Let Virtue be as Wax

We are all products of our era, and often unbeknownced to us, our language is to blame. Words become signposts that reassure us that we know where we are headed. Where we came from. And yet they can be as lost as us –especially in the domain of sexuality. Even the word ‘sex’ itself –a seemingly self-defining concept- can be misleading. It’s origin, commonly attributed to the Latin verb secare –to divide, or cut- presumably to explain the physical difference between men and women, does not necessarily entrain the psychological divisions. Or behaviour.

To paraphrase Socrates at his trial, the unexamined word is not worth using. That ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ were so inconsonant I had not suspected. Sex, quite obviously, is a physical assignation; sexuality on the other hand, is the more psychologically -the more erotically- imbued preference. Indeed, the concept of heterosexuality did not exist as such in the past. Nor did homosexuality as an article by Brandon Ambrosino in the BBC News pointed out: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170315-the-invention-of-heterosexuality?ocid=ww.social.link.email  ‘One hundred years ago, people had a very different idea of what it means to be heterosexual.’ In fact, ‘The 1901 Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defined heterosexuality as an “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.” More than two decades later, in 1923, Merriam Webster’s dictionary similarly defined it as “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” It wasn’t until 1934 that heterosexuality was graced with the meaning we’re familiar with today: “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”’ It would seem that ‘all of our sexualities are “just there”; that we don’t need an explanation for homosexuality just as we don’t need one for heterosexuality.’

‘“Sex has no history,” writes queer theorist David Halperin at the University of Michigan, because it’s “grounded in the functioning of the body.” Sexuality, on the other hand, precisely because it’s a “cultural production,” does have a history. In other words, while sex is something that appears hardwired into most species, the naming and categorizing of those acts, and those who practice those acts, is a historical phenomenon.’ Or, to put it another way, ‘[…]there have always been sexual instincts throughout the animal world (sex). But at a specific point on in time, humans attached meaning to these instincts (sexuality). When humans talk about heterosexuality, we’re talking about the second thing.’

And as well, ‘[…] sexual desire was situated within a larger context of procreative utility, an idea that was in keeping with the dominant sexual theories of the West. In the Western world, long before sex acts were separated into the categories hetero/homo, there was a different ruling binary: procreative or non-procreative.’ So sexuality is the desire and although the act may be categorized as procreative (different-genital intercourse), or non-procreative (it doesn’t matter), with erotic desire -in the past at least- the intention was not further categorized. It was the act that was noticed. The act that was labelled. ‘Something […] happened with heterosexuals, who, at the end of the 19th Century, went from merely being there to being known. “Prior to 1868, there were no heterosexuals,” writes Blank [the author of Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality]Neither were there homosexuals. It hadn’t yet occurred to humans that they might be “differentiated from one another by the kinds of love or sexual desire they experienced.” Sexual behaviours, of course, were identified and catalogued, and often times, forbidden. But the emphasis was always on the act, not the agent.’

And yet nowadays, we seem to require labels –as if the words were themselves expositors and not mere descriptors. ‘Debates about sexual orientation have tended to focus on a badly defined concept of “nature.” Because different sex intercourse generally results in the propagation of the species, we award it a special moral status. But “nature” doesn’t reveal to us our moral obligations – we are responsible for determining those, even when we aren’t aware we’re doing so.’

The difficulty of negotiating this landscape had occurred to me long before I read the article, however. A few years ago I walked over to a downtown bus stop, tired after having a rather long day at work. I’d left the office early, and I thought I was the only one there until I noticed two teenaged girls sitting on the little bench in the bus shelter in passionate embrace. I didn’t want to embarrass them, but I did feel the need of sitting down. Unfortunately they had both put their backpacks onto what little remained of the seat on either side, so I thought I’d wait until they’d finished, as it were. I kept glancing at them, but their fervour seemed unending and I eventually resigned myself to standing.

Suddenly a head disentangled itself from the osculatory machinations and stared at me accusingly.

