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Review of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language by

Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language

by Amanda Montell

This book has been on my to-read list for ages. People keep recommending it to me (shout out to Meagan in particular). In true Kara fashion, I bought Wordslut and then allowed it to languish on my physical to-read shelf for … I don’t know, years? Meanwhile, I listened religiously (pun intended) to the Sounds Like a Cult podcast that Amanda Montell cohosted. The time has come, however, to talk about language from a feminist perspective! Let’s go.

Montell is a linguist, among other things, and curious about the origins of gendered language in English. Why does buddy have positive, not to mention gender-neutral, connotations, whereas sissy is a pejorative usually directed at men? They’re both colloquialisms for brother and sister, respectively (something I didn’t know, though which seems obvious, now that Montell explains it to me). Beyond words, though, Montell also explores linguistic phenomena such as vocal fry, uptalk, the word “like,” etc.—phenomena that are often feminine-coded and therefore derided by more “serious” speakers of language. Along the way, there are intersectional discussions of AAVE, appropriation therefrom, language connected to 2SLGBTQ+ communities, and more. For a relatively short book, Wordslut is packed with useful tidbits and ideas.

In the first few chapters, I was hesitant about what shape my review might take: most of what Montell was saying was stuff I already knew. I needn’t have worried, however, for as the book goes on there was plenty of material that was new to me—and that’s why I read nonfiction, ultimately. Chapters 3 and 4 are among my favourite; Chapter 7 was fascinating; Chapter 10 was, uh, enthralling; the final chapter, while short, offers a thoughtful and realistic meditation on what we might expect from language shifts in the future.

Chapter 3 covers “girl talk,” i.e., how women talk to each other when not in mixed company. Montell debunks some very outdated ideas about the differences in how genders use language. Then she discusses how women and men tend to use hedges differently (these are words like “just” or “you know”) as well as minimal linguistic responses (“mmhmm”). Although some of her points won’t be surprising to many of us—for example, women tend to be more collaborative in their speech, while men tend to take turns and the dominant person tends to talk the most—I loved how deep she dives into this topic and supports it with empirical research. For example, women tend to use hedges less to communicate insecurity than to soften their own sense of confidence in their topic.

As someone who has been in transition for four years now, I have been fascinated by the way my own speech has changed to reflect my new relationship with gender and relationality to other women. I’m not talking about my voice (which I am too lazy to do much about because voice coaching/therapy takes, you know, effort). Rather, I’ve definitely noticed that the way I speak, my diction and patterns, has shifted to emulate how the women in my social circles speak. I’m not consciously setting out to do it, but it’s happening kind of by osmosis. I’ll always have my own idiosyncratic features, like my cryptic, Teal’c-inspired “Indeed” that I throw in to many a conversation. But I definitely feel more empowered now that I have this wider, scientific understanding of girl talk!

Chapter 4 is one of several that pushes back against the policing of language. Montell establishes that linguistic innovation is in fact normative, and it’s often underrepresented or marginalized groups that engage in such innovation. She provides a host of examples from English and other languages around the world. Whether it’s uptalk or the use of the word “like” (which has more functions in speech than I realized!), whatever trend currently observed among teenage girls and criticized swiftly thereafter tends to spread to the rest of the population in a couple of decades. As with any moral panic, the current linguistic moral panics are not special, just the latest in a long line of excuses old white people look for to clutch pearls.

In this sense, Wordslut succeeds in its goal to get the reader thinking about language as a feminist or revolutionary concept. I like how Montell clearly put in the work to speak to researchers, journalists, and others who think and breathe language. I like how she challenges us to be more concrete in how we think about what we say and write.

The limitations of the book are equally clear: it is a pop linguistics book, not a deep treatise on these subjects, and it’s grounded firmly in white feminism despite attempts at intersectionality. If you’re looking for a more detailed examination of how, say, Black feminists in the 1970s like the Combahee River Collective changed the language, you won’t find that here. This book is designed to make its white women readers feel simultaneously erudite and salacious: ooh, I’m reading about all these slang words for my genitals! At no point, however, does the book truly push a white reader to feel at all uncomfortable or complicit in cultural appropriation or our role of judging racialized people if their accents, diction, or cultural references aren’t too our liking. The subtitle of this book purports to want a “taking back” of English, yet I’m not sure it was ever really taken from me at any point, and I want to own up to that.

All of this is to say: I really enjoyed Wordslut. It’s smart and sassy and easy to read. Montell’s voice is crisp, edifying yet also entertaining. I learned a lot, and I’ll join the legion of people already recommending this book. At the same time, I hope we are honest with ourselves when talking about books like this that trade on revolutionary language while falling short of much in the way of revolutionary action (though, credit where it is due, Montell has some harsh words for capitalism in here, and of course for misogyny!).

It’s like, you know, a totally great read about getting the patriarchy out of our language, y’all.


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