Indulge me

Or, Why We’re Both Wrong

I’m one of those people who get hung up on grammatical errors and punctuation misuse.  I’ll be reading along quite happily when my brain will suddenly experience a jerking sensation as I hit a place in the writing where a comma has made an inappropriate appearance or a rogue apostrophe has attached itself to a plural form of a word. I’m fully sympathetic to the plights of other curmudgeons, who, like me, grumble to themselves about the stupid living status of the English language.

I am, of course, a hypocrite. I write in a colloquial style and make typos and errors at a fairly normal rate. I adore slang and use it with glee, especially dried up outmoded slang that strikes me as delightfully anachronistic. (It probably strikes others as weird, twee, foolish, or self indulgent, all of which are valid criticisms, since my word choice cannot be said to contribute to clear communication in those instances.)

The self styled Grammar Nazis would tell you that language is terribly, terribly important, that it is about communication, that clear communication depends on rules. The internet as a whole would tell you that language is joyfully alive, that word choice matters little, that communication is about being understood, not what’s being said. They’re both right and they’re both wrong and I’m somehow going to bring this around to feminism and knitting in the next few paragraphs. You begin to see why I asked you to indulge me.

This morning, a number of folks on my Twitter feed were discussing threads on Ravelry in which women mention their husbands allowing them to knit or to buy yarn. Then there was mention of a tee shirt apparently on display at Rhinebeck that reads “Your husband called, he said buy anything you want.” Oy.

These words are often jokey and joking, and I have a number of lovely friends who’d make jokes of this sort and not really mean much by it. The words sort of sat in my head, today, though, and I haven’t been able to get them out. They’re unwelcome house guests who can only be evicted when I write this down and show them out of my head and into the ether.

Feminism has long been about words and word choice. I can argue till the cows come home that in English, the words man and he are both gender specific and gender neutral, but the fact is, specific trumps neutral in anyone’s mind. You is a word with similar issues; it is both specific and collective, but we tend to assume the specific first. If I tell you (specific you) to picture any important man in history, while I could  be intending the word to have its neutral meaning, chances are that you are currently picturing an important historical figure who had a penis.

Even before feminism, canny women saw the use of language in the cause of their sex. Chivalry is today seen as outdated and often sexist, but a look at Eleanor of Acquitaine and her court of love suggests that chivalry once offered women(of a certain class) a new role in society that gave them greater freedom and importance. Eleanor used her money and power to support poets and troubadours who wrote of gentle love and the elevation of women. She did not invent chivalry, but her money helped codify it and to make it fashionable.

Language is symbolic in its very nature, even its most basic and straightforward form. If I tell you that I saw a cat yesterday, even though you did not see the cat, you are still picturing a cat right now. The cat you are picturing is probably either a cat you know or an archetypal cat that you’ve imagined, because your experience allows you to take my abstract word, “cat,” and create for yourself an image of a real animal.

But most language is not as straightforward as, “I saw a cat.” Most of the time there are nuances, even in writing, that provide clues and hints of something more than mere communication. Language is used for obfuscation as well as communication. If I tell you, “I saw a cat, and I shuddered,” taken in the strict light of literal interpretation, these could be separate facts. I saw a cat. I shuddered. Taken in the same sentence, we tend to assume that they are related, and we use our experience and intuition to bridge the gap between those two statements. Most anyone reading that sentence would be able to extrapolate that I have a fear or dislike of cats. (I don’t, for the record. I just like to use a lot of examples when I write.)

So when we, as craftspeople, make joking reference to our significant others and their influence on our craft, there’s more to it than a joke and less to it than a dissection of the words might offer. Partnership is a give and take and it’s considerate to consider how our choices affect our loved ones.  When women begin to talk of asking permission, though, or to promote the stereotype that women love to spend money LOL and men are in charge of the pursestrings LOL, it isn’t just a comment on one marriage or one relationship. There’s a whole history of experience that gets attached to those words. It’s a necessary, but also lazy form of communication that depends on the understanding of others of stereotype, and it exists in a broader context of hard fought feminist ideals. Adults willingly giving up their rights to make choices for themselves is threatening because it was a default (and still is a default for many people) for so long.

I have talked on this blog many a time about why I knit and how it has actually helped my health. Of course I have to balance my knitting with the demands of family and finance, but I think that if I began using the word “allow” or “permission” in regards to my husband’s view of my hobby, business, and creative endeavors, it would signal the wrong ideas about its importance to me and my significance as an adult and an individual. Asking one another for permission is very different than checking to make sure we can afford something, or checking to see if my knitting is encroaching on time we’d normally spend as a couple. It’s not that different in practice, but the sentiment conveyed by the words is the difference between consideration and subjection.

