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It’s Time to Rethink the Demeaning Ways We Describe Pregnancy

7 minute read

When I recently found out that a friend was pregnant, I sat down to send her a congratulatory note and tried to think of turns of phrase I could use — something with a bit more pizzazz than “I hear you’re procreating!” But all the figures of speech that came to mind left me cold.

Bun in the oven? Knocked up? Expecting? In a family way? They felt outdated, like the kind thing you’d find on a cheesy apron or in some TV dialogue about a teenager who, tut-tut, would not be graduating with the rest of her high school class.

What I sensed then was what I found to be true as I researched further: Common terms we use to describe pregnancy are laced with demeaning attitudes toward women. There are few human events as longstanding or consequential, yet widespread language we use to describe this phenomenon — in all its glory and anxiety, all its pain and productivity — is underwhelming. And mothers-to-be deserve better.

Take knocked up. Since the 1500s, “to knock” a woman has meant to have sex with her, and the same word has been used to suggest a man is going to “knock a child out of her.” Many slang words for sex boil down to a man assailing a woman (consider: bang, hammer, tear off a piece, etc.), which is bad enough. But using that formula to describe pregnancy makes the woman sound more like a receptacle than an equal.

Then there’s bun in the oven. It’s cute, sure. But it’s also stuffed with domestic undertones. The phrase took off in the wake of World War II, when women who had been working were expected to head back home, leaving the jobs to the men and tending to families instead. For decades, women were celebrated for getting pregnant and discouraged from pursuing careers. So it’s not surprising that bun in the oven places pregnant women in the kitchen.

Terms like expecting and in a family way are more notable for what they don’t say, operating as vague descriptors that gloss over a truth long considered unseemly: women have sex. In previous centuries, it was scandalous for pregnant women to appear in public. When they did, they might wear “maternity corsets” that squeezed their swelling bellies out of sight. While a euphemism like expecting is polite, it is also a reminder that women’s sexuality, and the results of it, have been thought of as shameful.

So what do we do? We can start by encouraging women to exert more influence over the language of pregnancy than they’ve had in the past.

To better understand the history at play, I went looking for every synonym for pregnant that I could find. With the help of resources like Green’s Dictionary of Slang and The Dictionary of American Regional English, I collected more than a hundred, current and obsolete, and sent selections to some experts on pregnancy and language.

Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, pointed out an opportunity cost that each presented: Pregnancy is complicated. It can feel like a miracle or a mistake. And the words we use to describe it highlight certain aspects and viewpoints, at the expense of others. “Language asks us to notice particular things,” she says.

Because men have had outsized influence on the language everyone uses, many phrases we use to describe pregnancy focus on less flattering things men have seen when looking at pregnant women. Rather than exalting this state of being, many emphasize “the limitations of the condition, this condition we feel the need to manage and police and define for people,” says Angela Garbes, author of Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy.

For example: Many of the words I found evoked the same spirit as knocked up, the objectifying viewpoint that a pregnant woman is damaged, lacking freedom or failing. These include phrases like banged up and jacked up, as well as descriptions like in a fix, up a tree and shot in the tail; figures of speech like she’s out of circulation and she’s gone and done it; as well as the more succinct bound, sewed up and poisoned.

Others fell into the euphemism category (in a certain condition, that way), suggesting that pregnancy’s defining feature is being an embarrassment. More still — like in a delicate condition and going to be confined — painted pregnancy primarily as a disability. And a long list focused on the fact that a woman is getting larger, in ways that seem less like a celebration of growth than the product of men scrutinizing women’s bodies. These include pooching out, gonna pop, as big as a barrel, getting broad in the hips, filling out her clothes and lumpy.

“We kind of submit, from a very early age, to the idea that men’s perspectives are the most worth listening to,” says Amanda Montell, author of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language. “So we grow up using sexist metaphors. Consciously or not, women surrender to a lot of this terminology because it’s what’s in general use.”

There’s no need to ban all the terms that popped into my head when I sat down to write that note. Words people use every day, like bulldozer, have far darker histories. But we can choose to use language that avoids limiting undertones.

One obvious answer is to just say pregnant. It’s neutral and physiologically clear. And whereas knocked up can describe something that is defeated or bankrupt, pregnant describes phenomena that are full of meaning and promise. Curzan says this is the word she turns to.

We could, however, go beyond neutrality and embrace words that highlight more modern viewpoints about pregnancy. One option is to just have more fun, letting playfulness signal that this particular result of women having sex is no longer a taboo topic. Increasingly popular are joking abbrevs like preggo and preggers. There are also creative terms people used in the past that we might revive. In Illinois and Michigan, residents once described pregnancy as “wearing the hatching jacket.” In the United Kingdom, locals have referred to pregnancy as “the Egyptian flu” because someone who has caught it is “going to be a mummy.” Pregnant women have been imagined as infrastructure (got one in the hanger) and even kangaroos (a joey in the pouch).

We could also place more emphasis on the progress a pregnant woman is making as she protects and nourishes a little human. Garbes, for one, likes the term gravid, which means heavy. It has a kind of gravitas that respects the labor a woman is doing each day of pregnancy, not just at the end, and for her sums up a defining feeling of pregnancy without getting snarky about body size.

Other obscure items — like in bloom, teeming and springing — take a more romantic view of the growth than lumpy. There are also romantic terms like encarpous, a reference to festoons of fruit known as encarpa that are used as architectural flourishes. “It’s a transformative, powerful, life-giving thing that you’re doing,” says Garbes. “Why can’t you say you’re bursting with life?”

Not every pregnant person feels like they’re in the midst of a miracle, of course. Some women have ambivalence and anxiety about pregnancy, but are too ashamed to acknowledge it out loud. If we expand the language we use to describe pregnancy, and move away from the old standbys, we have a chance to create a greater understanding and acceptance of the many ways pregnant people feel about the process they’re going through. The key is to let women reimagine the language for themselves.

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