Words Mean Stuff: thorny language

Y’all know I’m picky about words. Dismissing a verbal or textual argument with that piffly lip-noise and a snide “Oh, but that’s just semantics” doesn’t do it for me. Semantics is meaning, and when you’re using words as persuasion, meaning isn’t a side issue or an irrelevant digression: meaning is central.

And when people use words that bite and pierce and undermine and denigrate, they need to understand that words mean stuff. And that stuff all adds up. It is all part of the monumental forest of culture, of power relations, the conglomeration of isms.

One single thorn might seem like no big deal; we all get a little prick now and then, it’s part of life. But yours isn’t the only thorn the victim got that day, that week, that year. All those thorns can add up to an unnavigable bramble, an edifice of pain for those who are persistently on the pointy end.

But I carry the linguistic baggage of my upbringing, we all do. So I try. Word by word, phrase by phrase, day by day, I’m trying to excise the thorns from my speech, whether they’re pointing to other people on the wrong end of society’s power relations, or at me.

This week? In the firing line is “I’m a size x”, or “I’m an x” for short. I’m replacing it with “I wear a size x”, or “Size x usually fits me.” Because clothes fit, or they don’t. People wear clothes; the clothes don’t define them. The number isn’t who you are. Did you ever wonder why men “have a 38 inch waist“, but women “are an 18“?

Anyone with me?

Categories: gender & feminism, language


14 replies

  1. *applauds*
    bravo. i’m with you all the way.
    ladoctorita’s last blog post..calling for assistance!

  2. This is an important one. It also reduces the anxiety that otherwise comes when you have to go up or down a size in a particular item or brand of clothing. If you think, “I usually wear an 18,” then it’s not a huge deal to try on a 20. But if you think “I am an 18,” then suddenly trying on a larger garment threatens that status.
    sweet machine’s last blog post..All right, ?fess up?

  3. Yes! Though given the variance w.r.t sizes among clothing manufacturers, it’s hard to know what size I wear anyway.
    Deborah’s last blog post..I?m for Clinton

  4. I never thought about this one before. Interesting. The funny thing is that when going off of small, medium and large sizes, women don’t usually use that kind of language (“I wear/need a large,” not “I’m a large”), but they do with the numbers. This will take a lot of practice. I wear a size 12. I wear a size 12.
    Cara’s last blog post..?The Darfur of America? (or not)

  5. The “am a X” and “doing X” distinction is one I’m careful to make in other areas too. For instance, I tell my children that they’ve done a silly/careless/thoughtless/hurtful thing, not that they are silly/careless/thoughtless/hurtful for doing that thing.

  6. Does anyone know how this came about – women using “i am a 12″ not “i am a _size_ 12″

  7. It sheds a bit of light on the whole sizing issue. “I am a size 0″ is a statement of status akin to “I’m second inline to the throne”. It gives an interesting spin to the old ‘you are what you eat’ saying too.
    On a related note, I’ve been giving serious thought over recent weeks to other ways we label ourselves and our bodies as well. I have a draft post underway that one of these days I will get around to finishing and posting.
    Fatadelic’s last blog post..Me and My Scales – Part 1: The (Not Quite) Last Diet

  8. Good idea! I’m with you.
    Another pet peeve of mine is, for example, “Bill Gates is worth eleventy billion dollars” meaning “Bill Gates owns stuff worth eleventy billion dollars”.
    MissPrism’s last blog post..Yay! Freebies!

  9. You are right about the way we tend to talk about clothing sizes. To my mind, the most likely source of this silly ellipsis is women’s magazines. You know where the ads come from, you know who’s happy about you identifying yourself so strongly with your clothing and wanting to always lose “those 5 more pounds”… Sigh.
    Januaries’s last blog post..?they cripple with beauty and butcher with love?

  10. I actually have the beginnings of a series called “Words mean things” so seeing this made me chuckle. Maybe we should start a giant meme.
    I have to think that whoever thought of the sizing system for women’s clothing was a sadist. Here- we get a scaled number rating instead of a size. I would love to be able to find womens pants with a x inches waist and a y inches inseam like guys do. But then how would we know how far off from a perfect size we are?
    Red Queen’s last blog post..Ho Hum

  11. That’s a really good point. I’m going to put effort into doing all of those suggestions. I am a size x, that is [nasty/thoughtless/disgusting]. Any other suggestions for what to work on in a week, Lauredhel?

  12. Thanks for all the lovely comments! Maelenna, stay tuned next week – I’m planning to make this a series. And am really looking forward to other people’s ideas. (eta: to reading other people’s ideas, that is, not to stealing them. Though a little overlap is probably inevitable.)


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