Tag Archives: language

‘Start a family’ started to mean ‘have children’ more recently than you think

Or more recently than I thought, anyway.

It looks like the phrase “start a family” started to mean “have children” (after marriage) sometime in the 1930s, and didn’t catch on till the 1940s or 1950s, which happens to be the most pro-natal period in U.S. history. Here’s the Google ngrams trend for the phrase as percentage of all three-word phrases in American English:


Searching the New York Times, I found the earliest uses applied to fish (1931) and plants (1936).

Twitter reader Daniel Parmer relayed a use from the Boston Globe on 8/9/1937, in which actress Merle Oberon said, “I hope to be married within the next two years and start a family. If not, I shall adopt a baby.”

Next appearance in the NYT was 11/22/1942, in a book review in which a man marries a woman and “brings her home to start a family.” After that it was 1948, in this 5/6/1948 description of those who would become baby boom families, describing a speech by Ewan Clague, the Commissioner of Labor Statistics, who is remembered for introducing statistics on women and families into Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. From NYT:


That NYT reference is interesting because it came shortly after the first use of “start a family” in the JSTOR database that unambiguously refers to having children, in a report published by Clague’s BLS:

Trends of Employment and Labor Turn-Over: Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 63, No. 2 (AUGUST 1946): …Of the 584,000 decline in the number of full-time Federal employees between June 1, 1945 and June 1, 1946, almost 75 percent has been in the women’s group. On June 1, 1946, there were only 60 percent as many women employed full time as on June 1, 1945. Men now constitute 70 percent of the total number of full-time workers, as compared with 61 percent a year previously. Although voluntary quits among women for personal reasons, such as to join a veteran husband or to start a family, have been numerous, information on the relative importance of these reasons as compared with involuntary lay-offs is not available…

It’s interesting that, although this appears to be a pro-natal shift, insisting on children before the definition of family is met, it also may have had a work-and-family implication of leaving the labor force. Maybe it reinforced the naturalness of women dropping out of paid work when they had children, something that was soon to emerge as a key battle ground in the gender revolution.

Note: Rose Malinowski Weingartner, a student in my graduate seminar last year, wrote a paper about this concept, which helped me think about this.

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When is the target a community?


“LGBT Community Meeting” / Flickr Creative Commons: https://flic.kr/p/iUDb4t

I credit Hillary Clinton for sticking up for the LGBT community. But I always get stuck on the way she puts it. The other day she said:

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow,” Mrs. Clinton asked the audience of black, white and Hispanic union members, “would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community?”

(It’s funny that the audience in that sentence has race, ethnicity, and union status, but not gender or sexuality. But anyway.) At the debate last week she said:

I think that a lot of what we have to overcome to break down the barriers that are holding people back, whether it’s poison in the water of the children of Flint, or whether it’s the poor miners who are being left out and left behind in coal country, or whether it is any other American today who feels somehow put down and oppressed by racism, by sexism, by discrimination against the LGBT community, against the kind of efforts that need to be made to root out all of these barriers, that is what I want to take on.

Two issues. First, she’s got no ism-word to use for this, because I guess she doesn’t want to use heterosexism, which I understand. But I don’t really like using “community” this way. Because I think discrimination against people for their sexual identity, gender identity, or sexual orientation is a problem even if they’re not part of that community, or any community, actually. Second, racism and sexism are more than discrimination on the basis of race or sex. So the problem is also that discrimination is too narrow. (The ACLU also has “a long history of defending the LGBT community,” but the discrimination is often against individuals.)

Of course, a marginalized group has a different sense of community than a dominant group. For example, in Google page hits, “LGBT people” outnumbers “LGBT community” about 5-to-1, and it’s the same for “Black people” versus “Black community.” But the ratio of “White people” to “White community” is almost 50-to-1. Maybe dominant-group members are safe enough on their own. Anyway, community is good.

If you’re being very narrow or legal, you could (not to make this a campaign issue) do like the FeelTheBern page on LGBTQ rights, which refers to “the abolishment of all discriminatory laws pertaining to sexuality.” Bernie also likes to say “people have a right to love who they want, regardless of their gender,” but that’s just narrow in a different way.

It’s not simple, and the statement is important anyway, but I’m not voting for Hillary’s usage here.

Note: If this kind of thing interests you, I’m still happy to talk about homogamy.


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Does doing difference deny dominance? (vocal fry, sports sex testing, and resting bitch face edition)

Does women’s behavior make them less equal?