The language purists and the casual users are both right and both wrong. Language has power, importance, nuance, and meaning that go beyond mere words or jokes. But literal meaning and proper usage are not only fluid, they are often not part of true communication, which depends less on the strictness of rules and more on collective stereotypes, in jokes, memories, and experience.


12 Responses to “Indulge me”

  1. Whiteoak Says:

    Thank you so much!!!! I work in an environment with a number of younger women who seemingly give away the hard won freedoms that my generation worked for. They are Civil Engineers and my education is Civil Engineering but my education came when there were 15 men to every woman in my college classes, theirs came with much more even numbers.

    Too many people (different sexes, races, religions) think that once the battle is “won” there is no need to continue to be vigilant in their use of freedom. I don’t punch out anyone who doesn’t allow me my equality but I make sure they don’t have the opportunity to put me down in the future.

    As for my husband allowing me to buy yarn, spend time knitting or any other part of my hobby. No, that language doesn’t exist in our relationship. We do consult with one another on time/money spent because it influences our future together but there is no “allowing” on either side of this relationship.

    Thank you again for saying so well what I get so frustrated about.

  2. Emily Says:

    Thanks for that. I read “I’m somehow going to bring this around to feminism and knitting in the next few paragraphs” and (in my mind) danced with joy. What fun, those two things together, and with a dissection/discussion of language too! Perfection, for me.

    And what you wrote *was* interesting. This “There’s a whole history of experience that gets attached to those words.” is the essence of many of the problems I have with language around me – such as being described as a ‘lady doctor’. To me, that says pin money, nothing serious; it assumes that the neutral is in fact gendered (male) and I am part of an unusual (frivolous) subset. Cannot bear it. But I also thought about how that history of experience can be different in different places, and cause such problems of communication at times when different English speaking peoples get together on the net.

    Thanks – thought-provoking.

  3. Emily Says:

    What I always wonder when I encounter language like this (which is a HUGE pet peeve for me also, by the way), is whether there’s a similar dynamic in male-dominated hobbies/conventions/get-togethers around expensive hobbies. LIke, I don’t know, a fishing/hunting show, or a power tools expo or something. Do those men make jokes about how their wives have put them on a budget, or won’t “allow” them to pick up a chainsaw? I would be a bit surprised if they do, although now that I think about it not THAT surprised. Because for me, I think there are two issues about these jokes, that are equally problematic:

    – The feminist issue of wives making themselves out to be subservient to their husbands, as you point out, and also
    – People feeling uncomfortable in our capitalist culture saying “I think I’ve bought enough (yarn/tied flies/photography equipment),” or “I would feel better if I didn’t buy anything today.” As if our enthusiasm for our craft is measured in dollars dedicated, rather than time spent/skills honed/projects accomplished. I think some of what’s behind the husband comments is a desire to externalize who is in control of the budget – it’s more comfortable to imply that while I PERSONALLY would just spend, spend, spend, I’m so crazy about knitting, that husband of mine just wouldn’t allow it – rather than taking responsibility for my pecuniary decisions myself (not that I make jokes like this, but just as an example).

    Decisions about TIME are the same way, as you point out – my partner and I check in with each other about whether we’re both getting enough together time/alone time/social time/etc., and we check in with each other about money, but that’s nowhere close to implying that one of us needs to be kept on a leash by the other because s/he’s totally out of control about spending time/money on a hobby. But I think “totally addicted” has become some kind of weird short-hand for “very enthusiastic about,” which is so effed up, since a healthy adult should be able to be passionate about something without losing control of his or her autonomy or ability to make good life decisions. In a way it’s a tendency to belittle one’s passions – an implication that if one feels called to practice a craft on a regular basis, or thinks about it when one gets a spare moment, that automatically equals an “obsession” or an “addiction,” rather than an enthusiasm.

  4. Janet Says:

    Very interesting, thanks for taking the time.

    (Of course, what peeved me most was that it quoted the husband, yet didn’t use quotation marks. If only they’d put a “to” before the “buy”.)

    Of course, I DO feel that there is a subset of people for whom this is entirely appropriate.
    (This is NOT to say that I’ve missed the point. Yes, I realise the tshirt people are going for the stereotype and the joke. But I think it could be appropriate in CERTAIN situations as well).

    For starters, let’s assume that your money is your husband’s money, and vice versa. (As in, you both share household expenses, saving up for something, paying off the mortgage, etc)
    Say you are from a limited income. Or – and it’s not a bad thing, just the way it is – you are someone who goes to fibre events, your brain goes fuzzy, you come to, you can’t carry all your recently acquired stash, or just that you have a tendency to buy spur of the moment, then have goods just cluttering up the house, for years, and never getting used.
    In these situations, isn’t it appropriate?
    I know I somewhat fit into the above, and would feel flat out guilty about buying much – because, although we don’t really need the money now, I don’t really need the fibre, either.
    And yes. I would be annoyed if he splurged horribly on something he didn’t need and we didn’t discuss first.
    I think the important word here is “want” – the permisssion to be frivolous with a shared asset.

