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From 'motherless babies' to 'babiless mothers': a sexist metaphorical transition of female undergraduates.


The purpose of this study is to undertake a socio-psychological analysis of two interconnected slang expressions common amongst Nigerian university students: motherless babies and babiless mothers. The objective of the analysis is to reveal the significance of their usage in regard to the status and treatment of women.

To give focus to this paper and facilitate the realization of the objective, it is necessary to examine a number of relevant features of slang in general. According to Hartmann and Stork (1972), slang is:

a variety of speech characterized by newly coined and rapidly changing vocabulary, used by the young or by social and professional groups for 'in-group' communication and thus tending to prevent understanding by the rest of the speech community.

This definition may be supplemented with Pei and Gaynor's (1960, p. 199) view that slang is "produced by popular adaptation and extension of the meaning of existing words," but Pei and Gaynor's further assertion that these slang-producing methods are "with disregard for scholastic standards and linguistic principles of the formation of words" is not supported by a wide range of subsequent slang studies including Flexner (1974), Oho (1989) and Arua (1990).

Although slang is often regarded as inappropriate for formal discourse (Dumas and Lighter, 1978), Flexner (1974, p. 76) notes that slang is used "because it is more forceful, vivid and expressive than standard usage." Flexner further notes that slang may be picturesquely metaphorical (see also Partridge, 1971). This element of the metaphorical is of particular relevance for the present study.

Through their beauty or aptness and hidden power, metaphors bring to our notice or peremptorily invite us to discover surprising analogies, similarities, or common attributes (Davidson, 1979; Swanson, 1979; Miller, 1979). The analogical characteristic of slang is demonstrated by the slang terms "xerox" and "mouthorgan" which are included in Arua's (1990) study of students' slang used in Nigerian universities. To "xerox" means to memorize with the exactness and permanence with which a Xerox machine would produce photocopies from the original document. A "mouthorgan" is a corncob from which the corn is eaten directly by holding it to the mouth with one or both hands in the same manner in which mouth-organists handle their instrument.

Slang, in addition to its analogical nature, appears to be rooted in, linked with, or originate from contemporary social events or beliefs. The use of the slang "cocaine" and "by-election," also included in Arua's (1990) study, illustrates this contemporary social connection. Cocaine is the slang for gari - a fine, grainy, whitish or yellowish Nigerian staple food produced by cassava. It acquired this slangy label when its price shot up dramatically in response to the Nigerian government's economic policies of the mid-nineteen eighties; the same timeframe in which traffic in cocaine began to boom in this country. Thus, for students who could not afford to buy the staple food, it became as dear as cocaine; and for those who had gari in their possession, as economically precious as the high-priced drug. Similarly, 'by-election' became the slang for a resit examination during the early nineteen eighties when the country came under democratic civilian rule. It is important to note in relation to this fact, that prior to the inception of the Nigerian Second Republic and active civilian politics in 1979, resit examinations were slangily referred to as "September conferences."

The slang motherless babies and babiless mothers, with which this work is most centrally concerned, appear to share these common features of analogical nature and link with contemporary social events or beliefs described above, as will become evident in the analysis to follow.

The Context of the Slang

At this point, a specification of the contextual background of these slang terms is appropriate. Using componential analysis, Goke-Pariola (1989) undertook a definition of a heterogeneous collection of slang used by students of Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-lfe, Nigeria. These students' slang include those used to describe a wide range of attributes including personal disposition, level of social sophistication, student or non-student status, course of study, reading habits, and level of industry. Some slang expressions are used to designate male students, some female students, and some, students of either sex.

Among the slang with which female students are designated, entry is made of motherless babies and babiless mothers. These two formulations appear also in Arua (1990). Goke-Pariola (1989, p. 28) defines the two slang as follows:

I. Motherless babies

(+) female

(+) Mozambique Hall

(-) experience

(+) gregariousness

(+/-) irresponsible

II. Babiless mothers

(+) female

(+) stalite

(-) rushable

(+) Moremi Hall

Goke-Pariola proposes in his conclusion that there is a need to examine in great detail how these and other students' slang reflect sexist male attitudes toward women. To meet this need as it relates to motherless babies and babiless mothers is the intent of this investigation. Given the observation, however, of Drake (1980) and Hartmann and Stork (1972), that slang may not be intelligible to members of the out-group, it is useful prior to proceeding to supply clues to the semantic features listed above.

In both cases the slang possess the feature (+) female, which implies that they are both feminine in gender. Motherless babies has the feature (-) experience because female students so designated are either relatively young in age, relatively new in the university, or are simply fresh students and are therefore unfamiliar in varying degrees with the university system, campus life, or life in general. This slang also has the feature (+) gregariousness because its referents, a large number of whom are living without close parental control for the first time, express their right to associate with whom they like rather freely. This slang further possesses the feature (+/-) irresponsible because some of the students to whom it applies exhibit traits of what is believed to be irresponsibility, while others demonstrate a clear sense of discipline. Motherless babies also includes the characteristic of (+) Mozambique Hall due to the fact that female students who are so-designated necessarily life in Mozambique Hall, one of the two exclusively female undergraduate halls at the University. By contrast, babiless mothers is (+) Moremi Hall because students designated by this slang necessarily life in Moremi Hall, the older of the two exclusively female undergraduate halls.

