So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf) and how about… termagant?
So, long story short, I was explaining the other day my first encounter with today’s word, termagant, a noun that Webster’s Fourth defines as “a quarrelsome, scolding woman; a shrew.”
And I totally cobbed up my explanation. Termagant (TERR-muh-gant), so they say, comes from the Middle English termagaunt, which is an “imaginary Muslim deity portrayed as a violent and overbearing character in medieval mystery plays.”
When I made my explanation, I had remembered the word from culture-clashing anecdotes in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent “Christianity.” And so I incorrectly said termagant was an imaginary Christian deity, which is a gross violation of the, you know, whatever.
It was some time later when I realized my mistake, and upon reflection I remembered, for no good reason, another misogynistic word I had recently encountered, Xanthippe.
That is the name of Socrates’ wife, who according to classical tradition was “shrewish and scolding.” I happened at that moment to look up Xanthippe on the Google, and I realized two things: One, there are a lot of fun words in this phylum of morphemes, and two, and perhaps this is not surprising, some of these words have unfair origins.
Take Socrates’ wife — take her, please! — as an example. There is reason to think that she was, as Socrates himself is quoted as saying, “the hardest to get along with of all the women there are.” But Socrates apparently knew what he was getting into; he is said to have chosen Xanthippe because of her peculiar amiability, not in spite of it. He is supposed to have said, though not exactly with magnanimity, “None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me.”
Sadly, or perhaps typically, the nuances of Socrates’ endorsement have been lost to later generations. Thus handed the ball, generations of men, including bright lights like Shakespeare, were more than happy to run with it.
And it is in the spirit of my forebears that I here propose to present something of a boxscore for words like termagant and Xanthippe. Though, to maintain the putatively noble pursuits of this franchise, I will not dwell on the obvious examples (e.g. hag, bitch and she-devil), the overly technical (e.g. calumniator, vituperator and backbiter) and the unimaginative (e.g. witch, ogress and scold). Also scarcely worth comment are hellcat, bag, battle-axe, biddy, sorceress, vixen, hussy, nag, she-wolf, tigress and wench.
Where does that leave us?
For starters, Xanthippe is not even the most famous woman to have her name be co-opted into an epithet. The biblical Jezebel, for instance, was an ambitious and intelligent Phoenician princess who married Ahab, king of the strategic northern Israeli state of Judah.
On the face of it, Jezebel really ought to be an admirable figure. She was a graceful and beautiful woman, proven as a competent administrator, possessed of a thoroughly independent mind, and recognized, if behind the scenes, as the real ruler of the kingdom. Jezebel’s big mistake was to lend state support to the worshippers of a god known as Baal, who were fierce early rivals of the Jews. And it is the unflattering portrayal by Jewish scribes that survives today.
When Ahab died, the Baal star was no longer ascendant. After Jezebel’s son Jehoram captured the throne, he resolved to undo her spiritual patronage. The scene is set in Chapter 9 of Second Kings; Jezebel put “on eye makeup, arranged her hair and looked out of a window,” possibly hoping to resume some of her former offices in the new regime. Jehoram, in a petulant act stripped from the pages of the Greek tragedies, not only has no interest in Jezebel as a possible queen, consort or counselor, he gets his court toadies to chuck her out a window — which reminds me of a potential future Word of the Week, defenestration.
Speaking of the Greeks, let us tumble from near-fiction to actual fiction. Mythology provides a rich biome of malevolent female entities, many of whom are summoned as sexual foils in paragraphs to this day.
The most famous, perhaps, are the sirens, “any of several sea nymphs, represented as part bird and part woman, who lure sailors to their death on rocky coasts by seductive singing.” These ladies are mostly harmless, so long as you don’t listen to them. They play a surprisingly brief role in “The Odyssey,” mostly to demonstrate that Odysseus was a vain and oversexualized pain in the ass.
There are harpies, which in the classical sense are “loathsome, voracious monsters with the head and trunk of a woman and the tail, wings, and talons of a bird.” As terrible as that sounds, typically what harpies do is just snitch food from the picnics of heroes like Aeneas; though, sometimes they employ enough theatrics to ruin the whole party.
Far more serious are the Furies — Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. These are beastly dames whose heavenly franchise is to “pursue and punish doers of unavenged crimes.” That sounds like a noble function, but they turn out to be busybody sticklers for often contradictory principles. One of my favorite paintings is of the Furies (top of the post) giving the business to Orestes, who had killed his mother (Clytemnestra) to avenge her murder of his father (Agamemnon) — a tangle of blood crimes that the Furies were not interested in sorting out.
At the peak of the mythical pyramid of female nastiness are the Gorgons, from the Greek gorgos, which means “dreadful.” These scraggly skirts had snakes for hair — which is pretty much standard equipment for supernaturally malevolent women in classical times — and were so ugly that they would turn to stone any fool dumb enough to look their way. Traditionally, there were three: Stheno, Euryale and the most notorious, Medusa, who was famously outsmarted by Perseus and turned to stone by a glimpse of herself in a mirror.
If the classics bring you down, there remains a rich trove of words from the succeeding centuries. Consider harridan, “a nasty, bad-tempered woman, esp. an old one,” probably from the French haridelle, which means “worn-out horse”; shrew, “a woman with a violent, scolding, or nagging temperament; a scold,” probably from the Middle English shrewe, which means “villain”; fishwife, named for the rough-hewn female operatives of medieval fish markets and defined as “a woman regarded as coarse and shrewishly abusive”; and spitfire, “a person, esp. a woman or girl, who is easily aroused to violent outbursts of anger,” which eventually lent its name to a World War II fighter plane.
In the same way I got my story wrong about termagant, and the balance of history got it wrong about poor Xanthippe, many of these slurs originate as compliments.
To wit, a crone, “an ugly, withered old woman; a hag,” was a stock female character in medieval storytelling. Often, she had supernatural powers; sometimes, she was cruel or vindictive. But always she was a wise old woman.
Virago, “a woman regarded as noisy, scolding, or domineering” is also defined by Webster’s as “a large, strong, courageous woman.” The idea is rooted in the Greek notion of virtue; any woman who was able to match a man in some way was said to have it. You do not have to be a student of humanity to see how such exemplars were eventually recast as pushy broads.
And so we are nudged to the Internet:
She seems defeated and completely under the thumb of her termagant mother Helen Ryan, an expert at barbed put-downs and connoisseur of funerals ‘Twelve I’ve been to this year. Twelve and it’s only August’.
Bach is largely underplaying, but the character is such an unmitigated termagant, you half expect smoke to emit from her flared nostrils and the baying of wolves to accompany her entrances.
Carson lives with his recently divorced mother, Sheryl Allison Janney, a venomous, pill-popping, alcoholic termagant who informs her son that the only reason she didn’t abort him was her foolish hope that having a child would save her marriage. His father, Neal Dermot Mulroney, is a fatuous wimp who has neglected to tell his pregnant sweetheart, April Christina Hendricks, a local pharmacist, of Carson’s existence.
The real treat of this production is Carly Bawden’s Eliza, initially a sooty-faced termagant, all duckling mouth and strumpety hips, who becomes the swan of Higgins’s creation and ends it his equal.
- “Symposium” by Xenophon (booksontrial.wordpress.com)