Is French language misogynist?


Vous pouvez lire l’article en français ici

You can read the article in French here



Here are two pairs of English words and their French equivalents:

1. English sondaughter             French filsfille

2. English boygirl                       French garçonfille

The words fils and fille are from Latin filius, son, and filia, daughter (English words such as filiation, filial and affiliated have the same Latin origin).

In English, a son and a daughter are also a boy and a girl. But in French, while a fils is also a garçon, a daughter remains a daughter, remains a fille, identified by her filiation. While the garcon enjoys an autonomous status, the fille belongs to somebody—to her father in fact, who will, on her wedding day, take her to the altar in order to give her away (and she will, on that occasion, give away her own patronymic—read below).

There is, however, a feminine form of garçon, garce, but it is derogatory. It seems that, if the fille dares to try and get her own autonomous status, her way of life is seen as dissolute and licentious.

The French equivalent of tomboy also shows girls’ inferiority, as it is garçon manqué, failed boy





In Old French, the word garçon, spelt garçun, garson, etc., was the objective case form of gars, the subjective case form whose feminine was garce.

(The objective case is a case of nouns and pronouns serving as the object of a transitive verb or a preposition. The subjective case is a case of nouns and pronouns used for the subject of a verb.)

The words garçon, gars and garce are from an unattested Germanic wrakkjo, meaning vagabond, and are related to the English words to wreak and wretch. In Old French, there were two categories of words referring to a young man. One category emphasised the age, with damoiseau and bacheler (whence English bachelor). The other category stressed the social background, with valet for a noble child, and garçon for a child of inferior social status. The word garçon was often used as a term of abuse, garce was already used in its current derogatory sense of slut, and gars in its current familiar sense of bloke.




Here are now two more pairs of English words and their French equivalents:

1. English manwoman                    French hommefemme

2. English husbandwife                  French marifemme

In English, a man becomes a husband and a woman becomes a wife. But in French, while a homme becomes a mari, a femme remains a femme, a female. While mari denotes a social status, femme refers to a mere biological function.

The English word spouse has French equivalents: époux (masculine), épouse (feminine), but they are rarely used, and only in formal situations.

In addition, whenever a married woman must prove her identity in France, she has to provide her maiden name, which is nom de jeune fille (cf. the English use of the French née, born as). Not only does it take us back to the inferiority of fille, a sign of female subjection, but it also shows that the female has to submit to the male whom she marries, since she must adopt his patronymic—or would it be more accurate to say that the male adopts the female? The word patronymic itself indicates male domination as it is from Greek patrōnumikos, composed of patēr, father, and onuma, name.

The French equivalents of gossip are also interesting, as they are commérages (noun) and commérer (verb). They are from commère, itself from Christian Latin commater, composed of cum-, with, and mater, godmother in Christian Latin. As far as French is concerned therefore, gossiping is proper to women.

Interestingly, the origin of the English word gossip, although not misogynist, is quite similar. It is from late Old English godsibb, meaning godfather, godmother, baptismal sponsor, literally a person related to one in God, from God and sibb, a relative (cf. the words sibling and sib).

Lastly, une bonne femme is not a good woman (une femme bonne is a good woman). The term bonne femme is actually quite derogatory as it refers to a woman of low intelligence, who is usually old. So, un remède de bonne femme is a folk remedy, an old wives’ remedy, and un conte de bonne femme is an old wives’ tale.

In these English phrases, wife doesn’t have the modern sense of female spouse. It still has the general sense of woman, which is preserved in such words as midwife. The sense of mistress of a household survives in housewife, and the later restricted sense of tradeswoman of humble rank is found in fishwife.

The word fishwife, in the sense of coarse-mannered woman who is prone to shouting, has its exact equivalent in the French poissarde, which also used to mean female fishmonger.

However, poissarde is not from poisson (fish) although it is pleasantly associated with the similar-sounding poissonnière, feminine of poissonnier, fishmonger. It is from poix, pitch, in the sense of the sticky resinous substance. The poissarde was reputedly dishonest in her trade and her clothes were supposedly filthy as if smeared with pitch.

The sense of dishonesty associated with pitch is from an image: thieves are light-fingered, as if they had covered their fingers with pitch in order to make them sticky. Here is what Randle Cotgrave wrote in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611):

Poissard, masculine: A filcher, nimmer [= petty thief], purloyner, pilferer; one whose fingers are as good as so many lyme-twigs.

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