It has been said that the greatest ambition of any writer is to invent a word or phrase that, despite having never been heard before, will enter common speech as though it had always been there. J.M. Barrie made up the name “Wendy.” Dr. Seuss was the first to popularize the term “nerd.” Lewis Carroll invented the word “chortle.” Stephen Sondheim has said that of all his myriad accomplishments, the one dearest to his heart is that the heretofore unheard phrase “everything’s coming up roses” somehow made it into the lexicon.
Facebook COO and big macher Sheryl Sandberg already joined this elite club of scribes with her first published work. (If you don’t believe me, count the number of articles using the phrase “lean in.” I’ll try to be here when you finish, a couple of years from now.) Now, in typically overachieving fashion, Sandberg is looking to change the language again—only this time, she wants to take a word out of circulation instead of putting one in.
The secret word (everybody scream!) we have to get rid of is “bossy,” or #bossy, depending on where you’re reading. Bossy, in Sandberg’s estimation, is a gendered insult, used almost exclusively to describe women who have the temerity to actually think they know the best way to do something. Men with comparable attitudes may be called “dominant” or “overbearing” or even “obnoxious,” but never “bossy,” an adjective that carries with it an overwhelming note of playground dismissal.
One could be forgiven for observing that deciding unilaterally to ban an adjective from the English language might seem a little, for lack of a better word, bossy. Indeed, I say we instead embrace the spirit of the offending term and bossily get rid of a different one—one particularly high on my own list of bugaboos.
When I was growing up, “bossy” wasn’t a word anyone ever used to describe me—unfortunately. I wished I could be bossy; I would have done anything to be that effective. No, the word I heard most often growing up was the equally gendered “ditzy.” Ditzy meant you were the kind of person who never seemed to have the right pen, or know where her notebook paper was, or would forget to answer the questions at the end of the chapter because she got so interested in the trajectory of European history that she read to the end of the textbook instead. Boys were sometimes “dreamy” or “curious,” or at worst “spacey” or “disorganized,” but only girls received the label of “ditz,” as though her general lack of focus on the mundane was somehow indicative of intelligence level. Which I guess it was, in a sense—if a girl couldn’t remember which side of the paper she was required to write her heading on, what the hell was she supposed to do for the rest of her life? After all, it wasn’t like she was going to have a wife one day to take care of these things for her. (Dumb-dumbs, all of us.)
Of course, the issue with banishing certain words from circulation is that while it may solve a semantic problem, the concept still exists. Despite our best efforts, there will always be space cadets and there will always be bossy people, male and female, standing over us at the stove, demanding to know how often and with what we’ve seasoned the food we’re cooking, or screaming at us from the back seat because we didn’t quite come to a complete halt at that four-way stop, or at least not complete enough for their liking, need an equitable, nonsexist term with which to diminish them.
But if we’re going to ban bossy anyway—and we probably are, since Sandberg is the closest thing we’ve got to guru these days—I suggest re-purposing one that isn’t gendered, but merely anti-Semitic: “pushy.” After thinking for too long about this, the only gentile I can remember ever being labeled this was Princess Michael of Kent, AKA “Princess Pushy” of “you should remember the colonies” fame. Otherwise, it’s a word mainly applied to things like jostling for bar mitzvah dates and looking for loopholes in medical-school applications, and you know what? I say we give it back to the world. True, it’s not a perfect synonym for “bossy,” but it’s close enough, and once it’s everyone’s, it’s no one’s. Maybe this time next year, we’ll be debating a new term for the person cutting in line at Bloomingdale’s—for example, “Jewish.”
For more Tattler columns, click here.