“Guess what,” Camille Paglia said the other day in Salon. “Women are different than men!”

Usually when people point out gender differences, they don’t just mean men and women are different, they mean “women are different from men.” As an archetypal example, in “Do women really want equality?” Kay Hymowitz argued that women don’t want to model their professional lives on male standards, and therefore they don’t really want equality:

This hints at the problem with the equality-by-the-numbers approach: it presumes women want absolute parity in all things measurable, and that the average woman wants to work as many hours as the average man, that they want to be CEOs, heads of state, surgeons and Cabinet heads just as much as men do.

So the male professional standard is just there, and the question is what women will do if they want equality. Of course, what women (and men) want is a product of social interaction, so it’s not an abstract quality separate from social context. But also, I’m no statistician but I know that when there is a gap between two variable quantities (such as men’s and women’s average hours in paid work), moving one of them isn’t the only way to bring them closer together. In other words — men could change, too.

What about vocal fry and uptalk?

Naomi Wolf would add these speech patterns to the list of women’s self-inflicted impediments:

“Vocal fry” has joined more traditional young-women voice mannerisms such as run-ons, breathiness and the dreaded question marks in sentences (known by linguists as uptalk) to undermine these women’s authority in newly distinctive ways.

So the male speech pattern is just there, and the question is what women will do if they want equality. In opposition is the argument made here:

Teaching young women to accommodate to the linguistic preferences, a.k.a. prejudices, of the men who run law firms and engineering companies is doing the patriarchy’s work for it. It’s accepting that there’s a problem with women’s speech, rather than a problem with sexist attitudes to women’s speech.

So some feminists want more respect for vocal fry, saying: “when your dads bitch about the way you talk it’s because they’re just trying to not listen to you talk, period, so fuck your dads.” This stance is not just feminist, it’s young feminist:

[Vocal fry] is the speaking equivalent of “you ain’t shit,” an affectation of the perpetually unbothered. It’s a protective force between the pejorative You — dads, Sales types, bosses, basically anyone who represents the establishment — and the collective Us, which is to say, a misunderstood generation that inherited a whole landscape of bullshit because y’all didn’t fix it when you had the goddamn chance.

Elevating vocal fry to a virtue would be more persuasive if the common examples weren’t mostly rich women talking about basically nothing. As an old dad who has done nothing to fix society, I personally bitched about the way the two women interviewed for this NPR story fried and uptalked their way through an excruciating seven-minute conversation about the awesomeness of selfie culture.

Of course, this being a patriarchal society, double standards abound. Men fry their vocals, too, and no one cares. (I myself transcribed this awesome piece of run-on from a young man on the radio once, but I didn’t blame him for holding all men back.) And then there’s resting bitch face, “a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless,” according to Jessica Bennett (whose RBF is not to be trifled with). But only for women:

“When a man looks stern, or serious, or grumpy, it’s simply the default,” said Rachel Simmons, an author and leadership consultant at Smith College. “We don’t inherently judge the moodiness of a male face. But as women, we are almost expected to put on a smile. So if we don’t, it’s deemed ‘bitchy.’ ”

Many men feel that RBF is a blight on their scenery — one they have the right to demand improvement upon — which is why they tell random women on the street to smile. Plus, they just like exercising informal personal power over random women who aren’t conforming with various social rules, including the rule that you show your love for patriarchy at all times.

Sometimes women should act more like men, because some of the behavior that men would otherwise own is about power and access and self-determination and other things that women want and deserve. And some gender differences are just little pieces of the symbolic architecture that helps establish that men and women are different, which means women are different, which means men are dominant. Difference for its own sake is bad for gender equality.

It’s tricky because we don’t have different audiences for different messages anymore, but we need two true messages at once: It’s wrong to discriminate against and shame women for their speech patterns, and it’s a good idea not to undermine yourself with speech patterns that annoy or distract men and old people.

What about sports?

