Delving Into Definitions; Week 5 Blog

I have chosen the word man-eater to analyze, found in the fifth paragraph on page 135 in The Female Man. Russ used this term in describing the woman who turned into a man, who I believe is Joanna (who, incidentally, we have postulated as representing Joanna Russ herself), and describing her tendency to dominate men with her genius and confidence. This is the meaning that I pull from it, even though the rest of the passage rather incites thought of the other meaning of the word man eater, in the sense that it can mean cannibal, as she describes herself as some sort of horrendous monster which indelicately and gruesomely consumes men. I think these are descriptions which only further solidify the idea that her brilliance and bearing intimidate men, though, in that she will mercilessly outwit and beat down any man which defies her.

Consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, I discovered that historically, the word man-eater refers to much more than just a cannibal or the modern idea of a naturally predacious woman, although these both were included in the various definitions. Indeed, one current definition that had completely slipped my mind was that of “a shark that attacks humans.” Given that I am an avid shark week enthusiast, I was most disappointed in myself for not thinking of that definition, although it clearly isn’t pertinent or applicable to the current context. Delving further into the OED, I learned that man-eater could also refer to US regional names (often applied to Native Americans, derogatorily), a very harsh ship’s officer, horses given to biting, and dobsons (which are a type of larva used as bait in fishing). Clearly, none of these are very relevant either, but the final definition, which I found rather enlightening, was one closely related to a man-eating shark, in that it defined a man-eater as “an animal, esp. a tiger, lion, or leopard, that eats or has a propensity for eating human flesh.” I found this so very interesting due to the fact that the sentences directly following the woman being labeled a man-eater contained very animalistic descriptions of her. I don’t think this changes the intended use of man-eater from predacious woman to human-eating animal, but those images combined with that nature of the word certainly heightens the predatory, merciless nature of this woman in how she gives men no quarter and certainly does not lay on her back and submit to men while making love. In the end, I believe my interpretation of the word in the text was along correct lines of thought, given that the woman’s intelligence and spunk are rather predatory and intimidating in the eyes of men. To conclude, I also find it mildly interesting that man-eater is of British and US etymology, being used in literature as early as 1600 CE to describe cannibals in Africa. It appears that the earliest uses of the word applied strictly to animals and humans that specifically ate humans, or had a taste for humans, and it was not until the 1900’s that the term was applied to describe strong women who defy the social norms of copulating ritual.


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