A linguistic analysis of ‘woman’

What is a woman? Until recently, the word woman has unambiguously meant an adult human female, where female means the sex that produces ova and can bear young. But males are now being called ‘woman’ too. The word woman has been expanded to mean either an adult human female, or an adult human male who would like to be referred to as female. The only way that males can be called ‘woman’ is if ‘woman’ is a social category to which anyone can belong rather than a biological category based on observable criteria. However, even if ‘woman’ is a social category to which anyone can belong, we still need to define what is meant by ‘woman,’ in order to understand who is included in this category. We can change the meanings of words, but we still need to agree on what they mean in order to communicate effectively.

It is normal for words to change meaning over time. Language changes as new words come into being and as people use old words in new ways. Lots of people study the use of language and the way language changes. Here I’m going to contrast the fields of lexicography and terminology in order to demonstrate the way two different approaches to the word ‘woman’ give us two different outcomes. Lexicographers are people who study words and the way they are used in order to write dictionary entries. Their approach is to start with the word and then look at its meanings. In contrast, the field of terminology starts with a concept—the thing itself—and comes up with a term to designate that concept. Instead of assigning definitions to words, terminologists assign terms to things they have identified. That being said, there is some overlap in the work of lexicography and terminology. These fields are not necessarily as diametrically opposed as I am presenting them here, but I am using the contrast to illustrate a point.

If we start with a word, in this case the word ‘woman’ and look to current usage in order to define it, then we might conclude that ‘woman’ is a social category to which human females as well as males who are transgender both belong. It can look “progressive,” on the surface, to add more meanings to a word, based on new developments in society and culture. However, if we approach the question ‘what is a woman’ from the point of view of a terminologist, then we find out that we cannot add human males to the category ‘woman’ without turning it into a meaningless category. The terminologist’s approach is scientific. It starts with observing the material world, describing and narrowing down what is being observed, and giving it a name. Terms cannot have multiple meanings or interpretations—they have one specific meaning.

In the field of terminology, a ‘concept’ is a unit of knowledge created by a unique combination of characteristics. To distinguish one concept from another we look at all characteristics, and especially the delimiting characteristics—those that clearly differentiate the concept under study from other similar concepts. Female is a scientific term that designates the sex that produces ova and can bear young. These are observable characteristics based on the scientific study of human beings, as well as many other species. When terminologists study a concept, they make terminology records listing the characteristics of that concept, including the delimiting characteristics, and they include references to the research on which their observations are based.

Here is a simple example of a list of characteristics of ‘adult human female’:

  • Is a living being belonging to the species homo sapiens
  • Has the body parts that human beings have, including a brain, heart, lungs, stomach, and limbs such as arms and legs, etc
  • Also has female reproductive organs such as a uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries
  • Has reached sexual maturity (can reproduce) and menstruates
  • Can gestate and give birth to babies if impregnated, in the absence of any medical problems
  • Has mammary glands which produce milk to feed offspring
  • Waist smaller than hips
  • Fat deposits around buttocks, thighs and hips
  • Body hair present on the head, under the arms and between the legs
  • Round face
  • Round shoulders
  • Small hands and feet
  • Soprano voice

Where do these characteristics come from? Scientists have studied the characteristics of living things for centuries, and we have noticed certain patterns. One pattern we have noticed is sexual reproduction, in which males and females of a species combine eggs and sperm in order to reproduce. In our species, approximately half of the population produces ova and can bear young, and the other half produces sperm which can fertilize ova. There are a few exceptions, but most humans fall into one of these categories. After observing these characteristics we can generalize them into concepts. The concepts of ‘adult human female’ and ‘adult human male’ were identified long ago by studying the human anatomy and naming the findings.