“Got a problem, mister?” it asked, while a hand deftly extricated a piece of overly-chewed gum from its mouth.

I blushed, but did manage a conciliatory smile hoping to defuse the tension. “Sorry,” I said, when I could find the words, “I didn’t mean to disturb you, but I was hoping I could sit down…”

The other head opened its eyes at the sound of my voice and managed an embarrassed smile while convincing its hands to leave her friend and move the pack from the seat. “We didn’t mean… We didn’t know anybody was standing there…”

The first head dropped its eyes to the pavement in obeisance. “Yeah, I didn’t mean to be rude…” She picked her eyes up again and sent them softly to my face before she looked at her friend. “It’s just that, like, some people get… You know, like, upset when they see us kissing.”

“Yeah, as if we were, like, tards, or something,” the second girl said as they both moved over on the bench to make room for me.

The word  tards seemed to offend the first girl. “She just means that, like, some people go strange when they see us being so… involved, I guess.” She looked at her friend and whispered something I couldn’t hear. “Like we’re pervs, or whatever,” she continued, after elbowing her gently.

“Yeah, the other day, one old guy walking by even, like, spat on the sidewalk when he saw us cuddling.”

“Yeah, as if he never cuddled with his partner…” the first girl giggled.

“He probably never had a partner, Joni!”

Joni shook her head. “Maybe not, but I don’t think he was, like, jealous or anything, do you?”

Her friend smiled. “He was just looking for a label, sweetheart. Some are easier to find, I guess.”

Indeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Non-Binary Gynaecology

There was a time when I thought I had a handle on gender, but things change: it’s no longer constrained by only two choices. And then I thought I understood the variations on the theme of sexual preferences. I even learned their names. Now I’ve discovered that no less an authority than the New York Times has decided to recognize that the use of ‘they’ might, at times, be acceptable in referring to a person without disclosing the sex (and therefore prejudicing the choice)–as in, say, ‘When the leader of the delegation announced the agenda, they did so in English.’

I thought I was keeping up. I thought I finally understood the intricacies of gender politics, but I realize that I am still challenged. I am still floundering in the choppy waters of an incoming tide. I’m going to have to stop reading the BBC news online:  http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34901704

Okay, I realize that having to use the ‘he/she’ device in the interests of universality (biversality?) makes for some tough slogging for the reader and makes an article, or a story, almost unreadable. But, in my naiveté, I assumed this was just a way of being inclusive: a way of recognizing that past generations had assumed the use of ‘he’ as a universal designation was a convention that was not meant as an exclusion –more like an unthinking shortcut that nobody had challenged.

So I have to say that I was certainly not expecting ‘they’ to evolve so rapidly into the demand for non-binary pronouns; the concept of American universities embracing signs like ‘Ask Me About My Pronouns’ caught me completely off guard. As the BBC article attests, ‘The alternatives to “he” and “she” are myriad.’ Indeed, ‘A linguist at the University of Illinois, Dennis Baron, has catalogued dozens of proposed gender-neutral pronouns, many – including “ip,” “nis,” and “hiser” – dating back to the 19th Century.’ Who would have thought…?

Fortunately –for me, at any rate- ‘[…] Baron calls the gender-neutral pronoun an epic fail and reckons that new pronouns such as “ze” may not survive. But both he and Sally McConnell-Ginet, a Cornell University linguistics professor who researches the link between gender, sexuality, and language, think the singular “they” – as used for example by Kit Wilson – has a chance of success.’

But languages change; preferences and acceptabilities mutate: ‘…English has a precedent for a plural pronoun coming to be used in the singular – the pronoun “you”. Until the 17th Century a single person was addressed with “thou” and “thee”. Later “you” became perfectly acceptable in both plural and singular.’ And then of course, the obverse ‘you-all’ (or the highly recognizable ‘y’all’ in some southern U.S. states’ dialects) -a merging of singular and second-person pronouns.

