LINGUIST List 3.740

Fri 02 Oct 1992

Disc: Non-Sexist language

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  1. "Ellen F. Prince", Re: 3.734 Non-sexist Language
  2. Johanna Rubba, dog

Message 1: Re: 3.734 Non-sexist Language

Date: Wed, 30 Sep 92 12:24:25 -0Re: 3.734 Non-sexist Language
From: "Ellen F. Prince" <>
Subject: Re: 3.734 Non-sexist Language

>Subject: 3.724 *dog* as non-sexist language
> The ad in question read
> If your date is a dog, get a vet.
> Am I missing something? One seeks for many qualities in a date. Physical
>attractiveness is frequently one of them. But only one of them. One important
>trait that I seek in
>a date is quality of character. Many other people would agree. When they read
>the billboard, they might be more likely to conclude that the *dog*, i.e.,
>person of low character, was a male. Right?...

wrong, as i see it. sure, _dog_ can refer to a male low-life, but i know of
NO stereotype that says females will attract males of high moral character
if they have a fancy sportscar. in contrast, there is a very well-entrenched
stereotype that males will attract good-looking females if they have a fancy
sportscar. thus which sense of this polysemous item is selected is not random--
context counts.
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Message 2: dog

Date: Fri, 2 Oct 92 12:07:28 PDTdog
From: Johanna Rubba <rubbabend.UCSD.EDU>
Subject: dog

In response to JA Given's comment on the 'dog' car ad:

As I recall, the 'research' done by the person who originally
saw the billboard was qualified as informal, and I for one feel
reasonably sure that it was carried out in a way to screen out
experimenter bias. _Of course_ formal sociolinguistic experimental methods
are designed to screen out such bias.

And yes, if the majority of the respondents had identified the
'dog' as male, it would be a sexist ad. Sexism is not only directed
towards women. Even those of us with a committed feminist agenda
recognize that men suffer from gender stereotyping and gender bias
as well as women. And we object to such sexism!

Finally, I have no doubt that some people might interpret 'dog' as
a male in this ad, including younger people, who seem to be able
to use the term for either sex. But, let's be realistic. Automobile
advertising (especially for sporty cars like the 'vette) is still
largely directed towards men (not too long ago I read a
piece in the LA Times about how car manufacturers are searching for ways
to market cars to women, and seem pretty low on ideas on how to do it).
There is also a long tradition of using women to sell cars to men
(bombshells in bikinis draped across car hoods, etc.). Cars are also an
important status symbol used by men to attract women, and ads incorporate this.
Given this cultural context, and the common (and for some speakers most typical)
metaphorical reading of 'unattractive woman' for 'dog', it seems obvious to
me that a good working hypothesis is that that is the reading that the
advertiser intended, and that it is a sexist ad. The interpretation I would
draw from seeing this billboard is that you can only date unattractive women
unless you have a fancy car to impress women with. Therefore if you are stuck
dating 'dogs' one way to remedy the situation is to buy a Corvette, and
soon find yourself surrounded by swarms of beauties.

A working hypothesis is often the basis of linguistic,
psycholinguistic, and sociolinguistic experiments. The well trained
researcher, whatever her political agenda, will conduct the experiment
in an unbiased manner, and accept whatever results the data give,
whether they agree with her agenda or not.

But let's suppose the advertiser is savvy on the meaning of slang for
more than one generation, and intended to influence women into buying
a Corvette for the same reasons as men, i.e. on the reading of 'dog'
as an unattractive male. The ad is still pretty objectionable, to my
mind, perpetuating the unrealistic ideals of physical attractiveness
and overall perfection that are constantly foisted by the advertising
media on the public, and which contribute to the low self-esteem of
millions of normal-looking girls and boys in our society.

Given's proposal bends over backwards to let the advertiser off
the hook of the accusation of sexism against women, or the accusation
of exploitation of unrealistic social ideals. In view of the cultural
context outlined above, I find it pretty implausible.

Jo Rubba
UC San Diego
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