Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by Amanda Montell
Published by Harper Wave on May 28th, 2019
Genres: Feminism, Non-Fiction
“Making a language feminist does not start with making the vowels, consonants, or even vocabulary feminist. It starts with transforming the ideologies of its speakers.”
One of my favourite things about university was getting to take my fair share of electives. I was lucky enough to take a linguistics class in my second year just because I wanted to and it happened fit in my schedule. S/O to my sister who majored in linguistics and helped me get an A in my class!
I’ve always had an interest in how English has evolved. You’ll always catch me defending new slang and internet speak. And don’t get me started on the people who insist that using these terms reflect lack of intelligence. Ugh. That’s why I was immediately drawn to Wordslut by Amanda Montell.
In Wordslut, Montell deconstructs language—from insults and cursing to grammar and pronunciation patterns— to reveal the ways it’s been used for centuries to keep women from gaining equality. Montell looks at why people get unusually annoyed when women use the word “like” as a filler; why certain gender neutral terms stick and others don’t; and why linguists are so obsessed with discussing women’s speech patterns.
I loved Wordslut! It was by no means a stuffy academic textbook. It was so much fun learning about linguistics through a feminist lens. I wish I had this to study in university!
Montell’s humor shines through making linguistics an approachable, hilarious, and interesting subject.
There are some great illustrations included to help drive home her point, there are cheeky asides, and very relatable examples.
The strongest part about the book was Montell’s personal stories of her explaining linguistic concepts to people in her life! I loved the story about her explaining her use of “y’all” to a mom and her correcting a man at a BBQ about women using “you know” and “like” in everyday speech.
While Montell delves into the origin and history of words, it never feels tedious. She introduces topics and ideas with such enthusiasm that you can’t help but also feel passionate about the subject too.
Many of these slurs for women are lovable by design, simply because of how they sound. Phonetically, slut, bitch, cunt, and dyke happen to possess the essential aural recipe shared universally by English speakers’ favorite, most used, and sometimes very first words.
I instantly knew this book was for me when Montell looks at the way women and men use slurs for women. Women have reclaimed these words to say them to their friends in a positive and empowering way.
The more fun a word is to say, the likelier it is to persist; and, since terms like slut and bitch have all the acoustic trappings of a fun word, it makes sense that they’d have such staying power.
And my biggest takeaway (at least from the specific chapter) was that we can do this while also making the word nonsexual and gender-unspecific. Because why should these words be exclusively hurled at women in a vicious manner?
Other standouts from the book include discussion about inclusion in language, such as preferred pronouns and even finding alternatives to “you guys.” Because why must we address people based on one gender? What about using “folks”? Or “y’all” to address a group of people?
But as I type this after having watched a painful two hours of Bachelor in Paradise and having listened to Connor’s vocal fry, I did appreciate the chapter on it. Men constantly criticize women’s voices and that only serves to take away the focus from what women are trying to say. It also distracts women because of how anxious they become about how their speech sounds to other people.
Teaching women to speak more like men accepts the idea that “feminine” speech is the problem, rather than the sexist attitudes toward it.
I could go on and on about how compelling this book is, but I have to end this review somewhere. I thoroughly enjoyed this and I hope Montell writes more books in the future!
One of my favourite podcasts to listen to is The Allusionist with Helen Zaltzman. And if you like that, then you’ll love Wordslut. Some of what’s covered in the book by Montell is also discussed on the podcast. For example, both the book and the podcast talk about gossip and Polari.
But you’ll find this interesting if you’ve always wondered why we use the words we do and how words and their current meanings come to be so popular!