Not all adult human females share the same characteristics. For example, there are some who cannot bear young due to medical problems. There are some who have their breasts or uteruses surgically removed. Some human females have a voice lower than the soprano range. Some human females have broad shoulders. So how to determine what makes one a human female if the characteristics are different in each specimen? What you have to find, in order to clarify a concept and distinguish it from other similar concepts, is the delimiting characteristic. It turns out there is a delimiting characteristic that determines whether a given specimen is an adult human female or not. The adult human female is a living being who is a member of the species homo sapiens who has reached sexual maturity and who will, under normal circumstances and in the absence of any surgeries or medical problems, be able to produce ova and bear young, because her genes are set up to make it so. The fact of having sexual organs surgically removed or being unable to use them to bear young because of medical problems does not negate the fact that the human female is genetically programmed to develop a uterus and ovaries that allow her to bear young. It is this concept that was given the designation ‘human female.’ The word ‘woman’ exists as a way to refer to an adult human female as opposed to a female child, or an adult male.

The word ‘woman’ has meant ‘adult human female’ for centuries. If we are to change the word ‘woman’ to mean ‘a social category to which adult human females and adult human males who are transgender both belong’ then what word will we use when we speak specifically of the group of all adult female humans, the biological category of homo sapiens who will, under normal circumstances produce ova and be able to bear young? Do we need to come up with a new word to mean ‘adult human female’ so that we can easily designate this group of living entities, since the word ‘woman’ no longer represents us?

Some people believe that it is acceptable and even necessary to include male humans in the category ‘woman.’ I would propose that the people who want us to stop using ‘woman’ to refer exclusively to adult human females are people who do not believe we need a word that applies only to adult human females. They are people who believe that adult human females do not need to be named and talked about as a group. However, we do need to be named and talked about as a group. We have a distinct biology that includes menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause; we have a distinct socialization based on our sex, and we experience distinct oppressions based on our sex as a part of living in a male supremacist society.

For the sake of argument, let’s consider the opposite situation, in which ‘woman’ is a social category to which human females and human males who are transgender both belong. If ‘woman’ means ‘the group of all humans that identify as women,’ then we still need a description of what ‘woman’ is, or else how do people know whether they identify as one? You can’t identify as something if you don’t know what it is. And surely, if someone feels very strongly that they are something, they can describe what the something is. But the only definition of ‘woman’ that we get from trans activists is the circular definition of ‘anyone who identifies as a woman.’ You can’t use a word inside its definition—to define a word by restating the word is to go around in a circle without getting anywhere. Words describe things, they describe concepts, whether real-life, physical things, or ideas. A woman is a real-life, physical thing. We should be able to observe the set of all ‘women’ and name the characteristics of this category. There should be characteristics that are measurable and observable in real life, since women are not ideas, they are real things that we can see. And there should be a delimiting characteristic that we can use to distinguish a specimen of the group ‘woman’ from those of other similar groups.

If ‘woman’ is a social category to which human females and males who are transgender both belong, then what are the characteristics of this group, and what is the delimiting characteristic that distinguishes this group’s members from other groups? If we take the approach of observing body parts similar to both groups, we come up with all the parts that are common to all humans—arms, legs, heart, lungs, etc. This doesn’t help us distinguish the category ‘woman’ from other categories though. We can’t say that sex stereotypes such as high heels, makeup and dresses are the characteristics of this group, because not all human females wear these things—they aren’t common to all members of the group ‘woman,’ so this doesn’t help us distinguish the category woman from other categories. I’m looking at what there could be in common between all members of the group of all human females and males who are transgender, and the only thing I’m coming up with is the presence of estrogen in the body—whether it is there naturally or artificially. That almost works as a delimiting characteristic, except for one small problem. In trans ideology, any male who claims to be a woman is one, even if he hasn’t started injecting himself with hormones yet, and even if he doesn’t plan on ever injecting himself with hormones. It is sufficient that he ‘identifies with the concept.’ So the ‘presence of estrogen in the body’ characteristic won’t suffice, either, even though that is my best guess. If we are to take transgenderist logic seriously, and any intact male can be a ‘woman,’ then the only common characteristic that we can measure in real life among members of this group is that they are all human beings. There is absolutely no way to distinguish members of the social category ‘woman’ from other categories, according to transgenderist logic, because there is no delimiting characteristic. This is one of the goals of trans activism—to break down the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ so that they are meaningless, and anyone can belong to any category.

