Changing Connotations


Often it turns out that the labels that started off as accurate, legal at the time, came to be used as insults.  So when children were taught a label, it came to also imply lower status.

Some labels at first were neutral,  evolved into being used with humor, used in private gossip and then used with cruel intent. A key challenge is the u-teaching of prejudice, is to examine the changing connotations..


Here are some of those shifts in other movements:

a. native rights- Terms used in earlier times to identify a group became used

            in ways perceived as demeaning and  have been reassessed. Terms have                   inmanyareas been changed to terms like native, indigenous, first nations,             aboriginal, Inuit. Many native groups now suggest that rather than struggle to find             a label that is polite, it is best to just ask the person concerned how they wish to             be referred to.

b. race, nationality,  rights – identifying someone by race or skin color may be

            somewhat factual or not, but is often now seen unfair to

            even notice, as unfair as would be categorizing people by ear length.

            Some words used in earlier times are now taboo and have been

            replaced with more politically sensitive terms.

c. disability rights –

            Some terms were technical IQ categories that

            became insults and are now rejected. as pejorative

            Terms for many physical challenges  have been rejected and have been replaced             with more politically sensitive terms.

d. sexual orientation rights- many terms of insult have been

            used. The twenty -first century has attempted to remove

            not only discrimination in the law but also in

            the language to ensure respect and dignity.

e. discrimination based on appearance  – terms originally used as identifiers

            of girth or height have been overused so much that many are now seen

            as by definition insulting.

f. discrimination based on income – many terms prejudge character based on

            income.  Even residence has been used as insult

            and such terms are no longer deemed politically correct

We have however also seen a reclaiming of some terms and  insisting on them being applied with respect. Part of this reclaiming is to empower those in the category to themselves not feel lesser for being there, to feel proud, defiantly asserting their right to equality.

race rights – black power. black is beautiful, black lives matter

disability rights – differently abled, use a wheelchair

sexual orientation rights – loud and proud

discrimination based on appearance – big and beautiful.


Men in some cultures were  historically discouraged from crying in public,, from showing fear or sentimentality or from any departure of the strong ‘macho’ image. This strong social pressure is sometimes blamed for the higher rate men have had compared to women for handling stress through smoking tobacco, alcohol, or drugs.  When women became liberated to access the pleasures men accessed, the women also then had to also experience some of the downsides and stressors of those new rights.

The oddities of these aspects of gender discrimination have been noticed in the 21st century where a liberation to value gender roles and choice may also permit men to show some of their feelings, and to perform care roles previously discouraged, while women are able to access role,  power and money they had not previously had.

The levelling and equality then may force a kinder treatment of those in business, politics, sports. It may give more flexibility in the paid workplace for time with the family, for men or women. It may give permission for men too, not just women, to be caregivers in the home, with dignity and status and financial recognition of the role.

Uncovering the dilemma, and the biases of words in the care sector over time therefore is complex.

There have been subtle shifts in the meaning of words for girls and women, in labels for married women and men, in labels for pregnancy and nursing women,. There have been shifts in the meaning of labels for women or men taking care of children at home- in essence words that reflect the status of the care role in the home.

Here are some of those shifts in words in the care sector.

1. status of women and girls

Historically there have always been terms that praised the female sex, terms that were neutral and terms that insulted it.  Reading through them one might see however a shift over time

girl, feminine

gentlewoman, noblewoman

lady, ladylike

woman, womanly virtues, gentlewoman

Physical appearance of women was a key focus as if their role or value were defined by their attractiveness.

damsel, beauty, lassie, Amazon, dish, doll


Character was often the focus of a label, especially sexual character:

strumpet, harlot, whore, scarlet woman, tramp

seducer, deceiver, courtesan, debauchee

witch, hussy, skenk, wench

specific names became insult names of perceived character. A ‘ Becky”, a “Karen” or a “Sharon’ in the 21st century are sometimes used as insult labels for types of women who are rich or working class,  entitled or not smart.

Some terms for women refer to them as cute but somewhat mindless, alluding to animals

chick, filly, hen,

Some terms referred to the intelligence of women, often in insulting ways

dumb blonde, bimbo, Valley girl,

The term ‘girl ‘ is not itself an insult but when a male coach criticizes his male team as ‘girls’ the term is used as an insult. Men are sometimes mocked for being dominated by women in some expressions:

tied to a woman’s apron strings, hiding behind a woman’s skirts

To call a man ‘effeminate’ was a perceived insult.
To say a girl was ‘one of the boys’, or had a ‘boyish grin’ was not.

