What’s In a Name?


Are you an “unman”?

You must think I’m nuts asking that. “Unman”?  That makes no sense, right?

Well, I could have asked if you are untall or unshort or unblond.  We know this makes no sense so would never say it.  Yet, we say “unmarried.”  Why?

We use our language promiscuously, using words we’ve heard all our lives but never giving any thought about them — until someone comes along and says, “Whoa.  That’s really inappropriate.”

We saw this with the Woman’s Movement.  Prior to the 70s, we females were “girls.”  No one noticed, so we didn’t mind.  Then, a few women started shouting, “We’re not girls, we’re women.”  At the beginning, too many of us thought they were making a big deal about nothing.  We’re the same people whether we are called girls or women, we said.

The same thing happened with “colored” people.  A few brave souls shook the country demanding to be called “Black” or “African American.”  Too many of us thought they were making a big deal about nothing.

Thank goodness some were making a big deal about nothing!  Time is on the side of those who shake us up.

So, be prepared to be shook up here.

If you do not currently have a legal document saying you are married, do you call yourself “unmarried”?

Putting an “un” in front of a word signifies something the word is not.  Do you see the difference between saying, “I am unmarried,” vs “I am not married”?  Most people don’t see that at first.  In the same way, most people didn’t see that “girl” and “colored” had become inappropriate, if not offensive.

Language matters.  Language is society’s way of passing on norms, expectations, cultural messages. We take words for granted, without recognizing the negative impact they could have.

What, you reasonably ask, negative impact could “unmarried” possibly have?

You know society is biased towards marriage.  Also you probably have heard questions like, “Why aren’t you married?” because that is expected of women.  Too many women blame themselves for not having “achieved” that status.  That’s unwarranted self-blame.

Remember this the next time you hear a woman say she is “unmarried.”

If you have questions or comments or want more information, contact me at:

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis

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