In other words, while Mozambique Hall is a "'Motherless Babies' home," Moremi Hall is a 'Babiless Mothers' home." Babiless mothers also possesses the feature (+) stalite (another slang expression in itself) referring to the "staleness" of these women who, for the most part, are in their graduating year. Finally, babiless mothers shares the feature (-) rushable (slang meaning easily "datable" or "datably valuable") because its referents are generally less impressionable, by virtue of their relative age and experience of campus life and campus vanities, therefore supposedly more concerned with getting responsible husbands to settle down with than with campus fun-seeking. The babiless mothers are thus believed to be metaphorically menopausal, and consequently of low girlfriend-value.

The Structure of the Slang

The preceding contextual specification of the slang should place the examination of their morphological structure which will take place in this section in proper perspective.

The first word of each slang ends with the morpheme less. This implies some form of deprivation. In motherless babies, the "babies" are deprived of "maternal" care and guidance. In babiless mothers, the "mothers" are deprived of maternal joy.

Deprivation, generally speaking, is considered to be cause for pity and sympathy, and an inducement to charity. In keeping with this consideration, the male students of the institution are "humane" enough to provide nurture to the babies by "rushing" or going on date sprees with them and thereby providing them with guidance on the proper standards of campus living. On the other hand, the babiless mothers, although deprived of the object of maternal joy and hence unfulfilled, are sometimes retained by male students as girlfriends out of male "kindheartedness" and as a measure of consolation rather than being discarded for the fresh, fledgling, unexploited, and datably valuable babies who are recruited at every general rushing session which takes place at the beginning of each new school year. Given that the school year normally begins in October, these rushing or girlfriend recruiting sessions have alternatively been referred to as "October rush."

It is significant to note here that every motherless baby is a potential babiless mother. Every datably or sexually valuable "rushable baby" is, in other words, a future menopausal or "unrushable mother" in light of the fact that prior to graduation every female student who resides in Mozambique Hall would necessarily be required by hall authorities to move to Moremi Hall. There is where the element of transition lies. The female student must, as a natural feature of her growth, move from one state of deprivation or low social rating to another.

The Slang as Socio-Psychological Metaphors

The slang drive their metaphorical value from situations outside the university campus. In the society at large, a fair number of children, male and female, have literally lost their mothers and are placed in foster homes under the care of foster parents. In the Nigerian experience, some children, products of unwanted pregnancies, are criminally discarded or abandoned by their mothers; others, originally wanted at birth, are abandoned when the mother realizes that she is unable to maintain the level of care they require. Some children are removed from their biological mothers when society determines that the mother suffers from mental infirmities which will render her incapable of providing proper care for the child. Finally, some become motherless when (at very early periods in the child's development and under critical social conditions) their mothers die.

Therefore, while the literal motherless babies suffer maternal deprivation; the metaphorical motherless babies (like all who belong to their sex) suffer sexual exploitation and social inhibition, degradation, or deprivation. The rushing or fostering which the male students (who may be likened to foster parents) provide the female students thus seems to be a metaphor of the male discretion and goodwill on which general female advancement depends.

Even beyond the relative youth of the students designated as motherless babies, male-dominated society does not seem to have conceded more than baby-like attributes to the female sex as a whole (Yusuf, 1990; Bayer, 1974). Thus, the slang may be thought of as compoundly metaphorically sexist. It has a further sexist implication in the sense that apart from maternal mental infirmity or death, the common conditions for the motherlessness of the literal motherless babies in Nigeria as mentioned above appear to be associated with female sexual impropriety, female unkindness and criminality, and/or weakness and lack of perseverance.

In the context of campus life, the label babiless mothers suggests a symbolic relationship to the commonly held belief that with advancing age the sexual value of women (especially wives) declines. Advancing age may then be considered a social justification for discarding or neglecting older women in favor of younger ones. This view may also have links with the generally held opinion that females commonly do not disclose their age because of their desire to stay young (lengthen their "babiehood") thereby maintaining a high rating with men.

Babiless mothers may further be regarded as a metaphor of the seeming widespread lack of sympathy for barrenness and other forms of childlessness on the part of the African. In other words, it is a metaphor of the stereotype that a wife has value only if she can and has produced babies and can take sufficient care of them toe ensure that they live. Such romanticization of a woman's role as mother, as noted by Steward and Winter (1977), tends to reduce women's opportunities and lower their status in other spheres of life.


It is the conclusion of this study that the slang motherless babies and babiless mothers are intricate metaphor of anti-women stereotypes. They illustrate Kramer, Thomas and Henley's (1978) observation that women tend to be deprecated by language.

