[Xposted to my blog]
Yesterday in my graduate seminar we discussed Margaret Cavendish’s Bell in Campo and The Sociable Companions. It was a lively discussion — they are an interested group — and at one point someone brought up the ways in which the two armies in Bell in Campo are described. “Masculine” is used to describe the army of men, while “feminine” and “effeminate” would seem to be used interchangeably to describe Lady Victoria’s army of women. It is also used to insultingly refer to men who prefer to stay home rather than fight. This led to a sweeping pronouncement from me about the ways in which the definitions of words often narrow and focus over time; it would seem that at one time “effeminate” could have been used to mean more or less “feminine” without any shading — though it was also used in our contemporary sense — but now it is used pretty exclusively as a pejorative applied to gay men who are perceived as lacking in “masculine” traits. We discussed various female equivalents and unpacked the some of the meanings “Amazon” held in the period.
This is one reason, among many, that I like the 18thc: English, always in flux, is just at enough of a remove after three centuries, give or take, that it is deceptively familiar. But upon closer examination there are significant little moments of vertigo, moments which can be useful as an entrée into a discussion of, say, gender roles.
[Speaking of language, awhile back on C18-L Jim Chevalier linked to a useful glossary of 18thc terms. I downloaded the list myself but have mislaid the link and invite you to post it again, Jim, if you are reading this.]