Language manipulation by, (presumably), men.

Update: there’s a theory shot dead in the water. Michal points out that it was a female – Margaret Hamilton – who invented the term ‘software engineering’. You can see the reference here.


It is interesting to observe the difference between the way in which something is denoted if a female activity, compared with the same thing done by a man. Cooking is the most obvious example – look at what it becomes when it is a profession and that means dominated by men.

Another example is the inability to concentrate. When it was the province of the female to do a hundred things at once, that’s what it was called: ‘women can’t concentrate’. Once email, the internet, the mobile phone became an integral part of the work day for office jobs, that is to say sedentary jobs done by men, the same inability to concentrate became touted as ‘multi-tasking’. Suddenly, once men had to do it, it was a skill instead of a handicap. Have I made up the history of the word here? I like the story, so I’m not going to check, but please go correct me if I’m wrong!

Most recently I understand that when computer programming was done by women, as it largely was in the early days, it was called ‘key punching’. Once men decided that it should be their territory, it became ‘software engineering’.

I wonder what other examples there are?

4 thoughts on “Language manipulation by, (presumably), men.

  1. Certainly “compiler” was once a job description (e.g. Adm Grace Hopper and lots of other smart women), and is now a computer program itself.

    Lately some promo material for the Swedish lab where I worked featured lots of nice photos of scientists doing their thing… but of the higher-ups, only my boss noticed that all the photos from the lab were women, and all the photos of people at computers were men… which he fixed PDQ!

    Our software (like several others in computational chemistry) has a database of quotes from which it prints a random sample at the end of the run. Generally they are amusing, thought-provoking or instructive. All those were contributed by well-educated white men, because that’s who wrote the code… (though finally that is starting to change!) Some of those objected when I insisted that we remove “A lady shaves her legs (J. SomeRandomDutchScientist).” But my point carried when I observed that if the most privileged people in the world can’t find ways to have fun that don’t annoy people, then they need to take a hard look at themselves.

    Sadly, people who’ve never experienced prejudice have a hard time seeing its effects. I have a close family member who does not understand why his intended-as-amusing insistence upon “actress” can be demeaning.

    Appropriating words to put different spin on a name is a common human activity, and I think you are right that there are examples of such spin that look sexist, but I would not attribute that to active sexism. Passive-to-ignorant, yes.

  2. I have to think about that. As far as the humour goes, I’d like to think that for humour to work it has to be no-holds-barred and yet the fact is that although I think that, in practice it just isn’t so. Humour about violence towards women used to be normal. But I have, for example, gone to a fifties musical revival where jokes based on that, which presumably were hilarious at the time, now made people uneasy, certainly I did not find them funny. The whole theatre of a thousand people became uneasy, you could hear it and feel it.

    Equally, I was on a late night tram in Adelaide earlier this year which had a security guard on board. Of all people to be telling such jokes, he hung around a group of passengers entertaining them (not) with ghastly jokes, again about being violent towards women. Seriously! A security guard, there to stop violence. One of the women did actually complain to him. I wanted to make a written complaint, but didn’t, partly, I think, because this is some poor bastard who has this shitty job and comes from a prehistoric period.

  3. I actually work in what was once a female dominated science – botany & plant taxonomy in particular. The number of women who made a big mark is high – much higher than in other sciences. In Australia, we also have a tradition of women having the senior role at Herbaria (plant museum): Sydney & Canberra both have had women as senior executives & Canberra still does. Outside in other biology fields, botany was for women & homosexuals, but that has not truly been the case. Yes, there is a plethora of gays in the field, but I have done enough field trips with very red-blooded heterosexual men who are proud to study botany & plant taxonomy.

    But you are spot on much of the time – this crap of changing a lowly position to a higher one once men get involved. The only old job that have suffered a reverse is knitting & sewing.

    Sexism in careers has always been a mystery to me. How just 2 chromosomes determine what you you will do as a profession defies logic.

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