For those of us who write, a thesaurus is something of both a playmate as well as a guide: enjoying the tension of feeling one’s head connect various ideas to other verbal forms of the same, the sensation of linking various root words and locating regionally distinct pairings of vowels that English has inherited, sometimes passively, sometimes aggressively and imperialistically, sometimes unwittingly; these are some of the joys of words and writing, tumbling through the timeline of one’s personal consciousness like the breakers you roll through as a kid at the beach, composed solely of abstraction, of ideal objects, of imagined subjectivity.
In short, a thesaurus is a portal to alternate perspectives and the other selves which populate our shared world (for sometimes to cleave to the words of another is a far more palpable and less metaphorical manner of walking in their shoes), and moreover a sandbox in which we can play, explore, extend our descriptions of the world and of our own selves, and of one another. However, the intrinsic shadow of this is that a thesaurus also contains aspects of our culture at large with which we might not be comfortable, of which we remain consciously avoidant, of which we remain steadfastly in denial.
Sexism, in this anecdotal and unavoidably imperfect case, might be one such aspect.
I have a copy of Peter E Meltzer’s “The Thinker’s Thesaurus” (Second Edition, Norton, 2005), a massive (and self-consciously condescending, if the redundant notion encapsulated in the title comes to bear) tome I received a few years ago from an in-law for Christmas. I tend to find presents that strike just so somewhat rare, but this was one of them. I pored over it the day I unwrapped it. I remained out of conversation with friends who were over for a potluck, so enthralling were its pages. Such wonderful words to play with in my sandbox: corybantic. calumniate. atrabilious. Lots of fun for a certain slice of the population.
One night while I was browsing through its wide, densely inscribed pages, I came across the entry for ‘evil’, and noted that two of the 10 entries were specifically reserved for women: jezebel, and succubus. You can add incubus to the grouping, if we widen the circle to include the notion of a gender-specific predations of an assailant, though in our cultural lexicon it comes nowhere near the equivalency or ubiquity of succubus, which is employed regularly to demean women. The remaining entries were neutral as to the identity of the agent described, and none were specific to men, or male persons nor of traditionally masculine characteristics.
So, naturally the next entry I looked up was woman. Between the section for woman, and that for women, plural, there are a total of 44 synonyms. The distribution of those synonyms between broad categories of a) those which are negative or emphatic of a negative cultural trope, b) those which are generally neutral descriptions, and c) those which ascribe a positive trait to the woman or women in question is, shall we say, suspect. I’ll let you guess where the greatest presence falls, but let’s go through them.
Among those are 16 entries which are rather flatly negative, including a woman who is: frenzied or raging (maenad), ugly or repulsive (gorgon), vicious and scolding (harridan), scheming (jezebel), abusive (fishwife), and of particular emphasis, shrewish (vixen, termagant, Xanthippe, not to mention shrew itself). We are even treated to a trebled vision of age as something which defiles whatever nature it is women are supposed to possess: crone, hag, beldam. There’s even a hat-tip to chivalrous readers who need to know that a ‘protected or kept’ woman may be called a demimonde, which itself might be uniquely disturbing as it literally means ‘half the world’. Interpret that as you like.
There are 12 which I think we might agree are plainly neutral, and four which seem clandestinely neutral, including: having the form of, semblance of, or relating directly to the nature of (gynecomorphous, muliebrity, gynecoid, the latter actually being coupled with an example showcasing the not-at-all neutral term ‘saddlebags’), or relating to a leadership cadre (gynarchy, gynocracy – also lacking an equivalence of insinuation that accompanies phallocracy, or subtract the necessity of leadership and we have distaff, simply meaning a group), and a few describing aspects of child bearing (puerperal, nulliparous, primipara), and one for a woman of advanced age which seems neutral in its description (anile).
