The English language is replete with sexist and even racist undertones, which degrade and marginalize groups in many societies. The groups that possess the most access to cultural and economic capital often utilize language to insult others and worsen the differences among these groups. Slang words are no exceptions to this practice; in fact, slang offers insightful examples of the ways an empowered class can use language to demean more vulnerable groups of people.
One illuminating example of this type of term is the word gold-digger, which defines a woman who is solely interested in the extent of a man’s wealth. This slang term possesses many other synonyms such as: bloodsucker, exploiter, gold-miner, vampire, mineworker, money-grubber, self-server. For instance, a person may say: “she only likes him because he is rich; she is a gold-digger,” or “After my boss fired me, my girlfriend left me because I couldn’t buy her more gifts. She is a gold-digger.” Interestingly, the word gold-digger contains no gender specifications, yet, when one investigates the meaning of the word, a female is the primary subject that relates to this term. Whenever the media tries to use this term for men, it states the word male before gold-digger (male gold-digger) to make a clear distinction between genders. This clarification of gender is not necessary for addressing women, since the word, despite its apparent neutrality, already implies females as the principal focus. This word, then, seems predominantly used to degrade women and thus carries subtle sexist undertones.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) confirms that the definition of gold-digger has and continues to operate to disparage females’ identities throughout the years. Of course, the OED includes a literal definition of gold-digger, which signifies “one who digs for gold.” This definition takes the reader to the literal sense of the word, to days when people would write: “We cheer the pale gold-diggers” (1850), “Dressed-up in a blue gold-digger’s shirt over his clothes” (1855), and “He was better fitted to be a gold-digger than anything else” (1889). Nonetheless, the OED also has a secondary (and figurative) denotation that defines gold-digger as “a girl or woman who attaches herself to a man merely for gain.” An example of this can be seen in a range of sources, from the OED—one example includes an excerpt from the Sunday Dispatch that reads: “the professional gold-digger is generally a girl of good family who finds she can supplement her allowance by going out with, say, half-a-dozen men” (1928)—to Kanye West: a girl that “ain’t messing with no broke guys.”Another singer, Madonna, attempts to popularize a less demeaning term for a gold-digger, preferring instead the phrase “material girl,” but she nevertheless limits her term exclusively to females. As a result, she fails to broaden the term to describe men and women equally. Thus, in almost an entire century, the word gold-digger has consistently, even resiliently, been used to degrade a woman’s image.
Yet why would the seemingly harmless, compound word “gold-digger” take on such an offensive connotation? When one searches for the separate definitions of gold and digger, one finds that neither of these words has a negative nor abhorred meaning. The OED describes gold as “The metal regarded as a valuable possession or employed as a medium of exchange,” while it defines digger as “One who excavates or turns up the earth with a mattock, spade, or other tool.” In fact, none of the OED’s definitions provides a negative denotation for gold or digger. However, one may also define digger as someone who gets his/her hands dirty to obtain something precious, and in a figurative perspective, the term describes a person that does something “dirty” or unethical (according to the society’s moral values) to simply obtain what he/she desires. This term may have been directed specifically against women because, in the twentieth century, when the modern definition of the word emerged, men predominantly held economic and political power while females were housewives with often no professional education. Therefore, a powerful class hoisted this negative connotation of the word upon women, one of the many underprivileged groups. Although two separate words do not possess a negative definition, what determines its meaning and purpose is the caprice and biases of a privileged group.
Having observed the sexism inherent to this term, one may wonder whether the connotations of gold-digger will ever change. Of course, someone cannot definitively predict how society might utilize this term in the future, since slang terms surge based on historical trends that have affected or are meant to affect specific groups in society. It is possible, for instance, that future generations may not even use this term or others with this meaning, may substitute it with another word that is more well-suited for different conditions, or may even reclaim the word and give it a positive definition. Yet there are clues indicating that the word’s meaning may soon finally change. Women acquire a higher level of education today compared to several decades ago. A social shift has occurred where men are not the only ones who hold economic or political power. Since the word gold-digger applies to a person that looks for the wealth of another person, many men who are not in a stable economic position may look for wealthy females for money; therefore, the term gold-digger is increasingly more applicable to males, and perhaps, because of this social change, the word will accordingly alter in meaning. One can hope that as we advance towards a more equitable society, our language will similarly lose the sexism that characterized an earlier, less progressive time.
“Gold-digger.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 8 Oct 2015.
“Gold, n. 1..” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 8 Oct 2015.
“Digger, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 8 Oct 2015.
West, Kanye. “Gold Digger.” Late Registration. Roc-A-Fella Def Jam, 2005. Audio.