Who you calling a sissy?

It’s meant to be derogatory, isn’t it? Calling someone a sissy. Sad to think that it started out as ‘sis’ meaning sister.

As an insult it’s usually applied to males displaying signs of fear, cowardliness, timidity. The implication being that’s female behaviour. That the female’s role is to be weak.

Better, I suppose, to be called a ‘big girl’s blouse’, at least that has a bit of character and movement to it.

The expression ‘big girl’s blouse’ (since adopted by an Australian comedy show) originated in 1960s Britain, uttered by a comedy actress called Hylda Baker.

As a sometimes-blouse-wearing woman, I can’t help feeling that as an insult – as applied to males, again – it’s a bit, well, insulting to women.

It’s not just the girl word, it’s the big word. It’s saying, if there’s anything a male regards as being even more offensive than being the blouse of a girl it’s being the blouse of a big girl.


Then there are the rather more intimate insults.

Tw-t. C–t. And the one that set me off down this track: ‘fanny’.

It’s new to me as an insult, fanny, when used to describe a man.

It came to my attention the day after Boris the buffoon (non-gender specific as far as I am aware) Johnson was appointed to the British Government’s Cabinet as Foreign Secretary. (I still can’t really believe it).

I was scrolling through the usual mess of comments and insults on Twitter, vowing never to look at it again, knowing it would make me flail around in frustration and despair for the world, when …

… someone Tweeted a picture of some Glasgow graffiti. Which read:

“Boris Johnson is a pure fanny”

Among the thread of comments that followed, a couple of kind souls explained to Americans who thought they’d got the joke – they hadn’t.

Here in the United (still just about) Kingdom ‘fanny’ means (sorry about this, close your eyes if you’re sensitive to descriptions of private parts) vagina, not arse, ass or bottom.

Inwardly I felt cowed (I wonder about that one? Unfair to cows?). I knew what would happen next, but still I was disappointed. Sure enough, there among the comments were the usual forthright souls, confirming to their American peers that it’s much more offensive, for a male, to be called a vagina, rather than a mere bottom.

But I’m still confused. I mean, ‘pure’ fanny? Glasgow, is that a generic local insult? Or is it reserved for fannies?

So far so female. The insults.

And a digression into knobhead, dickhead, wankers and prick territory does tend to the conclusion that this is a peculiarly female problem.

We rarely damn females as dickheads, knobheads, wankers or pricks, after all. In fact I never do. In fact … well, never mind about the insults I do and don’t use. Let’s keep with the illusion that I’m a kind, considerate soul who speaks only in gentle words and fulsome praises.

And I’m not taking this much further, don’t worry.

But, I’m sorry, I have to come back around to that other word. The one that’s still regarded as pretty much unsayable in polite company.

The word beginning with a ‘c’. Still rarely used in everyday speech here in Britain, but when written in anger, often preceded by ‘total’.

And, men, let me ask you. Don’t some of you actually like this particular part of the female anatomy? Why, then, reserve it for your most ‘total’ abuse?

I’m leaving it at that. I’m no expert, this is as far as I can take it.

I have a young (female) friend who knows much more about this than I ever will. Who tells me I should read more about language and power. About language and identity.

To which I say, what the Foucault?


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This entry was posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Who you calling a sissy?

  1. mud4fun says:

    LOL, oh dear M, I don’t believe I’ve seen you swear so much in your posts before 🙂

    As much as I love Boris for his jovial boyish character I have grave concerns for the FO. Then again I don’t have much faith in our new PM either so Boris is the least of our worries!

    BTW, fanny as a derogatory term was in use at my boys only grammar school way back in the 1970’s.

    Just to correct you slightly, my understanding was that it often referred to the area around the vagina, as bottom would refer to the whole area around the anus.

    I’m not sure why it became derogatory though.

    One possible thought is a distortion of it’s original use to describe somebody who was unclean/smelly? I do remember boys, who came into lessons covered in mud and sweat after lunchtime play, being called dirty fannies by a teacher. Sorry if that just adds to your anger at the derogatory use of female based words. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha trust you!! I was going to say ‘female genitalia’ then I read that it was meant to be the v word (going back to coy now). Dirty fannies? My, my, what a teacher! I’m a bit shocked that I’ve started something that has us defining our terms around bottoms and … well, never mind! You mad me laugh! Great to have you comment, I. 😉


      • mud4fun says:

        I’ve just read through the other comments. Sadly I am guilty of using the F word almost as much as ‘the’ 😦

        For most of my formulative years I worked on the shop floors of large heavy engineering firms. Swear words were common and when anything went wrong (which happened alot) it was customary to blaspheme.

        Oddly though, despite using the F word almost routinely and without thought, it was still frowned upon to use the C word even by the roughest and most gorilla like hairy a*rsed welders and machine operators. It seemed there was a line that you should not cross in your choice of blasphemous words!

