The P-Word

Not exactly, but sort of a defense of the word panties.

A couple weeks ago, The Atlantic published an article by Sarah Fentem bemoaning the word panties, and in the spirit of writing journalism that offers solutions, Fentem considered some possible alternatives for the offending term.

As a linguist, feminist, and a rabid media consumer, I like it when people point out the misogyny entrenched in language, and I’m all about correcting linguistic usage when it is derogatory and hurtful. But panties is not the bellwether of the oppression of women everywhere, and pretending so (“’panties’ forces us to call our underwear something sexy, when really we decide for ourselves whether our underwear is sexy”) is more harmful than helpful.

panties

There are times when it’s worth fighting a word so oozing with a history of oppression (the n-word, spic, kike), or certain conventions that promote outdated, patriarchal systems (how English traditionally forced women to be identified by marital status through the titles Mrs. and Miss). But there are other times when we’re just grasping to find more offense in a word than actually exists in the collective conscience. I’m not denying that a panty raid is frat-tastic, and I’m sure I could conjure up some scene from popular culture in which to have one’s panties in a wad was used to belittle women. Still, using a word offensively here and there does not imbue it with offense across the board.

And panties means different things to different people. To Fentem, it means a gag reflex. She notes that the -ies suffix is a diminutive, transforming (our oh so strong and masculine) pants into “little pants,” insinuating that women who use the term allow themselves to be infantilized. She goes on to say that, paradoxically, panties is also an incredibly sexualized term; just look at Victoria’s Secret and Elle Woods.

Fentem, of all people, should recognized that a word like panties can have a lot more nuance than she gave it credit for. After all, she threw around the word unmentionables just for shits and giggles, as if this euphemism could be construed as any less problematic. But she uses unmentionables because it’s fun and that’s what writers do: they play with words.

I’d be a sadder person if I couldn’t use the phrase granny panties anymore, if only purely for self-enjoyment. But the word also has personal meaning to me. It’s one of the many words Puerto Ricans have readily adopted into their Spanglish repertoire; my sisters, my mother, and I pronounce it with a Spanish accent, generally yelling it across the house when we can’t find a pair of underpants that won’t leave a pantyline. Now my six-year-old niece, though pretty monolingually English, will bust out an adorable Spanglish panties when hanging with us girls (“Mami, I can’t find my favorite panties!”).

I’m all about linguistic analysis, and I’m genuinely bummed that Fentem didn’t take the opportunity to actually describe how we use panties in a non-alarmist way. The number one rule in linguistics is to describe, not dictate. A good linguist studies how we use language and attempts to uncover motivations rather than prescribe how people should speak. That doesn’t mean a linguist can’t also be an advocate. In fact, I think descriptive approaches to linguistics are much more effective than prescriptive approaches, because linguists reveal underlying attitudes of power dynamics, racism, and misogyny that litter our language. We’re not fighting the words themselves; we’re fighting what they mean culturally.

Writing a personal diatribe about one word you find icky is not worthwhile, especially when it’s being passed off as journalism on a major media outlet. A good linguist recognizes that there are moments when we should fight about language on a grand, Atlantic-sized scale. This just isn’t one of them.

Desi Gonzalez is a museum educator and a writer. She looks at pictures during the day and thinks about words at night.