Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Power of Language

I have just been reading Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue", a very interesting book on the English language.  The power of language has always interested me.  The 1999 South Park movie "Bigger, Longer & Uncut", for example, could simply be seen as just more of the shock-and-offend tactics used by this programme.  In reality, it satirizes how acceptable it is to portray gratuitous violence in the media, while using certain words is not.

However, it's not only swear words that have powerful connotations.  We all know how much words said in haste or anger can wound us, often for many years afterwards.  Our own self-talk can be hugely limiting and damaging to our lives, so there's no doubt about the power that words and language hold.  My point in writing this post is that there are still words and language that exists that subtly denigrate us as women, especially older women.

Gender-neutral language such as "chairperson" can seem stilted and rather ridiculous, and it's often mocked.  However, there are many everyday expressions in our language that we use but don't really think about.  For example, the expression "family man".  Have you ever heard a woman described as a "family woman"?  I don't think so.  It's expected that women should be devoted to their children.  With men, it's something that's worth commenting on.
And do you ever describe someone as being "like an old woman"?  I've done that myself.  A slow and cautious driver is a "nana driver".  I don't know of any male equivalent.

This is a huge topic, and I could go on at length about how various words relating to women have been debased in our language.  "Mistress" is a good example of that.  Also "crone", which was originally part of the Trinity of Maiden/Mother/Crone of Wicca and goddess-based beliefs, but is more normally a very insulting term.  However, I'll focus on one very specific type of word for my question to you - your name, part of your very identity.

Goodwin is my married name and I've kept it after my divorce because I wanted to have the same name as my children.  When I was a child and my mother remarried, I was teased at school because she had a different name from me.  Of course, this was 50 years ago when divorce was uncommon and single parents were rare.

If you have married, did you change your name to your husband's?  If so, and you were marrying again today, would you do the same?


  1. When I married, I was in love, and quite happy to take his name.
    Then I divorced. I was no longer good enough for him, so why should I keep his name? I explained to my kids that it was just a word, so nothing to worry about, and as you said, times have changed.
    Now, on official papers, his name still appears before or with mine, sigh... Ms Marouze, divorced from... argh. I'm me! I'm especially angry when I receive the power and the water bill. They insist to keep his name although I'm the one consuming and paying.
    To answer the second question, I would not give up my name again. It is part of me.
    I don't know if my daughters will marry, nor it they'll take their husband's name. But I'm sure I won't try to influence them one way or the other. Anyway, I've told them many times that they are an entity on their own, so...

  2. Yes. No.
    I did change my name when I got married, in 1980, after a little contemplation about keeping my own name I felt it would show a lack of commitment to the marriage (how right I was!!). When I split up with him I immediately returned to my name, feeling better already, I was me again. It was hard, I had my name, one of my children has his father's name, my daughter changed from her father's name to my name, and of course my best beloved has his own name! A lot of assumptions are made when we book something in one name or the other but we both answer to Mr or Mrs the other's name!! Our name is part of pur identity and I believe that changing it to a husband's name is no longer valid, we are not possessions. The difficulty of course is what name to give children. I think they should have their mother's name but I can see how men would disapprove of that. Mind you, a child is sure who her/his mother is, not so with the father!!! Okay, ranted on too long, typical woman!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. I changed my name by deed poll as part of letting go of my toxic childhood and becoming my own person. I chose the name I wanted to sign my paintings with and really enjoyed that experience! I kept my name when I married, but often was given his surname, particularly by his family, and as long as it wasn't on a cheque I wasn't too bothered. Now I'm a widow I'm really glad I kept my name. The gas bill still comes in his name because they won't recognise he's died, but that's a different issue! Anyone who calls me Mrs Parkinson is by definition someone who doesn't know me, so that's quite handy!
    off topic, have others seen Miriam Reilly's win over the BBC's age discrimination on Countryfile this week, wrinkles are fine!
    pretty thrifty

  4. When I married, changing your name to his was a big part of the whole deal, it was like leaving behind your childhood and becoming a married woman, Mrs instead of Miss - a goal to aspire to - according to all the songs and books of the time. I suppose after all these years I have grown into my name and I find it comfortable. I have done some family research lately and should I ever need to change my name I would like to use my mother's maiden name as I feel very strong ties with her

  5. Yes, I changed my name when I married, and gladly. I had one of those maiden names that was the butt of many jokes and I was glad to be rid of it for something much plainer. Yet the nature of the maiden name was such that if I ran into someone with it, I probably was related. In fact, I spotted it on an antique quilt in a quilt show about 10 years into my marriage and thus managed to connect with a relative I was unaware of who had done a lot of genealogical research on that side of the family. I was very interested in all that so it was a real boon to meet this relative. That's when I started including my maiden name along with my married name on all my entry forms for quilt shows, hoping I'd find another relative that way. Never happened though.

    Once I started doing art quilts and having a presence on the web, including the maiden name with my very common married name was important for a different reason. Just google "Sheila Barnes" and see how many you come up with, including some artists that are not me. My husband has been gone for 10 years, but I don't mind still carrying his name, although now it is more irritating when people want to know if I'm related to so and so Barnes.

    I suspect that, if I married again, I would go ahead and change my last name once again - why not? And frankly, it does make things simpler. If I wanted that much individuality, I wouldn't be hooking up with this person, is my thought.

    But I find myself asking a different question which may be more pertinent to "women of a certain age": If I did find someone to share my life with, would I bother making it official with a civil service? I'm thinking not. I don't think it would be financially advantageous for me and I have this sense I don't need the government sanction, don't really care what other people might think of such a union. I guess I really only care what God thinks, and I have recently found out that my vicar can do a service that unites you in the eyes of God without having to unite you in the eyes of the government. I think that's for me, and not sure what I would do about the name change - probably just leave it as is.

  6. I'm very happy to be known as Mrs Warner - I don't feel like an appendage or a chattel at all. But I'm still very much aware that I am also an Oliver! I'm not a very politically correct person and I prefer to be Mrs, not Ms.

    Another aspect of the power of language. It's the power of language that made me afraid of thunder storms. When I was very small we lived right on the top of the tallest hill for miles. One evening there was a spectacular thunderstorm and I wanted to go outside and watch. My father told me that if the lightening were to touch me, I would sizzle up just like a rasher of bacon. I was 2 or 3 years old and I knew exactly what that meant. It conjured up such a powerful image in my young mind that even today, I always know just before a thunderstorm hits because I can smell frying bacon!