Bossy, frigid and feisty: Why do we only use these words to describe women?

Above: the only acceptable reaction to being referred to as ‘bossy’.

Language is undeniably important. How we communicate is paramount to our society. The words we choose to use, and why, have the power to affect the opinions we form and how we view people. It is therefore interesting and important to open a discussion up about why, exactly, we have so many words that we only use to describe women. Not because the definition is anything to do with femininity – but purely because society has taken that word and chosen to use it in that way, and often with negative connotations. Here are 5 words we almost always only use to describe women.


Ever heard a man be described as ‘feisty’? Nope, me neither. ‘Feisty’ is usually used as a compliment, because it means independent, fiery, tough, resilient, spirited – all good things. But do you know what the Oxford Dictionary definition adds? It says: “…often when you would not expect them to be”. Ok – so we only really use this word to describe independent, resilient women, and apparently, that’s unexpected? Why do we still not expect a woman to be independent, resilient or tough?


When a woman takes charge or expresses dominance, she is often referred to as bossy. Acting the same way, a man is usually referred to as being powerful, hard-working, authoritative. Many definitions of bossy say something along the lines of “offensively self-assured” or “exercising unwarranted power”.

I think this is the really telling part of using the word ‘Bossy’ as a word to describe women: unwarranted power. Perhaps we rarely call men bossy because their power is always warranted; we expect it and often actively encourage it. But a woman exercising power is ‘bossy’ because perhaps we still, even on a subconscious level, feel that a woman exercising power is unwarranted.


An excessively unpleasant word to describe women, it’s also heavily sex-biased; when a woman refuses sexual advances or chooses not to personally engage in casual sex, she is often referred to as ‘frigid’. When a man chooses not to engage in sex or casual sex he is often seen as one of the respectful ‘nice guys’. Men’s ideas of women’s frigidity exist in all forms of social interactions, for example, when men tell women to smile.

Even the dictionary adds “especially of a woman” to the end of its definition. The word ‘frigid’ and its connotations still reek of Victorian ideas of female sexual arousal disorders and other backward old-fashioned views.


The secondary school myth of a woman’s biological ‘looseness’ and the phrase “You’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t” spring to mind. In general, society needs to stop normalising the use of words that degrade, label and insult women for exercising the right to say yes or no to sex – you can’t win. A woman’s sexual choices should not be a source of guilt.


If you think about it, you very, very rarely hear a man being called ‘hysterical’. Hysterical is usually used to refer to a woman who is showing she is angry, passionate, emotional, or upset. However, the actual definition is a person who is being uncontrollably emotional, or overwrought.

In this context, the word arose, like frigidity, from the old Victorian ‘condition’ women supposedly suffered from where their wombs ‘travelled’ around their bodies, causing this outburst of emotion.

Amy Smith

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