30 April 2007

Lexicon

I really should stay away from the whole "Lad Mag" genre. Really, really. Things like Details, Maxim, FHM, all of those. Trouble is, that I like men's fashion, and each of those publications usually has someone interesting on the cover. I'm also into pop culture, and often there's bits and pieces that I read in the lad mags that keep me plugged into that loop. So I get sucked in by whoever they're featuring and then inside the mag I'll come across an article that is so offensive that it makes me see red.

May's edition of Details is no exception. Orlando Bloom is on the cover, looking rugged and his hair slightly mussed, as if someone had just been running their fingers through it. Niiiice. And inside the magazine is an article about the insult that guys (and women too, I'll admit) sling at one another, one of the nastiest things you can say to someone. "Douchebag". Oh, all right, there are perhaps worse things that you can call someone, but isn't it interesting that the insulting things guys say to one another are all about womanhood? "Douchebag" "Pussy"?

The article's author, Simon Dumenco, does a good job of tracing the word's entomology, and use through the 1930s until today. But he's talking about how most guys dread becoming 'that guy' in the bar, you know, the douchebag.

This unthinking offensiveness, the ease with which we all (men, and women too, I'll admit) sling this word around is to me a statement about women's place in society. Foul language in English, things not fit for polite society but not necessarily curse words, all are about women. "slut" "whore" "bitch". There are no equivalents for the men; calling a guy a slut isn't an insult.

I like curse words as much as the next girl. Perhaps even more so than the next girl. In real life, I have quite the potty mouth. When I list English words that I like, the f-word is on that list, nestled in with things like 'coagulate' and 'prognosticator'. The little thrill you get when you say or do something illicit. So yes, I'm guilty of it too.

I can even curse in several other languages. Italian, French, Spanish, Swedish, German...and each tongue has its own set of words that aren't polite. When you meet someone that speaks another language, what's one of the first things you ask them to teach you? How to swear.

The only society that I am able to compare contemporary America with is Sweden, since I've only lived in those two countries. And while my writing frequently posits Sweden as utopia, I do know that it isn't. I lived there when I was 17, young, naive, and of course I thought it was perfect. But Sweden IS one of the most equal societies that I've ever encountered, women's rights being not a struggle but an assumed prerogative there. So it is interesting to me that curse words in Swedish have lots more to do with hell and the devil than any particular gender. A reflection on the status of women? Perhaps.

The women's movement has made strides in taking ownership of the word "bitch" in recent years. When someone calls me a bitch, the response they usually get goes something like this, "Thanks!! My momma always said 'don't let anybody walk all over you' and I don't!" Much like gay rights activists have urged the homosexual community to take back the word 'faggot'. I see that as a positive, a very positive, thing.

But why is it that words like 'douchebag' remain popular? I was talking to a friend the other day who said she'd noticed a resurgence in the use of the word in popular culture. We were talking about how internet speak has become de rigeur, how each of the forums that she and I belong to have their own forms of acronyms and slang. At a site where she spends a lot of time, she's noticed over the past two years people using douchebag quite a lot. It has wormed its way from the internet into popular usage, you see it used on Entourage, which I think is a look into that quintessential guy world, and even on network TV shows.

If that's the most insulting thing that one man can say to another, what do they both think of women? Not much, is all I can imagine.

2 comments:

MotherMe said...

This is a really interesting point. Most of our insult words do seem to relate to the female of our species. Even my favorite, that little "F" gem, implies something done "to" a weaker (i.e. feminine) person. I'd love to see words like "brute" and "cur" and "oaf" come back into fashion....

Lucy Arin said...

Or how about society not encouraging boys to be studs? That if trampy behavior is bad for girls, then it is bad for boys, too.

Levenger had a great book about insults from a bygone era, something I think that Samuel Johnson wrote, but it is out of print, more's the pity.