The language of gender: Lexical semantics and the latin vocabulary of unmanly men

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Interpretations of the sex-gender systems of ancient Greece and Rome cannot, in the nature of things, be based on the “thick descriptions” familiar from cultural anthropology, derived as they are from observations of living individuals and groups and the complex interplay of their behaviors and utterances. We have but a thin network of material surviving from Greek and Roman antiquity on the basis of which to construct our interpretive models: physical remains on the one hand, texts on the other. We are arguably readers of both kinds of material, and those of us who were trained as readers of Greek and Latin texts certainly should and do pay a great deal of attention to words, singly and in combination. It would thus seem a natural thing to use the tools developed by linguists working in the field of lexical semantics when we make assertions about what certain Greek or Latin words “mean”; but surprisingly few classicists have done so (and my own previous work is no exception). In this paper I aim to show, in an introductory and heuristic way, how some of the conceptual and terminological tools developed by linguists can add further precision, accuracy, and nuance in our interpretations of ancient Greek and Roman sex-gender systems as they are expressed in and through language. I focus here on some items from the Latin vocabulary of masculinity, but of course the methods and tools of lexical semantics can just as fruitfully be applied to the vocabulary of femininity, and to Greek or indeed to any other language. As a way into the Latin language of masculinity, I have chosen to concentrate on the vocabulary of unmanliness, on the conviction that exploration of deviations from a cultural or linguistic norm, of the marked as opposed to the unmarked, can give us especially clear insights into how systems of meaning work. Further precision and accuracy regarding this vocabulary is clearly still needed. Glosses of mollis, impudicus, pathicus, and cinaedus in scholarly writings and translations continue to range, widely but seemingly interchangeably, from “elieminate” to “queer” and “queen, " from “fairy to “faggot, " from “pansy” to “bugger, " from the quasi-clinical “passive homosexual” to the exotic “pathic.”1 Yet the tools used by generations of classical philologists point to some significant distinctions among those Latin words. Attention to etymology shows us, for example, that mollitia (“softness, " built on the same Indo-European root as mulier, “woman”) fundamentally has to do with womanliness, femininity, and efieminacy broadly conceived, and not with any one sexual practice in particular; that impudicus signals the negation of ideals of sexual decency or pudicitia (and if we supplement etymology with a survey of usage, we see that there is a gendered distinction between the feminine impudica, which typically suggests that a woman has had sex with someone other than her husband, and the masculine impudicus, which typically suggests that a man has been sexually penetrated); that pathicus evokes the receptive role in penetrative sexual acts (Greek paskhein, Latin patior); that cinaedus (a Greek loan word, probably in turn borrowed from a non-Indo-European language of Asia Minor but in some ancient etymologies connected with the Greek phrases kinein to so-ma or kineisthai ta aidoia, “to move the body” or “to stimulate the genitals”) evokes the suggestively gyrating movements of male dancers, thus anchoring e?eminacy in the body and in particular the hips and buttocks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSex in Antiquity
Subtitle of host publicationExploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781317602774
ISBN (Print)9780415519410
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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