I pose the question as a widower myself. That, and 30 years in the business of trying to choose the right words to describe things, convince me of this. It is a word worth pondering on.
Let’s start with the sensibility that’s created by widowhood. Like many of life’s most profound experiences, widowhood is apt to sensitise those who undergo it when the subject crops up around them. As the dust of bereavement settles there comes a time when the newly unwed re-enters the hurly burly of life. They face describing what it is they now are.
For me, my identify was closely bound up with matrimony. If you’d asked the unwidowed me for three nouns to describe myself I’d have come up with “husband”, “father” and, some way behind those two, “journalist” or “Catholic”. Since the death of my late wife, I’ve noticed that in some circumstances “widower” is met, if not with incomprehension, then by mild unease. It’s a word that could be never be described as euphemistic; a mindset which increasingly characterises much of our discourse around death. “Widower”. It feels slightly blunt, insensitive even, and possibly sepia-tinted. It carries a whiff of anachronism. Like “spinster” or “bachelor”.
I tried “single parent” a couple of times. It felt plain wrong.
I tried “single parent” a couple of times. It felt plain wrong. And here we begin to see why the personal really is more political than ever, why semantics form some of the most hotly-contested territory in the culture wars. Because, in feeling uncomfortable defining myself as a “single parent”, was I not guilty of indirectly stigmatising single parenthood? What’s wrong with being a single parent? How and why does it matter how you become one? Yes, I had taken vows and stuck to them, until parted by death. But is that so very different from a spouse who reluctantly accepts the wishes of an estranged partner who wants out?
The problem is that “single parent” is just too broad. As the former Features Editor of the Daily Telegraph once told me: “journalists never deal in generalisations”. It might salve the conscience of those who fret about the “deserving” and “underserving poor” to bracket me with the 17-year-old pregnant teen, but it’s hardly a granular depiction of reality.
Research looking at British newspapers nearly a decade ago found that the word “widow” was used far more than “widower”. The former is often used in headlines where the woman’s marital status is of no obvious relevance.
But who cares what I think? In the pecking order of privilege I sit near the top, as a straight, white, male. Language reflects the assertion of linguistic power, just as its absence exacerbates victimhood, or so critical theory tells us. However, losing a spouse to an often long and painful death is not the stuff of privilege. It seems to me that my “lived experience” gives me the right to a voice. And I use that voice. As a journalist I often find myself correcting younger colleagues at work who seem reluctant to give widowhood its lexicological dues. A female celebrity loses her “battle with cancer” and a “tribute is paid” by her “husband”. No he’s not, I point out. Not any more.
Partly, this is about a societal unwillingness to look death squarely in the face. Partly, though, it reflects a generational sense that the precision of words matters less than it did. We were warned, most memorably, about the effects of this linguistic regression by George Orwell in 1984. Big Brother uses News-Speak to denude the language, to strip away the specific meanings of words, without which the thought itself cannot come to life. If you’ve never heard of the word “widower”, your understanding of life – and death – shrinks a little.
This is about a societal unwillingness to look death squarely in the face.
There are, by the way, legitimate problems in journalism when it comes to widowhood. Despite the fact that “widow” and “widower” are paired words, they are used in a way that can only be described as lop-sided. Research looking at British newspapers nearly a decade ago found that the word “widow” was used far more than “widower”. The former is often used in headlines where the woman’s marital status is of no obvious relevance. The study showed that, in one year, there were 729 widows and and 114 widowers in the Daily Mail. The Guardian, that bastion of even-handedness, fared little better. It had 475 widows, to 50 widowers.
Premature spousal death does take off rather more men than women, but not in these proportions. It’s just a trope; the tragic widow, the merry widow. Apt for a time when women were economically vulnerable to widowhood in a way that men simply weren’t. But hardly applicable, in this country at least, any more.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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