by Barbara Ardinger
Lammas 2002, Vol 1-4
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Zine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Alchemy of Words
Anyone with ears to hear discovers, as soon as they begin paying attention to the verbal racket around us, that words tell us what we think. Even the most right-brained among us are verbal creatures. We can think in images and draw nice pictures, but it's words that come out when we open our mouths or start moving our fingers on a keyboard.
Sure, this is obvious. But I've always found it useful to state a thesis before I begin a speech, a lesson, or a rant. So here goes: Language steers our thinking. Vocabulary shows us what we're seeing. The words we use create the reality we live in.
Spiritual feminists have long been interested in creating new words to build a new reality, objecting to the old rules that the generic human is male and that "man includes woman." Let's look at some of the words we're hearing or reading or using to create new realities.
Man includes woman?? We don't think so, and to prove it, many of us are using feminized spellings like "wimmin," "womyn," and "wombman."
Instead of "female hero," we're saying "hera" (or, less elegantly, "shero"). If a work by a man is "seminal," a work by a woman is "ovular." We don't need all that embedded semen, and because the X chromosome precedes the Y chromosome, we're pretty sure the eggs come before sperm. And where do we study? Not in "seminaries." Nosirree. We'll go to "ovularies."
"NoSIRree"?? I can hear alert readers asking. Shouldn't that be "noMAMee"? This illustrates the dangers of overcorrection. Back in the 1970s, when feminist vocabulary was really "hot," "spokesman" was changed to "spokesperson" and "chairman," to "chairperson." These are useful changes and show that a woman can indeed be in charge.
Language adjustment went around the bend, however, when someone seriously suggested "personholecover," and it went clear over the top when someone else suggested "womanipulate" or "personipulate." The "man" syllable" in "manipulate" is not a gendered syllable. It comes from manus, the Latin word for "finger." The Latin word for "man," by the way is vir, which makes "manly virtue" redundant and also makes us wonder what is the proper word to describe a "virtuous woman." (And just last night, my son, tongue firmly in cheek, suggested that "mendacious" should perhaps be changed to "persondacious." This makes everyone a liar, not just the boys.)
That's the beauty of the English language. It's so flexible that we can play with it and seldom do major damage to it. As a writer, I wade in words all the time. I make up new ones when the old ones won't do. At the same time -- and here's the vital caveat -- I believe it is necessary to be sensitive to the history of language and the etymology of words.
Even when we're introducing or exploring new ideas, if we want to prevent misunderstanding, we need to use words correctly. And if we're serious about coining new words, I believe we need to be cautious. As Penny L. Andrews, a member of one e-group to which I belong, wrote,
The "numera una" of the inventive feminist vocabulary is Mary Daly, creatrix of such spot-on words as "re-member," "nag-gnosticism," both "be-spelling" and "dis-spelling," and "phallocracy." I suspect that everyone has favorite Daly-invented words.
One of our favorite new words is "herstory," used to replace "history," which is read as "his story," as if women had no place in the story of civilization. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "herstory" was invented in 1970 by Robin Morgan in Sisterhood is Powerful, in which she cites "the fluidity and wit of witches," as "evident in the ever-changing acronym" WITCH -- "the latest heard is Women Inspired to Commit Herstory."
a matriot is one who loves and loyally or zealously supports her motherland, her own planet-Mother Earth. Matriotism recognizes that while there may be six- or seven-score fatherlands, there is only one motherland. There are political divisions that have risen, prospered, and utterly vanished, civilizations and great cities that are no more. But while we have her, there is only one Mother Earth.
Sometimes, alas, when we try to invent new words we go astray and make up words that the world does not need. Here's a story that illustrates what I mean. A few women in a ritual group to which I belong have been using the word "gaialog" to replace "dialog," which they seem to consider a patriarchal word. I don't get it. "Dialog" means "two people talking." It's a neutral word. It's not sexist, it's not even political. So I posted my opinion to the group, saying that "gaialog" is a stupid word that doesn't mean anything. If anything, it might mean "earth talking," but that's not how the women were using it.
I soon received a (fairly snippy) reply from one member of the group, who said that she began using the word several years ago "after hearing others in our community consciously change their language from saying 'hey you guys' to 'hey you gaias.' I like the sound of it. I am surprised by your discomfort with made-up words," she concluded. "I understand you to make up words yourself in naming found goddesses."
Now I have never in my life heard any woman say "hey, you gaias," which would actually (I suppose) mean, "hey, you archaic Greek earth goddesses." So I put the question of "gaialog" to an e-group of scholars to which I belong and whose members I respect.
One scholar, Giselle Vincent, replied that
Giselle went on to say that she used to know a Cree author whose father would go hunting. "When he came home," she continued, "he would tell the family about listening to Mother Earth speaking to him. Her voice was the sound that the wind makes over the snowy tundra (inhale and exhale noisily.
Do we really need a word for women talking to women? I don't think so. But if we do, let me propose the word GYNELOG to replace "gaialog." Gyne, as we know, is the Greek word for "woman," and we also remember Riane Eisler's word "gylandry," which she proposes to describe a partnership model of world order in which male and female are equal. The word combines gyne, "woman," and andros, "man" (the root word of "anthropology" which is the study of people).
Reader, if you want a word for women talking to women, please give "gynelog" a try. See if it works for you. Help me stamp out the misuse of "gaialog." Let's reserve "gaialog" for the act of conversing with the earth.