        This has continued to today. When working on my Land Rover and struggling to free up some stubborn bolt, long since seized into place, it will often result in lots of swearing but I rarely if ever use the C word and will consider anybody that uses it as particularly vulgar even if it follows me spending 5 minutes spurting a torrent of F’ing (eg. When it took 5 hours to get one suspension bush into a chassis)

        Ah, the ‘dirty fannies’ was mild compared to some of the things our teachers called us. The kids of today have it easy! 😉

        I actually think it toughened us up. Certainly the majority of my peers, like me, have had very successful careers, worked all around the world and have an easy ability to put in stupid hours in our jobs while still enjoying life and appreciating what we have. 🙂

        Oh F**k, another long comment 😉 😉 😉 😉


        • Ahem. I grew up in a very restrained world where ‘bug–r’ was about as bad as it got. My mother memorably asked my friend Maureen what the ‘f’ word actually was and Maureen, without hesitating, said, ‘Fly off, Mrs E, isn’t that awful?’ My mum said something like, ‘Oooh!’. But I still had a successful career (till I foolishly abandoned it to do my own thing) and worked in many far flung places putting in stupid hours and enjoying life – though I was probably more stressed than you by my collegaues’ behaviour at times! 😉 Just saying, tough isn’t a pre-requisite …
          Love your long comments btw! 🙂


          • mud4fun says:

            Haha, yes true, you can indeed be successful without the swear words. 🙂

            I still think the toughening up did serve a purpose. Compared to younger generations that I’ve had to work with, my generation seemed to be more adept at dealing with the ups and downs in life and jobs. Not sure if it was schooling, parenting or something else but I’m convinced it is not a figment of my imagination. So many young people I deal with have little if any ambition for life, seem stressed at the slightest thing that goes wrong and prefer to break up rather than face and deal with issues in their relationships.

            I honestly believe political correctness is partly to blame. Our local primary school no longer rewards winners of races at sports day. It gives every entrant a ‘taking part’ medal. This is to avoid upsetting all those that fail to win a race. How is this giving our young people the training they need to go out into the big bad world?

            Maybe it was down to being an all male school that teachers used female references when suggesting weakness. We played rugby through winter and ‘cissy’ and even ‘girl’ were all very commonly used by the teachers and coaches.

            ‘Big girls blouse’ was most frequently used by my Father to describe me if I showed any signs of weakness (or emotion) such as being nervous about going into a new school, being upset when watching Watership Down or crying after breaking an arm.

            My sister never had any of this, I guess because it was seen as normal for a girl. This is quite ironical considering that in our house I will be the one in floods of tears at a sad film whereas the four females in the house rarely cry at a sad film and often make fun of me for showing emotion!!!


            • mud4fun says:

              In fact, how often do you see a film or TV program showing a man crying at a sad film? It is common to show women crying into a box of tissues at some classic film but the only men I see shown crying at such films are gay men. This is so far from the truth as many men I know of my age will have tears watching a good sad film and they are all straight men. Now I think about this I’m actually quite offended myself! 😦


            • I am a bit shocked by how much parents these days do with and for their children – running them around, filling their lives with activities – I loved nothing better than to be left to my own devices. But I’m not sure the ‘softness’ is universal, I have encountered some very, very tough young people around these parts and when on digs with students … I agree with you for different reasons though about the ‘everyone gets a medal’ thing – life is not fair, as my father used to say regularly in response to my wailing ‘it’s not fair’ – and like it or not we have to cope with that. I know men who cry at films too – and so do I! And Channel 4 News quite often these days too. Sigh. 😦


  2. John Kemp says:

    I am constantly offended by the casual use of sex-related words as insults. The f-word, not so many years ago unheard in public has become common usage – even in print. It’s a generalised lowering of standards that already existed but is exacerbated by the addiction to what are known as social media by people who – I can’t think of an appropriate expression – totally lack any sense of decency or restraint. I have difficulty believing that there are so many popularly vociferous but completely vulgar people in our society.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know John, it seems that people don’t care at all about what words mean and, as my father was always at pains to tell me if I accidentally used a swear word (other than bloody or others of that ilk) in his presence, the proliferation of usage is a marker of poverty of language. (He also always castigated me for saying, ‘you know’ too often – the current equivalent is ‘like’).
      In Liverpool (probably not uniquely) the use of the f-word seems as common as the use of ‘the’ in some people’s everyday speech, or so it feels. I’m sorry I actually used any of the words in this post but I was feeling so angry about it… Judging by the reading figures this isn’t proving to be my most popular post but I hope it makes one or two people feel better in that someone else (ie, me) feels the way they do about the issue!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Judy Barnes says:

    Well,yeah Mary.i kind of like,you know,agree! I hate the f word and that it is now commonplace. Thank you for clarifying the fanny issue too!!Most illuminating.


