03/13/2014 03:23 pm ET Updated May 13, 2014

The Meaning of 'Bossy'


When I first learned about Sheryl Sandberg's campaign to "Ban Bossy," I was of two minds. (As a recovering academic, that's what I do.) On the one hand, I agree completely with her analysis: the word is almost completely restricted to the description of powerful girls or women; it is always negative in connotation; men with the same qualities are "leaders," a highly positive term, not "bossy."

Language choices, as I argued in 1973, are diagnostic. If there exists a word that can be used of only the members of one gender, although both genders can participate in the behavior it describes (like "bossy"); if the same word has different meanings when used to describe one gender than the other (like "ambitious"); or if the same kind of behavior is described with one word for one gender, another for the other, positive for the first and negative for the second ("stud" vs. "slut"), that is strong evidence that males and females are being treated differently and the latter, in all probability, worse. So even a single word can reveal larger and deeper problems in the real world.

But my second response was to remember the struggles of the past: the attempts of the early second-wave women's movement, in the 1970s, to change gender relations by changing the language we use to talk about females vs. males. It is not a happy story. Those of us who worked in the area of language and gender listed a set of linguistic forms that needed to be obliterated or changed if this society was to achieve gender parity. In the great majority of cases, the changes we advocated were simple and easy to accomplish. In some cases, making the change would actually simplify our lives, as well as the grammar of English.

We tried, for instance, to get people to substitute "they" for the allegedly universal "he," in utterances like, "Everybody take his seat" to a group containing both females and males. (In fact, they was normal in older English - we were actually being conservative!) This has not quite happened yet. We fought for gender-neutral occupational terms: "chair" instead of "chairman/chairwoman/chairperson"; "firefighter" for "fireman," "police officer" for "policeman," all of which have been reasonably successful. But the one that seemed a sure thing, because it would greatly simplify everyone's life, was the substitution of "Ms." for "Miss" or "Mrs." The change would have made the feminine title of respect parallel in usage to its masculine equivalent, "Mr." You wouldn't need to know the marital state of a correspondent, regardless of gender. And that made sense because, in the great majority of public contexts, there was no need to know another person's marital status. Acceptance seemed a no-brainer.

But now, forty years later, what do we find? Yes, "Ms." exists, but so do "Miss" and "Mrs." - there is no parallel with "Mr." Thus, some female U.S. senators go by "Mrs." and some by "Ms." ("Miss" has such negative connotations that it appears to have vanished utterly outside of beauty contests.) While "Mr." functions solely as a title of respect, "Ms." often has an additional undertone of "liberated woman."

From these experiences linguists learned that language change by fiat, like the adoption of "Ms." and the abolition of "bossy," is always a hard sell. The changes themselves, however logical they seem, are resisted by speakers, often on flimsy grounds; the proponents of the change, especially if they are people who are not obviously authoritative, are subject to vitriolic attacks. So I was unsurprised at the commentaries on Sandberg's suggestion a few days later.

The responses (see for example this one) make two main points in opposition:

1. There are so many more important things for women to worry about, why worry about the triviality of language?

2. If we make this change, terrible things will happen - language is too important to change!

Although these points contradict each other, often both occur in the same comment, illogically, of course.. The fact that something even worse exists does not militate against trying to change something bad. That would be like saying that, if we agree that unequal pay for equal work is bad, but the Taliban's throwing acid in little girls' faces is worse, we should not try to change the former. No: our job is to change whatever we can. Triage makes no sense here.

Other arguments are equally flimsy, like a remark to the effect that "bossy" wasn't applicable only to women, because some men actually were bossy. (Yes, indeed they are, but when they are, they are not called "bossy." Rather, they are called leaders; they are strong, assertive, or powerful.) That is of course Sandberg's point precisely.

The second point mostly gets made via innuendo, with Sandberg being likened to Kim Jong Un, attacked as an opponent of the first amendment, and subjected to ad hominem nastiness. These criticisms belie the first point: If the writers consider it essential to unleash so much firepower against banning "bossy," how unimportant can that be?

And the ferocity of the attacks suggest that the writers' distress arose less from the ban itself, and more from the fact that a woman was trying to tell people what to do with the precious resource of language. Who did she think she was?

So her opponents prove that Sandberg is right, especially if we understand her point (as I think we should) as being not so much a plea to ban one particular word, but an appeal to understand why that word exists, and a plea to change the world that makes that word meaningful and useful. "Bossy" per se is not the problem: the problem is that we still see power and authority as male prerogatives, and women who aspire to them as unwomanly, unlikeable, and bad. If "bossy" could actually vanish off the face of the earth, a wealth of similar expressions would fill the gap: ambitious, pushy, shrill, strident, aggressive, manipulative, bitchy - to list a few. Each of these either is not used of men or, when it is, has a positive connotation (as with "ambitious"). The real task is to change the world, not the word. But if speakers are forced to think about the words they use, they may start to understand, and thereby begin to change, the world they inhabit.

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