One process people use to essentialize sex categories — to enhance rather than downplay gender differences — is sex segregated sports (which I last wrote about with regard to Caster Semenya). As is the case with many gender differences, our sports establishment and culture is built around male standards, which is why women are granted a protected sphere of difference . Writes Vanessa Heggie in a fascinating historical review of sex testing in international sports:

Sex testing, after all, is a tautological (or at least circular) process: the activities which we recognise as sports are overwhelmingly those which favour a physiology which we consider ‘masculine’. As a general rule, the competitor who is taller, has a higher muscle-to-fat ratio, and the larger heart and lungs (plus some other cardio-respiratory factors) will have the sporting advantage. It is therefore inevitable that any woman who is good at sport will tend to demonstrate a more ‘masculine’ physique than women who are not good at sport. What the sex test effectively does, therefore, is provide an upper limit for women’s sporting performance; there is a point at which your masculine-style body is declared ‘too masculine’, and you are disqualified, regardless of your personal gender identity. For men there is no equivalent upper physiological limit – no kind of genetic, or hormonal, or physiological advantage is tested for, even if these would give a ‘super masculine’ athlete a distinct advantage over the merely very athletic ‘normal’ male.

Heggie adds that, for every claim of gender fraud that turns out to be “true” — that is, a male or intersex person with an unfair advantage competing as a woman, which is vanishingly rare — there are countless cases of “suspicions, rumour, and inuendo” regarding women who are simply unusually big and muscular. As in wide swaths of the professional world, men are the standard, and successful women often look or act more like men — and then they are shamed or penalized for not performing their gender correctly.

There is a sex versus gender issue here, however. When men’s behavior or activity is the standard by which all are judged, there are gendered (social) reasons women have trouble competing — such as exclusion from training, hiring, promotion, and social networks, or socially-defined burdens (such as childcare) impeding their progress toward the top ranks. And then sometimes there are sex (biological) reasons women can’t win, such as in most organized sports.

Here are the world record times in the 800-meter foot race for men and women, from 1922 to the present:

For all the fuss over Caster Semenya’s natural hormone levels, she never got to within two seconds of Jarmila Kratochvílová‘s 1983 record of 1:53.3. It’s presumed that Kratochvílová was taking steroids, but not proven — though the longer the time that lapses since her record was achieved, the more that seems likely.

It’s very telling that no woman has beaten Kratochvílová’s record. In fact, after women made steady progress toward equality for four decades, men’s lead has increased by almost a second in the last four decades. In this contest of physiology, the fastest women apparently cannot compete with the fastest men. This makes a strong case for sex not gender as the difference-maker. But, as I’ve argued before, that does not mean we’re outside the realm of social construction, because the line has to be drawn somewhere to create the protective arena in which women can compete with each other, and that line is defined socially.

We solve the problem if we “stop pawning this fundamentally social question off onto scientists,” say Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis. They want to “let all legally recognized women compete. Period.” But if it is fundamentally social, instead of biological, why are men’s times so much faster?

Aside: How deep a difference

Thinking about all this, I was half interested in what Camille Paglia had to say in Salon about the similarity between Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby — in some ways obvious, in some ways an obvious overreach — and I might even have looked up her book, Sexual Personae, if she hadn’t said the book “of course is far too complex for the ordinary feminist or academic mind!” So that rules me out.

Anyway, in the interview she goes beyond the idea that men and women have different preferences and habits. Here is “why women are having so much trouble dealing with men in the feminist era”:

equality in the workplace is not going to solve the problems between men and women which are occurring in the private, emotional realm, where every man is subordinate to women, because he emerged as a tiny helpless thing from a woman’s body. Professional women today don’t want to think about this or deal with it.

Not recognizing such inherent conditions is a problem for modern feminism, she believes:

Guess what – women are different than men! When will feminism wake up to this basic reality? Women relate differently to each other than they do to men. And straight men do not have the same communication skills or values as women – their brains are different!

In this view, which you could (she does) loosely call Freudian, the sex difference and the gender difference are nearly unified, because the psychological basis for difference is universally present at birth. The short-sighted feminist attempt to erase gender difference thus makes both women and men miserable:

Now we’re working side-by-side in offices at the same job. Women want to leave at the end of the day and have a happy marriage at home, but then they put all this pressure on men because they expect them to be exactly like their female friends. If they feel restlessness or misery or malaise, they automatically blame it on men. Men are not doing enough; men aren’t sharing enough. But it’s not the fault of men that we have this crazy and rather neurotic system where women are now functioning like men in the workplace, with all its material rewards.

What is out of whack is women entering men’s sphere, apparently.

The political stakes attached to the nature and extent of difference between male and female people makes it an ever-important question. It underlies, for example, the opposition to marriage equality, as demonstrated in the terrible Catholic video series called Humanum, where you might hear such nuggets of wisdom as this:

In every human being there is a masculine part, and a feminine part, and as a man I get this feminine part from my mother or from the maternal image in my family, and I get this masculine image from the paternal part, from the paternal image in my family. And I get to make some equilibrium inside. And without this equilibrium my humanity is not really sane.