Now I suspect that much of my confusion at all of this probably stems from my perspective at the night-robed end of the age spectrum. From this spot, there is a tendency to view change as either unnecessary, or spurious -change for the sake of change. I admit my hesitation to embrace the need for even more twigs on the already-gnarled and pot-bound grammatical family tree which is nonetheless in desperate need of pruning. Perhaps it requires another pot entirely. Maybe that is what is intended.

I suppose I should have been prepared, though; I think I had a foretaste of it several years ago in my office.

Lynne and Elin were so alike, they could have been twins. Both sat entwined like ivy in a shadowed corner of the waiting room. They weren’t conspicuous or inappropriate, just, well, close. As I busied myself at the front desk with some forms I had to print, I noticed others waiting nearby stealing glances at them while pretending to be absorbed in some magazine or other. Both with short dark hair, identically-coloured light blue shirts, unbuttoned at the neck, and loose black jeans they scattered no useful gendered clues to the increasingly curious audience.

They both shook my hand when I approached, and both quietly accompanied me down the corridor to my office. I encourage patients to invite their partners to come with them to the consultation, but in a gynaecological practice, embarrassment –or a desire for privacy- often limits the participation of one of them. But not with these two. It was like inviting the flower without the stem.

Even when they seated themselves in front of my desk, I was still uncertain of their identities. Who was Lynne, and who was Elin was only part of the puzzle. I suspected that Elin might be a male partner, but when I heard him/her speak, I couldn’t be certain. Then I entertained the possibility that they were indeed twins –although more likely not identical ones- and that, like many twins, they did things together, whatever their gender.

It was Lynne who had been referred, however, so trying to be respectful of their homogeneous appearance, I stared intently at my computer screen to avoid their eyes, and asked which one of them was Lynne.

A knowing smile passed between them, and the one on the left put up his/her hand like she/he was in a class. “I’m Lynne, doctor,” she said, looking amused. “And this is my partner Elin,” she added, looking proudly at him/her and then reached for their hand.

I was speechless for a moment, but I tried to hide it with a smile and then a nod in his/her/their direction. “I see,” I finally managed and then, looking at Lynne, promptly crossed some sort of a line when I continued with, “I glad you invited her to be with you.” I said it to be polite and inclusive, but I suppose I also said it as a way to establish Elin’s gender. They both stiffened immediately.

“Elin does not recognize gender identity, doctor,” Lynne said in a tone that brooked no contradiction.

“Nor does Lynne,” Elin tossed at me.

“I don’t want to be limited in who I am,” Lynne chimed in. She wasn’t trying to be provocative I don’t think, but I know she realized the effect it would have on me, because her eyes hardened and her forehead wrinkled like a professor introducing a new concept to a fidgeting, skeptical class. “Sometimes I’m both, and sometimes neither… I am what I am in the moment.” She said that with such fervour that one eye actually closed with the effort.

I think she was daring me to question the possibility of a modern-day Janus -the two-faced god of transitions. Instead, I was intrigued and I could see it surprised both of them.

I nodded in acceptance, smiling to myself all the while. I’d never considered the idea before, and I found it fascinating. “So, if I may acknowledge my naiveté in such things, may I ask how you would refer to Elin –in conversation, for example? Which pronoun would you use –masculine or feminine, or…?” I left it open so she/they could offer her/their preferences.

“Well,” Lynne started after a long look at Elin, “we considered ‘ze’ as kind of a neutral pronoun at first, but it sounded sort of… weird. Then we tried ‘ey’ –sort of a slurred mixture of the conventional choices- but everybody seemed to think we had just mispronounced ‘she’ or ‘he’ and tried to clarify it for us.” Lynne shrugged and squeezed Elin’s hand. “I hate binaries,” she added as a sort of postscript.

