The power of language

Language has a significant impact upon how we view sex and gender. There were certain phrases I never really questioned when I was younger, but I used them because everyone else did. It was considered the norm.

One phrase I used to say a lot, but now despise, is ‘man-up’. At primary and secondary school, more-so primary, I sometimes considered myself ‘tomboyish’. I used to enjoy arm wrestling against boys and when I beat them, I would say man-up. When I saw girls complain because of their hair getting wet in the rain or they broke a nail, I would say man-up.

On reflection, I believed I said man-up because of the negative connotations associated with being a woman, and somehow being a man or behaving like one meant that you were privileged. I had enough with being bullied for being ‘fat’, having what was (is) considered as excessive body hair and for being a ‘geek’ (i.e. working hard). I didn’t want to be seen as weak.

I love these posters!

Recently I have been very selective with how I say certain phrases and words as a way to show other people that I recognise sex and gender equality, which needs to be achieved through our use of language. In the English language, there are many examples of phrases which imply dominance to men. Here are some examples:

Green man

When approaching a pedestrian crossing, I often hear parents telling their children, ‘Wait for the green man’. These children, like I once did, will see the pedestrian lights as a ‘red man’ and a ‘green man’ and unconsciously refer to it that way in the future. But why is it a man? Why are the crossing lights referred to as men?

Simply put, the traffic light figures are representative of a male body. The red light in particular bears a resemblance to a man, like the figures you see on toilet doors to distinguish between male and female. People are accustomed to these figures, and a female is signified by wearing a dress or skirt.

The classic woman and man

I now refer to the pedestrian traffic lights as a ‘red person‘ and a ‘green person‘. Using the word person implies that it can be anyone of any sex or gender. Why does the ‘green person’ need to still be referred to as the ‘green man’ in the UK? It’s interesting to note in the photo below that there is no reference to ‘man’ anywhere in consideration of the traffic lights. The figure has been interpreted as a man.



I’ve never heard anyone say a ‘snow-person’ or a ‘snow-woman’ before; it’s always ‘snowman’. I’ve seen plenty of photos on the internet of people having made a ‘snow-family’, where the ‘snow-mother’ of the family has breasts to distinguish between the ‘snow-father’ and their little ‘snow-children’. However, when someone suggests to play out in the snow, they are very likely to say ‘Do you want to build a snowman? ‘ (Frozen cue).

Or you can use clothes to distinguish between a snowman and a snow-woman…

This case is similar to the ‘green man’, in that most people seem to naturally say ‘snowman’. Again why can’t it be ‘snow-person’? Is it too much effort to say the extra syllables, or are they considered as a deficit, just like with the word ‘woman’?

Man up

Let’s return to my most detested phrase, ‘man-up’. To man-up is to give dominance to men (the patriarchy) and suggests that taking a situation like a ‘man’ is positive, the ideal, the norm. I haven’t yet watched the film Man-Up that was released last year with Simon Pegg and Lake Bell, but I’m deterred by it because of the title. I watched a trailer for the film and I remember a scene where Pegg appears to be arguing with Bell, and says ‘You’ve got to man-up’ in order to toughen up and deal with her problems. Since when have men been good with dealing with problems? (Side note: I fell in love with a lecturer yesterday at work when he said ‘Men cause wars, not women’).

After deciding to stop using the phrase man-up, I had considered ‘woman-up’. I absolutely loved it in the Pixar film Big Hero 6 when a female character called GoGo Tomago says ‘Stop whining, and woman-up’. I also liked it when I went to a restaurant once where there was an option to have a ‘woman-up’ ice cream sundae, as well as a ‘man-up option’.

While it is good that women are being recognised as stronger and empowering, the use of the phrase ‘woman-up’ implies the dominance of the female sex and gender, just as it works with the male equivalent of the phrase. While this may seem a good thing for women since we have been under male rule for such a long time in most societies, feminism sets out to achieve sex and gender equality.

Using either ‘man-up’ or ‘woman-up’ has negative connotations and attempts to downplay its opposite sex/gender. If we want to strive for equality between men and women, then these phrases need to stop being used. While my suggestions of ‘green person’ and ‘snow person’ may appear trivial to some people, it would help in eradicating sex and gender inequality, since neither gives dominance to either men or women.


Happy reading and blogging!

Many thanks,

Clare Bear


2 thoughts on “The power of language

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