There is a difference between saying there is a difference between men and women and saying there is such a difference between men and women that your humanity is not complete unless you have both a mother and father.

Difference and dominance

Times like this, like it or not, are good times to revisit Catharine MacKinnon’s essay, “Difference and dominance: On sex discrimination.”*

There is a politics to this. Concealed is the substantive way in which man has become the measure of all things. Under the sameness standard, women are measured according to our correspondence with man, our equality judged by our proximity to his measure. Under the difference standard, we are measured according to our lack of correspondence with him, our womanhood judged by our distance from his measure. Gender neutrality is thus simply the male standard, and the special protection rule is simply the female standard, but do not be deceived: masculinity, or maleness, is the referent for both.

Between the rock of neutrality and the hard place of special protection. Difference and dominance.

In reality … virtually every quality that distinguishes men from women is already affirmatively compensated in this society. Men’s physiology defines most sports … their socially designed biographies define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, their perspectives and concerns define quality in scholarship, their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art, their military service defines citizenship, their presence defines family, their inability to get along with each other — their wars and rulerships — defines history, their image defines god, and their genitals define sex.

So, check that referent. Of course, those women who work more hours, adopt male speech patterns and facial expressions, and run faster, may do better than those who do not (under the risk of overstepping). But why can’t women embrace gender difference in things like speech patterns, and wield them in the service of equality? They might. But under these conditions, enhancing gender differences works against inequality.

* There are several versions of this essay available by Googling. I’m quoting the one published in her 1988 book Feminism Unmodified.


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9 uses of “the ways in which” that should be replaced by “how”

Searching through sociology for the ways in which is literally like shooting ducks in a barrel (easy).

Shooting Ducks in a Barrel

For this post I made sure to include some giants in the field, and major journals, to underscore the ways in which this problem is not limited to the over-wrought fringe.

The “how” rule is not universally applicable. In some cases “the ways” would be a better replacement. But in these 9 examples “how” is enough.

Reproducing Stories: Strategic Narratives of Teen Pregnancy and Motherhood

Within this narrative, there is no space for negotiating or even acknowledging the ways in which poverty, racism, and sexism affect the lives of young mothers.

Social Network Analysis: An Introduction

… her research showed the importance of ties across kin groups and households and the ways in which the strength of membership within families varied…

The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis

Whereas economists and political scientists offer functional explanations of the ways in which institutions represent efficient solutions to problems of governance, sociologists reject functional explanations and focus instead on the ways in which institutions complicate and constitute the paths by which solutions are sought.

The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies

She found major differences between the ways in which the boys discussed sex (they did not often speak of love) in the course of her lengthy interviews with them and the responses of the girls.

Practicing Intersectionality in Sociological Research: A Critical Analysis of Inclusions, Interactions, and Institutions in the Study of Inequalities

A good example of this can be found in Hays’s (2003) discussion of the ways in which college students are prone to the drug use and sexual activity that are so strongly condemned among poor teens.

The Division of Labor in Society (Introduction)

The new introduction to this edition takes a different tack, focusing on the ways in which this work is of present-day sociological interest.

Video Game Culture, Contentious Masculinities, and Reproducing Racialized Social Class Divisions in Middle School*

Recent feminist theorizing on relations between gender and technology emphasizes the ways in which the two mutually shape each other.

Pattern Variables Revisited: A Response to Robert Dubin

The Editor’s invitation to comment on his paper has given me the opportunity to work out an overdue clarification of the ways in which Model II builds on and goes beyond, rather than replaces, Model I.

Gastronationalism: Food Traditions and Authenticity Politics in the European Union

I use Brubaker’s (1996:10) broad definition of nationalism — a set of idioms, practices, and possibilities available in cultural and political life, delimited by social or physical boundaries — to consider the ways in which a nation’s people are defined, or self-define, as a distinct group.

*This was one of eight pieces in the Summer 2014 issue of Signs that came up in my search. For a previous criticism of the writing in Signs, see this post.


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How (and how much) academics talk about inequality, in one chart

Reader advisory: When I say “in one chart,” I never really mean it.

Updated with new chart at the end.