“So we’ve decided just to use our names instead of other gender-obfuscating pronouns,” Elin said and smiled, satisfied that using the word ‘obfuscating’ somehow deposited the problem behind them. “I mean, if you think about it, even the concept of ‘binary’ suggests that there are only two choices: male and female. We know that is no longer the case,” he/she/they/ey/ze concluded. And I suppose for them (I am allowed to use ‘them’ apparently), it wasn’t.

Lynne suddenly looked at her/their watch and glanced at Elin. “I’m so sorry doctor, but we have to catch a bus to the airport to meet Elin’s mother. I didn’t realize the appointment would take so long…” It was obviously a lame excuse – an escape mechanism, they’d probably used before, but I let it pass. Whatever Lynne’s gynaecological problem, she/Lynne/they felt it could clearly wait for another visit.

Actually, I didn’t think it had taken any time at all –I hadn’t even asked her/them/Lynne why she/they/Lynne thought she/Lynne/they been referred. But I guess pronouns are slow-moving beasts, so I just smiled and asked her/them/Lynne if she’d/Lynn’d/they’d like to schedule another appointment at a time when Lynne/they/Elin could stick around a little longer. I didn’t say it like that, of course –it would have taken far too long and they/Lynne/Elin were obviously in a hurry.

Lynne/Elin/They smiled at me when they/Elin/Lynne left so Elin/they/Lynne obviously didn’t feel they/Lynne/Elin were not heard. And I, at least, felt I’d taken the pulse of a new and perhaps metastasizing condition; I had learned something new about the world. I have two regrets however. One of them is that I never saw them/Lynne/Elin again so I couldn’t pursue my gender education any further; but mainly, I never was able to discover whether Elin was male or female… not that it would matter to either of them, I guess.

 

 

 

 

 

The Mistaken Identity

Communication is a fascinating thing. It enables descriptions of the world in different sounds, different gestures, different expressions. A shrug of indifference in one culture is a greeting in another. A nod can convey a myriad of intentions -context is everything. Only the smile seems a common currency. As a gynaecologist, I am ruled by boundaries, beyond which I dare not venture without, at the very least, the permission of a smile.  It is a sign hung upon the face that needs no words -the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the mysteries of culture and walks the unfamiliar language like a bridge.

My office is a tiny United Nations, with a rainbow range of clothes on display, and skins to match. The waiting room is impossible to ignore, but equally difficult to understand. Words are encrypted by language, and intent masked by the panoply of expressions encoded in millennia of habitual use. It is a place of pleasant noise. Expectant. Pregnant, if I may say, with expectations both imminent and anticipated. Now is just a passing fancy; it is the future they await: a baby, a diagnosis, or just the reassurance that they are in not imminent need of help. It is a place of smiles, both nervous and shy -signals that they understand their different reasons for sitting side by side.

But it is sometimes a more confusing world once they have entered my consulting room. Words matter there. Meanings are crucial, explanations need context, symptoms require a modicum of description. Except for the more flagrant and visible aberrations of bodily integrity, diagnoses require detail. Language. And patients who are adept at simple conversations in English often struggle with words they would not encounter in the home. What is hidden from sight, is usually hidden from discussion: there is seldom a need to talk about an ovary nor, for that matter, a vagina -even in their own language. It is more often passed over with a blush, or an anxious smile.

I tell the referring doctors to ask their patients to bring a translator with them if they think it may be a problem, but too often it is a family member with similar language skills who accompanies them -a daughter who is too embarrassed to say the words, or a husband in front of whom she is ashamed to admit the problem. Everyone smiles, but often with incomprehension or discomfort.  I love the challenge.

Sometimes the challenge is of a different sort, however; sometimes it is me who is embarrassed.

There were just two of them in the waiting room -sisters, likely, and not too far apart in age. As I walked into the room to greet them, they were huddled together whispering loudly about something and didn’t notice me until I was standing right beside them.

“Wei?” I said in a rather tentative voice, reading the name off the referral letter that was written on a piece of paper, but not certain I had pronounced it  correctly.