2. status of boys and men

The words used for males have also had the range-  terms of praise, terms of insult and more neutral terms. 

Some terms of earlier times indicated social class

gentleman, sir, lord, milord

Young males were given labels that assumed a future greatness


Unlike for women where appearance was a key criterion for labels, labels for males tended to be about character, and often praising


man of the world, man of letters,

man of the moment, man up,  a man’s man, a man for all seasons

man of the year, my right hand man, be your own man

man about town

Some terms over time  assumed gender in  professions

boys in blue, fireman,  policeman, mailman

The terms that assumed that only men were included in rights were challenged in court and for legal documents.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry

fit for a king

all ‘men’ are equal

everyone should get ‘his’ own supplies

everyman, man in the street. man in the moon

Some terms of success seemed to assume the male gender

champ, chief

Other expressions seemed to assume men and men’s lifestyles to refer to all people:

old boys’ network,

where to hang your hat, hot under the collar

separate the men from the boys

fellow, chap, bro,

Many terms of friendly banter assumed the listener was male and in the 21st century even, women may use those terms amongst each other to show friendship

you guys, hey dude

man- the term was used both to refer to the human species and to only the

            males within it.  This overlap created some resentment in the

            1980s that argued that any term with ‘man’ in it was sexist.

            Words like mankind, manpower and expressions like ‘put

            a man on the moon or ‘man the torpedoes’ were questionned

            as if the meaning of man was not person, but ‘male’.

            This reassessment of terminology to remove ‘man’ from the

            language has however in the 21st century not been universally

            considered necessary. Spellings of women as womon, wombyn,

            wimmin or womyn have not been widespread.

collective nouns

            To describe groups of men terms often imply strength such as

            troop, band,  posse, crew, wolf pack, gentleman’s club, team.

            Groups of men however had names with less power:

            – a bevy, flock, gaggle, hive.

            Women were a flock, a gaggle, a hive.

            Men were associated with strong, wise or fesity animals such as lions, tigers,

            owls, stallions, bucks.

            Women were associated with animals of less admired

            character – snakes, cougars,lizards.

word order -even listing people of both genders, it was common to name first the male

            in any category – kings and queens, lords and ladies, men

            and women, husband and wife, boys and girls, lads and

            lasses. This word order was maintained except in a few formal

            circumstances – ‘ladies and gentlemen’

            the ‘bride and groom”

3. terms based on marital status

Labels for unmarried men have had consistentlyositive connotations.  A bachelor was the name for a young knight in training. The term became used for any unmarried man, often with the adjective “eligible’

To depict a single unmarried man terms included:

dreamboat, babe magnet, ladies’ man

The name for an unmarried woman often hinted at a longing for marriage to be a key goal and sexual status to be a key feature

maiden, virgin

maid – the label for an unmarried woman, maiden, got shortened

            to ‘maid’ in the Middle Ages and then linked to servant

            status – housemaid, chambermaid, handmaid, milkmaid.

Labels for women that referred to their unmarried status often however were judgmental in a negative way. When young the woman was possibly called an  ingenue, mademoiselle, demoiselle. maiden
However terms indicated  an early cut off point of age, after which the woman was labelled a  pinster,old maid

Terms for being married also shifted. Earlier ones emphasized a formal serious commitment.

took a mate, consort

conjoined, espoused, wed,

pledged troth (troth- from the word for truth, promise, trust)


More recent terms have emphasized other aspects of the decision, more negative with suggestion of risk or even entrapment.

tied the knot, said ” I do”,

got spliced, joined in wedlock, got hitched, took the plunge

The people involved have been labelled differently over time also

my betrothed, my spouse, my better half

my beloved, my helpmate

my partner in crime,

Expressions for married men often indicated power

The term ‘husband’ was for the male head of household

It also was used for the man who tilled the soil, occupied

the land and maintained it. To husband anything was to care for it, put aside and store wisely.In legal documents it was  often the man who was listed as head of household and the man who was the one empowered to make financial decisions for the family and marriage decisions for the female offspring.
Other expressions linked power to males in a household.

rule the roost , wear the trousers., wear the pants in the family

breadwinner, the man of the house

Expressions for married women, the female counterpart to the male in the household varied widely and evolved. Earlier terms showed respect

lady of the house, mistress of the household

The French term ‘madame’ was historically a term of respect for the married woman. However it became used only in formal situations and survived however in a different context -a madam’ was the operator or a brothel.

