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The meaning of chauvinism

June 11, 2015

I see that the scientist Sir Tim Hunt – a Nobel laureate, no less – has been in the news for making some stupid sexist remarks in a speech, saying that it’s a bad idea for women to work alongside men in labs, as they tend to fall in love with the men. Or the men fall in love with them. And if their work is criticised they burst into tears, apparently. The kindest thing one can say, I suppose, is that he was trying to be funny.

Unsurprisingly, he’s been bombarded with accusations of chauvinism. It’s interesting that no one sees the need to specify that it’s male chauvinism he’s guilty of. Maybe the context makes that clear; but in any case the word chauvinist seems now to have narrowed its range to refer, specifically and only, to sexist men. But it wasn’t always thus. The word derives from a French soldier, Nicolas Chauvin, who served under Napoleon in the Grande Armée; supposedly he was an extreme patriot and Bonapartiste, to such an extent that his name came to signify unreasonable and excessive devotion to a cause (according to wikipedia, though, he may have been an apocryphal figure).

But with the rise of feminism in the 60s and 70s, the term came to be applied pretty much exclusively to male chauvinists (or male chauvinist pigs) – the object of whose unreasonable and excessive devotion was their own sex. And so now it is no longer necessary to specify that a chauvinist is male. (Or that he’s a pig).

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