Power, language and feminism: a review of Wordslut

By Maria Griffin | 04 Sep 19
Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

Wordslut (online)_0Wordslut: A Feminist Guide To Taking Back The English Language

Amanda Montell


Amanda Montell is the author of a new book called Wordslut: A Feminist Guide To Taking Back The English Language and, clearly, she likes words. In the book, and on her website, Montell refers to herself as a linguistics “nerd”. Her stated aim in Wordslut is to provide “all the nerdy know how” the reader needs, in order to be armed against misogynistic or gendered language.

In the first chapter, Montell lays out her plan: “We’re living in an era when many of us often feel overwhelmed and silenced by the English language. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can take it back. And in this book, you’re going to learn how.” Wordslut is a call to action, and a tool kit, for anyone interested in tackling the intersection between language and feminism.

Delving immediately into some linguistic “nerdiness”, Montell traces patterns in the evolution of the English language, such as the phenomenon of gendered words evolving to become negative or positive. Buddy and sissy, for example, originally meant brother and sister, but the masculine word evolved into a positive word for a friend, while the feminine word morphed eventually into an insult, commonly used on a male who exhibits negative “feminine” traits – according to a binary construction of masculinity v femininity.

A history of neutral words evolving into slurs against women could be a depressing read, but Montell’s outlook is consistently optimistic. Against negative examples, she balances a hopeful outlook for the future. Take spinster, for example, a word for an unmarried woman of a certain age that was still commonly used late last century. According to Montell, in the twenty-first century the word has become passé. “Simply put,” says Montell, “slurs go out of style at the same time as the underlying belief in them does.”

Montell’s critique of gendered language expands beyond merely cataloguing the evolution of specific words. She covers the complex history of the concepts underpinning the language: “woman v. female, sex v gender”, and describes other cultures where gender, and sex, have been seen for a long time as variations on a spectrum (rather than two standard variations in binary opposition to one another).

The tone of the book is upbeat, positive, and irreverent. Chapters have titles like:

  • wait…what does the word “woman” mean anyway? plus other questions of sex, gender, and the language behind them
  • women didn’t ruin the english language – they, like, invented it
  • how to confuse a catcaller (and other ways to verbally smash the patriarchy)

And in a favourite moment of mine, the author footnotes the word seminal, to provide the note: “a moment of silence for how phallic this word is.”

Montell skilfully incorporates anecdotes, quotes, examples and commentary, keeping her discussion entertaining as well as informative. Wordslut covers a lot of ground, from discussion of the variations in male and female conversational style, to swearing, to the evolution of English words for genitals through history. The author’s arguments are always backed up by reference to historical documents, statistics, academic or scientific studies, and documented research.

Whether she is dissecting how the word “like” has evolved in the past thirty years – largely through its use by young, urban women (“My boss was like, ‘I need those papers by Monday,’”) – or how the conversational style of African American women (referred to by linguists as African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE) is “so much about consensus and community building” – Montell consistently brings her discussion back to her central point: that women and other political minorities can wield power through language to resist oppression.

Women, she tells us, have had an enormous impact on how language evolves “from the bottom up, which is its own kind of power. For decades, linguists have agreed that young urban females tend to be our linguistic innovators.”

What I particularly enjoy is that Wordslut is an instance of this occurring in front of our eyes. It’s written by a young woman from the (U.S.) East Coast, in a style that incorporates certain phrases and words that I, an older (and not American) woman reacted against at first – but in the course of the book, Montell changed my perception about her use of those words. Her reasoning was intelligent, well-informed, and inclusive, as she articulated why she and her female friends use the word slut in “a nonsexual and gender-non specific sense to describe one’s fanatical enthusiasm for something”, why she specifically uses the gender-neutral term folks rather than the masculine term guys, or the second person plural y’all rather than you guys, etc.

Wordslut may have a light-hearted tone, but it’s not only for readers new to feminist critiques of language. Wordslut does exactly what Montell sets out to do. It’s an intelligent, often entertaining look into contemporary feminist linguistics, and it provides a wealth of useful information for readers interested in feminism, sociology, history, and the construction of gendered language. And it does this all in the linguistic style of a twenty-something woman from LA. The medium is the message, folks.