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Sexism in the English Language Issue Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 2nd, 2020


The structure of English language gently persuades its speakers to think in sexist manner. The very grammatical structure of English establishes an implied sexism and it is subtly constructed in our minds. Grammar of the language creates a sexist perception and this is used to construct the relationship structure in the society. Hence, the connection between language construct and culture is created: “Language and culture are on a feedback loop; changing one changes the other in complex interactional ways” (Hardman, 1996, p. 25).

Researchers have established the connection between language and existing perception of sexism (Mcelhinny, 2003). The use of slang words or abuses has a special gendered connotation and often is derogatory to women. Gender neutrality of language is often misinterpreted or ignored by many, in order to, continue their biased perception of gender.

Propagation of sexism through nonstandard vocabulary is also a common form of sexism through language. Such expression may comprise of raw and unrefined expression or use of taboo or vulgar words directed and/or implying a particular sex. Further, such words may indicate a particular sexual orientation, act, or relationship. The presence of slangs and the rampant use of such slangs need to be understood if we want o gauge the overall attitude of people towards sexism in English Language.

Language is a discourse that constructs the ideas about gender roles and divisions. As we learn language at a very early age, these constructs are infused inside us at a very early age. Embedded gendered concepts within the generic statements are common.

The perception of the male when we hear a generic word influences our gendered perception. Further, the slangs and abusive words need to be understood and analyzed in order to gauge the extent of influence of such words on the perception or attitude towards sexism in English language.

This paper aims to understand the usage of abusive and slang words and how the speakers perceive them. The paper will aim to understand if the slang words are mostly directed towards men, women or to both genders. Further, the paper will also try to understand the gendered implications that are perceived in case of generic usage of words by students in the Arab university. How men and women interpret and perceive generic words and phrases is important to understand.

The degree of sexism in the attitude of the speaker while using English is also indicative of the cultural differences in attitude towards sexism in language. This will help us demonstrate that the language is not sexist; instead, it is the perception or construct of the speakers that makes it sexist.

Literature Review

The present literature review aims to understand the trend and gap in literature on sexism in English language. For this purpose, the paper will first understand the definition of sexism and how sexism can affect language. Then literature review will concentrate on relevant literature that has researched on the presence of sexism in English language.

Feminist scholarship has studied the sociolinguistic discipline in order to understand the existing sexism in language (Cameron, 2006). They have raised questions such as the usage of standard and vernacular language, definition of the speech given to the community, and theories regarding language’s role in identity construction (Mcelhinny, 2003). Gendering of language has also been a common practice.

Judith Butler points out: “Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pre-given sex … gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established.” (Butler, 1990, p. 7). Hence, it is from this deduction that the post-structuralist or deconstructive feminist scholars argue that gender can commonly make a difference.

The argument that arises from here is that a difference is identified in the language and the speech behavior of people that can simply invoke gender in language. The study of linguistics has led to the study of post-structuralist approach to reveal the dominant norms of sex, gender, and/or sexual norms.

Sexist Language

Sexism in language is apparent when the language makes a distinction between the male and the female gender without any explicit necessity of it (Parks & Roberton, 2004). Scholars point out that gendered language may be defined as “words, phrases, and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between females and males or exclude, trivialize, or diminish either gender” (Parks & Roberton, 1998, p. 455).

The most common forms of discrimination found in English language include: “non-parallel structures (i.e. between man and wife), lexical asymmetry (governor and governess), and generic use of masculine forms (he or man). Many feminist linguists claim that language is the primary source of gender inequality has been supported by empirical data” (Mcelhinny, 2003, p. 32).

Many have stressed on the usage of gender-neutral words in English such as using chairperson instead of chairman; they have to be interpreted as s/he instead of he. Further, sexist language is believed to have a negative effect (Parks & Roberton, 1998).

Studies have suggested that the pseudo-generic words like man or mankind or job titles like chairman or mailman indicates that men are superior to women, produce masculine images or confusion in the mind of the speaker and/or receiver, and create a self-concept of men and women (Gastil, 1990; Parks & Roberton, 1998).

Further, many scholars have indicated that language has categorically trivialized importance of women in society with emphasis of words like man or mankind and they have used terms like girl to denote even a mature, grown up woman denying women their adulthood and belittling women’s accomplishments (Parks & Roberton, 1998).

Even though language has been found to have a strong gendering effect, still many researchers have shown that people often do not accept inclusive language. For instance, a study conducted by Parks and Robertson (1998) has found that 53 percent of the college students were opposed to inclusive language. 21 percent resisted any or all forms of inclusive language, and those who felt that inclusive language was unnecessary wrote the longest diatribes against it (Parks & Roberton, 1998).