Unfortunately, we’re not done. Even for somewhat ‘neutral’ words, they seem purpose-built for cultural tropes and emphasis of our cultural bias: a cleaning woman may be a charwoman or a maid, a married woman a feme covert (because of course a marriage contract shutters one’s being into hiding), a single woman a feme sole (descriptive of a historical period in which the only way to retain legal agency was to remain unmarried, see Susan B Anthony for specific examples of that term’s usage), and one who ‘has masculine tendencies’ which seems to titter just off the fine line of neutrality into the negativity in which we often couch our collective expectations and ideations regarding women, in which case you’d be viraginous.
But! There’s something positive at the end of the path, yes? Well: if being attractive, impish, playful, young, and comely are your priorities, you’ve a bounty to rifle through: houri, gamine, sylph, frippet, jolie-laide, Circe, or Junoesque (stately and perhaps not young, but our author is definitive when he says, quote, ‘tending towards voluptuous’). More than half of our 13 positive descriptors, laid bare. The remaining are a woman who: is head of household (materfamilias), spirited or boisterous (hoyden), courageous (virago), intriguing (intrigante), scholarly or literary (bluestocking, which in itself seems diminishing of its very object), and finally, a person being fond of women and therefore philogynous.
It seems only fair at this point to turn to the complementary entries for ‘man/men’, and ‘male’. At this point, for the simple reason of keeping focus, we’re going to only address what we might call the contemporary gender binary. That’s fraught enough for now, and also, I’m afraid of what I’ll encounter if I head into non-binary territory with this author.
So then, to ‘man’ and ‘men’: only 9 entries. In total.
Five are positive if you are a man who favors: being unconventionally attractive (paired to its feminine Francophonic form, joli-laid), a lover of married women (cicisbeo), and a seducer of women (lothario, playboy). Such is the scope of men in Meltzer’s world, I suppose. We also have two neutral forms, being: a lover of a man (inamorato), regarding the perspective of (androcentric, which in context might shift towards the negative), and if we’re going fully negative we are left with men who: are cranky (alterkocker), who is a pedophile interested in boys (pederast, paired with the bizarrely out-of-context sodomizer), and lastly our 4chan fedora classic, misogynist.
Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place. Perhaps there would be more under ‘male’, if my thought that the author, being male, perhaps bore some unconscious bias of defaulting masculine descriptions to the more scientific ‘male’, rather than the commonplace ‘man’.
Alas, only five entries for ‘male’, three of which are repeats: cicisbeo, androcentric, inamorato. The remaining two are one neutral (patronymic, ie relating to names deriving from one’s father), and the final word being, hilariously (or tragically) hermaphrodite (because this word is somehow a modifier of maleness exclusively) which is appended sadly and simply, see bisexual.
If you’re still with me, you’ve no doubt noted by now we’ve left off one term from what should fulfill our quartered, asymmetrical square of identity: female.
It turns out there’s no need to populate our minds any further in the eyes of the author, as the entry for female simply reads: see woman.
Perhaps it’s not the author. Perhaps it’s us. It’s our language Meltzer is sifting through. And frankly I haven’t even begun to unpack various tenuous assumptions, for instance the inclusion of words relating to childbirth under woman rather than female, even though biological functions belong more squarely to a word which distinguishes between gametes, and not social archetypes, nor have I ventured into comparing other pairings such as masculinity and femininity.
In any case, it’s not as though I’ll be discarding this thesaurus. Even with its flaws, and perhaps even more so through them, it is more a mirror to that external sandbox of selves that is our online dialogue, our literary canon, our neologisms, our clutching to a well-defined and valorous verbal and conceptual past, free from the confrontations of actual equality of personhood and the infinite nuances of lived experience. It remains to me very much as I’d hope it might to others: a sign that the vacuum which constitutes our notion of cultural defaults is not objective, not essential, nor naturally consequential, but is instead an artifice of our making, and which in the present day we continually modify, repair, and maintain either to the standards of blind assumptions or to the standards of yet unmet ideals.