in each contest will stand opposed in the general election whose official date is 11/8.

… As it happens, my grandchild Opal is about to vote for the first time, and they have been astounded by the candidates’ statements in our [Santa Clara County] voter information guide

Now, about the statements (and the way candidates have had themselves listed on the ballot), focusing on the language used in the statements and the way the candidates present themselves there as gendered.

I’ll do this page by page, picking out highlights and adding my own comments as I go.


A masculinity meze: face men

April 27, 2022

(This has turned out to be quite a large meze, but it’s only about one idiomatic slang expression. Well, men and masculinity come into the thing, and you know what can happen then.)

Reflecting a couple days ago on my Princeton days (1958-62) and the tangle of the attitudes of the (all-male) students at the time towards (among things) masculinity, male affiliation (as systematized in a pervasive system of male bands, the eating clubs of the time), women, homosexuals, race, and social class. The topic is vast, also deeply distressing to me personally, and I suspect that I’ll never manage to write about the bad parts of it in any detail — note: there were some stunningly good parts — but in all of that I retrieved one lexical item of some sociolinguistic interest (and entertainment value), one slang nugget: the idiomatic N1 + N2 compound noun face man / faceman / face-man.

A common noun frequently used among my friends, which was then also deployed as a proper noun nicknaming one of our classmates, a young man notable for his facial male beauty: everybody had to have a nickname (mine was Zot, for the Z of my name and the cartoon anteater), so we called him Face Man because he was a face man.


Three cartoons for 4/12/22

April 12, 2022

(Warning: as is my way, a soupçon of smart-ass street talk.)

Two on gendered topics, plus another cartoon that’s incomprehensible unless you recognize one of its elements (and only incidentally has a gendered bit in that element).

Masculine identity for young teens in a One Big Happy (a re-play from 4/26/10 in my comics feed today); a display of femininity in today’s Rhymes With Orange; and then, in today’s Wayno / Piraro Bizarro, on the equipment needed for a night lighthouse (with an incidental display of maleness).


The effeminate elephant

March 29, 2022

Effeminacy in the animal world, first in yesterday’s (3/28) Wayno/Piraro Bizarro:

(#1) Not only elephant effeminacy, but also a cosmetic anagram, a rouge and peasant salve (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 5 in this strip — see this Page.)

And in one of my academic collages, with mice in the lab:

(#2) Continuing the theme of makeup for males


Half-assing things

March 20, 2022

(It’s all about some English expressions using the bodypart-term ass, but without any reference to human buttocks. The verb fuck (up), figuratively ‘mishandle, damage, ruin’, puts in a cameo appearance at the beginning. But: no actual bodyparts, no sexual acts, presented either verbally or visually.)

Advertised in my Facebook feed yesterday, this t-shirt, available from many sources (this via Amazon, in five colors):

The verb half-ass, here ‘do (something) incompletely or incompetently’ — as opposed to totally messing it up

We start with the racy slang verb half-ass and work back from there.