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An Ill-Defined Petition

Summary:
Thirty thousand people—I was tempted to write harridans and harpies, but there must have been some emasculated men among them—have petitioned the Oxford University Press to remove words such as bitch, in the meaning of unpleasant female, from the Oxford English Dictionary as being derogatory of, and offensive to, women. “A soft answer turneth away wrath,” says the good book, and of course the OUP answered that it would take the petitioners’ views seriously. But in the modern world a soft answer often does not turn away wrath but only provokes further demands. The only time the hospital in which I worked received a written complaint about me was when a Mr. A… said that I had not been helpful in signing a sick note for him. One was

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Thirty thousand people—I was tempted to write harridans and harpies, but there must have been some emasculated men among them—have petitioned the Oxford University Press to remove words such as bitch, in the meaning of unpleasant female, from the Oxford English Dictionary as being derogatory of, and offensive to, women.

“A soft answer turneth away wrath,” says the good book, and of course the OUP answered that it would take the petitioners’ views seriously. But in the modern world a soft answer often does not turn away wrath but only provokes further demands. The only time the hospital in which I worked received a written complaint about me was when a Mr. A… said that I had not been helpful in signing a sick note for him. One was supposed by the hospital administration to write an emollient reply in the form of I am sorry that Mr. A… felt disappointed, etc., etc., which was then forwarded to the complainant, but I wrote Mr. A… is a drunk who beats his wife and I’m not signing any sick certificate for him. Suffice it to say that I heard no more from Mr. A… (what I wrote was true), but no doubt this was in part because he would almost certainly have found another doctor to sign the requisite document for him that would have enabled him to steal from the public purse at his leisure.

But back to the OED, that monument of philological learning. It is true that the English language rejoices in a large number of derogatory terms for women, but no one who has seen the center of a British town or city on a Saturday night could possibly deny the urgent need for terms such as slatternslutslagslapper, and even strumpet. As one of my young patients put it (she was 16 at the time), “My mother says that I’m a slut, but I’m good at what I do.” The explanation of this large number of cognate terms to describe less refined members of the second sex is surely that which explains why Eskimo languages have fifty words for snow.

Slatterns tend to be fat and to have let themselves go, while sluts will go with anybody; slags are sluts with whom the aging process has caught up; and slappers are notable for their vulgarity. Strumpets are, of course, immoral women of Shakespearean proportion.

Lest I should be suspected of misogyny, one of the seven deadly thoughtcrimes, let me add that I do not think that British men, at least those to be seen in towns and cities up and down the kingdom on Saturday nights, are much better. They vary between the slob and the ferret-faced lout, and make the perfect companion for the slags and sluts. They do their best to make the worst of themselves and in general succeed, putting the finishing touches to Nature’s ugliness. If Guys and Dolls were to be remade in modern Britain, it would have to be called Slobs and Slatterns.

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