My grandma told me to be careful about what I wished for, as it might come true. In a July 1998 review of Philip Herbst's first diversity lexicon, The Color of Words (Managing Diversity Newsletter, September 1998), I complained, "one might wish that terms about age, gender and sexual orientation were included." In this case, I am not at all sorry that the wish came true. Wimmin, Wimps, & Wallflowers targets the language around these topics with depth and accuracy. Herbst, not yet in the autumn of his years, has also rightly noted that the terms for aging and aged people generally have strong gender dimensions and therefore should be and are treated in this context.
Word origins are fascinating, and it is almost riveting to see how some words begin in innocence and take on more damaging meanings, while others lose their viciousness and bite over time and through overuse. It is also interesting to see the attempts and occasional successes in which pejorative words have been embraced and transformed by their intended targets, as in the feminist rehabilitation of crone.
This is a lexicon of popular culture and its speech. The author is at home citing Bobby Dylan, Doris Lessing, James Baldwin and contemporary films to illustrate both meanings and nuances in the use of the more than 1100 entries in the volume. Much of the language discussed is ancient, much of it new, much of it twisting and turning through time. Many of the entries are not for the faint-hearted.
Good scholarship need not be dispassionate, as long as the author is up front about what he is doing. Herbst has made it clear that he has undertaken this work as an interested party. While he may draw on previous etymological sources, such as Alan Richter's Sexual Slang (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), there is clearly a political dimension to Wimmin, Wimps, & Wallflowers. This is well and good, as we need to discuss the language we use and what we mean by it, how it affects us and what we choose to be called, and what offends us. I might be on my way to being an old fogey, but I am definitely not yet a geezer, though you may think differently.
Obviously, there are points at which the reader may take issue with the author. All the better if it generates an enlightening discussion. I, for one, find the equation of antisexist and feminist to be at best, a logical fallacy, and at worst a gratuitous assumption. Nonetheless this book serves our diversity by bringing more dimensions of it to awareness. Hopefully it will avoid the pitfalls of becoming a checklist for the road rage of political correctness as we continue to shift our understanding in more inclusive directions.
Herbst has focused on US English terms as his goal, and admirably reached it. There is more yet to be done. US English is expanding as the slang of immigrants and multilingual communities cross over into common use. Should I wish again?