Because someone asked, here is the article count from Web of Science (an academic journal database with emphasis on science), showing the frequency of articles (of all types) according to the inequality-related phrases in their titles. This is obviously not an exhaustive list of work on these subjects, but I did want to show all combinations of race, class, and gender (click to enlarge).

strat terms.xlsx

  • “Social inequality” now completely dominates, but it once was second to “social stratification.”
  • The most common of the three-word combinations is “race, class, and gender.”
  • “Gender, race, and class” has almost always been second.
  • “Gender, class, and race” made a run in the late 1990s, but has since faded.

I’ve written a little more about language and intersectional concerns here.


Don Tomaskovic-Devey sent along this figure, which shows newspaper articles using inequality related terms. The dotted line shows articles with rich, wealthy, top 1%, top one %, while the solid line shows income inequality. He suggests the dotted line may reflect an Occupy Wall Street effect, while the solid line shows the Thomas Piketty framing process:




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Open thread on the way some people, right, sort of really talk these days

Speaking extemporaneously in public is difficult. Since I’ve been on radio and TV a few times, and then reviewed the tapes afterward, I’ve developed my own internal criticism (drowning out that critic’s voice is sometimes difficult even while I’m talking). And I’ve also become even more aware of how people talk, to the point of speaking back lines I hear, trying out alternative expressions, and generally driving myself nuts.

Anyway, all that “really, sort of, right,” seems to be ascending toward some kind of peak. I heard this passage on the radio recently (no need to identify the speaker, is there?), and had to jot it down. The discussion was about Google and other tech workers and their buses to San Francisco. That’s enough context:

Look, I think, I mean, so all the data suggests, right, from the recent Census in the last two years, that obviously that center city areas are growing faster than suburban areas. But I think what’s actually interesting that’s happening, when you start to think about the city/suburbs divide, is really what we’re starting to see is are cities and suburbs become more and more alike. And that is to say that cities are having to deal with a lot of the issues that suburban areas have dealt with for a long time, right: crime, density, housing, all those issues. And now I think what we’re starting to see is suburbs, for instance, having to think about themselves becoming more attractive to folks who are looking for this urban lifestyle. So you’re starting to see suburban areas really focus on this idea of creative place-making: how do you really create a unique, authentic place, where people want to live. I think the other interesting thing is for suburbs is that they’re connected on transit, right – this idea of transit-oriented development is really important – how can they be connected to the city in terms of becoming a really sort of key node here. And so, you know, I think what we’re seeing, again, is this sort of shift, right, is what we call sort of this blending, of both cities and suburbs. You know, and just for a second to go back to the point about sort of young people and sort of being – not thinking about community as much – I think what’s interesting is you sort of see this shift of technology workers, back to city centers. What’s interesting is that a lot of technology workers are wanting to live in city centers because they want to have access to a unique, diverse community, they want to be engaged in their communities, so you see more of them taking public transit, you see more of them sharing resources. So it is about I think this sort of you know, it is perhaps a different perspective, but it is about sort of this engagement that we’re starting to see among young technology workers, Millennials, Creatives, etc., that are really going to sort of not be the problem for our cities, but really help us think about the solutions and what’s sort of to try to fix those issues.

Without picking on individuals (too late), any thoughts?


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Academic puffery watch: ‘Utilizing’ edition

If you split hairs, you can argue there is a use for utilize that differentiates it from use. In the Oxford English Dictionary it’s all pretty circular:

  • Utilise: To make or render useful; to convert to use, turn to account.
  • Use: To put to practical use; esp. to make use of in accomplishing a task.

You could get into variants, inflections, and origins. But it’s not worth it. In academic writing I don’t think people do that. I think they use utilize when they are committing puffery (“The action or practice of ‘puffing’ someone or something; extravagant or undeserved praise, esp. for advertising or promotional purposes; writing, etc., intended to have this effect.”)

So it is with heavy heart that I report what could be a comeback for utilize, or at least a stall in the course of its demise. I have this from two sources. First, from the JSTOR academic database:


And second, from the general corpus of published material (mostly books) that is in Google Books, using the American English collection for a longer period:utilize-coming-back.

Both show a rise of utilize from obscurity to a peak in the 1970s. Note the peak in academia is about twice as high as the peak in the general collection, at 10.7% compared with 5.3%. But both showed very promising declines until the early 2000s. In retrospect, we see the decline was slowing already in the 1990s. We should have been more vigilant.

Maybe this is just a reversal of progress toward pretending we are above excessive puffery. Which I think is a shame.

This all has something to do with this passage from the chapter titled, “Is a Disinterested Act Possible?” in Practical Reason by Pierre Bourdieu (including the length of the sentence itself):



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