Many researchers have aimed to understand attitude of both men and women of different demographic background towards sexist language. The usage of sexist language is easily determined through analysis samples of “writings, speeches, and other discernable behavior” (Gastil, 1990, p. 633). Understanding the attitude towards sexist language is a more difficult task. The paper aims to gain a better understanding of attitude towards sexist language.

Generic Usage in English

Sexism in language is often differentiated as blatant or subtle (Gastil, 1990). The use of generic he is often used as a gender biased word. Research has shown that the generic he does not evoke a gender-neutral image in the mind of the respondents. Thus, when a generic he is used in a sentence, which actually implies he/she, the reader usually understands he. Research has shown that the generic he exudes more male images than that of he/she and they (Gastil, 1990).

Research has demonstrated that the college and school student’s perception of the generic he usually possess a male bias (Gastil, 1990). Similar results have been obtained in case of generic language and sexism for heterogeneous groups (Gastil, 1990).

Swim, Mallett, & Stangor (2004) points out the different forms of sexism. Sexism is of three types namely covert, blatant, or subtle (Swim et al. 2004). Blatant sexism is often defined by researchers as “unequal and unfair treatment of women relative to men, whereas covert sexism is defined as unequal and unfair treatment of women that is recognized but purposefully hidden from view” (Swim et al. 2004, p. 117).

They point out that blatant and covert sexism are intentional while the subtle form of sexism is considered normative by most people and hence is considered usual. Both covert and subtle sexism are hidden but the former is intentional and the latter is not (Swim et al. 2004). Sexist language is an example of subtle sexism.

Such language comprises of speeches that supports and disseminates the gender stereotypes and creates an impressionistic difference between men and women. Sexist language is learned in the early formative periods and is imbibed in the linguistic habits of man.

A more recent study by Park and Roberton (2004) showed that the attitude of people towards sexist language. Their research has consistently demonstrated a gender gap. Further, they showed that women were more adaptive to generic use of language than men were. They studied the attitude towards gendered language, with social attention to “attitude towards women” (Parks & Roberton, 2004, p. 231). They conducted a survey of college students within the age group of 18 to 20 years.

European American/White was the majority of the participants. The respondents were mostly women (60%). Data was collected based on the modern Sexism Scale, neo-sexism Scale, attitude to wards women scale, and inventory of attitudes towards sexist/nonsexist language-general (Parks & Roberton, 2004).

The research found the prevalent gender gap in attitude towards sexist language (Parks & Roberton, 2004). However, when attitude towards women was considered the analysis revealed a diminished gender effect by 61 percent. This finding demonstrates that cultural construct and attitude towards women has a strong link to the attitude towards sexist language.

The literature on generic sexist language and perception of sexism in language demonstrates that mostly men are more prone not to use generic language in a conventional sense and women are not prone to generalization. However, researches failed to demonstrate the attitude towards generic language. The acceptability of neutral language among men and women has also remained untouched in literature.

Slangs/ Abusive Language

Slangs or abusive language has rightly been called the “institutionalized sexism” (Green, 2000). The emphasis of gendered interpretation of the generic words reinforced the phallocentric language. Even though many feminists have tried to make English a gender-neutral language, but language has not stopped emphasizing its patriarchal structure and importance on men.

Slangs are one such form in language. Slang may be defined as “a nonstandard vocabulary belonging to a particular culture or subculture” consisting “of raw and unrefined expressions, many of which are considered taboo, vulgar, and derogatory” and “are more commonly used than standard words when referring to sexual attraction, acts, and relationships” (Grossman & Tucker, 1997, p. 101).

Research on slang notes that men mostly use these slangs and these slangs are fashioned to satisfy male interest or endeavor. Men mostly use slangs because there is an inherent “daring” component associated with the use of slang words (Grossman & Tucker, 1997). Thus, use of such words often is associated with an increased self-confidence of men. In addition, men like to use slangs more when together is a peer group and usage of slangs are prevalent in such situations as it boosts male masochistic ego (Grossman & Tucker, 1997).

The prevalent notion is that slang is commonly is used by men and hence, many researches has studied such slang words and indicated that these words are usually directed towards women. A research aiming at analyzing number of derogatory words/expression towards promiscuous women towards 220 expressions and only 22 idioms were indicated towards men (Grossman & Tucker, 1997). English language is said to have more insulting and sexual words directed towards women than men did.

However, the use of these slangs are not restricted only to men, though men use such abusive language more than women: “While both women and men use these disparaging terms, it has been proposed that this language transformation results from men’s tendency to view women as sexual objects and to control women’s sexuality” (Grossman & Tucker, 1997, p. 102).

Research has shown that both men and women have listed more slang for women than men. Further, both men and women associated women more as sexual objects indicated in the slangs, though male respondents were more prone to make a stronger connection. The slangs that were mostly associated with men are “bastard”, “guy”, and “dude” while the slangs that were usually used to describe women are “chick”, “bitch”, and “broad” (Grossman & Tucker, 1997, p. 102).