If we adopt the approach of transgenderism, then two linguistic problems arise that cannot be resolved. The first one is that we lose the ability to easily refer to the group of all humans who will, under normal circumstances, produce ova and bear young, because the word that used to refer exclusively to this group now applies equally to its opposite. The second is that we are unable to define what a woman is, because we are not allowed any delimiting characteristics that we could use to distinguish the category ‘woman’ from other categories. The word ‘woman,’ then, becomes useless, having no discernable meaning. ‘Woman’ simply means any human being.

These problems are linguistic problems that impede clear communication, and they are also sociological problems. If we are unable to talk about the group of all humans who are female, we are not able to recognize their particular biological and social needs. This has real-life implications when, for example, females are unable to use single-sex facilities in public places and unable to gather together to discuss and organize around the experience of being female in a male supremacist society.

I believe that some trans activists are well-intentioned when they attempt to break down the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman,’ but I think their approach is not the right one. Instead of pretending that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ do not refer to biological categories with real-life differences, trans activists should be breaking down the sex stereotypes that limit the ways that men and women can express themselves. It is not the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ that we should attack. Those words describe reality and we need them. What needs to be attacked is the idea that human males need to behave and dress in certain ways because they are male, and that human females need to behave and dress in certain ways because they are female.

I believe it is not useful to destroy the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ by making them meaningless, and in fact, it is downright dangerous, since women are oppressed by men in our patriarchal system. Anyone who is in the trans cult and is saying that there is no difference between trans women and women need to consider the following questions:

  • If there is nothing distinguishing trans women from other women then why are we calling some women trans? How do we know which women to call “trans” if there is no way to tell them apart?
  • Assuming that transgender means transitioning from one gender to the other, then what did trans women transition from? If they were born women and have always been women then why did they need to transition?
  • Do you think we need a word that describes the set of all adult humans who can produce ova and bear young? Why or why not? If so, what do you think this word should be?
  • Can you define the word ‘woman’ without using the word in the definition? (i.e. without using a circular definition.)

I welcome answers to these questions from anyone. However, I think you’ll find that if you are holding on to the idea that trans women are women, you won’t be able to answer them at all.

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26 thoughts on “A linguistic analysis of ‘woman’

  1. As always, I enjoyed your writing Purple Sage. However, there is a glaring scientific error: ALL human beings produce estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. That means that normal “manly” males do, in fact, have estrogen in their bodies, even without taking hormones. Even “girly” women have testosterone in their bodies without taking hormones. The difference is in the levels. Men have about 10x as much testosterone as females, on average, though there is great variability.

    I also think you should have stopped your definition of women with the 1st 6 things you listed. I am 100% XX female (have had my DNA sequenced.) I do NOT have a “round face” but rather a long, narrow face. I also have virtually no fat on my buttocks and hips, though I do have a small amount on my inner thighs that I would love to get rid of. If I gain weight, it goes to my lower abdomen, not my butt, hips or thighs. I have seen plenty of other women with this pattern. Some have even been asked, “When are you due?” when they weren’t pregnant. Fortunately, I am very athletic and slim, so my fat on my lower abs is mostly only perceived if I am naked. I would also not define my shoulders as “round” though they are narrow and feminine. I do not grow underarm hair for whatever reason. I don’t know if my hands and feet are particularly “small.” It depends what you are comparing them to. I am 5’9″ tall and the average male is 5’10” tall, so my hands and feet are nearly as big as an average male. I wear size 9 shoes (USA size.) I do have a soprano voice, but have encountered many alto women. So, I would just stick with the 1st 6 as being defining characteristics.

    I agree that transsexuals and their supporters are trying to erase any meaning from the word “women.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like you I am 100% XX female and 5-9 (and I’ve read the average male height is actually 5-9. but either way, we’re about average male height). I have an oval face, with linebacker shoulders and I have large feet (US men’s size 11, which is proportionate for my height) and reasonably large, but not huge hands. I also have a reasonably large head, wearing a 7 3/8 hat. I am no longer slim, but tend to collect fat in my stomach (apple shaped, rather than pear shaped), and even when I was slim I was more comfortable in men’s jeans because women’s jeans that fit in the legs were too small in the waist and ones that fit in the waist bagged off my legs). My singing voice is tenor, and speaking voice contralto.

