Words I cannot use

The OED’s December 2007 release of new words includes an Italian loanword ‘puttanesca’. In Italian the word denotes “a piquant tomato sauce with olives, capers, and anchovies.” OK.

Wait! I’m not done.

The literal  sense of the word is “prostitute-esque” (puttana = prostitute; that’s the etymology). And, the OED continues relentlessly, the associations that puttanesca conjures up are of sauce that is “easy to prepare between clients, or has strong flavours and aroma that exert a stimulating effect.” Associations that, presumably, prostitutes also evoke. 

So what’s the bee in my bonnet, you ask? This: it’s not an association I can make, being female and straight. Ergo, this word I cannot use.

Hell, do prostitutes think of themselves as “easy to prepare between clients, with strong flavours and aromas that exert a stimulating effect?” But who’s asking?   

What’s that? You think I’m being prudesque?

To me a word is sexist not only because it makes derogatory references to any one sex. A word takes on meaning by virtue of its associations. And when those associations are predominantly male experiences, the words are not neutral.  

I wonder, though. Am I depleting my already meagre vocabulary?  

I could do as the reclamationst feminists do – reclaim pejorative epithets and use them in a positive, empowering sense. But I cannot wish away the associations, can I? I may use ‘bitch’ in a liberating sense. What can I do about the associations it evokes for a man?  

A white woman for the average, media-soaked male is always the come-hither bikini-clad model or hypersexed Hollywood bombshell. Therefore, white female tourists are eyed and grabbed and molested. 

The ToI Editor on NDTV last night was spot on: We live in a consumerist culture but we do not yet know how to handle and interpret the verbal, visual, and aural messages we are constantly bombarded with .

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