Monday, September 8, 2008

Witness the Sexism Inherent in the Language!

So I'm browsing through the e-version of the New York Times, and I decide to read, "Drawing a Bead on the Press," by David Carr, about how Sarah Palin has just totally taken the media by stork, er, storm (oops! Freudian slip!) and how everybody loves her and oh my God the Democrats are doomed and blah blah blah. He's going on about the media reception of Palin, saying that:

Her cultural resonance is familiar to anyone who’s ever read a fashion makeover article or clipped “Lose the Baby Fat in a Month!” But it is fundamentally different from what we’ve come to expect from women running for higher office. Senator Clinton is a politician who also happens to be a wife and mother. Ms. Palin is a wife and mother who also happens to be a politician. She is a parent of five who joyfully juggles it all, up to and including firing the chef and the driver, a kind of aspirational model that still seems attainable.

OK, I'm thinking, that's somewhat legitimate, if Carr is saying that most Americans can only be comfortable with a powerful woman (or a powerful anybody, for that matter) if they can place her or him within a pre-constructed character archetype, such as "parent of five who joyfully jiggles - I mean, juggles - (Jesus! What the Hell is wrong with me today?) it all," and that they are more ready to accept Palin because she, unlike Clinton, falls easily into that (imaginary) category. Although I would question the use of "joyfully" up there.

But then Carr goes and does something with his language that's just as questionable as what I've been doing here, if not more so: he uses the wrong word (by which I mean, inappropriate) without realizing and/or admitting it. While commenting on Palin's speech at the RNC, he says:

Even her styling for the speech spoke volumes. Avoiding the fashion traditions of both show business and politics, Ms. Palin looked great, but not glamorous — more like the put-together neighbor down the street who got gussied up for date night with her husband.

"Gussied up?" Is that what our neighbors do for their date nights with their husbands? And this is how Palin looked? Not, say, "professional," or "in charge," or "like someone prepared to be the President of the United States"? But then I got to thinking - maybe Carr knows what he's talking about, and I just don't know this particular usage of the phrase "gussied up" that means, y'know, "presidential."

So I hit the series of inter-connected tubes (ah, Sen. Stevens, we hardly knew ye... yet...) to try and find out exactly what "gussied up" means. Merriam Webster says that to "gussy up" is synonymous with to "dress up" and to "embellish." (Suggesting what, exactly? That womanly trait of being insincere and disguising the truth?) It also gives an origin date for the phrase of 1952, but not - interestingly - an etymology.

I went next to the Online Etymology Dictionary , which claims that the verb "to gussy," means "to dress up or decorate in a showy way." OK - a similar connotation of a decorative appearance. The OED (hmmm...) also gives the origin date for the phrase as 1952, but adds that it comes, "apparently from Gussy (1940), schoolyard slang name for an overly dressed person, perhaps related to gussie (1901) "effeminate man," and somehow connected to the nickname for Augusta and Augustus."

Now this last part made me pause. Because if getting "gussied up" actually means "dressing in a way reminiscent of Caesar Augustus," well, maybe it wouldn't be the smartest thing for a politician in a democracy to do, but at least it wouldn't be a derogatory thing to say of them. And maybe Carr is trying to say something subversively ingenious by claiming that Palin is a success because she looked "
more like the put-together neighbor down the street who [dresses as Ceasar Augustus] for date night with her husband." Damn right! Palin, like your neighbor down the street, is not afraid to give herself life-long power over the Senate or invade a Middle Eastern nation and depose of its ruler for her own personal benefit! (Isn't that the VP's job, anyways?) And whenever she goes out with that bum of a husband Todd, she is sure to put on her best laurel crown, just so that everyone who sees them knows who's in charge!
Fig. A: "All gussied up."

But probably not.

There are lots of different theories about where the term "gussied up" comes from. My speculation? That it is somehow associated with the 1936 movie, "The Gorgeous Hussy," starring Joan Crawford, James Taylor, and Jimmy Stewart. I couldn't find any reference to a Gussy (1940), but the use of the word and its place as a piece of slang suggests that it could be a combination of "gorgeous" and "hussy." This would also account for its entering the vernacular circa 1952.

The word "hussy", unlike to "gussy up," has a long and illustruous pedigree, stemming from the Middle English huswif, or "house wife," first being used to signify the mistress of a household in 1530, and, again according to the (not) OED, "
by 1650 was being applied to "a woman or girl who shows casual or improper behavior," and a general derogatory sense had overtaken the word by 19c. "It is common to use housewife in a good, and huswife or hussy in a bad sense." [Johnson]" The Etymology Dictionary goes on to list "queen," "minx," and "slut" as alternatives.

So, yes. It means you look like a whore.


Jim Virgin said...

Whether a Hussy or just Gussied Up, I am a feared that that the beer drinking gun totin crowd is going to vote for Carribeau Barbie.

Rick said...

My first impression of Palin equated to Professor Umbridge, from Harry Potter, Order of Phoenix. Lots of similarities there....