Post Your Opinion
Last Words - Words for Women
by Alec McEwen

A Financial Post item about the typical contents of briefcases reported that one executive carries a variety of toiletry and sewing articles, in addition to "standard business paraphernalia" such as a dictating machine and a portable telephone. Paraphernalia, a word that now means any personal effects or equipment, stems from the Greek expression "besides the dowry." In ancient law it meant those belongings, such as clothes and jewellery, that were brought by and remained under the control of a woman when she married and of which, together with the dowry, she retained ownership for life upon her husband's death. A widow holding property or a title that she inherited from her former husband is still known as a dowager, though the word often appears as the description for any dignified elderly woman.

The subservient status of women is also exemplified by ancillary, meaning subordinate or auxiliary. It comes from the Latin ancilla, a handmaid. Another word for handmaid or servant is abigail, the eponym of which appears in the Bible and in other literary works. Yet a masculine or aggressive woman may be referred to as amazonian, after the female warriors who once inhabited Scythia and whose South American counterparts later inspired Spanish explorers to give the name to the great river.

A common but unflattering North American term for a woman is the inelegant broad, which originally meant a prostitute. Equating a woman with a cow also meant calling her a harlot. The bovine association is coarse but not entirely unprecedented, for in early times many women, especially slaves, were regarded as chattels, a word with the same root as cattle. In some parts of the world the bride price extracted from a prospective groom is payable in cows, a transaction that, if it were in monetary terms, would be pecuniary, from the Latin pecus for cattle.

Although a woman may suffer no stigma nowadays if she lives unmarried with a man, the choice of a word to describe that relationship may indicate some degree of disapproval. Unfortunately, the robust and honest tallywoman is no longer in use, while the words concubine. and odalisque suggest an inferior status almost akin to slavery. Courtesan, on the other hand, conjures up an image of a more independent woman with royal or other wealthy patrons, even though the word comes from the Italian for strumpet. Mistress, which frequently implies a kept woman, has been defined by one wag as something between a mister and a mattress.

Housewife, a respectable if unfashionable way of describing what is now usually called a home-maker, gives us hussy, which in current usage means a bold or promiscuous woman. In another sense, housewife, formerly spelled hussive and still pronounced that way by some English people, means a portable sewing kit. It is not clear why fishwife, for a woman engaged in the useful business of selling food, should have become synonymous with vulgarity. Alewife, as a female purveyor of beer, has escaped similar opprobrium and its modem application is confined to a species of North American herring. A morganatic marriage is one that, although legally valid, confers no title or property rights upon the woman. It referred originally to the gift bestowed on his bride at the conclusion of the nuptial night by a husband who perhaps did not otherwise respect her in the morning. This quaint arrangement, which usually occurred only where the woman was considered to be of substantially lower social rank than the man, was a proposed but rejected solution when Edward VIII wanted to wed Wallis Warfield Simpson.

Sweet Fanny Adams, the sanitized version of an expression meaning "absolutely nothing" that became popular during the First World War, springs from an earlier, real-life source. Fanny Adams was a murdered English woman whose body was cut up and thrown into a river in 1867. The introduction at that time of tinned mutton as rations for the Royal Navy prompted the sailors, with gruesome humour, to adopt the poor victim's name for the contents of the cans. The word fanny itself, a common and fairly innocuous alternative in Canada for buttocks, has long represented in England the opposite, anatomically frontal part of the female figure. Like the word pecker, which is also capable of more than one meaning, it should be used with caution by travellers from one country to the other.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us