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Rush Limbaugh’s “wrong choice of word” is causing a big fuss. And I was puzzled to find the following statement of Limbaugh from www.rushlimbaugh.com that was made 4 days ago:

The reaction that they are having to what I said yesterday about Susan Fluke -- or Sandra Fluke, whatever her ... Look, at least I didn't call her "a woman driver," and I'll tell you this, you people on the left: I'll happily buy her all the aspirin she wants.

and the quote of Limbaugh in www.doonesbury.com:

We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch. [...] Absolutely hilarious... Look, at least I didn't call her 'a woman driver.'
— Limbaugh, on uproar over his comments

Limbaugh called the Georgetown law student a slut and a prostitute, but he at least didn’t call her a woman driver. What's wrong with woman driver? Why is "a woman driver" bracketed? It sounds like the word, “a woman driver” is more insulting than calling a woman a slut and prostitute.

Does “woman driver” have a special meaning other than female driver?

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As Pitarou comments, "Limbaugh is just an offensive ass". He seems to be the archetypal rent-a-quote pundit, "Someone who is prepared to provide comment or opinion to the media on virtually any topic ... in order to gain exposure", specifically making use of "provocative" language that might get more people (such as OP here) talking about him. –  FumbleFingers Mar 5 '12 at 16:05
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I think the questioner wants to know why the language 'woman driver' is provocative. –  Mark Beadles Mar 5 '12 at 17:10
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@FumbleFingers Sure. I just hope that outrageous, unacceptable remarks like Mr Limbaugh's do not detract from serious poliitical discourse. Like when Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi referred to the Tea Party as terrorists. Or when Vice President Joe Biden mocked Indians and spoke in a fake Indian accent. Or when political commentator Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a "dumb twat". That is, of course, nothing like calling someone a slut. –  Jay Mar 5 '12 at 21:17
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@Jay: Well no disrespect to you, your comment, or those who upvoted it. But I don't usually get too worked up about people making "outrageous, unacceptable remarks". Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's just people being careless while trying to be honest about what they think, and sometimes it's people "playing rough and talking tough". I just don't like professional shit-stirrers posing as serious thinkers, because there are always going to be people suckered into thinking "Yeah, he's got a point there!" –  FumbleFingers Mar 6 '12 at 3:27
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@TimLymington: My bad. In my standard vernacular it's a "fag paper", but knowing that would faze our American cousins I probably diverted too many brain cells / fingers to getting that bit right. Perhaps my Wernicke's area decided the fingers had typed enough, and wasn't listening to my Broca's area trying to say "Hang on! That's not what I meant!" –  FumbleFingers Mar 16 '12 at 15:19

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I'll answer this one because it doesn't seem anyone else is really addressing OP's actual question. OP's age and "internationalist" background make it unlikely he needs to be told about the fact of sexism - he's just asking why "woman driver" is more "sexist" than "female driver".

Given "female driver" is a relatively new replacement for "lady driver", it's clear "woman driver" is derogatory mainly because using it means you're not using the standard "neutral/positive" form.

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In many contexts, "woman" has always been a less respectful term than "lady", but that latter has now become quaint and dated. You still sometimes see the once-coveted label "one lady owner" applied to second-hand cars, but it's largely fallen into disuse. Arguably it's just as sexist to talk about "boy-racers" who drive cars aggressively and thereby reduce their future resale value, but somehow that side of the "sexist/ageist language" debate doesn't get so much attention.

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"Given "female driver" is a relatively new replacement for "lady driver", it's clear "woman driver" is derogatory mainly because using it means you're not using the standard "neutral/positive" form." The conclusion doesn't follow from the premise. This chart is no reason to believe that 'woman driver' is not a neutral alternative, in the way that kid is (neglecting gender) a neutral alternative to boy, which presumably replaced most instances of lad. Also I don't think woman has always been a less respectful term than lady--'lady doctor' is atrocious compared to 'woman doctor'. –  Merk Sep 29 '13 at 6:50
    
@Merk: I don't suppose you're the only Anglophone who doesn't see anything derogatory about the term "woman driver" - but obviously Rush Limbaugh does, or OP's citation wouldn't make sense. Added to which, given he's a vote-seeking politician, it's reasonable to suppose he takes it for granted that many others share his opinion/prejudice. We don't have to actually agree with a position in order to recognise that some other people hold it. –  FumbleFingers Sep 29 '13 at 13:41

Some people think that women make worse drivers than men. Rush Limbaugh appears to be one of them. He is making a joke that "slut" and "prostitute" are lesser terms of abuse than "woman driver". In other words he is implying that he regards women drivers as worse than sluts and prostitutes, although this sentiment may have been intended to be humorous.