In the late eighties, there was an increased use of taboo words and vulgar slangs by women, which was believed to have been due to the feminist movement (Grossman & Tucker, 1997). A study of undergraduate female students initially asked the male students to list the slangs they usually associate with women and then women were asked to list a similar list that they use to refer to their male colleagues. The findings of the study indicate that the women were equally equipped with slangs referring to men (de Klerk, 1992).

A study by de Klerk shows that boys and girls from school showed minor gender difference in their knowledge and usage of slang words. He showed that girls and boys did not differ significantly in their knowledge of slang words (de Klerk, 1992).

However, their research demonstrated that both men and women believed that it was inappropriate for women to use slang words while male usage was permissible (de Klerk, 1992). However, Grossman and Tucker (1997) analyzed de Kerk’s research due to “the heightened focus of adolescents on the opposite sex, perhaps not reflecting a pattern which would be found in older individuals” (p. 103).

The research on usage of slangs conducted by Grossman and Tucker (1997) found no significant difference in the in the overall number of slangs used by men and women. However, the participants listed derogatory words mostly directed towards women and not men. Their research showed that:

On average, 50% of the terms participants listed to describe women were sexual, whereas less than one-quarter of the terms listed for men were sexual. It was also the case that participants reported using fewer of the slang terms describing women than men, perhaps reflecting the more sexual and derogatory nature of the terms listed for women. (Grossman & Tucker, 1997, p. 110)

Some of the slang words that were directly referred to women and have sexual connotation that was found to be in common use were “slut” suggesting a sexually promiscuous woman and “chick” referring to a girl-child. The slang words that Grossman & Tucker (1997) listed as the most comonly used slangs were also found to be prevelant by de Klerk (1992).

A more recent study by Eliasson, Isaksson, and Laflamme (2007) aimed at understanding the importance of use of abusive language among school children. The researh demonstrates that genedered difference in the usage of abusive language among students aged between 14 to 15 years (Eliasson, Isaksson, & Laflamme, 2007). They use observational techniques and exploratory interviews to understand the differnce between the two.

Their research indicates that verbal abuse usually have explicit and blatant sexual content, which is believed to be necessary to demonstrate hegemonic masculinity and toughness in school. Usually boys who were popular in school were the ones who mostly used the slangs but these were not necessairly considered abusive. However, the boys who were considered “rowdy” were the ones who used most abusive slangs. The abusive language that girls used was also directed to women than men (Eliasson, Isaksson, & Laflamme, 2007).

In most cases, both the genders were used verbal abuse that were directly mostly to females. Thus, the research concluded that verbal abuse at schools does not have significant difference in what girls and boys use and helps in structuring genedered relaitonships.

The use of slang demosntrates that both men and women use slangs and both of them have a propensity touse slangs that are directly towards women. The gendered slangs actually creates a a structure for gender roles. However, recent research has neglected the implications that slangs have towards gender and attitude towards slangs that are indicated towards men, women, and either of the sexes.


The study is conducted using survey methodology. A questionnaire (see Appendix) is devised to understand the attitude towards generic language and slangs of students of the university. The questionnaire is divided into two parts – the first tried to understand the attitude and understanding of generic words used in English. This part directly asked the students to refer to their understanding of the generic words and show if they thought that it indicated men, women, or either.

The second part was used to understand the usage of slangs in English. This section used two sections – first if the slangs were directed towards men, women, or either and what were the slangs aimed at i.e. if they were related to nay body part, appearance, sexual behavior, or animal. The students who were administered the survey were mostly Middle Eastern and Asian. In total 12 respondents participated in the survey. An equal number of male and female students participated in the survey.


Generic Words

The analysis of the generic words is done using 12 sentences which were directed for ascertain the gender attitude of the respondents. Six of the sentences were directly related to ascertain sexist attitude towards in the language. Participants were asked to determine if the generic he presented in the sentences relate to any specific gender.

The responses are then clubbed together to ascertain the numbers of responses that determine fi the languages are gender specific. The questionnaire has in total 12 statements, six of which contain generic sexual words and the others are nonsexist errors.

The results when analyzed shows that 48.6 percent of the responses felt that the generic he could imply either men or women. However, 41.7 percent believed that they indicated male and only 9.7 percent said that the he implied women. Most of the men respondents believed that the generic he implied men while most of the female (33.3 percent) believed that he in the sentences indicated men.

However, more men (58 percent) believed that the generic he implied men and female respondents (33 percent). Only 38 percent men respondents believed that the generic he could actually mean either men and/or women. Twenty-seven percent female respondent believed that the statements could have indicated either of the sexes.

