January 30, 2007

The sex

Claire Bowern at Anggarrgoon recently wrote ("person of color", 1/26/2007):

I agree with Geoff Pullum at Language Log that the phrase “person of color” is objectionable. But it does have one useful function: it highlights markedness relations. After all, white people have “colour” too [...] The only way people could have come up with a phrase “person of color” is by highlighting the marked relationship between minority and majority skin colour. [...]

Perhaps we should try to make this formulation a bit more widespread. If we’re stuck with the phrase “person of color”, how about adding to it person of gender? A computer geek might be a person of RAM? Any more?

Well, people who are not bald could be called persons of hair, for example.

But Claire's observation reminds me of something that struck me as very strange when I first encountered it -- the use of "the sex" to mean "the female sex", just as a "person of color" has come to mean a "person of darkish color". Claire's reference to markedness explains both usages; but the explanation has a subtle twist in it, I think, that may be worth exploring.

"Markedness" is a Prague School term from the middle of the 20th century. It's been given various technical meanings in various linguistic theories over the years -- originally, I think, in the phonological theories of Nikolai Trubetzkoy -- but these days, it's mainly used in a more informal way, to talk about (attributions of) naturalness in general. This typically involves a system of classification or description where some sub-groups are "marked" (and thus distinctive or noteworthy) while others are "unmarked" (and thus the normal or default case).

The gendered names of animals are a common example, as in the wikipedia article:

A marked form is a non-basic or less natural form. An unmarked form is a basic, default form. For example, lion is the unmarked choice in English — it could refer to a male or female lion. But lioness is marked because it can only refer to females.

Now as I mentioned, for about 350 years, the phrase "the sex" could be used used to mean "the female sex", i.e. "women". Here are the citations from the OED for this sense of the word sex:

1589 PUTTENHAM Eng. Poesie III. xix. (Arb.) 235 As he that had tolde a long tale before certaine noble women, of a matter somewhat in honour touching the Sex.
1608 D. T[UVILL] Ess. Pol. & Mor. 101b, Not yet weighing with himselfe, the weaknesse and imbecillitie of the sex.
1631 MASSINGER Emperor East I. ii, I am called The Squire of Dames, or Servant of the Sex.
1697 VANBRUGH Prov. Wife II. ii, He has a strange penchant to grow fond of me, in spite of his aversion to the sex.
1760-2 GOLDSM. Cit. W. xcix, The men of Asia behave with more deference to the sex than you seem to imagine.
1792 A. YOUNG Trav. France I. 220 The sex of Venice are undoubtedly of a distinguished beauty.
1823 BYRON Juan XIII. lxxix, We give the sex the pas.
1863 R. F. BURTON W. Africa I. 22 Going ‘up stairs’, as the sex says, at 5 a.m. on the day after arrival, I cast the first glance at Funchal.
1892 ‘MARK TWAIN’ Amer. Claim. xvii. 160 The customers applauded, the sex began to flock in.
1920 D. LINDSAY Voyage to Arcturus i. 2 He was used to such receptions at the hands of the sex.

Less often, simple "sex" without the article was used to mean "female":

a1700 DRYDEN Cymon & Iph. 368 She hugg'd th' Offender, and forgave th' Offence, Sex to the last!

But if "male" is unmarked and "female" is marked, why did "the sex" come to mean "the female sex"? You might think this is backwards -- if the default lion is a male lion, why wasn't "the (unspecified) sex" the male sex? Well, Claire's point is that we tend to put unmarked or default properties in the background, and bring just the marked properties -- or groups -- out to be noted or named. Thus to note the relevance of the category of sex is to imply that the sex in question is female, just as to note the relevance of the category of color is to imply that the color in question is "black" or "brown" or "yellow".

Except in ironic contexts, this usage of "the sex" seems to have died out in the 1930s or thereabouts.

There's some evidence, I think, that persons of gender found "the sex" offensive even in the 19th century. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example, used this phrase only once in her poetry. She puts it in the mouth of a sexist parodying someone even more sexist.

Here's the passage in question. In Aurora Leigh (second book), Aurora's cousin Romney, in the context of asking her to marry him, disparages her ambitions as a poet.

(Because the sequence of speakers can be hard to follow, I've put Romney in blue and Aurora in red).

220 ... Women as you are,
221 Mere women, personal and passionate,
222 You give us doating mothers, and perfect wives,
223 Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
224 We get no Christ from you,---and verily
225 We shall not get a poet, in my mind."