I was immediately greeted by a smile -two smiles- and they both stood up. Neither made eye contact, but they followed me down the corridor to my office -normally a good sign. I felt confident that one of them was Wei.

“Wei, you sit in this chair by the desk,” I said, addressing the space between them, and hoping for clarification in the assigned seat. But instead, they seemed confused and I could almost feel the mental flipping of coins as to who sat where. I addressed the Wei seat first. “Wei?” I said, to cement the relationship.

They both smiled -nervously, I thought. The Wei seat answered for them both. “Wai,” she said -by way of correction I assumed. Even though I’d taken conversational Cantonese many years before, I never mastered even the rudiments of the many variations of pronunciation, let alone meanings of words that seemed otherwise identical. But I was happy at the confirmation of identity and smiled my acknowledgement.

“So why are you here today, Wai?” I said, careful of my pronunciation. And careful to differentiate her from her sister. Apart from the name, the referral letter was illegible.

They exchanged glances, apparently trying to decide who should answer. Obviously one of them was better at English, and they wanted to make sure I understood. It was Wai in the assigned patient chair who answered. She seemed pleased that she was able to speak, but she, too, seemed to need to clarify the situation before proceeding any further. “She my sister,” she said pointing at the other chair.

I smiled and nodded at the information. “How do you do?” I said to each of them. Clearly there was a series of preliminary introductions and small talk that were deemed necessary. Polite. I decided not to rush things, but after conferring briefly with her sister, she got right to the point.

“Me?” she said, pointing to herself. I nodded in assent. She smiled broadly and looked at her sister. Proudly, I thought. I could see her struggling to find the correct words. “Baby,” she said, and her smile almost split her face in two. “First baby!”

I could tell this was going to be a difficult. Her sister stayed quiet, merely nodding whenever Wai said anything. “Do you speak English?” I said, politely turning to the sister. Hope springs eternal. But she shook her head smiled. “Only little,” she added after a moment and an inquisitive glance at Wai.

It was Wai’s turn. “I the good English,” she said confidently and not without an ill-disguised condescending glance at her sister.

I wasn’t really sure how to proceed. Taking an adequate history was impossible -even finding out if there were problems with the pregnancy so far seemed remote. But Wai appeared so enthusiastic and happy, I thought I’d try for a few basics. “So, when is the baby due?” I immediately regretted the word ‘due’ because her face fell. I decided to try a more basic form: “When baby come?” I felt embarrassed to say it like that -it too, seemed condescending- but Wai understood and smiled again.

“Seven,” she said, holding up seven fingers.

Encouraged, I considered pressing on with more detail. I thought I’d try for the date of her last period -that would  help me plan what to do next in terms of ultrasounds, blood tests, and so forth. “When did your last period start?” I said as slowly as I could without sounding silly. But I quickly realized I’d framed it poorly. “When last bleeding?” I tried, blushing at the clumsy attempt.

Again the smile. “June one,” she said, this time holding up one finger confidently.

Great, I was getting somewhere at last.  But when I then tried to ask her if she’d had an ultrasound yet, it became immediately apparent that I had reached the bottom of the well. I shrugged and put on my best smile. “I’m going to need more information…” I sighed to show I knew how difficult it must be for her. “You’re going to need to bring an interpreter next time, Wai…” She looked disappointed, so I think she understood. She turned unexpectedly to her sister and quickly said something to her that sounded like she was confused. They both looked at me for a moment, and then huddled together in quiet conversation, occasionally risking a puzzled stare and then submerged themselves in words again.

“So, you not talk to Wei?” she said, pronouncing the name as I had in the waiting room and pointing to her sister.

“Are you not Wai?” I said, confused at the pronunciations, then glancing at my watch.

She nodded vigorously and smiled. “I Wai; my sister Wei,” she said, touching her sister gently on the arm. Then they both began to laugh. “You make mistake..?” said Wai -I think it was Wai; I was becoming quite confused. But I have to admit I blushed all the same.

