- Some common English phrases may have sexist roots.
- “Wearing the pants” is a phrase that could be tied back to a time when pants were considered an article of clothing for men.
- “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” seems to imply a person’s goal should be marriage.
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Although you may not realize it, there are a lot of common phrases in the English language that could actually have sexist connotations or discriminatory origins.
Here are some common English phrases that could have sexist roots.
‘Wearing the pants’ in a relationship could date back to the idea that men are meant to be the more dominant partner
When someone says a person “wears the pants in a relationship,” they are typically implying that the person is the dominant figure in their partnership.
According to Bloomsbury International, the phrase may have originated in the 19th century. During this time period, women in the US traditionally didn’t wear pants out in public, but longer gowns or skirts that restricted their movement (though there were a few enterprising women who did start to wear pants in the 1800s).
So the phrase “wearing the pants” seems to enforce the unhealthy idea that it’s “manly” or “masculine” to be in a dominant or powerful position. It also implies that there is a power structure in relationships even though a healthy modern relationship is typically one where both parties have equal say.
In addition, this phrase also implies that all relationships have a masculine partner and a feminine partner, which is not always the case.
‘Always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ implies a person’s goal should be marriage
This popular phrase has roots in the 1920s and means that someone is not meeting their full potential. Though the phrase obviously refers to someone not getting married, it can also be used in a sports context to mean that a team or athlete has fallen short of a goal.
A variation of the phrase reportedly originated from a 1920s Listerine mouthwash advertisement that featured the headline, “Often a bridesmaid … never a bride!”
“Most of the girls of her set were married … but not Eleanor. It was beginning to look, too, as if she never would be,” the ad reads, according to Snopes. The Listerine ad implied that if a woman was not yet married, perhaps her breath was to blame. It also implied that Eleanor’s ultimate goal should be getting married and that she’s not meeting her full potential because she is still single and “often a bridesmaid.”
According to Grammarist, the phrase could also come from the superstition that if a woman serves as a bridesmaid in more than two weddings, she may never get married.
The notion that someone who isn’t married is somehow short of their full potential is a dated concept by modern standards. Marriage isn’t for everyone and being married isn’t a sign that someone is successful in life or in love.
Telling someone to ‘Grow a pair’ implies a weakness that’s tied to gender
Generally, “Grow a pair” is shorthand for “Grow a pair of balls” or “Grow a pair of testicles,” according to The Free Dictionary. When you say this phrase to someone, you’re telling them to act strong or courageous in some manner.
The phrase equates the ability to take action or toughen up with having a pair of testicles, male sex organs. “Grow a pair” implies that simply having these specific organs makes someone more competent and not having them makes someone less competent.
In fact, in 2012, the highest court in Italy ruled that saying an Italian man has “no balls” is punishable by a fine.
Maurizio Fumo, the judge that presided over the case in court, said the phrase had an “injurious quality,” noting the phrase “refers not only to the target’s lack of virility but also to his weakness of character, lack of determination, competence and coherence – virtues that, rightly or wrongly, are still identified as pertaining to the male gender.”
Not only is this phrase harmful by suggesting that men (and therefore, women) are expected to act in a certain way, but it implies that all people who identify as men must have male sex organs, which isn’t true either.
‘One of the guys’ is a phrase that upholds some sexist stereotypes
In some cases, when a woman is called “one of the guys,” it’s because she enjoys engaging in stereotypically masculine activities, like participating in sports or playing video games. It could also be that she seems to have more traditionally masculine traits than feminine ones.
In addition to attributing hobbies and personality traits to a person’s sex, this phrase also seems to imply that all people who identify as men are laid back and enjoy stereotypically masculine activities.
In the book “Bad Feminist,” Roxanne Gay wrote that this common phrase stems from the idea that all women are catty and if a woman likes to “hang with the boys,” it’s because she is too laid back or chill to be “one of the girls.”
‘Boys will be boys’ is a phrase that can limit people of all genders
The phrase means that no matter what they do, a boy’s actions are excused simply because of the sex he was assigned with at birth. It unfairly implies that you can’t teach boys to be different or do better, so there’s no use in trying. This phrase also upholds stereotypes that boys are rough and can’t control themselves or control their urges just because of their sex.
Elizabeth J. Meyer, Ph.D., the associate dean for teacher education in the school of education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote in Psychology Today that this phrase also comes from a place of misinformation and it “oversimplifies” the problem of aggressive behavior or bullying.
She also pointed out that this phrase limits children of all genders. By using this terminology, children who are not males are taught to be well-behaved and grow up faster because their actions are not commonly excused by the sex they were assigned at birth.
In recent times, the term ‘friend zone’ has been used to shame women for turning down someone’s romantic advances
The phrase signifies a friendship in which one person has unrequited love or romantic feelings for the other. And although the term “friend zone” can apply to people of all genders, it has been commonly used to shame a woman for exercising her right to turn someone down and reject a friend’s romantic advances.
As Lani Seelinger wrote for Bustle, “The concept of the friend zone basically takes women’s agency out of the picture entirely by making the relationship transactional.”
According to Salon.com, this term was likely coined on the popular sitcom “Friends.” On a 1994 episode of the series, Joey tells Ross he is in the “friend zone” because he waited too long to make a move on their female friend, Rachel, though Ross said he is “taking his time.” The conversation seems to imply that being with Rachel is a prize and that, if Ross makes the right moves, he can win her affections – it takes away Rachel’s agency in the situation.
Telling someone to ‘Man up’ seems to imply that all men are tough and strong
When someone tells you to “Man up,” it means they want you to toughen up or face things head-on, sometimes aggressively. As Andrew Smiler, Ph.D., a therapist and author, wrote on the American Psychological Association’s website, the term comes from deep-rooted thinking that masculinity and being manly is super important.
The phrase insinuates that people who identify as other genders can’t properly take on challenges without being masculine. Plus, this phrase seems to enforce the dated belief that to “be a man” one must be tough and be able to face things without being emotional.