  5. Anna Says:

    The other thing that bothers me about these kinds of statements is “Oh, how can I hide this yarn from my husband?” implying that you are not entirely free to bring things into the house that you’ve purchased with money that presumably you have the right to use.

    That said, I have to confess that I wear a button I bought at MDSW at work (I work in a LYS) that says “Will trade husband for yarn” so the demeaning phrases can go both ways. It is quite the conversation-starter with customers, though.

  6. MrKninja Says:

    @EMily: “whether there’s a similar dynamic in male-dominated hobbies/conventions/get-togethers around expensive hobbies. LIke, I don’t know, a fishing/hunting show, or a power tools expo or something. ”

    Yes, there sometimes is, but the meaning of such a dynamic depends on the group of men involved, and how those men view their relationships/marriages, etc. In a group of like-minded peers, I and my friends are usually referring to our spendthrift temptations, and how our wives help us keep from spending cash on what are essentially toys (Does your male partner homebrew beer? Then he has had this talk, I assure you!) Another group of guys may be expressing resentment at having to manage their money as adults while wanting to indulge themselves, but shrug with resignation. And another group may be having the opposite conversation, bragging about how they keep “their women” in line. (I don’t know anyone in this last group).
    There are different kinds of guys, and situations, and the same joke may make me as uncomfortable in one context and chuckle in another, just as the t-shirt or the original comment the Kninja is talking about. So, yeah, we’re walking a fine line too, but the stakes aren’t as high when I’m around other guys because, let’s face it, we’re still the dominant gender.
    And that’s the thing– if somebody says I’m whipped because I consult my wife before spending, I can shrug it off and say I’m simply a mature adult. If they tell me I should ask her first, I can say that it’s not necessary, she trusts me, because… I’m a mature adult. I don’t have to think twice about it, because my identity is more socially secure than my wife’s. She feels pressure to represent herself and her gender; whereas I only represent my self.
    On a lighter note, Anna’s comment about “hiding yarn from the husband” reminds me that there are a couple of thrift store finds in my shed that I have discreetly failed to mention to the Kninja. Now that we’re trying to clear up clutter in our place, there may soon be a reckoning. I wonder if I can turn that Transformer into a yarn winder…

  7. Rachel Says:

    Interesting, thought-provoking, and well-written post! I pretty much expected this to be a full essay on grammatical/punctuational/etc abuses – which drive me up. the. freaking. wall. – but it turned into something else entirely!

    I always get uber-annoyed when any woman speaks of things that her husband “lets” her do, or things she has to get “permission” for – and similarly, I get just as annoyed when someone interprets discussion I have with my own husband (such as you referenced above) as same. My husband and I have formed a partnership of equality in our marriage – his discretionary spending (cds, books) is just as valid as mine (yarn, books), and we both try to keep that spending in line. But occasionally one of us will want to spend more than the norm – and we always run it by the other.

    It just makes me sad to think of any woman feeling like she has to (or actually having to) ask her husband for permission to do, frankly, anything.

  8. lover of language and nuance Says:

    Great post! Thanks!

  9. Nancy McCarroll Says:

    Wow. I am impressed with what you said and how you crafted this post. All your other commentors have lengthy things to say, all with which I concur. Just wanted you to know I give you kudos for this posting and agree emphatically with using the Kings’ English (my grandmother’s favorite term for correct usage of the English language…she graduated from college in 1912).

    I play Scrabble competitively (now that I look at the word, it is probably misspelled!) and my brain actually looks for misuse of the Kings’ English.

  10. Morticcia Says:

    Coming late to the party, I enjoyed your post, and the thoughtful discussion in these here comments.

    I was intrigued by your comments on Eleanor of Aquitaine doing what she did for the reasons that she did.

  11. Gwytherinn Says:

    Oh I love love love this post!!! I’m so happy I looked up your site to show a non-knitter your Clothilde pattern and found it. I can’t stand it when people label me uptight and tell me I’m over thinking things when I critique language use from a feminist perspective. The way we use words shapes our world, whether we like it or not. It boggles my mind that people can take it so lightly – it is integral to our perceptions. That “my husband lets me” kind of thing is all over Ravelry and it makes me cringe. Or the jokes about hiding the boxes or the mail… gah! The one that also really gets me – in relation to your cat analogy – is male as default in both language and dynamic. A really interesting book on this topic that I’ve been reading is “Man Made Language” by Dale Spender.

  12. PhDeviate Says:

    Thank you for this excellent post! I know nothing of knitting, but your examination of how language matters is awesome and wildly more readable than many similarly themed writings!

    Thank you!

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