The term ‘wife’ at first just meant woman.. A midwife was a woman who helped at time of childbirth. A fishwife was a woman of humble social rank. A housewife was a woman who tended a house and the name got associated with a married woman in the home.

The term ‘ wife’ however did not become a term of power, unlike the male counterparts.  The label for one’s wife developed other connotations;

the ball and chain, the battle axe

The term ‘hussy’ evolved  from the word ‘housewife’ and came to mean a disrespectful woman insistent on rights was called a ‘brazen hussy”

The perceived role of the woman often became part of the label where the domestic role was somewhat mocked.

housekeeper, homemaker, hausfrau

chief cook and bottle washer

little suzy homemaker

keeps house

A group of married women was sometimes identified not based on their own skills but on their husbands’ status.

wives’ club — where there was no parallel ‘husbands’ club

The term ‘home’ was used with positive connotations;

home free, feel at home, hit a home run, strike home, home away from home, drive a point home, a home truth ,longing for home, homesick, keep the home fires burning

Over time the term ‘home ‘however also was given negative connotations

home bound, stuck at home, stay-at-home,

4. terms about roles

 The expression  ‘women’s work’ appeared since the 1500s.though historically

            the care roles in the home already were deemed mostly

            the responsibility of women- to cook, clean, tend the

            young, sick frail elderly and dying.

roles – The roles were so strongly associated with gender that

            the role  name itself got linked to that assumption

            Though either gender could do most roles there was a growing

            assumption of gender with some careers:

            protector is male, comforter is female

            boss is male, aide is male,

            secretary is female, receptionist is female,

            doctor is male, nurse is female,

            school principal, headmaster is male,

            elementary school teacher is female,

            There were

            gendered male roles such as policeman not

            policewoman, and gendered female roles

            such as washerwoman, not washerman.

Even objects associated with a role subtly were linked to

            lower status.  The domestic role uses brooms, mops and cloths

            for cleaning.  A broomstick became historically associated

            with witches, cleaning cloth with rags and poverty such    

            as putting on glad rags or having a rag doll or being tired or

            helpless – a wet rag.

             Mops were given some power images such

            as a mopping up operation in the military and mopping the floor

            with someone. However tools used in roles more often done

            by men got power connotations.- sure as shooting,

            straight as an arrow. Men were told to go out and tote that barge

            and lift that bale; women  were told to keep to their knitting.

Restrictions on women’s roles based on the idea men were good

            at some things, women at others, created a mystery

            and interest in what was not allowed, enticing women to overcome

            obstacles, break through ceilings to get what had been denied. The

            tone also became one of viewing the current role as lesser. So the

            care role in the home, earlier seen as its half of a household functionning,

            was seen in the 1960s as a failure to move into new territory. Though the

            tasks in the home had not changed in value to the household, the role

            previously named homemaker now was called ‘just’ a housewife.

5. words about pregnancy and nursing children

Historic terms for  pregnancy often showed respect for the condition, with its inherent social value to create offspring for a tribe leader’s genetic line, heirs for royalty, helpers on the farm.

conceived and bore a child, with child

gave birth , the blessed event

expecting, bun in the oven, pea in the pod, eating for two

However over time the condition got labelled with more negative connotations

up the spout, knocked up, preggers,  up the duff

pushed out puppies, pushed out babies

A b*tch was originally the name for the female of any species that had young, but got linked most often to the female dog who gave birth to a litter of puppies. The term evolved to pejoratively label for a woman who was opinionated and complained.

The name for parts of female anatomy associated with sex and reproduction also evolved.  Earlier ones included

bosoms, womb

Later ones included profane names for body parts as well as more functional labels with less positive connotation.

boobs, bazookas, knockers, melons

A woman breast-feeding a child was labelled differently aover time, some terms showing respect

nursing mother, had a child at the breast

Over time the nursing function got devalued for a time


However in the 21st century there has been a reclaiming in some cultures of the nursing function with encouragement to breast feed and many fashion products for nursing mothers.

The term’ nurse’ originally was a female servant and  the one who tended children. A wet nurse breast-fed the children of another woman, and a dry nurse tended them without the physical breast feeding.

The physical difference between men and women was sometimes used as an explanation in earlier centuries for explaining a perceived personality difference, often to claim men were superior in strength and toughness while women were weaker and emotionally unstable

The word for uterus’ hysteria’ or ‘hystericus’ was used by early Egyptians and Greeks who assumed that women had a medical condition due to a wandering uterus. Over the centuries ‘hysteria’ was the label given to inability to have children, failure to marry, miscarriage, menopause.

