Vagenda of Manocide: A Linguistic Analysis


Sometimes, life gives you lemons, and you make lemonade. Similarly, on occasion, someone in the real world gives the internet something intended to cause offense, and it goes full Streisand Effect. The latest, most amusing one (for feminists like myself) is the peculiar case of the sign you see above, and the phrase “vagenda of manocide.”

On Twitter, women traded to-do lists of their “vagendas” on how to accomplish “manocide,” Wired asked whether you the reader were aware of Hillary Clinton’s “vagenda of manocide,” others were asking whether “Vagenda of Manocide” is a metal band yet (it’s been days, people, somebody step up), and even capitalism has reared its parody-loving head (because as the pornography industry will tell you, parody sells) allowing you to buy this fetching set of “vagenda of manocide” pens.

But in addition to these things, the now ubiquitous phrase ( now redirects to the Clinton campaign’s fundraising page, for example) is also a prime example of some interesting linguistic moves, so I thought we’d have a lovely little teachable moment and explore just what “vagenda of manocide” could really mean.

To perform any proper linguistic analysis of a new term, I find it’s always best to start with etymology, and the Oxford English Dictionary and its etymological notes are a great place to start.

“Vagenda” seems to be a portmanteau composed from “vagina” and “agenda,” and “manocide” seems to be a clumsy neologism coined by taking the English “man” and appending the latinate “-cide” suffix along the same rules as homocide, fratricide, parricide, and so on. Both of these are worth exploring.

“Vagina,” a word for an integral part of the female mammalian reproductive system, derives from the Latin vagina for sheath or scabbard, coming into being as a kind of militaristic euphemism. Taken to its literal extremes, of course, this would make the male side of the equation a sword, and make sexual reproduction by necessity an act of violence. Furthermore, one wonders, if “vagina” is “sheath” what the function of underwear is. But these are perhaps both discussions for another time.

“Agenda” derives from the Latin gerundive agendus (-a, -um) from the verb agere, meaning “to do,” with the “ndus” ending signifying that a thing “ought to be” (which is why I’m such a fan of the name “Amanda,” which literally means “someone who ought to be loved,” but I digress). So literally, an “agenda” is a number of things that ought to be done.

While in its present form it appears to be trying to mean “an agenda held by possessors of vaginas” (and by this to mean “an agenda held by women”), this is not immediately obvious from the etymology. Although the Latin vagina is a noun, since there does not appear to be a Latin equivalent for the modern English verb “to sheath,” it does not seem too outlandish to suppose that if one were to want a Latinate word for “things that ought to be sheathed” one might well arrive at “vagenda.” Objects in this category would, of course, include the obvious bladed weapons — swords, daggers, and the like — but could also be extended by metaphor to the male genitalia and modern analogues.


“Manocide” is also interesting from an etymological standpoint. While the suffix “-cide,” from the Latin caedere (to cut or kill), seems fairly straightforward, its use is fairly consistently limited to latinate words: “fratricide” is the combination of the suffix with the Latin frater for “brother,” “matricide” is the same with the Latin mater for “mother,” “tyrannicide” with tyrannus for “tyrant,” and so on.

Indeed, the truly remarkable thing about “manocide” is that the word “homicide” already fulfills its intended meaning, being the combination of homo, hominis for “man” and “-cide.” This suggests that the likely reason for the coining of “manocide” is that “homicide” has come to mean the killing of all humans, and is not specific to the male gender that the Germanic “man” currently signifies in the modern English language. Thus “manocide” must mean the cutting or killing of “man.”

Herein lies a problem of interpretation that modern society has been grappling with: what constitutes a “man.” Modern gender theory has split the notions of sex and gender such that “male” now mostly refers to sex, while “man” refers to a socially-constructed idea of so-called “masculinity.” By choosing “man” rather than “homo” as the first part of the neologism, then, it may well be inferred that the target of “manocide” would be not males, or perhaps even the individuals, but the idea of a “man,” or socially-constructed masculinity itself. Literally, “manocide” would then be the cutting or killing of masculinity.

What, then, is this “vagenda of manocide” that the sign-writer indicates we ought to beware? A vagenda being one of any number of sheathable objects, and manocide being the act of killing masculinity, I believe the answer is clear:

Hillary Clinton has a magical sword that can cut through masculinity itself.

Or, taken less literally, Hillary Clinton’s campaign to be the first woman to serve as President of the United States is a metaphorical weapon which, if used correctly, could cut or even kill the patriarchy.

And that’s a vagenda I can get behind.

On Being A Linguistic Canute

[Note: This post also appears at This Week In Tomorrow, a digital culture blog you should really check out]

“Addictive” is to “addicting” as “explosive” is to “exploding” | Image: This Week In Tomorrow, CC BY-SA 2.0

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of King Cnut (often written as “King Canute”). The gist of it is, he put his throne into the rising surf on a beach, commanded the tide not to come in, and lo and behold it came in regardless. Often, this is misinterpreted as people saying Cnut was foolish enough to think he could stop the waves, but really the story is all about a man demonstrating to his flatterers that kingly power is meaningless in the face of things like the tides (Cnut being a Christian king, usually the story is about divine power, but if he’d been a modern-day freethinker I like to think he’d have gone with “the power of nature,” but I digress).

