You Are What You Say by Robin Tolmach Lakoff

Through this essay, Lakoff aims to reveal the “euphemistic, never-aggressive way of talking” that many women feel compelled to use, and how this can be detrimental to women professionally and socially.


Lakoff brings up the dangers of “tag questions,” which are a mixture of non-assertive statements and questions. For example, instead of saying, “The weather is bad today,” one would say, “The weather is bad today, isn’t it?” Rather than making an assertive claim that the weather is bad, a tag question lets the other person to make the decision. Tag questions show a lack of confidence and “allow a speaker to avoid commitment, and thereby avoid conflict with the addressee.”

Larkoff’s tone is somewhat angered, but also very academic. She uses examples from history and the professional world, especially in her discussion of the term “lady.” She notes that “lady” or “girl” commonly replaces “woman,” because this term was historically seen as too sexual or embarrassing. By supporting her claims with examples of common phrases, and keeping an academic tone, she avoids sounding like simply an angry person who wants to stir up trouble. In doing this, she gives herself ethos and shows that she is not just making claims; real change in ways of speaking needs to happen.

The essay seems to end very abruptly, and leaves the reader no advice on how to combat the idea that women must have polite, nonabrasive ways of speech, but simply states that “In more ways than one, it is time to speak up,” but about what exactly? A lack of a suggested solution is a problem with many activist essays; however, as Olivia Short pointed out in our discussion, this piece was written in the 1970s, what is often considered the start of modern feminism, this essay would have been groundbreaking and likely the first of its kind. At this point a solution may not have been clear.

–Alyssa Cassidy


One Comment Add yours

  1. aplogosblog says:

    Lakeoff brings up the point that even into today’s modern world, there are still euphemisms for women. She describes how unnerving it is to see all these different ways to describe women that are just simply derogatory. The words that Lakeoff brings up are ‘lady’ and calling an adult woman ‘girl’. The word lady has a negative connotation, it portrays the individual as being inferior to whoever is addressing her. You would never call a male doctor a ‘man doctor’ so why should women be referred to as ‘lady doctors’? When people refer to grown women as girls, it belittles them and also makes them appear immature. Lakeoff talks about how women should be referred to as women and not any of the negative euphemisms that sadly still exist in our world today.

    The audience for this piece was directed towards women and was trying to invoke frustration. Lakeoff uses an immense amount of pathos throughout the piece to try and get women fired up about the issues she talks about. She, in a way, bashes how women speak to others to try and make the audience see the problem. Lakeoff is trying to make her audience feel embarrassed by the common speech patterns all women follow. She even brings up the point that women are seen as, “…unfit to hold a position of power.”, because of the way they use cute nonconfrontational language to get their point across.

    “A man is defined by what he does, a woman by her sexuality, that is, in terms of one particular aspect of her relationship to men.” (Lakeoff 463).This quote really stood out to me because it made me think about how much society really does lump women in to two categories, married and unmarried. Lakeoff brings up the point that being an old single woman is seen as if she is unwanted or there is something seriously wrong with her. While being a bachelor is more attractive and the man has chosen to be free and not married. This is again just another unjust difference between societies standards for men and women.

    –Megan Ross

    Liked by 1 person

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