• Jaime Pollard-Smith

Weighty Words


I am a writing teacher. Words are the tool of my trade. I help students learn how to transform their thoughts into coherent pieces of writing to reach their intended audience. It would only be natural that I am a keen observer of language. Much as a bird watcher can pick out a call or shade of feather, my eyes are drawn to typos or beautifully crafted prose. It should not come as a surprise that recently when my carpool partner mentioned the verbiage of the Girl Scout oath, I was ready and willing to embark on a language expedition.

I believe we are too loose with our words. We speak without thinking. I am not simply referring to fake news or the POTUS’s tweets. I am referencing everyday language that we use without thinking, oftentimes to the detriment of those around us. For example, a recent Always campaign highlighted the “like a girl” phrasing that belittles girls into believing they are inferior to their male counterparts.

Words and gender also took an active role in a political movement this year. According to Wikipedia, “‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ is an expression adopted by the feminist movement...it became popular in 2017 after the United States Senate voted to silence Senator Elizabeth Warren's objections to confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell uttered this sentence during comments following the vote in an effort to defend the Senate's actions and blame Senator Warren.” “Nevertheless, she persisted” is now ingrained in our mind and on the front of t-shirts worn around the globe.

Language matters and can reveal a great deal about our priorities and subconscious thoughts regarding gender, which is why the Girl Scout’s oath caught my attention. I am listing below the Boy Scout oath alongside the Girl Scout oath. I took this information directly from their official websites.

The first and most glaring problem is that the default “scout” is male. A female scout must be qualified and so labeled. Much like Eve was created from Adam’s rib bone in popular Biblical creation stories, a “scout” can be transformed into a female variety. I have always heard the term “boy scout,” but their website shows an abbreviated version.

Secondly, as my friend pointed out, boys vow to “do” while girls vow to “try.” Why should we care about these two tiny words? What is the big deal? I would argue that it is indicative of a pervasive attitude that “those who can, do,” implying all the rest will just try. “Do” assumes a task will be completed. There is confidence and assurance in the vow. “Try” implies an attempt will be made but success is not guaranteed. “Do” and “try” are two very different verbs. These words carry the weight of a cultural ideology.

Both oaths include helping other people at all times and abiding by the Scout or Girl Scout law. But then two paths diverge. Boys are to stay “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” Girls are, well, nothing else really. There is no mention of their physical, mental or moral selves. I could not help but wonder why they cut their oath so short. Should girls not be strong? Do they not want them to be mentally awake? I would imagine most parents and troop leaders certainly want their daughters to be “morally straight.” To me, the silence and imbalance is deafening.

This trend continues into adulthood. According to research conducted by Cambridge University Press, language used to describe women in sports significantly varies from the language used to describe men. “The word ‘men’ or ‘man’ is associated with verbs such as ‘beat’, ‘win’, 'dominate’ and ‘battle’, whereas ‘woman’ or ‘women’ is associated with verbs such as 'compete', 'participate' and 'strive'” (Bailiwick Express). In an era that boasts equality across the board, it seems odd that people would not use equal terms for equal activities. There is an underlying message delivered in the choice of words.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that gender is socially constructed. Language is only one of the many ways we interpret what it means to be a man or woman within our culture. We limit our children when we preempt their understanding of gender by using language laden with implications of differentiation or inequality. Replacing “mankind” with “humankind” is an easy, more inclusive choice of words. But we can do better. It should not be an act of radical feminism for the default pronoun of “he” to be traded for “one.” We can all take an oath to foster awareness and encourage thoughtfulness. Our culture can decide to nurture a “can do” attitude in both our male and female children. These small words carry a huge message. The language we use matters- scout’s honor.

#women #language #words #feminism