      But, perhaps, those traits mentioned that we don’t match are merely tendencies, rather than absolute markers of sex.; that is, they are more often true of women, though not universal. Evolution has created us, both male and female, in great diversity, in different sizes and shapes, which is all to the better for the gene pool.

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  2. It makes no sense to divorce woman from female biology while leaving men tied to masculinity. I want a bigger world with bigger truths where a man could be a feminine as all get out, even to the extreme of having feminizing surgery or taking feminizing hormones and thats ok and we all dont pretend that any of it makes him a woman.
    I want the idea of man overhauled. If transwomen wanted to be gender liberators instead of gender conservatives, theyd be demanding their rights as men to not look or act like stereotypical men.

    Liked by 4 people

    • First step in doing that is stop calling it masculinity and femininity and start calling it personality and personal style, to drive home the point that these traits are not innately linked to our sex but are, rather, just human personality traits and styles.

      A man who loves to cook and likes pink isn’t “feminine”; he;s just a man who likes to cook and likes pink. It’s got nothing to do with anyone’s sex.

      Liked by 1 person

      • masculine and feminine are descriptors and a short hand way of describing someone. but yes,ideally masculine should be nothing but any trait that pertains to male people which could be infinite.

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    • Interesting theory, Francois. If that is true, it is just mind-boggling. How would you describe their belief system around men / women? Is it simply that they think liking stereotypically “feminine” things makes them women? Why wouldn’t they think that makes them men who like things women often also like? I do not understand why this transgender craze is exploding from a trickle right now. Is it suggestibility from constant media coverage or LGBT groups? Is it a desire to be different and get attention? This wasn’t even a “thing” when I was a youngster in the 70s. Now transgender is something we hear about in the media nonstop. One would think it is a large % of the population, given the nonstop media coverage, but less than 1% of people call themselves “transgender.” Sure, we had Ziggy Stardust, but he was a character played by David Bowie. Bowie is bisexual and has a feminine side, but he doesn’t pretend to be female. Then the 80s came, and there was Boy George, but same thing; he is gay, has a feminine side and knows he is really a guy. Why is this generation different? I wish we had really solid research.

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      • “How would you describe their belief system around men / women? Is it simply that they think liking stereotypically “feminine” things makes them women?”

        Yes, I think it’s probably that simple. It’s a belief system that associates gender stereotypes with being that gender. It’s very strange because gender stereotypes don’t exist to describe who is a woman, they exist to oppress women. So it’s basically self-harm, if you think about it.

        “Why wouldn’t they think that makes them men who like things women often also like?”

        Because they have no criterion for “man” apart from the subjective one. They’ve already rejected biology, so what’s left?

        Liked by 3 people

      • They call themselves “transgender” now, rather than “transsexual”, which would seem to indicate that they are separating sex from gender, biology from culture, and basing their identities not on sex, but stereotypes assigned to associated with one sex or the other. As they say “sex is between the legs, gender is between the ears”. But they don’t – they’ve got it all mixed up and rolled together in an obfuscating, interchangeable ball. But I think they went from being “transsexual” to “transgender” simply to justify keeping their dicks while still calling themselves “women” at the same time.

        But it’s sex what makes you male or female, man or woman. “Gender” is what societies label as “masculine” and feminine”; that is, personality traits and personal styles that have been arbitrarily divided in half and given one of the two labels. Roughly speaking, sex is a noun and gender is an adjective – sex is what you are, man or woman. To make “gender” the noun of what one is, is to say that one is “a feminine” or “a masculine”. And if the transfolk want to be honest, then that’s how they should describe themselves. A MtT would say, “I’m a feminine”, not “I’m a woman”. It’s shorthand for saying, “I prefer the stereotypes associated with women even though I am a man”.

