Originally posted on Kafila:
Guest post by ANUPAMA MOHAN
I teach a big word in my critical theory classes: phallogocentrism. It is the idea that our societies are centred by the phallus and language (logos) and is a word that often scares, perplexes, and disturbs my students, but I unpack it using an example. In English, the word seminal, which means something important and path-breaking, derives from “semen” and in contrast, the word hysterical or hysteria, which is a word that has for long been associated with peculiarly female physical and mental disorders (and often used for recommending women’s confinement), derives from “hystera” or the womb. What does such loading of the language – what a 20th century Russian thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin, called the formation of the verbal ideological world – in terms of the perspective, validation, and supremacizing of one gender over the other do to/in our varied lives? Think of the word vanilla that, at least since the 1970s, has meant the ordinary and bland: its etymology derives from the Latin word for vagina (vaina) or “little vagina” for the pods of the plant that reminded someone of women’s genitals. The word porcelain – a thin, fragile kind of clay – too comes from the word for “cowrie shell” whose Italian links to porcella or young sow (a female pig) for someone recalled the shape of a piglet’s orifice. One more: the word amazon which refers to a legendary race of female warriors and has come to mean a strong woman derives possibly from many sources: from the Classical Greek a-mazos or breastless to the Iranian *ama-janah or “virility-killing” – a meaning that interprets the idea of women’s strength as both a mutilation of her physical self and/or as a threat to men.