OED Week 5: “Prude”

In Joanna Russ’s The Female Man,  the word “prude is used several times throughout the story, primarily as a derogatory term towards a woman. For example, on page 45, a man says “What are you, some kinda prude?” when he tries to get his arms around Janet and kiss her at a party. The word “prude” in many cases is used to describe someone, especially a woman, that does not react positively toward or shows little interest in romantic advances from someone else. The word is also used to describe an old fashioned or even an elderly woman who either does not enjoy the same frivolities as the youth or is otherwise excessively proper. Looking in the OED, the word is used almost exclusively as an insult, however, it appears to be a shortened form of the word “prudence”, which is defined as “the ability to recognize and follow the most suitable or sensible course of action”. The word actually has a positive connotation, and in fact “Prudence” was a very popular name for baby girls in the late 1800’s.

Why then would “prude” be an insult if it is derived from a word that implies wisdom and level-headedness? It seems that the word that was once considered to be a good attribute for women to have has now become an insult. A prudent woman back then would have not given into excessive romantic advances if she wasn’t married to the person and would be able to decide that going along with this person would be a potentially bad idea. But in the book, the word is changed to imply a woman who is to snobbish to have any fun at all. It makes the question seem all the more ironic, because the insult and where it was derived from were both labels that men would often put on women for their own benefit. The hypocrisy is there, whether or not the author intended it. A prudent woman is a sensible woman, one that won’t go off on her own wishes and do whatever she wants, and most importantly can be married into a decent family. But be careful, because a prude woman is a woman who is so uptight that she refuses romantic advances, and so there’s obviously something wrong with her. There is no satisfying the majority.


One response to “OED Week 5: “Prude”

  1. I really love that this word just so perfectly seems to capture the frustration of the double-standards women experience in regards to what is and is not appropriate or expected behavior.


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