Remember when you rarely heard that term? It was one of those words like “crapulent” or “adumbrate” that might appear on the SAT or a TV quiz show but rarely popped up in newsprint or conversation.
Even if you could define it, you didn’t use it, unless you were a paid critic fulminating about Philip Roth novels or Alfred Hitchcock movies.
But we’re living in a new age. It’s the age of a female presidential candidate who is routinely and publicly called a bitch and worse. It’s the age of her male rival, who glibly reduces women to weight, body parts and numerical ratings.
It’s an age when women are so fed up with the demeaning attitudes and acts provoked and revealed by this campaign that they take to the streets, as protesters did outside Chicago’s Trump Tower on Tuesday, waving signs that mocked the self-styled ladies’ man for predatory and debasing remarks he dismisses as locker-room talk.
It’s an age when, to tweak an old campaign truism, it’s not just the economy, stupid. The misogyny matters too.
Misogyny. From the Greek. Misos for hatred. Gune for women.
Lately, the word has proliferated in headlines, in sound bites, on the lips of pundits, attached to stories of groping, coarse language, harassment, worse.
Such talk may seem like proof that the 2016 campaign, as has been said, is in the toilet, but here’s a thing to remember about toilets:
When you flush, the unpleasant stuff churns and bubbles up before it’s washed away.
By that measure, this is one of the great presidential campaigns ever. For anyone who doubted misogyny was real, the past few months have flushed it into the open in all its awful variety and shown how much harm it does.
You can’t change what you don’t discuss. We are discussing. That’s a good thing.
What is misogyny exactly?
It’s in the top 1 percent of words looked up on Merriam-Webster, a reflection of its rising popularity, and the online dictionary offers a succinct definition: a hatred of women.
Other dictionaries, however, acknowledge that “hatred” doesn’t convey the word’s broader uses. They expand the meaning to include contempt for, or mistrust of, women.
In 2012, after Australia’s first female prime minister ignited a dispute over the word by using it in parliament, the main Australian dictionary changed the definition to include “entrenched prejudice against women.”
The dictionary’s editor, a woman, issued a statement: “Since the 1980s, misogyny has come to be used as a synonym for sexism, a synonym with bite, but nevertheless with the meaning of entrenched prejudice against women rather than pathological hatred.”
Whatever its parameters, the word’s use has accelerated.
Consider this. Twenty years ago — from Jan. 1 through Oct. 18, 1996 — the words “misogyny” or “misogynist” appeared in the Chicago Tribune only 22 times. Most of those references were to the arts — misogyny in books, theater, music.
In the same time period in 2016, the words have shown up 115 times — almost twice as often as they appeared a year earlier, and largely inspired by politics.
I’m no linguist, but I don’t think of sexism and misogyny as identical. In my mind, sexism covers actions and attitudes. Misogyny speaks to motive.
Why would a man routinely mistreat women, mock their looks, prey on them sexually, belittle and take advantage of them?
One of the best explanations I’ve run across is in Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography. In it, he talks about misogynistic traits he adopted from his father:
“A misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love.”
Framed that way, misogyny is more than hatred, more than prejudice, mistrust or contempt. It’s intimidation rooted in fear. Misogyny is a way of controlling women.
Women can be misogynists too. They can demean and bully other women. Anyone who doubts it hasn’t spent enough time in the darker channels of Twitter. And misogyny is hardly limited to Trump and his supporters.
But Trump has given a face to the word, and combined with Hillary Clinton’s position as the first viable woman running for president, he has given urgency to the discussion.
The bright side of all this ugliness is that we have been given a moment to talk about these issues of men, women, power, respect, language. And if it often seems everybody’s talking but nobody’s listening, the polls suggest otherwise.
In a new CBS poll, 46 percent of the women surveyed thought Trump doesn’t respect women, up from 31 percent in September.
When Trump wonders why he lost, he wouldn’t be wrong to hear, “The misogyny, stupid.”