226 "With which conclusion you conclude . . ."
226 "But this,
227 That you, Aurora, with the large live brow
228 And steady eyelids, cannot condescend
229 To play at art, as children play at swords,
230 To show a pretty spirit, chiefly admired
231 Because true action is impossible
232 You never can be satisfied with praise
233 Which men give women when they judge a book
234 Not as mere work but as mere woman's work,
235 Expressing the comparative respect
236 Which means the absolute scorn. 'Oh, excellent,
237 'What grace, what facile turns, what fluent sweeps,
238 'What delicate discernment . . . almost thought!
239 'The book does honour to the sex, we hold.
240 'Among our female authors we make room
241 'For this fair writer, and congratulate
242 'The country that produces in these times
243 'Such women, competent to . . . spell.'"

243 "Stop there,"
244 I answered, burning through his thread of talk
245 With a quick flame of emotion,---"You have read
246 My soul, if not my book, and argue well
247 I would not condescend . . . we will not say
248 To such a kind of praise (a worthless end
249 Is praise of all kinds), but to such a use
250 Of holy art and golden life. I am young,
251 And peradventure weak---you tell me so---
252 Through being a woman. And, for all the rest,
253 Take thanks for justice. I would rather dance
254 At fairs on tight-rope, till the babies dropped
255 Their gingerbread for joy,---than shift the types
256 For tolerable verse, intolerable
257 To men who act and suffer. Better far
258 Pursue a frivolous trade by serious means,
259 Than a sublime art frivolously."

It might be interesting to explore the death of this expression. Did it just gradually cease to be used? Was there an explicit campaign against it? (Perhaps someone has already studied this -- if you know of such work, please tell me.)

[Update -- Abraham John Rein writes:

Just a note on a phenomenon similar to referring to "the female sex" as simply "the sex": in the mid-twentieth century and beyond, it was quite common to refer to music traditionally performed by Blacks (or, I guess, persons of color) as "race music." The implication being, of course, that if there is a "race" to be noted, it's not white -- just as, when a "sex" is noted, it's not male.

I agree that this is exactly the same pattern, abstractly considered. But the sequence of citations for this sense of race in the OED suggests that it might also have had some function as a euphemism, which does not seem to have been true for the use of "the sex" to mean "the female sex":

1926 H. NILES in W. C. Handy Blues 31 Listen to the ‘race records’, for this craft is sui generis.
Jrnl. Abnormal & Social Psychol. Apr.-June 12 ‘Race blues’..are not always what they seem.
1935 Vanity Fair (N.Y.) Nov. 71/3 Negro bands play ‘race music’ (a curious euphemism spread by phonograph companies).
Collier's 30 Apr. 24/4 We were afraid to advertise Negro records. So I listed them in the catalogue as ‘race’ records and they are still known as that.


[Update #2 -- Coby Lubliner writes:

I don't think that the identity male=unmarked is always valid. Take 'goose,' for example. I also don't agree that the 'race' example is equivalent to 'sex'; the term 'race music' was mainly used by black people, just as many Hispanics refer to themselves as "la raza", while 'the sex' seemed to have been used primarily by men. My guess is that 'the sex' went out of use as the word 'sex' came to mean sexuality or sexiness. I wonder if this was around the same time as when the meaning of 'make love' shifted from 'woo' or 'court' to 'have sexual intercourse'.

The last point may well be valid -- certainly the early part of the 20th century, when "the sex" seems to have gone out of favor as a way to say "women", was also the time that Freudian talk about sex came into prominence.

(Dave Long adds: "...and around the time when Cambridge's "Sex Viri" had to add one to their number (becoming "Septem") after the publicity surrounding JBS Haldane's divorce correspondence". Dave's reference is explained (sans Haldane and divorce) here:

(1) a university court of first instance in disciplinary cases against senior members ; (2) a court of appeal against decisions of the Court of Discipline in the case of junior members . There is reference to 'septemviri' in the Elizabethan statutes of 1570, but the court as it survives today was first embodied in the new statutes of 1857 as a disciplinary court for senior members. It comprised six persons with the Chancellor presiding and was normally referred to as the Sex Viri (and ever so wittily as the Sex Weary). The 1926 statutes substituted the Vice-Chancellor for the Chancellor, and allowed appeal to the Chancellor, or his deputy, and two assessors. In 1939, without any necessity to revise the composition of the court, it was re-christened the 'septemviri'.

Whatever their number, we can judge the attitude of these viri towards sex by the fact that they expelled William Empson in 1929 because a college servant found condoms in his room.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 30, 2007 08:53 AM