Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Thu, 8 Feb 1996 06:15:47 -0500
I can't resist. For those who find this sort of salon chatter
undignified, apologies. But "'watchdog' is sexist "? What fun!
This is a lovely example of how the English and the
Americans are separated by a common language. (I was born in the
States, and went to university there, but have lived in the
'British- English sphere', in India and Africa, since age 12.) In
British English, 'dog' is opposed to 'bitch' as 'bull' is to 'cow',
'stallion' is to 'mare' or 'hen' is to 'cock' (though the Americans
say 'rooster', and 'cock' is regarded as 'rude'). 'Dog' is also
used as the generic term for dogs and bitches in British English,
however, much as 'man' *was* used in (common) English for men and
women (... and yes, I know, Ruby, this is a sore point with you! but
will you accept the historical argument? -- I am using '*was*'
rather than 'is' in the previous sentence. Thanks.) The use of
'bitch' and 'cock' in common 'polite' American conversation has
disappeared. In the States both male and female are called without
distinction 'dogs', while in Britain the distinction is commonly
made. The greater attention to the breed and sex that is more common
n Britain may reflect the cultural characteristics
of a hiererarchical class society -- what Bourdieu would call
'distinction'. These distinction are not needed in American society.
This seems to me a nice case of semantic shift
and loss of some semantic distinctions in a American English as a
consequence of an historical drift from British English. As a
hypothesis, I would guess that the cultural 'loss' of these words in
American English is the consequence of a perivous round of cultural
cleansing, American style. The British, being great fanciers of the
canine species do not quail (excuse the mixed animal metaphor here)
at calling a bitch a bitch. It seems
to me that the general puritainism that still characterises American
culture -- and which is evident in *some* varieties American
feminism -- construed words like 'cock' and 'bitch' as rude, and
eliminated them through a process of social pressure and
'watchdogging' (sorry, Ruby ... it just seems to fit here.) This
would make an interesting piece of cultural history, assuming that my
hypothesis would hold up under more rigorous scrutiny.
Or shall we say, watchbitching? (this also works for me...
how about you?)
Life's a dog.
===========Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology======
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
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