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Just based on the quote above -- I didn't hear the original -- surely the point was to make a joke. Whether you think it funny or not, it's the classic comedy device of making a reverse comparison. There wouldn't be a joke if the speaker actually thought that calling someone a woman driver was a worse insult than calling her a prostitute or whatever. It reminds me of a speech I once heard by a woman politician, who talked about how unpopular politicians are, and then said, "Please don't tell my parents that I'm a politician. I've been telling them that I'm a prostitute." –  Jay Mar 5 '12 at 20:38
    
I have amended the answer in the light of your concerns. I refuse to be drawn on whether or not Rush Limbaugh is funny or offensive. I don't see how having that discussion here would be in any way useful. –  Christi Mar 5 '12 at 22:11
    
@Jay. This reminds me of popular Haiku-resembling Japanese epigram – ‘I’m not a dumbard as being called as ‘Sensei (teacher).” It originally meant a warning, ‘You shouldn’t be such a flippant man as being fond of being called as ‘Sensei.’ Sensei was originally an honorific for “school teachers,” but its usage expanded to doctors, lawyers, politicians, and critics today. The phrase, ‘not a dumbard as being called as ‘Sensei’” is used to describe anyone who is addressed by the title, ‘Sensei’ as a derogatory expression in Japan. –  Yoichi Oishi Mar 17 '12 at 22:16

Some men seem to believe that women are worse drivers than men, and that the roads would be safer if women were not permitted to drive. These men often complain about “women drivers”. If they are inconvenienced because they have to wait for a woman to reverse her car into a parking space, they might grumble about “Woman drivers!” and toot their horn aggressively.

(Interestingly, these men usually have to pay rather more for their car insurance than their wives do.)

I can’t tell you why they say “women” rather than “female”, but “women” is what they say, so “woman driver” comes with all of these connotations that “female drivers” does not.

So calling somebody a “woman driver” is rather sexist. Rush Limbaugh is trying to make a joke about his earlier use of sexist language. It’s not a good joke.

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Is it really possible to "toot" aggressively? –  Adam Robinson Mar 5 '12 at 13:58
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"Some men believe...the roads would be safer if women were not permitted to drive." Wow, does anyone actually believe that or is this a straw man? I agree completely withe the rest of your answer though. Well, except for the non-responsive part I edited out. –  Mark Beadles Mar 5 '12 at 16:00
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@MarkBeadles Some people believe things without a shred of evidence. In Saudi Arabia, for example, where there is a law prohibiting female drivers, this view may even be more common than the contrary one - at least among men. –  Christi Mar 5 '12 at 16:27
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This is all good and I agree with both of you. But it does not explain to the questioner why female is all right but women is not. –  Mark Beadles Mar 5 '12 at 17:01
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@MarkBeadles I've amended "some men believe" to "some men seem to believe". I've also expanded on the point that "women" seems to be the phrase they prefer, which has led to this connotation. –  Pitarou Mar 5 '12 at 23:20

Woman driver is a comedic stereotype similar to dumb blondes. I don't think many people really believe that women are worse drivers but if you search online you'll find a lot of humor surrounding the subject. Often when a woman makes a mistake in a car it becomes a 'woman driver' joke. Of course men make mistakes in cars too but it doesn't end up being labeled 'man driver'.

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These answers are all right, they explain why some men think such things. This is an English question, though, not a cultural one. We need to address why "woman driver" is pejorative but "female driver" is more neutral.

So this is a question about word choice.

To be neutral in describing a driver who is a woman, in the US at least it would be best to use the term "female driver", which has a more descriptive sense. It merely states that the driver is female.

