Saturday, July 13, 2013

There Is Nothing Like A Broad?

"There is nothing like a dame
Nothing in the world
There is nothing you can name
That is anything like a dame"
  --There Is Nothing Like A Dame

"My doll is as dainty as a sparrow
Her figure is something to applaud
Where she's narrow, she's narrow as an arrow
And she's broad, where a broad
Should be broad..."
  --Honey Bun

South Pacific (1949) Rodgers And Hammerstein

As I go traipsing down the street, as often as not the soundtrack in my head is as likely to be provided by a Broadway musical as it is my current pop music. I have a particular fondness for South Pacific for two reasons. My parents frequently played the original cast recording, featuring Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza. Along with Mame, Showboat, and Fiddler on the Roof, these formed some of my earliest musical memories. In college, I sang with the University of Florida Men's Glee Club, and music from South Pacific was a staple of our repertoire. On the way to work last week, I was humming through South Pacific and the word "broad" got stuck in my head.

I love words. I truly do. I love how English freely accepts and morphs words from so many different sources. I love how words can have contradictory meanings. I love how words evolve in form and meaning over time. I love when I get to struggle with a word.

I am not a prescriptive (or proscriptive) linguist. Throughout my degree in English, I prided myself in being a descriptive linguist. I find the self-proclaimed grammar experts/snobs to be tedious. Languages evolve or they die. It is far more interesting to see how languages are actually used, or even abused, in the real world. I am capable of using "correct English" for formal writing or speaking; the rest of the time, I oft choose not to.

I tackled "broad." The origins of the word as a noun referring to a woman are a bit murky. A brief internet search provided reams of contradictory information from experts who state the validity of their "research" with absolute certainty. I have learned that "broad" is associated with "woman" because it used to mean:
  • playing card. Later, in the gambling scam Three Card Monty, the player would need to select the card/board with the queen.
  • entry or transportation ticket. Somehow, that got associated with a prostitute being a pimp's meal ticket.
  • the widest section of a ship. As ships were often referred to as "she," this term was transferred to women.
  • a shortening of "abroadwife." This was a woman separated from her husband, often by slavery.
Some of these definitions came with references, of varying levels of quality. I followed the trail for a while before I got bored.

For my current inquiry, the etymology really doesn't matter that much. I more curious about the current connotations. As always, a quick check over at Urban Dictionary proved to be entertaining but ultimately unhelpful.

My own sense of the word is that there is something vaguely negative associated with the word, that it shouldn't be used for some reason, but that the reasons are at a meta-level. When I think of "broad" I do not associate any specific negative meanings. In fact, most of the uses that come to my mind are fairly positive. I think of "tough broads," "tough old broads," "classy broads," and "sexy broads." I would envision a broad as being secure, powerful, resilient, middle-aged to senior, and refined without being overly sophisticated. Women who spring to mind would include Bea Arthur, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Bette Davis, Bette Midler, and Whoopi Goldberg. For me, the meanings attached to the word are admirable, but I still struggle with a sense of disapprobation in using it.

Of course, what it means to me is only relevant in my head. From a use standpoint, how other people consider and react to the word is what is important. So I welcome discussion. Is "broad" permanently tarnished or has it evolved to become a useful term for a particular type of woman? Is the shift in meaning I talk about due to evolution or due to an active reclamation of the word?

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