 In the middle ages women were sometimes accused of being witches or possessed by Satan and needing exorcism. In the 1800s hysteria was used to label patients, usually women, who suffered from amnesia, anxiety, fainting, spasms or pain. Some psychiatrists theorized the cause of these ailments lay in sexual repression. 

In the 1900s hysteria was used as a label for medical conditions as varied as movement oddites, spasms, vomiting, even deafness.  The label of ‘hysteria’ was only removed from official medical disease lists in 1968.

6. terms about raising a child

Terms about parenting roles have also changed. Earlier terms linked having children to creating ‘family’  and had a positive connotation

started a family, family ties, one big happy family, our little family, family time, it runs in the family

However over time the act of parenting was given negative associations suggesting laziness, burden or pathology if done intently.

stuck home with the kids

left holding the baby

helicopter parent

The terms for father in early times had positive associations. Some of this connotation remains

sire, procreator, progenitor

pops, daddy, dada, poppa, dad,

family man

Children were given the last name of the father and it was deemed scandalous for many years for the situation to be otherwise.  Many expressions assumed the male parent was the one that mattered.

gathered to one’s fathers, faith of our fathers,

founding father, like father like son, chip off the old block

the child is father of the man

Only a few terms used fatherhood in a negative sense

A ‘dad joke’ was not a genuinely funny joke.  A deadbeat dad was one who did not pay child support.

The terms for mother in the language also were often positive in early times

mother nature, mother earth, mother tongue, mother country

Mothers were sometimes labelled for attractiveness, which was treated as if their key attribute.

hot mama, yummy mummy,

The  term mother and its associates of mom mama, also got associated heavily with negatives however.

mom jeans (unattractive, allowed for larger body)

mom bangs( unskilled haircut given to child)

mama’s boy

mother ( the thick substance on a liquid, scum or dregs)

my old lady was a confusing expression that had more negative connotations that did the parallel  ‘my old man’

Terms for mother often showed endearment

mama, mom, mummy, momsy,

However a growing number of terms pathologized motherhood that was attentive in a certain style

stage mom, hockey mom, soccer mom, tiger mother

nanny -the term for a female adult who tends children has origins in

            a Greek word  nana for aunt, a Russian word Nyanya for grandmother

            and a Welsh word nain for grandmother.  It was used to label the female

            goat as distinguished from the male billy goat and got associated

            not only with care of young children but also with over protective and

            over intrusive government policy- nanny state.

A grandparent who was male however got associated with wisdom In law a provision where an old rule continues to apply even though a new rule will apply from now on is called, with respect, a ‘grandfather’ clause. There is no grandmother clause.

7. terms for children.

The label of the youngest members of a community also shifted.

Earlier terms for infants suggest helplessness and need for protection

babe, nursling, infant

Later terms created a subtle shift

baby, little one, toddler, kid

The label for children in earlier times suggested their perceived role or usefulness in society

heir, descendant

minor, tender years, formative years, tender age

small fry, kid, youngun

youngster, youth, juvenile

Young males were given often admiring labels  about potential for greatness

lad, stripling,  little man

Young females were given labels such as:

maiden, lass, miss, little girl, little lady

A “golden boy’ was an indulged or gifted male child while a ‘golden girl’ was a pejorative usually for an older woman.

Terms about children that suggested their lack of experience and how easy it was to amuse them included

child’s play, kids’ stuff, like taking candy from a baby

However such terms may have also created an impression that taking care of a child was also easy and not dealing with development of the mind

Terms about positive aspects of children included

whiz kid, poster child

Terms that were not admiring of children also abounded

punk kid, snot nosed kid,  just a kid,

The status of a parent at home tending a child shifted.

In earlier times expressions were given such as

taking care of the kids, home with the kids, taking care of the house

raising a family

However later the situation got depicted differently

has quit working, stays home, is taking time off, is on leave

just a housewife

stay at home mom, stay at home dad

8.. terms about  the status of children based on marital status of parents

In earlier times the labels for children born to parents not married to each other was judgmental. harsh and negative. They were  usually deprived of legal rights, including full name and identity, rights to be introduced into polite society, to get references for some club membership or roles in politics or business and the right to be buried in a church yard.

illegimate, b*stard, out of wedlock

usurper, pretender, unintended,

The language changed however when the attitude changed and the marital status of parents was deemed not legally relevant in many official legal processes. The status in this situation has improved, though some vestiges of social bias may remain.