I managed to chuckle along with them; they seemed quite amused by the whole encounter.

“Not problem,” said Wai, glancing at her watch. “We come back.”

And so began another day at the regional section of my own United Nations Gynaecology division… Do you see why I love what I do?

The Crown Jewel

 

Ahh, those were the days! The days when naivete reigned. The once-upon-a-times when my practice was young and everyone around me seemed old. They spoke a language I had not anticipated in my training; they seem to have subscribed to different dictionaries, or the words were smudged so they did their best with what they could make out. I began to wonder if my background in the prairies had hidden me from modern descriptive English. Cloaked me in innocence. After all, it was the place where I was assured by a teacher in grade three that Winnipeg was the only place in the world where we did not speak with an accent.

Of course, since then I have lived in many places, and my vocabulary has expanded accordingly -but it is the jargon of common things by and large: words we might use with a person in the office, or a friend at a coffee shop. Every day things… Doctors generally do not unwrap their esoteria in public, and their user-unfriendly descriptives for particular bodily parts or conditions go largely untranslated. Unappreciated in the main. And anyway, most people have their own names for the stuff.

But when you’re first starting and building a practice, the world is freshly scrubbed and terminology an adventure. I quickly discovered that patients are wont to try new doctors in a never ending quest for clarity –someone whose explanations they can understand. Someone who doesn’t have to resort to pointing at the area in question. We are all under somebody’s microscope.

*

It was only my second month in practice, and I wasn’t very busy.

“Doctor, I hope you can help me,” the olive-skinned woman said as soon as she sat down. Her long black hair was carefully pinned on her head, but as she gestured, little strands would escape and cross her eyes like windshield wiper blades. Far from annoying her, she hurried the transit in a trained fluid sweep of her head as if it was an integral part of her everyday speech.

She was a heavy woman, but dressed in a stunning green blouse and black jeans, she wore her weight, like her height, as a gift. The most striking feature about her, though, was her eyes. Intense and brown, they prowled the room in search of prey, then fastened upon me like a cat, and once engaged, stapled me to my chair.

I struggled to disengage and tried to focus on her chart for a moment. Usually there is an explanatory referral letter, but there were only three words scrawled in pencil –hurriedly, I think, because they were almost undecipherable.

My face must have fallen, because she unlatched her eyes, scanned the upside-down letters, and said, “Dr. Edwards is a man of few words, eh?”

I looked up, embarrassed at my inability to decipher the letters, and turned the page so she could read it. “Any idea what it says?”

She studied my face to see if I was kidding. “He was kind of puzzled by my stuff, so he told me to explain it to you… Anyway, it says ‘something quadrant pain’ –whatever that means.” A mischievous look snuck onto her face and her body shivered ever so slightly, the movement slowly descending like a wave. “I’ve got pain in my parts… My private parts,” she added quickly, concerned that fancy might draw me to more public venues.

“And when do you get pain… there?” I asked, hoping for more clarity.

She thought about it for a moment. “Well, mostly during my monthlies I suppose, but occasionally during his act.” I must have looked blank, because her eyes dropped briefly as she searched for a more apt description. “You know,when he… walks through the door,” she said, and sat back in her chair convinced she had simplified the term.

She struggled through her history with a litany of words I had never heard before. Things like ‘tweenie-legs’ and ‘bloaty-stuff’ surfaced briefly, then sank just as quickly after I’d made a stab at translating them into something I could dictate to her doctor.

But when we’d plodded through the symptoms and I’d had a chance to examine her, it seemed likely that she had endometriosis –a painful condition where some of the endometrial cells that normally line the uterus and are expelled during menstruation, are forced back through the Fallopian tubes into the abdominal cavity where they can grow.

The condition is usually diagnosed and treated with a laparoscope –a telescope inserted through the belly button under an anaesthetic. Pretty standard stuff. But this seemed to worry her more than the condition itself. “I’m kinda worried about my crown jewel,” she said, her brown eyes watering.