Although human action, including the use of the language, may be made on conscious and deliberate motivations, this is not generally the case. Schaff (1984) states:

the acting individual usually does not realize all those factors, ranging from the system of values internalized by him/her to socially transmitted mental schemata and stereotypes, which affect his/her emotional prejudices, phobias and predilection (degenderization mine).

Belatedly, Rubin and Nelson (1983, p. 273), note that "language is at once a shaper or reality and a reflection of its underlying dimensions" and Miller (1981) observes that inciting action is a fundamental function of language. The male students who use the two slang, the majority of who are single but approaching their maritally optimum years, may therefore carry strong, unhealthy anti-women biases into their marital lives, sustaining these harmful prejudices in the process.

Latest Weapon of Backlash -- Old Words Better Left Behind Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe

Boston, Mass.

I am driving down the Maine highway, dutifully subjecting myself to another dose of radio from the right. On this station, G. Gordon Liddy has begun to enlighten me on what he calls -- what they all call -- Hillary's Health Plan.

Liddy, the man who made his name during Watergate and made his fame holding his hand over a burning candle, has this to say: "Hillary's plan was adopted by her husband, President Clinton, because he has no choice.!"

There is a small pregnant pause in the vitriol. It's broken by two little words uttered at a subliminal voice level. "Pussy-whipped," Liddy howls.

And in case any listener missed that, he adds, "She is president. He is bubba."

Now, Fellow Travelers, I am no longer surprised at anything that is said about Hillary Rodham Clinton. She has become the misogynist's pincushion, the right-wing target of choice. She has bumped Ted Kennedy from the top of their hate list. Every woman politician owes her big-time for diverting the anger, letting the rest of them off the hook.

But "pussy-whipped"? Excuse me?

Lest you or I think this phrase is limited to the macho right, within days I hear it from the macho left. Or, to be exact, I read it in an Esquire piece about Madonna by Norman Mailer.

It appears that Mailer finds Madonna nearly as fascinating as Mailer. Indeed, the writer was struck by the performer's intelligence, something manifest by the number of times she agreed with him: "Exactly .... I agree .... Right .... Right."

But at one point, the seventy-something author pauses to explain to the reader why he did not want to be photographed by Esquire with the thirtysomething performer on his lap. Because of his wife.

"What we are witnessing," he writes ironically, is the action of the female mind upon male flesh, otherwise known as the cumulative effect of being pussy-whipped over the course of 20 years of marriage by a strong, beautiful, redheaded wife."

Pussy-whipped? Norman, did you check that with the strong, beautiful, redheaded wife?

I shouldn't be surprised that this vulgar phrase has reemerged out of the linguistic primal ooze. All sorts of ugly language is being recycled by people claiming to be crusaders against "political correctness." The cruder the better.

This particular whip has had a long and inglorious history of use in the verbal battle of the sexes. Liddy and Mailer are old enough to remember earlier skirmishes.

The curious thing is that this is a weapon wielded by men against men -- or at least against men who don't keep their women in line. Men who don't shore up their place in the pecking order must be relegated to the henpecked order.

These days when a woman is dominated by a man we may eventually call her battered or abused. But we don't call her (how shall I say this in a family newspaper?) tomcat-whipped. It is certain that no woman has lost her femininity by losing an argument with her husband.

As for power struggles between men, a man may be bossed and ordered about by another. But no college football player was ever "pussy-whipped" by a domineering coach. Nor did any Marine recruit fear that he would lose his masculinity by following the drill sergeant's orders. Quite the contrary.

But in a struggle with women many men see their masculinity at risk. They see it in and through the eyes of other men.

They are at risk when they stay home with the kids instead of going out with the boys. They are at risk when they ask the sexy young pop star to get off their lap because the wife wouldn't like it.

They are at risk too when they become partners with women in the give and take of work or domestic life. And they are at risk when they have -- and hold -- a wife like Hillary Clinton. (Am I the only one to suspect that the right wing is less hostile to President Bill Clinton than to Husband Bill Clinton?)

This idea of the bossy, henpecking, battle-ax wielding dominatrix is as stale as a James Thurber cartoon and as old as the image of mother. Almost as old as Liddy and Mailer.

But it remains an invisible heavy hand on the scale of change. It can transform a fight about laundry into a fight about power, a struggle about fairness into a struggle about dominance. It brings the whole culture into the argument.

This time the cultural elders were Liddy and Mailer, a felon turned show host, a writer and erstwhile fighter, men who work with words for a living. It's not an accident they have dug up the whip.

Look at it carefully. It's a creaky old weapon in the arsenal of the backlash. But it can still sting.

(c) 1994, The Boston Globe Newspaper Co. / Washington Post Writers Group. Reprinted with permission.


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Yusuf, K. (1989). English-imposed sexism in Yoruba language: The Case of "baby" and "aya". Women and Language, XII, 2:27-30.

I thank Arua E. Arua for his suggestions on the paper.

Yisa Kehinde Yusuf is a professor in the Department of English at Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
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Author:Yusuf, Yisa Kehinde
Publication:Women and Language
Date:Sep 22, 1994
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