A word with a pedigree

The Gender Advocacy Programme has just released a booklet for the media about how better to represent and report on women.
Being zealous about women’s rights and a convert to the belief in the power of language, I contributed a chapter on the print media.
This week the booklet arrived in the post, and as I was given a whole bunch I distributed them to my colleagues. So I wasn’t surprised when I went to the tearoom the other day to hear several of them talking about it. What had drawn their attention was the section in the back which advises journalists to abandon “gender-insensitive” words and replace them with more neutral terms.
This is something I wholeheartedly endorse: why say “mankind” when you can say “humans”, “people”, “humanity”? Why say “man a roadblock” when you can “staff a roadblock”? etc
As a colleague was going down the list I was feeling quite comfortable until he came to “tomboy” and read out the suggested replacement: “a boisterous child”!
We looked at each other in disbelief. Despite my long service to the feminist language project and my dutiful imbibing of Dale Spender, Cheris Kramerae and Paula Treichler (whose dictionary Amazons, Bluestockings and Crones is as much fun as it is insight), this is the first time – in my awareness – that this particular word has been targeted for deletion from the English language.
I had a visceral reaction. A strong, from the bowels, No!
Now when your intestines rise up and start telling your brain what to do you have to ask why. And my experience is that the stronger the feeling of whiplash in your lower abdomen the further back into your own personal history you have to go to find the source.
Twenty-four hours later I had it: George! Curly-headed, shorts-wearing, devoted-dog-owning George. George of the Famous Five.
When I was at primary school I wanted to be George. I wore baggy shorts because of George, I desperately wanted a lifetime buddy of a dog because of George. (This dog doesn’t exist, I’ve had several and none of them capable of Enid Blyton-style cleverness or devotion – this is one of the great disappointments of my life.)
To be honest, I didn’t climb trees because of George, I did that because the feeling of being thrashed by the wind at the end of a long thin branch was quite druglike and certainly addictive. I climbed walls because being on top is something I’ve discovered I really like. (Looking down on the world has to be got artificially if you turn out to be 155cm high.) I rode bicycles because flying downhill knows no gender.
This is not really about George (and it’s not at all about Enid Blyton and childhood), it’s about the word. An independent seven-year-old could wear this word with pride. “She’s a tomboy,” they’d say and it marked you as independent, uncontrollable, walking on the edge of suburbia, a dual persona – clever in uniform in class by morning, of indeterminate sex by afternoon and weekend.
I liked the confusion: “Oh, it’s a girl” from those who live by assuming clothes maketh the man, and the annoyance and frustration when you play with boys and beat them at their own games.
This is a word with a pedigree. This is the child that matured into the word “feminist”.
This is the zone of freedom for little girls all over the world before they become too useful for burden-bearing, child-rearing and nurturing everybody else.
So I dug out Amazons, Bluestockings and Crones and went in search of “tomboy”. This is what a variety of sources say:
1. The term is based on traditional conservative views of what constitutes acceptable male and female behaviour; so there are no “janegirls”.
2. The term has been reclaimed and used as a badge of pride: Judy Grahn is quoted as saying: “I was a tomboy, of course. It is no exaggeration to say that in general women who become dykes were known as tomboys when they were children. Of course, many aggressive, athletic, rambunctious tomboys never become lesbians, and many lesbians were never tomboys. Nevertheless, having once been a tomboy is a major theme in the life stories of a great majority of gay women …” (and I would add “and other women”).
3. Tomboy is an old spirit-based word used first for one of the witches persecuted in England during the 13th century whose familiar was a cat called Tomboy.
As I said before, this is a word with a pedigree.
So I’m breaking rank here, chuck out the “mans” left, right and centre regardless of derivation (I don’t care if –man comes from the Latin for hand and designates the doer of things – those have always been men) but this word needs rescuing for female posterity.

November 2003

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