        Of course, it would be easier and less convoluted to simply remove the stereotyped “gender” labels of masculine and feminine from personality traits and personal style and admit that they’re not innately sex-linked traits and that what’s really between the ears is personality, not gender, but trans people don’t want to hear that, as it doesn’t fit their Orwellian worldview.

        Liked by 2 people

    • I think men think of women as objects to be used as they see fit. If we were people,men wouldnt speak of, becoming a woman, as that makes no sense if women are people just like men.

      Liked by 1 person

        • They gain their personal male fantasy of whatever they think living as a woman is. In reality, being a woman is being an adult female, a man claiming to be a woman is as insulting to female reality just as a woman to claiming to be a transwoman would be insulting to transwomen as that is part of their male reality . Why arent transwomen asserting their right as men to remake what being a man is? Why claim womanhood as something a man can possess instead of ripping down sexist stereotypes of what a man is and should look like and act like?

          Liked by 1 person

  3. To answer the question “What is a woman?”, I ask another question, “Why do humans come in two sexes in the first place?” to get to the root of the matter. Obviously, the answer is to facilitate the propagation of the species through sexual reproduction. That’s it. There IS no other reason why we come in two sexes. An adult female is a woman and an adult male is a man, whether or not you ever use your reproductive capacity or are sterile or intersex. (People born without legs do not change the fact that humans are a bipedal species).

    Obviously, the stereotypes of masculinity and femininity (what they call “gender” and “gender identity”) are not biological and play no role in human reproduction, so they are not what makes one a man or a woman. They are just arbitrary labels slapped on personality traits and styles and the definition of what is masculine or feminine differs from culture to culture and has not been consistent throughout history, unlike sex, which is the same in every culture and in every time period. The original purpose of the stereotypes assigned to and associated with one sex or the other was to emphasize and call attention to one’s sex, not to define what it is in the first place. It is just window dressing – it is neither innate nor essential to being a “real” man or woman. The trans people put the cart before the horse when they insist that the stereotypes of “gender” trump the biological facts of sex, when they insist the body must “match” the personality (gender identity). But because personality traits and style are not innately sex-linked traits, there is nothing to “match” (and why do people have to “match” , anyway?)

    They also have the mistaken assumption, along with other misogynists, that being female is the most important thing about us that being female informs everything we think, say, do, feel, or express in life. They act as if being female is more central to our beings than being human is, that we are “female beings”, rather than “human beings who are female”.. But, in reality, being female (or male, for that matter), is just part of who we are and is NOT involved in everything we do. Being human is the central part of who we are and like men, much of the time we are just regular people going about our lives.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Excellent explanation. The bottom line is that we do really only come in 2 sexes for the purpose of sexual reproduction. Anomalies like intersex conditions and “transgender” ideology do not change that basic fact. Transgenders elevate sex role stereotypes above basic biology. They conflate these stereotypes with their “gender” and their “gender” is conflated with their biological sex. Therefore, stereotypes indicate biological sex, according to them. One can not make sense out of nonsense.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article and responses. Being flippant here, but what about cellulite? Apparently 90% of women and only 10% of men develop cellulite? Just from a quick google it has something to do with skin thickness and structure. Oh boy, I am a human being with the 90% likelihood of developing cellulite, phew I can breath again, I have an identity! Seriously, I have had some of my lesbians friends post on facebook about KT Brender’s legs being so wonderful. Having felt silenced recently (yes fear of the dreaded TERF label), I did not reply, but thought…well Bruce is male you know, only 10% possibility of developing cellulite.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. To the person named Randie who posted no less than 20 comments here today which are all wall-of-text comments that are probably copy-and-pasted entire articles: I consider this spamming. If you’d like to join this conversation, please write a short summary of your thoughts in your own words in one single comment. 300 words max. Until then you’ll be going straight to the spam queue.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Pingback: A linguistic analysis of ‘woman’ – Critiquing Transgender Doctrine & Gender Identity Politics

  7. Pingback: “Then the word ‘woman’ has no meaning” – WOMAN Means Something Campaign

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