When I was a child, a state of being that lasted (in my mother’s opinion) until I was in my 50s and only lifted (and even then grudgingly) because she died, there were rules.
An important one was that I wasn’t to refer to any woman as “she”.
My mother would acidly intone: “Who’s she, the cat’s mother?”
To avoid skelps (my mother being a firm believer in the effectiveness of skelped lugs to teach manners) I did not refer to women as such.
But the reason for the rule was never explained.
It took decades to glean I was supposed to name ladies, and/or use their title, as a matter of respect.
Examples would be “grandmother” (formidable); “Mrs Higgins” (lived next door, resembled a woolly mammoth); or “teacher Miss Rattray” (looked, and smelled, like the sort of person you wouldn’t cross).
Why was “she” disrespectful when “he” was not?
In Sunday School it was deemed imperative for the soul (saving of) to use a capital H when referring to god as “He”; despite not giving the pronoun a capital at any other time.
But no one said: “Who’s He (note the capital, I’m taking no chances) the cat’s uncle?”
The best explanation I’ve discovered for the “she” rule is old, a reference from the early 20th century. It explains a male cat is a tom, a female is a she or a she-cat. Therefore it is unsuitable to call any lady “she” (especially in their hearing) as you might be labelling them a she-cat.
It doesn’t explain further but catty or cat-like was clearly regarded as an insult.
In polite circles you wouldn’t refer to a man as a tomcat either. This might be seen as libelling a chap with the indiscriminately amorous habits of tomcats. Fear of this never seemed to bother my uncle Jack.
But we don’t utter every instance of “he” and “she” to suggest the similarities of humans and cats.
I suspect this is one of those things that became a rule just because people enjoy inflicting rules on the language.
The same applies to “never split an infinitive” and “never end a sentence with a preposition”. There is nothing wrong with either of those things. These “rules” are overzealous strictures dreamed up by the officious more as an exercise of power than a desire to make the language simpler to use or easier to understand.
Lastly, I must mention the thing about the cat’s mother rule that was most puzzling of all to the young me: we didn’t have a cat!
Word of the week
The quality of being cat-like in manner or disposition. EG: “The she-cat poured herself down the wall – athletic, supple, graceful – and walked towards me like felinity perfected. She hissed: ‘Don’t dare compare me to any of those ungainly, clomping women!’”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org