I smiled and assured her that I would not be taking anything out of her. I had heard the expression ‘crown jewels’ before but always in the plural, and never referring to women. But, summoning up a vague memory of trash talk in the YMCA locker room, I assumed it was a code for ovary and not wanting to become entrapped in another of her semantic vortices, I left it at that.

*

The last thing she said to me in the OR before the anaesthesiologist put her to sleep was “Careful of the crown jewel, eh, doc?” I touched her shoulder reassuringly and watched her close her eyes as the medication took hold.

“What was that about?” the scrub nurse said as she was prepping her adomen.

I shrugged. “I was hoping I was the only one who didn’t understand…”

Belly buttons are interesting areas, I have come to realize. They exist in all sizes and shapes. Their contours run the gamut from vertical alignment to transverse and since the laparoscope has to be inserted through it, the incision has to be similarly tailored so it is inapparent after it heals. Hers was distorted, however, so I found I had to be creative. I ended up cutting a short horizontal line about as long as my little finger nail on its lower edge much to the surprise of the resident doctor who was assisting me.

“I’ve only seen it cut vertically,” she said with some hesitation evident in her voice. It wasn’t exactly a criticism –residents don’t usually criticize their staff- but I could hear the implied judgement in the tone. I smiled beneath my mask, and said something to justify my decision. But it was a bluff; I recognized my heresy all too clearly. If it healed with a ridge, or a scar, there might be complaints. It made me all the more determined to leave her ovaries unharmed.

And then, after dealing with the endometriosis, and dictating the operative report, I promptly forgot about the navel issue. Until, that is, she returned to see me several weeks later.

*

She sat down opposite me as she had that first time, but her eyes were so intense I could barely see her face. “What did you do, doctor?” she said in an accusatory tone before I could even open her chart.

“Do you still have the pain?” I asked carefully –almost shyly, given the spotlight of her eyes. I felt naked in their allegation. Like I had done something wrong.

She turned down the wattage and I could finally see the smile that had been in possession of her face all the while. “No, of course not…”

‘Of course not’? I took a deep breath as the memory of her umbilical incision rose slowly and painfully into my chest; my resident had been right.

“How did you do it?” she said a little too loudly, her eyes firmly grasping my head. “My friends all noticed; everybody’s been commenting.”

“I’m sorry,” I managed to mumble, my cheeks no doubt red with the effort. “I don’t underst…”

“The belly button!” She interrupted and then almost jumped across the desk in her frenzy. As it was, she leaned so far she was almost touching me. Then she relented and retreated slowly into her chair. “You know what I do, don’t you?”

Actually, I didn’t –in those days I rarely noticed if a profession was written on the chart- but I could hear the word ‘lawyer’ humming softly in the background.

“I dance professionally,” she said. “I specialize in the danse du ventre, to use my favorite description.” I think I must have accidently raised an eyebrow, because she rolled her eyes impatiently and added “A belly dance!”

“I still don’t…”

“My crown jewel,” she said, carefully enunciating each word as if speaking to a slow child. “I wear a ruby in my belly button as part of my act.” My face stayed blank. “It always falls out unless I glue it in. Those kittens are heavy, you know. Especially when you’re moving everything around.”

“So..?” I didn’t know where she was going with this, so I tried to stay neutral. Sensitive.

“So whatever you did worked… Sits in there like a baby in a blanket now.”

I allowed myself a smile.

“The girls in the troupe are all impressed,” she said, positively beaming. “I told them to pretend they had pain in their parts so they could get to see you.”

Well, I guess it’s a start, eh?

 

The Linguistic Pregnancy

What is pregnancy? What’s in a name, for that matter..? Is it true that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, or is there something in the name itself that alters and affects that to which it refers? Neo-Whorfianism, in other words…

For example, the Chinese word for what we in English call ‘pregnancy’ is youxi (transliterated, of course). If you break it apart, though, it is composed of two Chinese characters: you –which means something like ‘to have’ and xi which means ‘joy’ or words to that effect. Only when strung together as a unit, does it mean ‘pregnancy’.

