David Cameron's Semantic Chauvinism

Britain's prime minister David Cameron has recently used the word butch in a sarcastic fashion to describe a Labour party leader as not good at his job, i.e., not masculine enough. What can we learn from this?

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In our ongoing coverage of the world's worst words we've focused more on the annoying or unpleasant-sounding examples and linguistically less-than-ideal habits we find ourselves demonstrating all too frequently. We've spent less time on the "offensive," an adjective generally used to imply curse words considered "bad" by certain people and the New York Times. But such discussion comes up today because Britain's prime minister David Cameron has recently used the word butch.

Butch is an honest-to-goodness word in the dictionary (so are most curse words, in fact, though we don't categorize butch as such). It means, per Merriam-Webster, "notably or deliberately masculine in appearance or manner," or, in a second definition, "closely cropped," as in, with regard to hair. You could see how one might be tentative about throwing such a word around given political correctness and sensitivities to gender normalizing and equal rights and whatnot. Cameron did it. And people are angry.

As Amelia Gentleman writes in the New York Times in a piece titled "Calm Down, Dear; You're Being Butch,"

The word “butch” has recently entered the political vocabulary here, after the prime minister accused Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, of being insufficiently macho, noting that he brings his junior colleague, the shadow chancellor, coffee every morning.

“That is how assertive and butch the leader of the opposition really is,” the prime minister told Mr. Miliband, in withering tones.

While some laughed at how out of touch the word seemed—"at least in British slang ... a dusty, forgotten word from the 1980s, mainly indicative of rather dated cultural reference points," writes Gentleman—others, especially female lawmakers, were less amused. The problem is that the word is based in expectations of traditional male and female roles, even stereotypes; butch and femme, manly and womanly. It's not that those words are always bad, but their use certainly can be offensive, particularly when revelatory of some old-world sexism. Just like it would be offensive to call a man a pansy or even feminized (as a negative descriptor), comparing him negatively to that which he is not "supposed" to be like, it's also offensive to call him butch as a way to say that he's being womanly. And in being womanly, therefore, to add insult to injury, he's not a good political leader. Ironically, if a female leader were called butch (or in other instances, a bitch), to denote that she is being a good political leader, it's an insult as well. Keep in mind this conflict has arisen over the act of bringing a junior associate  coffee. How nice, and not in a womanly or manly way. Cameron should be so lucky! Perhaps he prefers tea?

Butchgate, as we'd dub it in the U.S., has only added fuel to a firestorm over his alleged chauvinism, as the prime minister had uttered another such mistake a year and a half ago when he told a senior female Labour member to "calm down, dear." (The ensuing laughter from the gallery at the comment, which you can see here, is nearly equally galling.) His comments were condemned by the Labour party as sexist. Overall, Britain is having kind of a parallel situation to the U.S.'s so-called War on Women, with the Conservative Party having trouble retaining female voters, fewer women in the cabinet following a reshuffle (even as Cameron had promised to make sure women comprised a third of the cabinet by 2015), and then this, via the Times:

A poll showing declining support for the government’s policies on women, published by The Evening Standard last week, revealed that the proportion of voters who consider the Conservatives the best party to look after women’s interests has dropped to 12 percent from 20 percent since 2010, and the analysis pointed to the “calm down, dear” comment as persistently damaging.

Britain has fewer women at the highest level of government than do most other European countries (France and Switzerland "by contrast, have cabinets that are more than 50 percent women (albeit often in junior roles)," an issue already problematic. This butch remark can hardly help, particularly when Labour (much the way the Democratic party has attached to certain offensive remarks from Republican politicians of late), is intent on using it as a signifier of what they see as the party's ill view of women. Somewhat hilariously, if not for the content:

In exchanges with the prime minister, Mr. Miliband has tried to insert the “b” word wherever possible (“Let me compliment the prime minister on such a butch answer,” and “That was very butch!”) and has taken to referring to Mr. Cameron as “Mr. Butch.”

P.C. policing of words is not something we advise as a life plan, but perhaps we'd all do well with a word of advice: If planning to call a woman dear, honey, or sweetie so as to put her in her place because you don't like what she's saying, you should probably avoid saying it. If planning to sarcastically call a man butch or another word that denotes that he's feminine and therefore, also, bad at his job,  don't do that, either. Some key questions to ask: Would I call a man this? Does the sentiment work for men and women, and in the way I intend it to? Does this make me sound like I am an out-of-touch old fogey? On the plus side, when men—and they're usually male politicians of a certain age and upbringing—do say things like this, women and other men are able to find out exactly where they stand in the view of the sayer. With men in politics, that's especially enlightening, because, most crucially, we can know not to vote for them. So, maybe there's some value in the chauvinistic gaffe after all. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.