Remaining stalwart in the face of change, the story illustrates, is all well and good until it becomes apparent that the change is going to happen no matter what you do. This is the problem I find myself facing in my day job, as a graduate student and instructor of college-level English classes.

Because my students say things like:

  • That’s so addicting
  • Irregardless of that
  • A whole nother
  • I could care less

And so on.

These are unambiguously wrong from a grammatical (and honestly, sense-based) standpoint. “Addicting” should be “addictive” (see above); “irregardless” means the opposite of “regardless” (i.e. “not without regard to” or more simply, “with regard to”); “nother” isn’t even a word; and the expression should be “I couldn’t care less,” expressing that one cares so little, one could not care less — being able to care less would mean one does, in fact, care.

[Note however that the third example, “a whole nother” could arguably be an example of the rhetorical device tmesis, wherein one inserts words into other words between syllables for emphasis, for example “un-f***ing-believable,” in which case this would be better written “a-whole-nother.” I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s possible.*]

But frustrating though it may be, I am gradually coming to the conclusion that it literally does not matter what’s “right” or even what I think is right. Because in the English language the tide of change is forever coming in, and by the time my generation has grandkids we’ll not only have to deal with teenagers who can’t believe they used to let humans drive cars and that we used to kill living animals for food, but ones who also speak a version of English so far removed from ours today that we find ourselves saying “you know, when I was your age that word meant the opposite of that.”

Take the word “edgy.” In a recent discussion on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (a podcast you really ought to give a listen to) one of the hosts mentioned that his daughter thinks the word “edgy” means “uncool.” This had grown out of a discussion of the changing meaning of the word “cool,” which at first meant even-tempered even in adversity (cool-headed, Cool Hand Luke) and then shifted to a kind of nonchalance in the face of authority, then became a marker of noncomformity so removed from its earlier meaning that someone distinctly hot-headed could now be “cool.” The earlier meaning hasn’t gone away, but its meanings have multiplied and shifted over time. In a similar way, “edgy” came to be used sarcastically — “oh that’s sooooo edgy” — until it became synonymous with its opposite.

And it’s the same with grammar. Oh, I’ll keep telling my students that irregardless literally means the opposite of the thing they’re using it to mean, but in a language where “inflammable” can also mean “flammable” I really don’t hold out a whole lot of hope. So even if I make a comic like the one above, and rail against the names of websites like “addicting info,” I’m not going to let it push up my blood pressure.

Because the sea doesn’t listen to reason, and I’m not even a king.

[*Update: For the peculiar case of a-whole-nother, reader Linda points us in the direction of a two-part post over at Grammar Girl that suggests it may be neither tmesis nor infixing, but actually an example of a phenomenon called rebracketing — check it out!]


Winter is (Eventually) Coming: A Game of Thrones Fan Theory

Photo: Hill, CC BY-SA 3.0

I’m not the biggest fan of Game of Thrones. I say this based purely on the fact that I haven’t made the time to catch up on any of the episodes that I haven’t seen, which is all of them back up to… well I haven’t quite seen the Red Wedding yet. So there’s that. And I tried to read the books, but after two incestuous relationships in the first two hundred pages I put the book down for a few days, then got distracted and forgot about it until I had to give it back to the person who’d very nicely lent it to me. As I say, I’m not the biggest fan, even though I’ve quite enjoyed the bits I’ve seen.

That said, the idea of a world where the seasons come for unpredictable durations has and continues to strike me as, well, rather peculiar. And I’m not the only one. io9 here has five ideas (well, four and “all of the above”) including a wobbly axis, bizarre ocean currents, and more, and some researchers at Johns Hopkins have suggested a binary star system might be the culprit. But I’d like to take my inspiration from the shows opening credits, instead:

You’ll notice something a little odd about the map (aside from its glorious clockwork-esque appearance): it’s on the inside of a sphere. In the center of the sphere, in the “sky,” is a star surrounded by rotating rings. While the distances are all wrong, I’d like to put forward the possibility that this map gets something right about the nature of the world in which it takes place.

The world of Game of Thrones, I would like to suggest, is an ancient, slowly failing Ringworld or other megastructure.

Imagine you’re an incredibly advanced civilization, and you’re very hungry for energy. You have a huge population, too, but don’t have enough room for everyone on your piddling little planet. So you set about building a megastructure around your star. A planet only gets the light from one point in the orbit, but a Ringworld captures light from the whole orbit. A Dyson Sphere or matrioshka satellite system could capture all the light entirely in all directions.

Now there do appear to be poles, or at least colder areas at the north and south of the map, which suggests to me that it’s more likely to be a ring — the top and bottom of the ring might be further from the star, or the ring might be shaped in such a way that the angle at which light hits it (as with our tilted poles) leads to a longer trip through the atmosphere, and therefore more attenuated sunlight and colder regions. Day and night — or even the seasons — might be the results of other structures designed to capture sunlight for its energy use elsewhere, like the rings circling the star in the opening credits.