    • Ha ha. RFLOL 🙂 😉 etc etc etc
      It all becomes a bit, I dunno, kinda like, boring, yeah?
      I apparently overclarified the fanny issue according to mud4fun! But hey, who’s judging? Thanks for stopping by and for commenting – I was getting a bit worried that the only 2 comments were from men!


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  5. It’s always interesting to understand what words mean what in regions/countries. Such differences. (Perhaps ignorance is bliss at time to not realize you are being insulted HA HA)
    “Fanny” was a popular name in the past – guess it went out of favor for a reason.
    At this point, I refuse to give anyone the power over me by snarling words directed at me. Their problem not mine.
    But do agree that society has become so vulgar and hateful – “polite company” and trying to get along is almost a myth replaced by rudeness, base comments, and relishing a thug-like image. Sadly, that affects all and is everyone’s problem


    • I think we live in such a big world that our old human frames of reference are struggling to keep up. The man around the house tells me hunter-gatherer societies keep each other in check by sheer peer pressure. Now we have massive cities, hid behind fences and gates, have anonymous electronic surveillance instead of visible people around a small communal area. Not saying I want that life for myself, but it is true that the more you shut yourself away the more frightening everyone else becomes and fear is a great incentive to hate. Oops, ranting again. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. charliebritten says:

    I follow and agree with most of this. Like you I find the c*** word particularly offensive. Never really worked out the ‘big girl’s blouse’ insult though. What underpins everything you’ve written, Mary, is that men regard being likened to a woman as an insult, and that still makes me a very angry. It’s time they got over it as we now have our second female PM.

    Last spring I tried to give up swearing for Lent, and failed miserably, as it seems that, having worked so long with teenagers, expletives were ingrained within me.

    Interested in your father telling you off for saying ‘you know’ too often. I found that the kids I was teaching used the f-word for ‘very’.


    • Precisely, Charlie. As long as it continues to be derogatory to call a man a big girl’s blouse (I choose that one to avoid the other asterisked ones) and as long as people accept worse unthinkingly, we have a problem, Houston. Add to that the furore over (for example but not exclusively) discriminatory language and behaviour towards transgender people as compared to the lack of furore over 85,000 or so rapes of women a year in England and Wales and we have not just a serious problem but a crisis of perception. Sorry, rant over!
      I’m surprised, having read your blogs for a while now, that you had trouble giving up swearing! (Sorry I haven’t been commenting by the way I’ve been immersed in a well of misery and despair about the world … that and thinking too much). It’s interesting and somewhat disturbing that the f word has so easily become a sentence spacer. Other pet hates include ‘no worries’ or ‘nice one for that’ instead of thank you and a total inability to frame the word ‘sorry’. There, I’ve achieved it, grumpy old woman status!


  7. Chez Shea says:

    Excellent post. Really enjoyed this.


  8. Steph says:

    Well. That struck several chords. To bemoan the fact that social media – media in general, in fact – and the rule of the visual over any other kind of communication (witness the proliferation of emoticons 😦 ) have been partly responsible for the debasement of language seems superfluous, particularly as, linguist that I am, I have always championed the altering of ‘live’ language to adapt to different kinds of communication and should, in theory, therefore be accepting of changes. It does seem however that the more we communicate the less varied and interesting our self-expression becomes. And that meaning rapidly ‘slides’, with words losing their richness and haemorrhaging away their original meanings – after all, Chaucer used all these words to signify exactly what he meant and I suspect they offended nobody. How ironic that ‘nice’ is such a vanilla term now, when it indicated ‘precise’ in days gone by.

    On to my point (maybe brevity isn’t such a bad thing!). You refer to language relating to male genitalia as a genre of male insult. And it is true that those words are rarely used of women, in the same way that men are rarely designated ‘b****’ (though of course half the problem with ‘c***’ is that it can be used for everyone!). But do you notice the register? Those male insults are so often jocular, affectionate, brotherly. They *sound* funny. They are dismissive, with nothing like the invariable impact of the truly vicious female words. I really do resent this, but I guess it is a legacy of a long-established male-dominated social ethos.

    It’s a funny thing, but the c-word is a lot more current in my homeland of Essex – and sounds far more unpleasant in the harsher local accent! At one of our rare family get-togethers my nephew used the word to his mother (not as an insult – more as punctuation!) and drew a pleasingly critical reaction from my usually non-confrontational Son no.1. If I said that to my mother, he proclaimed, she would hit me in the face. And he is right. I would.


    • Ha ha Steph I love Dave’s reaction to his cousin’s use of THAT word.
      I’m glad you highlighted the tone issue, because that’s what makes me hate the use of the c word so much – it is, as you rightly say, often bordering on vicious. And yes, the dickheads and so on are largely mildly amusing, dismissive rather than hateful. It annoys me, too, that when plainly misogynistic use of such words is criticised the reaction is often equally aggressive – faint-hearted feminists and political correctness gone mad and so on. Grrr, the male-dominated social ethos indeed! And yet they fail – or refuse – to see why it matters.
      Good to hear from you again – guess you have broken up now?


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