By Eva van der Pol –
Ever since I can remember, I have loved language. To me, it is so interesting to see where words come from, how they are socially constructed, and what they relate to. But perhaps most importantly, how they can amplify and perpetuate. Something as subtle as a single word can have immense consequences if it sneaks into society, unnoticed.
It is Sunday morning and I am hunched over my weekly Swedish puzzle; the best activity to clear one’s head. I chew on my pen when the puzzle asks me: ‘verwend meisje’ (spoiled girl), five letters. I ponder and fill in: k-r-e-n-g, which is Dutch for brat. It fits. Moments later I am asked: ‘bazige vrouw’ (bossy woman), five letters. Without thinking, I write down: k-e-n-a-u. I put down my pen and ponder the term ‘kenau’. I cannot think of an English translation for this word. My mother lives near the Kenaupark in Haarlem, constructed in honor of the heroic deeds of Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer. Kenau was a celebrated woman and made history with her resistance in defending Haarlem during the Eighty Years’ War. Originally, the term kenau was used appreciatively to denote bold and independent women. However, over time kenau has become synonymous with ‘bossy, unfriendly woman’. Or, even less subtle, a bossy ‘manwijf’. I am unsure whether there even is an English synonym for this word. Directly, the word would translate into ‘tomboy’ but the word manwijf is filled with much more hatred and detestation – at least, in my ears. Seeing the words ‘kreng’ and ‘kenau’ in the same puzzle gets me thinking. I leaf through the book and one after one, the words would pop up like stars in the night sky. ‘Bits meisje’ (snappy girl), four letters. S-n-i-b. ‘Verwaande vrouw’ (conceided woman), eight letters. K-a-k-m-a-d-a-m. And finally, ‘lastige vrouw’ (difficult woman). Four letters. D-i-v-a. Like the word kenau, “diva” was originally a compliment. Derived from the Italian for female deity, the term originated in the early 19th century. Leading sopranos were worshipped to the point that they were considered goddesses by the public. Similarly, the word “primadonna” fell off its pedestal when the initial meaning “first soprano of an opera company” was replaced by “bossy, spoiled and obnoxious woman. I close my puzzle book and wonder. When did words like kenau, diva and primadonna go from praising women, to disdaining them?
I, a self-proclaimed feminist, too have been mindlessly filling out these puzzles for years. In doing so, I unwittingly participate in confirming and reinforcing these stereotypes and generalizations. I can hear you think: “It’s just a Swedish puzzle”. But unfortunately, these words do not stay within the margins of my puzzle book. And, although ‘sexism in mind sports’ is not exactly a sexy topic, it is precisely these kinds of banal acts that we as a society are allowed to scrutinize. Because something as seemingly small as a word can have major consequences. Here I quickly think of the term ‘banga’, which made its appearance in 2012 when I was in the first grade of high school. Meaning, ‘a girl who is easy to get into bed with, willing to send nude photos or perform sexual acts for money; slut; whore’. Paired with the increasing digitalization and little knowledge of its consequences, a dangerous amalgam arose for young girls. It wasn’t long before ‘bangalijsten’ were circulating in high schools, ranking the school’s biggest ‘sluts’. We were not unfamiliar with such terms, but the banga came with an innovative element. Namely, ranking; something that left a mark on slutshaming as we know it today. It seems that ‘the slut’ is rebranded on a regular basis to maintain its relevance in a rapidly changing world. Where my generation worked with the banga, Gen Z may be more familiar with the term ‘kech’, adopted from Moroccan Arabic and introduced in 2017. In short, words come and go but ‘the slut’ as an institution will live on, as will many other stereotypes.
While finger-pointing is a human tendency, I see no single cause for such etymological developments. Language is deeply rooted in our society, culture and history. Over time, words evolve, lose their meaning or acquire a new one. However, by making or not making certain (word) choices, a word gains or loses power. Here, then, lies our agency. Because why do we want to have balls, but certainly not be pussy? Why do we want to man up, but especially not throw like a girl? All we can do is become a little more conscious in choosing our words. Or in my case, not doing Swedish puzzles on autopilot.
Eva van der Pol obtained her Master’s degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 2023.