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Saturday, October 14, 2017


Sexual harassment is very much in the news. 

Not, of course, that the phenomenon is new. I am sure it has existed since the dawn of time, but we apparently only came to have a specific word for it in the 1970s. This was no doubt a consequence of both increased numbers of women in the workforce and  feminist raised consciousness at the time. Here is the earliest example the Oxford English Dictionary has found:
1971   Yale Daily News 19 Apr. 1/5   ‘We insist,’ said one of the women, ‘that sex harassment is an integral component of sex discrimination.’ ‘Men perceive women in sexual categories and not in professional categories,’ she continued. The complaint of sexual harassment was apparently a ‘new idea’ to the H.E.W. team.
 Here is a telling quotation from four years later:
Time Magazine
Date (1975/10/27)
Title Male and Female
Source http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,913585,00.html

 In Washington, D.C., Officer Peggy A. Jackson, 27, charges that it is practically a rule of the force that " you've got to make love to get a day off or make love to get a good beat. " Washington's 4,200-member police department includes 333 women, about half of whom are assigned to patrol duty with men. No formal complaints have been filed, but D.C. Councilwoman Willie Hardy is investigating several verbal charges of sexual harassment. Though the U.S. Attorney's office has dropped the case for lack of evidence, the police department is investigating the alleged rape of a woman cop by a sergeant during a stakeout of an office building. 
The word "harass" has been around much longer than this, though.  We borrowed it from the French harasser in the 1600s, in several senses: 
  1. to tire out; to exhaust with care or trouble
  2. to make repeated small-scale attacks on (an enemy)
  3. to trouble with annoyances, importunity, misfortune
In the twentieth century, a new sense, "to subject to aggressive pressure or intimidation", came to dominate.

There is some discussion as to the pronunciation of "harass". Is the accent on the first or the second syllable? In Canada, it is more commonly on the second syllable, although those who accent the first syllable (as most British English speakers also do) tend to be convinced that only they are right, and write indignant letters to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation about it.

The French word which we borrowed back in the 1600s derived from harer ‘set a dog on’, which in turn came from a Germanic word hare, a cry urging a dog to attack. 

I would say that an etymological connection between sexual predators and dogs is appropriate.

Except that it's an insult to dogs.

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.