Philobiblon: Virago: a word that should be reclaimed

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Virago: a word that should be reclaimed

Various minority communitites have reclaimed pejorative words about themselves and chosen to use them with pride; I think women should do the same with "virago".

The OED gives two definitions

2. a. A man-like, vigorous, and heroic woman; a female warrior; an amazon. Now rare.

Citing the example:
1885 19th Cent. May 472 She [Vittoria Colonna] was a virago, a name which, however misapprehended now, bore a different and worthy signification in her day.

or the far more common use:
3. A bold, impudent (or [obsolete sense] wicked) woman; a termagant, a scold.
c1386 Chaucer Man of Law's T. 359 O Sowdanesse, roote of Iniquitee, Virago,
thou Semyrame the secounde [etc.].
1680 C. Nesse Ch. Hist. 178 God sets this black brand upon this virago Jezabel.
1865 Trollope Belton Est. xxvii. 329, I believe Lady Aylmer to be an
overbearing virago, whom it is good to put down.

I came to this from a curious but interesting piece of semi-feminist history writing, Uncrowned Queens: Women Who Influenced Manners and Moulded the Society They Lived In, by Amy Latour, first published in English in 1970 (in French in 1967). Its main characters include Isabella D'Este (who she calls in flattering terms a virago), Madame de Rambouillet and Madame de Scudery; Madame Geoffrin and Madame du Deffand; "Mrs Montagu and the Blue Stockings"; Rahel Varnhagen, Princess Cristina di Belgiojocso; Juliette Adam ; and Gertrude Stein.

I'm ashamed to confess that there was several in that list previously unknown to me; a reminder about how limited the Anglo-Saxon academic approach can be.

(Thanks to Simon from copyediting-L for the OED info). It is, by the way, a great community if you are interested in words.

P.S. It has just been pointed out to me (thanks Hal from CEL-ery) that there is already Virago Press, so the campaign has been started already: we just need to carry it forward.


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