Saturday, September 19, 2015

Women and Horses

There are many words in any language which are either openly sexist or sexist in their etymology. In a book I'm currently reading on the etymology of English words and the history behind them, a question arises as to whether the word "bridegroom" is sexist in meaning. The author discounts as "crazy" the explanations some have given for the origin of the word - one who grooms the bride or gives her the value of a horse.

Photo of horses I took a couple of months ago.

In the Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospel of St John, the word used for bridegroom is brydguma. We know what bryd or bride is but what on earth is guma? It's perhaps clearer when brydguma was spelt bredgome in 1340. From my own rather sketchy knowledge of Middle English poetry, gome means man. And it's not just gome. Any student of medieval literature will recall the headache we all had over the dozen or so words for just "man" or "knight" alone and they include, if my memory serves me, tulkeseggewight  and many more I can't now recall; the weird-sounding ones being from dialects such as the Lancastrian dialect of Middle English. But gome means man and even though I've not read medieval poetry for ages, I can still remember that much. To cut a long story short (and etymological stories can be pretty long), "bridegroom" simply means the bride's man as the author of the etymology book suggests. That's what he says but I hold an entirely different view and that's not the end of the story, as I will explain later.

The anti-sexist sentiment we see today has gone overboard with changes made to the hymns we all love. Let me give examples from famous Christmas carols. "Good Christian Men" has been changed in some hymnals to the effete sounding "Good Christian Friends". "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is avoided in some groups because they can't change the word without doing violence to the tune. In the Christmas hymn the whole world loves "Joy to the World", the line, "Let men their songs employ" is altered so that the word men is replaced with all. Just try singing that and you will see that it doesn't feel the same. And there are countless more hymns destroyed by extreme feminism. I've even heard of suggestions to change the name of the Holy Trinity to the blasphemous "Cloud, Rock and Holy Spirit" because "Father" and "Son" are of course too sexist for some people.

This is all quite unnecessary. Language, like religion and culture, is a good reflection of our human history. Of course any language that has a history exceeding a mere 50 years is bound to be sexist. The Chinese language is one of the oldest languages in the world and it has continued relatively unchanged for a few thousand years. The word for "woman" is written hieroglyphically as someone who kneels. The word for "good" is written to depict the kneeling woman carrying a child. And for "peace", we see that same kneeling woman caged in a house. But nobody has suggested that these ancient characters be changed to something that reflects our non-sexist worldview today.

When I was a boy, the sentence "Every child must drink his milk" was the only correct form because "every" is singular. As I grew older, I had to say "Every child must drink his or her milk" because how could we be so sexist as to exclude girls among the children? Soon people got tired of the additional words and it's now common to say "Every child must drink their milk", never mind the fact that "every" is singular. It's always wiser to sacrifice grammar for political correctness.

My point is you can't change everything. You've got to make up your own language from scratch if you really want to rid a language of all traces of sexism. Sure, bridegroom may simply mean a bride's man but what about the word "bride"? Etymologists will quickly point out that the Old English bryd comes from Old Frisian bred or breid, Old Saxon brud (Dutch bruid), Old High German brut and Old Norse bruthr. But what do these words actually mean? This is what the author of my etymology book does not explore.

The root word really means "one owned or purchased". Some etymologists believe it also has some link to cooking so I suppose a broader view would be a bride is someone who is owned or purchased to do the cooking. I'm tempted to think (although I'm sure I'm etymologically flawed) that the word "bride" has some link to the word "bridle". My Middle English vocabulary has shrunk considerably after years of laying off medieval literature but I do know that "bride" also meant "bridle" in Middle English and in the mid-19th century, "bride" carried the additional meaning of a bonnet-string and that was the time when all women wore bonnets. If I allow myself to be a little more imaginative and I think of the bonnet-string as a bridle (both were called "bride"), I suppose the idea of a bridegroom as one who bridles the bride as a groom does a horse isn't all that far-fetched.

If I were a woman, sexism in language would not bother me one bit. You can't change history and language is a reflection of what we were once like. If I were a woman, I would want a constant reminder of how far we have come from the days when women were bridled and in this respect, language serves as a most effective memorial of what it used to be and how much women have triumphed. Far from denigrating women, sexism in language is a woman's badge of victory.

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