There are many other similar examples, of course; the one that comes to mind here in bilingual Canada is the French word for pregnancy: la grossesse –largeness. Or how about Spanish: embarazada –etymologically it derives from the same root as does the English ‘embarrassed’.

But is this really telling us anything important about the culture – or anything at all? Look up our own English word ‘pregnant’. It derives (probably), says the Oxford English Dictionary, from two Latin words: prae –meaning ‘before’ and the base of gnasci, or nasci –be born. Not much to talk about there… Time for a little background.

In the 1930ies, Benjamin Whorf hypothesized that language alters how its users view reality. If there exists no word in a society for numbers, then how could its members count? He discovered that in the Hopi language –a Native American people- there were no markers of time –no later, or earlier, for example. So maybe they considered past, present and future the same? No words for time, no sense of time… The hypothesis put the cart before the horse it would seem, but the idea caught on… For a while, anyway.

Tempting as it may be to read cultural and etymological significance into the words that have come to be used for pregnancy –are Spaniards really embarrassed about being pregnant, for example?- many linguists have suggested that there is little if any validity in so doing. Well perhaps they’re right –all I  know about language is what the experts tell me and this seems to change over time.

So maybe I can take my pick of the plethora of  linguistic opinions. I mean it all seems to hinge on which theory is ascendant, which linguist is the most convincing/charismatic, and which theory gets the most press –a rare thing at best in Language Theory. But sensitivities do change, and revisionism usually rears its head to correct insensitive contentions. Data appears to go in and out of fashion; each side argues about it and then poof, a paradigm shift, and they’re off again. It’s almost like watching a hockey game.

From a decidedly lay position, though -one firmly rooted in popular mythology- I’ve come to suspect that linguists are trying to take the soul out of language: the fun. So I’m throwing in my lot with the opposition. Languages are alive; they simmer and bubble neologistically; they evolve according to need. They incorporate metaphor…They are metaphor until a suitable word is created to fill a niche.

The richness of a language resides both in the changes it undergoes and what it does with the remnants. With Semantic Drift, nothing is wasted; old ideas -old words- hide just beneath the surface, noticed only when pointed out. Borrowed words from other languages and other times play with meanings like colours play with fashion. It’s likely the same in all languages, all cultures, but I’d be stretching the obvious if I pretended to comment intelligently about anything other than English.

So does that make me a culturalist –or whatever the term would be for someone who loves to think each culture adds its own unique iridescence to the mix? And am I really harming anyone -or any society- if I smile at how some languages have managed to add a whiff of descriptive ingenuity to a word as important as ‘pregnancy’? Isn’t it wonderful to think that a language could transmute one or two words, conceal them in plain sight (or hearing?) -but unobtrusively so they don’t stand out like hitchhikers- and have them function as ambassadors for something totally new? And yet, like ‘Where’s Waldo’ they are there all the while, chuckling in the background at their clever disguises.

Personally, I think the world is more of a family if we can search inside each culture’s heritage for these shared gems without the fear of opening a racial Pandora’s box.  To unveil them should not court accusations of malevolent intent, or naïve generalizations. Just because, for example, one of the terms to describe being pregnant in Russian (Beremenaya in transliteration) translates, roughly, as ‘load’, ‘burden’, or even ‘punishment’, it says little more about the culture’s attitude to pregnancy than that it has a sense of perspective –and humour. Should we seriously speculate that because of their word for it, Malawians (in the Chichewa language) really, deep down, consider pregnancy an illness?

I think everybody should just lighten up and enjoy the archeologized meanings for what they are: a demonstration of the incredible ability of humans to bend their words and meld them into new and intricate designs. I don’t know, sort of like Isaiah’s idea of beating swords into ploughshares… Or would that be denigrated as a neo-neo-Whorfianism?