Mind your language

When did ‘big girl’s blouse’ become an insult?

14 September 2019

9:00 AM

14 September 2019

9:00 AM

Fotherington-Thomas was introduced by Nigel Molesworth, the narrator of Down with Skool!, in 1953: ‘As you see he is skipping like a girlie he is uterly wet and a sissy.’ Geoffrey Willans featured the school sissy again in How to be Topp (also illustrated by Ronald Searle, who had spent time in a Japanese prison camp): ‘It is only fotherington-tomas you kno he sa Hullo clouds hullo sky he is a girlie and love the scents and sounds of nature.’

Last week, Sky News revealed what Boris Johnson said about David Cameron in private cabinet papers, after it had obtained an ‘unredacted’ copy of documents disclosed to court. The Prime Minister referred to him as ‘girlie swot Cameron’. This is nothing new. In 2013 he labelled as ‘Girly swots who wasted their time at university’ both Mr Cameron and his own brother Jo Johnson (who resigned from the government last week). They both got firsts at Oxford, and Boris Johnson a second.

The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest use of girlie from 1786. It lists the word as girly but all its quotations spell it girlie.

On girly matters, Mr Johnson also shouted at Jeremy Corbyn during Prime Minister’s Questions last week: ‘Call an election, you great big girl’s blouse.’ This is an even more recent term than girlie swot. The OED plucks its first citation from the lips of Hylda Baker in the comedy series Nearest and Dearest (1969). She was addressing her husband.

Some people take such language extraordinarily seriously. ‘This neo-fascist thug legitimises homophobic and sexist bullying,’ one man tweeted. ‘Next you’ll be telling us you like to grab us by the pussy,’ tweeted a woman. A man from Oldham said: ‘I’m gay, and I’ve never found the term big girl’s blouse a homophobic term.’ But Declan Kavanagh, the author of Effeminate Years (2017), called it ‘effeminophobia at its finest’.

In a blog, Debbie Cameron (no relation) discussed ‘reclaiming’ big girl’s blouse (just as some think queer has been reclaimed). ‘One word,’ she said, ‘that women did succeed in reclaiming as a neutral descriptive term is the word woman itself.’ I’m not so sure, after hearing Jeremy Corbyn in December muttering ‘stupid woman’ at Theresa May.

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