Sunday, June 08, 2008

Safire on misogyny

William Safire's On Language this morning has a chunk on misogynist, and I'm pretty surprised by it. The opneing sentence got my attention:
Senator Hillary Clinton used a word recently that has been changing its meaning.
She didn't "debase" or "misuse" the word, but "used" it. He notes that it's not her doing the changing but using a changing form. That's a full-stride step toward sanity in talking about language. Later comes the shocker:
When I looked up the word she chose in the Oxford English Dictionary online, however, I noted that the meaning of misogynist had changed slightly but significantly. In 1989, the definition was “hatred of women”; in the 2002 revision, the definition was broadened to “hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women.”
I never, ever though Safire would have somebody actually check facts (yeah, I know, but I mean really check facts), let alone do it himself. That he'd do it online, well, I'm floored. I would have figured he wouldn't mock the notion of a woman running for president; the rest is gravy.

You would say that pigs are flying somewhere, but southern Wisconsin is being swept by so many tornadoes and dangerously high winds at this moment that it's probably literally true.


Anonymous said...

OK, I get that it's hedged and you have no expectations for the future, but you said something good about Safire?

Mr. Verb said...

Yes, Anon, I did. I have no grudge against Safire in his role as a columnist, just an interest in seeing better information about language published in his column. I hope it continues.

Jan said...

Hi Mr. V --
I was also surprised, in a different way, by Safire's comment on misogyny/misogynist. I'm wondering if the meaning has really changed recently, in any major way, or if the OED has just made its definition more subtle and accurate. Surely the word didn't mean "woman-hatred"/"woman-hater" in a literal sense for all those centuries? Note that the 1656 quote calls it "hate or contempt":

1656 BLOUNT Glossogr., Misogynie (misoginia), the hate or contempt of women.

I would want to check actual uses before concluding that the word's meaning has changed in some significant way -- and I'm very dubious that it has changed since 1989!

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, very good point. I think I still learned the word in its older meaning but the dating of the meaning is a very tricky thing. It would be easy enough to track in newspaper databased, in fact.


Richard Hershberger said...

I'm with Jan. I doubt that it ever meant literal hatred of women, or if it did its meaning was extended long ago.

Pulling a Google Books example from 1922, from a review in The Bookman: A Review of Books and Life:

"As to woman, he is an unrepressed misogynist. He beholds her as a mere litter creature to bear and rear man's offspring."

It would be strained to read this as literal hatred. The description is of disregard: woman is not taken seriously enough to merit hatred. This seems to me entirely on point to Clinton's use.

Mr. Verb said...

Point taken. After posting the response to Jan's comment, it occurred to me that I might well have learned the word myself when studying for the SAT or GRE, which would mean learning an old dictionary meaning.

I just checked the dictionary I typically use for rough-and-ready purposes, Merriam-Webster's 11th, and they have only the old meaning given.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Interesting - I was trying to come up with the opposite word in an email yesterday. Misanthropy isn't "contempt for men", it's for "people". Anyway, I don't remember learning the word, but I always had the broader definition for it.

hysperia said...

Hmm. I learned the word forty years ago when I realized I was the subject of it. I'm surprised that the OED is sensitive enough to note the change in usage. I do notice that women use it to mean what I would likely call sexism. For me, this depends on how you theorize gender oppression on not just on useage. Being a bit of a theorist, I think it's an important exercise. Can hatred of women be institutionalised in societies across cultures and history and therefore universally. I'm not sure. Can sexism? I'm pretty sure it can.
And by the way, from my point of view, having a view of women as "litter" creatures for bearing "men's" children, and not their own obviously, is literal hatred as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't get much more literal and in implication it is even more clear.
I use "misogyny" to mean woman hatred. I use "sexism" to mean systemic oppression of women. You can be a sexist without being a misogynist. It's unlikely that you can be a misogynist without participating in sexism.