But wait, you say, they fight with swords and shields. These are not the kind of people who could build such a structure.

Well, no. But by the same token, the folks who’d build a megastructure like a Ringworld wouldn’t leave something like seasons to something as haphazard as chance either. That’s where the next part comes in: it’s failing.

At some point in this Ringworld’s long, long, history, something’s happened to its builders. They’ve gone. Either their civilization broke down, or they evolved (literally or technologically) to no longer care about the Ringworld. Maybe they’re beings of pure thought that travel space and time getting their kicks by toying with starship captains. Whatever the case, they’re not around to keep things in balance anymore, and the folks who are left behind don’t even know about space travel, let alone about taking care of a megastructure.

So maybe the ring’s developed a wobble. Maybe the swarms of energy-harvesting orbiters aren’t as in time with each other as they used to be, and they’re collecting too much sunlight sometimes, cooling the planet for years at a time. It’s an old system, and without someone to take care of it, it’s every so slowly falling into disrepair.

This abandoned technology would also explain some of the other bizarre occurrences in this world. Magic, in its varied forms, might well be some kind of intuitive-response nanotechnology, making use of some of that harvested solar energy to do things like repair the bodies of people chopped in two, or reanimating the (very cold) dead and keeping them alive despite the cold. Perhaps only some people can direct it because of genetic lineage, or because (like everything Apple) one person’s “intuitive design” is another’s “inscrutable an impossible to use without instructions.”

Anyhow, that’s my theory, love it or leave it. There’s probably things it can’t explain, and it’s probably of questionable usefulness to even try, but if you wanted to know what I thought, that’s it: a failing alien megastructure.

You’re welcome (?).


Note: This article is crossposted with (my own) permission from This Week In Tomorrow, a digital culture blog you should definitely check out.


Pant(s). | Photo: Hiltibold, CC BY 2.0

Well, now I’m curious.


Last week in my Twitter feed I awoke to a curious question: why do we pluralize the things we wear on our legs? So I decided it was time for an adventure in etymology.

At first, I thought it was just a false pluralization, the opposite of a false singularization like “cherry” from the French “cerises.” But the answer is far from clear. There are a number of bipartite yet singular things that we dualize in the English language: tongs, scissors, pliers, bellows, forceps, and, of course, all the things we wear on our legs: pants, trousers, shorts, jeans, tights, &c. (socks are a notable exception because there are, in actuality, two of them). When we see a single thing in English that has two distinct parts, we seem to have collectively decided they should all be referred to in the plural: a “pair of pants,” a “pair of shorts” — though it’s still okay (according to some) to refer to “a scissor,” though you’d get strange looks on this side of the Atlantic.

This post over at Worldwide Words suggests it has something to do with unnamed ancient clothing styles that came in two pieces and were laced together like chaps, but even that hardly seems to explain our common tendency in the English language of dualizing single items with two parts.

Take the word “pants”: etymologically, it’s a shortening of the English “pantaloons” from the French (singular!) “pantalon” or Italian “pantalone.” Both of these refer to a comic stage character named Pantaleon (or some variant) who had a distinctive costume: according to the OED, it referred to “long, close-fitting trousers [which] extended to cover the feet in the manner of tights.” But when it came into the English language, there were plenty of examples of it being used in the singular. If the examples of the word’s first usages is anything to go by, it was perfectly normal in the 1600s to refer to the garment as “a pantaloon,” but by the 1700s it had almost universally become dualized. A pair of pantaloons. Pants.

It’s true earlier in English as well. According to an explanation by Peter Shor (yes, the mathematician, interestingly enough) over at Stack Exchange, the same is true of “tongs”:

Consider tongs. This word was derived from the Old English word tang (plural tangan) which was singular and meant a pair of tongs. The cognates in Danish (tang, meaning tongs or forceps), German (Zange, meaning pliers, pincers, or tongs), Dutch (tang, meaning pliers or tongs) are all singular. The first citation the OED has for a plural form meaning “a pair of tongs” is from 890, and the last for a singular form meaning “a pair of tongs” is from 1480. So somewhere between late Old English and Middle English, it changed its plurality.

When we steal words from other languages that refer to bipartite things, we seem to have a weird tendency in English to dualize them.

And of course, just to frustrate things further, in the fashion industry today it’s still fairly common to hear them referred to in the singular: “the designer has paired this black fitted shirt with a trim-fitting khaki pant,” and so on.

So here’s my best guess: at some point the English language dualized something bipartite — whether it was tongs, pliers, or trousers — and then dualized something else by analogy. And over and over it happened, until it became common practice in English to dualize things with two parts. And now we do it a lot.

It’s a fitting answer, I think, for the first blog post now that we’re back:

“Honestly, I don’t really know.”

Coming Soon…

Everybody celebrate! …Everybody? | Photo: London BL Yates Thompson 13, fol. 140r via Discarding Images

We’re coming back! Well, we’re moving. To here. From the old site on blogspot. We have high hopes of posting more often, too (though at one post in the past three years, I don’t suppose it’d take much). I guess you can celebrate now, if you’re so inclined.