Bossy Ban(ter): Yes, Let’s Get Into Semantics

Facebook COO – better known for writing a book that, admittedly, I haven’t read – Sheryl Sandberg has a new thing: she’s started a campaign to ban the word “bossy.” (It’s called… Ban Bossy. And it has a hashtag and everything!) #Banbossy has the support of a bunch of awesome women – like Beyoncé! – and the Girl Scouts, too.

The fact is that, out of fear of being called “bossy,” girls often don’t assert themselves, which eventually contributes to the gender gap.  So Sandberg’s solution is to “ban” the word. And by “ban,” I’m not very sure what she means. Because the word isn’t, uh, actually being banned… Us civilians – Sheryl Sandberg included – don’t have enough jurisdiction to legally prohibit anything. Unfortunately, whoever came up with the name of this campaign was less into semantics and more into alliteration.

What the campaign is actually doing is making the word into a pariah. We all know what happens when you ban something: remember when drinking was prohibited? (Note to self: change to “remember when marijuana was illegal?” in ~5 years.)  Mark Twain said that thing once:

Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky. It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.

The Ban Bossy campaign website offers up some literature in downloadable PDF form (which, side note, is frankly really annoying because who enjoys downloading PDFs anymore/ever) and the advice is all too valid. For example, tip number two in the version for girls is to “stop apologizing before you speak.” This is a linguistic habit that kids (I hesitate to say that this only pertains to girls) pick up without realizing. (“I’m not sure if this is right, but…” is a provided example, as is upspeak, aka making statements sound like questions.)

But what does this have to do with banning the word bossy? This feeble attempt to delete a word from our lexicon does not solve the issue, nor does it even adequately address the point. (The point being that girls should embrace their ambitions.) Slate’s Katy Waldman offers up a much better framing and solution: instead of banning the word, “bossy” should be reclaimed by the very women it’s aimed at. (Word reclamation is what happened to “nerd” for example: though it’s common usage was pejorative, it’s now largely been redefined to be a term of pride. Nerds are cool now, you know.) Waldman finishes:

So, while I admire the sheer bossiness of a massive campaign designed to expunge the word bossy from our vocabularies, I don’t intend to stop using it, even if the feminist super-team tells me to. They’re not the boss of me.

No, #ReclaimBossy doesn’t feature the same contemptible alliteration, but at least it’s a more productive solution.

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