"Woman driver" has a negative or derogatory sense, implying that the skill of the driver is tied to the fact that she is a woman.

There are two cautions with this approach. First - any phrase can be derogatory if intended to be. If Mr Limbaugh had said "female driver" in the context, it would have been pejorative. Second, it is always best to not refer to the gender of the driver unless it is relevant.

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That's not all that mysterious. It is often the case that a phrase acquires a meaning that is more specific or has connotations that go beyond the meanings of the individual words that make it up. Like "heavy water" doesn't simply mean H2O that weighs a lot, but refers to a specific atomic structure. Etc etc, I'm sure you can all think of examples. I've had times when I've started to say something, then realized that the phrase had connotations that did not apply, and I had to rephrase. –  Jay Mar 5 '12 at 20:33
    
Well, someone's just decided to downvote me for pointing out what seems obvious - there's a reason why "Woman driver" has a negative or derogatory sense, and it's not because this "implies" women are worse drivers. You could start by saying females are worse drivers, which amounts to the same thing, and end up with the opposite conclusion regarding what words are "derogatory". –  FumbleFingers Mar 6 '12 at 0:04
    
@FumbleFingers At first I wasn't sure this comment belonged on my answer. I didn't downvote you. Now, to point: if you read my full answer, I did say almost exactly what you did: "If Mr Limbaugh had said "female driver" in the context, it would have been pejorative". I agree it's difficult to trace these etymologies, and that they may differ between US and UK. –  Mark Beadles Mar 6 '12 at 0:17
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Well, I haven't downvoted you either, so I'm not strongly disagreeing with anything you say. Just making the point that you don't actually provide any justification at all for why "woman" is more negative than "female". I at least say that historically we had "ladies and gentlemen", against which any alternative would have been negative. We don't use "ladies" so much now (and the military slang use has tainted it somewhat anyway), so "female" has been drafted in because it hadn't been so much sullied purely by virtue of not being "lady". –  FumbleFingers Mar 6 '12 at 0:31

You asked two questions:

First: "Why is 'a woman driver' bracketed? It sounds like the word, 'a woman driver' is more insulting than calling a woman a slut and prostitute."

As others have noted, the term "woman driver" is a pejorative stereotype. I think, in this case, the speaker, Limbaugh, is trying to make the distinction between his characterization of Fluke as a "slut" based on the observed facts as opposed to calling her a "woman driver", which (when commonly used) has no relationship to observed facts.

Calling Fluke a woman driver would be a generalization that does not correlate with any of the observations that the speaker could make about her behavior. On the other hand, he believes that, based on her request for money to pay for her arguably very promiscuous behavior, she is, ipso facto, a "slut".

This is an engagement in "black-and-white thinking", where the only conclusion can be that Fluke is either "virtuous" or "sinful", but nothing in between. Base on his observations, "sinful" is the only conclusion. Limbaugh is known for making exaggerated and absurd arguments. Some people understand it, some people don't. Those that understand it, though, don't necessarily like the social effects it has.

Therefore, calling her a "woman driver" would be a baseless slander, whereas calling her a "slut" is (in his mind) a consequence of the observations that he had previously related about her.

Second, "Does 'woman driver' have a special meaning other than female driver?" I don't think there is any significant distinction between these terms, when used as a stereotype.

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I assume you're asking why woman driver is more offensive than female driver.

There are two reasons.

Firstly, nouns used as adjectives in this way can often offend, if the noun is something that could be potentially seen as derogative to begin with. A Jew lawyer can be taken as offensive, whereas a Jewish lawyer is simply descriptive: a lawyer who is a Jew. Similarly a female driver is just a driver who is female, whereas a woman driver is making some sort of statement about the fact that it is a woman who is the driver, or about women who drive. It can work the other way around as well: referring to the homosexuals instead of homosexual people can be seen as offensive.

Secondly, the phrase "woman driver" is used derogatively so often that it has become offensive through connotation. This is similar to the way that Negro used to be a neutral term but is now charged, or the way that black (skin colour) is offensive in the US, whereas it is simply descriptive in the UK. Sometimes there isn't a logical reason for one term being more offensive than another - it's just come about that way through usage.

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