9.. terms based on income of parents

Social class has often been the key to labelling of the parent or the child. Many of these terms have negative connotations.

welfare mom, trailer park kid, ghetto kid, kid from the projects

These labels that prejudge character based on income could be seen to create their own problem because a person deemed of lower status may be thought to be worth less financial recognition, perpetuating bias.

One oddity of the language is the use of the term ‘poor’ When applied to parents it often carries a double meaning where a parent in poverty, dubbed a ‘poor parent’ is also then assumed to be poor at parenting.

10. terms about the.number of children

In earlier times when women were valued mostly for their ability to bear young to create heirs and future workers for the tribe, infertility was stigmatized.  Terms of insult included

barren, infertile – terms linked to meanings of desolate, sterile, useless

However the status of not having children shifted with new labels



Similarly the label for those who had many children was historically often praising

prolific, fecund, fruitful, procreative,

teeming, multiplied, mother of many, matriarch

However over time, as women had fewer children whether from desire to have fewer or lack of ability to afford more, those who did have a lot of children are sometimes labelled in negative ways

dumb cow, brood mare

just kept having babies

11  terms about aging

The status of older man also shifted in the language though there have always been terms of praise and terms of criticism

The terms for aging often have assumed it is men who age with dignity


Most leaders in politics were men and the names for them were linked to men.

senator (no senatress), legislator ( no legislatress),

Terms for aging men often showed humor and respect for their quirks

grandpa, granddad, gramps

old man, geezer, pop, papa, old boy, codger, old timer

The terms for women as they aged also could show respect, but often did not.

Here were some terms of respect


grandmother, grandma, granny,

Terms with negative connotations were numerous

shrew, old girl, old dear

she’s no chicken

old hag – (linked to term haggard meaning weak, exhausted)

The association of elderly women and negative connotation

is a key feature of the cosmetic industry and of job hiring for TV anchors or movie actresses, where signs of aging are much less a criterion for men than for women.

A particularly interesting expression that reveals continued

bias is the labelling of an idea as ‘old wives’ tale’. This expression

assumes such a tale is vastly inaccurate.

The financial status of the elderly is reflected in some expressions with a gender bias implied. A ‘wealthy banker’ is assumed to be male.

The language has a word for a woman whose spouse has died ‘ widow’ but rarely uses the male counterpart for a man whose spouse has died’ ‘widower’. This fact may reflect the strong link history has made between female financial dependency and no recognition on their own for the care role of women. The assumption widows are in poverty, and the expression’ widow’s mite’ may also reflect a societal acceptance of the norm of a high incidence of senior women in poverty.


In the care sector there has been some reclaiming of terms, rather than just asking society to drop ones of previous stigma. Often language follows and does not lead human behavior however. The new interest in the dignity and value of the care role is not always matched with official status for it or financial recognition of it- therefore not yet given equality

Some shifts have been to remove other terms and add new ones, free of gender bias

removing gender assumptions from paid roles

            police officer, letter carrier, firefighter,

            chief executive officer

            president, manager,

Other shifts have been to reclaim a term that showed bias and own it and remove the stigma.

1. reclaimed terms -. status of women and girls

            yes I run like a girl. See if you can keep up

            I am woman, strong invincible

            new interest in curvy bodies, large butts and owning sexiness

            new interest in frilly clothes and embracing looking ‘ feminine’

            the sisterhood, sista


            domestic partnership, conjugal relationship, gay marriage

            domestic engineer, home  engineer


            Earlier terms of stigma  included

            marriage failed, from a broken home

            However new expressions suggest more positive outcomes

            split, went their separate ways, separated, conscious decoupling

            The terms associated with domestic life seem to have

            lost then regained respect.  A ‘home made’ dress was stigmatized

            in the 1980s but a home-cooked meal now has special positive

            associations of careful loving preparation and good food.

2. reclaimed terms   status of pregnant and nursing mothers

            There has been new interest in the joy of pregnancy

            but mainly when watching celebrity women and the


            baby bump, we are expecting

5. reclaimed terms -Some terms have created more positive status for some

            parenting situations  and removed an earlier stigma.

            birth mother, birth father

            baby daddy, baby mama,

6. reclaimed terms for aging

            senior citizens, seniors

Being aware of the biases of language is step one to correcting a historic discrimination. Changing the words or reclaiming them with pride does not itself correct injustice. However it is a part of the journey to do so.


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