Male respondents have mostly misjudged gender neutral or generic words. More than majority of the male responses indicated that the generic words directly implied males. Thus, the generic he when used in a sentence would imply men and not imply either of the sexes. However, the nonsexist sentences that were given as fillers were also analyzed as sentences indicating men when determined by male respondents.

From this, one may intuitively determine that more men felt that the generic sentences were indicative of men thus, implying sexist attitude of male respondents. On the other hand, more female respondents felt that the statements were related to the either of the sexes. The difference in the responses of the male and the female respondents adhere to the findings of the previous researches.

The responses of the male and the female respondents show gender stereotype especially in the responses of the male respondents. More male respondents believe that the generic words mean male he rather than generic he. This might be due to the masculine dominance ingrained in the patriarchal mind. The analysis also shows that women are more aware and accept the generic he but not men.

Slang Words

The slangs or abusive language section of the survey tries to understand if the respondents believe the slangs are gender biased. The respondents are asked to mention if they feel that the slangs are spoken to male, female, or either of the sexes. The other section tries to understand what the slangs actually mean or is related to the following – body parts, appearance, animals, or sexual behavior. The responses of the male respondents show that most of the slangs used are intended for either of the sexes.

81 percent of the male respondents believe that the slags are intended for either of the sexes. For specific female related slangs like “bimbo” and “old bat”, the responses show that most of the men believe that the responses show that more men believed that they were intended for women than female respondents. Male respondents believe that slangs are less intended for women than female respondents by 18 percent.

This finding contradicts the findings of previous researches. 38 percent women believe that the slangs may imply either of the sexes. The reason behind this may be cultural differences or impact of culture on the belief system of the respondents as most of the respondents are from Middle East while in previous researches the respondents were from American or European region. Both male and female respondents believe that most of the slangs are related to appearance of the person to whom they are indicated.

Conclusion and Limitation

The analysis of the research shows that more men are inclined to have sexist attitude towards in English language. The generic words prevalently used in English are more necessarily consider to be gendered.

The stress on masculinity of men is similar in Middle Eastern countries as was found in European of American men in previous researches and all believed that generic words are more inclined to mean men than either of the sexes. Thus, men are less inclined to accept gender neutrality in English. While female respondents believed that generic, words were more gender neutral. Women believe that slang words are more directed towards women.

The research results on attitude towards generic words and slangs cannot be statistically conclusive due to the small sample size. If the research could be administered to greater number of respondents, the response could have been more conclusive. Another area is that most of the respondents were non-English speakers. Hence, many of the slang words were unknown to the respondents. If a comparison of slangs in vernacular and in English could be done, then greater meaning could have been derived from the research.


Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Cameron, D. (2006). On language and sexual politics. New York: Routledge.

de Klerk, V. (1992). How taboo are taboo words for girls? Language in Society , 21, 277-289.

Eliasson, M. A., Isaksson, K., & Laflamme, L. (2007). Verbal abuse in school. Constructions of gender among 14‐ to 15‐year‐olds. Gender and Education , 19 (5), 587-605.

Gastil, J. (1990). Generic Pronouns and Sexist Language: The Oxymoronic Character of Masculine Generics. Sex Roles , 23 (11/12), 629-643.

Green, J. (2000). Language: Language maketh man. Critical Quarterly , 42 (1), 100-104.

Grossman, A. L., & Tucker, J. S. (1997). Gender Differences and Sexism in the Knowledge and Use of Slang. Sex Roles , 37 (1-2), 101-110.

Hardman, M. J. (1996, MArch/April). The Sexist Circuits English. The Humanist , pp. 25-32.

Mcelhinny, B. (2003). Theorizing Gender in Sociolinguistics and Linguistic Anthropology. In J. Holmes, & M. Meyerhoff, The Handbook of Language and Gender (pp. 21-42). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Parks, J. B., & Roberton, M. A. (1998). Contemporary arguments against non-sexist language. Sex Roles , 39, 445-461.

Parks, J. B., & Roberton, M. A. (2004). Attitudes toward women mediate the gender effect on attitudes toward sexist language. Psychology of Women Quarterly , 28 (3), 233-239.

Swim, J. K., Mallett, R., & Stangor, C. (2004). Understanding Subtle Sexism: Detection and Use of Sexist Language. Sex Roles, Vol. 51, No. 3/4, August , 51 (3/4), 117-128.

Appendix. Questionnaire

The aim of the research is to understand the presence of sexism in English language. The questionnaire will aim to understand if the targeted respondents are aware/immune to the generic usage of certain English words or they believe it to be related to a particular sex (this will deal with the first part of the questionnaire and few of the questions in this section are unrelated fillers). The second part tries to identify if the slangs/abuses used in English have a gendered meaning.


Insult terms usually aim at which Sex Insult terms usually aim at
Men Women Either Body parts Appearance Animals Sexual behavior
old bat
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