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Matt Murphy, "Is 'unbecoming' becoming a sexist word? Warren Tolman apologizes after calling opponent Maura Healey unbecoming during debate", State House News Service 8/27/2014:

BOSTON — Democratic attorney general candidate Warren Tolman apologized on Wednesday if anyone was offended by his use of the word "unbecoming" to describe his opponent Maura Healey's criticism of his private sector record, as female Healey supporters blasted the comment as "sexist."

Tolman used the word during a Boston Globe Opinion debate Tuesday as Healey criticized him for not being forthcoming about his registration as a federal lobbyist while working as an attorney at Holland & Knight.

The episode conjured memories of a 2002 debate when former candidate for governor Mitt Romney drew the ire of prominent women like Teresa Heinz Kerry and Hillary Clinton for describing then Treasurer Shannon O'Brien's attacks on his abortion position as "unbecoming."

D.C., who sent in the link, wondered whether "'Unbecoming' is to women as  'Burly' is to African-Americans?"

This does seem rather like the "burly" case, in that I can find little or no evidence in the word's history or current usage patterns to support the complaint.

When I look at uses of unbecoming in the current Google News index, ignoring the many stories about the Tolman/Healey issue, the first ten that I find are all about individual men or about a mixed-sex group. The reason for the lack of references to women in these examples, as far as I can see, is that unbecoming is mainly used in news stories to refer to inappropriate behavior or actions of a political character, or in the fixed phrase "conduct unbecoming", which is typically used of police or military officers. Since political malfeasance and police misconduct generally involve men, most example of unbecoming in the news also refer to men:

The Department of Public Safety said in a news release that Lance Cpl. R.S. Salter was terminated for violating agency policies including conduct unbecoming a state employee.

Pillow said that if the picture is what it appears to be, Dooley may face issues of conduct unbecoming an officer.

The OHP formally disciplined Martin for 'conduct unbecoming of an officer' however no criminal charges resulted.

Sterling's behavior was unbecoming of an owner (or anyone else for that matter), and any two-time domestic violence offender is also not fit to play in the NFL.

"Texans deserve real leadership and this is unbecoming of our governor," Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. He demanded that Perry immediately resign.

"During the tenure of Dr. Cooper as superintendent, there has been conduct, in my opinion, unbecoming of the professional instructional leader of the Lafayette Parish School System," Blunt said at a special Thursday board meeting.

The comments by Guido Mantega, which the opposition and some analysts criticized as unbecoming of a sitting finance minister, came on the eve of the release of official data that is expected to show that Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, is already in recession.

Price, who along with Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) appears to have taken the lead in drafting the public admonishment, called Hall’s conduct as a member of UT’s governing board “unbecoming.”

The poison pen letter began this way: “What happened at Newfane Town Hall on Saturday, July 26, was mob rule televised. Maybe I’m being too dramatic, but you have to admit, it was rude and unbecoming.” A “mob?” For those whose only knowledge of what triggered Skop’s outburst comes from his letter, here it is: Half the audience rose to their feet and left the room when Muscato appeared ready to try a takeover of the meeting after being allowed to speak and use the microphone.

It is unbecoming of Mr Au to cast aspersions on MOM officers who work tirelessly to help all employees, including foreign workers, resolve their salary claims.

The only example that doesn't fall into the category of "inappropriate political or police/military behavior" is this one, which refers to words on signs (carried, as it happens, by men):

Scantily clad girls in hardly anything but bras and underwear stumbled onto the platform, followed by guys in snapbacks and unbelievably clean sneakers and tank tops bearing unbecoming words in neon.

So it would seem odd to insist that it's OK to use unbecoming to describe allegedly inappropriate actions by male politicians, but sexist to use the same word in reference to the same sort of action on the part of a female politician.

One possible reason for (over?) sensitivity on this point is that in the pattern "conduct unbecoming an X", some people may think of X=woman as a common value.

Thus Regina Morantz-Sanchez, Conduct Unbecoming a Woman : Medicine on Trial in Turn-of-the-Century Brooklyn, 1999:

In the spring of 1889, a burgeoning Brooklyn newspaper, the Daily Eagle, printed a series of articles that detailed a history of midnight hearses and botched operations performed by a scalpel-eager female surgeon named Dr. Mary Dixon-Jones. The ensuing avalanche of public outrage gave rise to two trials–one for manslaughter and one for libel–that became a late nineteenth-century sensation. Vividly recreating both trials, Regina Morantz-Sanchez provides a marvelous historical whodunit, inviting readers to sift through the evidence and evaluate the witnesses. Conduct Unbecoming a Woman is mesmerizing as an intricately crafted suspense novel. Jars of specimens and surgical mannequins became common spectacles in the courtroom, and the roughly 300 witnesses that testified represented a fascinating social cross-section of the city's inhabitants, from humble immigrant craftsmen and seamstresses to some of New York and Brooklyn's most prestigious citizens and physicians. Like many legal extravaganzas of our own time, the Mary Dixon-Jones trials highlighted broader social issues in America. It unmasked apprehension about not only the medical and social implications of radical gynecological surgery, but also the rapidly changing role of women in society. Indeed, the courtroom provided a perfect forum for airing public doubts concerning the reputation of one "unruly" woman doctor whose life-threatening procedures offered an alternative to the chronic, debilitating pain of 19th-century women. Clearly a extraordinary event in 1892, the cases disappeared from the historical record only a few years later. "Conduct Unbecoming a Woman" brilliantly reconstructs both the Dixon-Jones trials and the historic panorama that was 1890s Brooklyn.

But in COHA, X cashes out as officer (24), teacher (7), gentleman (4), member (2), judge (2), senator (2), and policeman (1). "Conduct unbecoming a woman" doesn't occur in COHA's 400-odd millions of words. And amazingly enough, "conduct unbecoming a woman" also doesn't occur in the Google Books ngram corpus (at least not with high enough frequency to be retained in the 4-gram index):

X=lady does occur, but is swamped by X=gentleman:

The only other thing that I can think of is related to the specific sort of behavior that Tolman was complaining about. Here's a description of the context (Matt Murphy, "Healey, Tolman tangle at Globe debate", WWLP 828/2014:

Healey, who appeared at times to grow frustrated by Tolman’s loquacious answers, said Tolman owes it to be upfront with the voters about his lobbying work and his past associations with the online gaming group Fast Strike Games and a hedge fund if he serious about tackling corruption and bird-dogging the fledgling casino industry in Massachusetts.

“I wish you’d talk more about what you’ve done for the past 10 years,” Healey challenged Tolman during the final moments of the debate, pivoting off Tolman’s discussion of his work on ethics law reforms during his time in the state Senate.

“You are not the people’s lobbyist. You are not there for Beacon Hill,” Healey said.

Tolman responded, “Maura, It’s just unbecoming. I’m just surprised you continue to push these issues rather than talk about the issues people care about.”

Tolman is complaining that Healey's aggressive persistence is inappropriate, and that sort of complaint is sometimes legitimately felt to be sexist. But his use of the word unbecoming is not relevant, as far as I can see.


  1. Levantine said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 5:32 am

    Perhaps the complaint is influenced by the adjective "becoming", which does, I think, have feminine overtones ("Her dress is very becoming"). But "unbecoming" itself does not share these associations as far as I'm concerned.

    [(myl) I thought of that, but if you look at actual usage, "becoming" seems to be used at least as often in male as in female contexts. There are six instances of "very becoming" in today's news index, four male vs. two female:

    … Frank Deford, who suggested Wednesday in his commentary for NPR that golf and all its niceties just aren't very becoming for a president.
    Yes, calling you and your team-mates sons of bitches all match is not very becoming.
    They were dressed in Khaki uniforms, and in every instance each individual looked very becoming in his new attire.
    It's true Pope Francis' spontaneity is very becoming, but I'm worried Pope Francis needs to be more careful.

    It is pink and is very becoming, although my favorite is the red crepe myrtle.
    Sheree showed us how to be a bitter divorsee and Kim showed us how to sleep with married men….not very becoming of a Housewife …

    The COCA corpus has 20 instances of "very becoming", of which 11 are female and 9 male. So I'm not convinced by the facts, as opposed to the stereotypic impressions.]

  2. Jack said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 6:00 am

    My experience (in the UK), which may or may not be typical, is that the word "unbecoming" is almost exclusively used in the sentence "Unbecoming of a women", or occasionally used on its own but in a way which is clearly short for that sentence.

    [(myl) With respect, I'm pretty sure that your impression of your experience is incorrect. In the British National Corpus (100 million words), unbecoming occurs 32 times, none of them in the phrase "unbecoming of a woman". About half of the uses refer or connect to women, and about half to men or mixed groups or inanimate entities. The phrase "unbecoming of a" occurs twice, both in contexts referring to male sports figures:

    What is incontestable is that Mr Stewart's conduct during the whole affair was entirely unbecoming of a representative of a national sports, and his claim that the TVNZ cameraman was obstructing the removal of David Lawrence from the field of play was proved by television evidence to be false.

    Cooperation unbecoming of a professional footballer?


  3. MTBradley said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 7:12 am

    To echo Levantine's comment, the Google SERP for the term leads with the following article:

    1. (especially of clothing or a color) not flattering.
    a stout lady in an unbecoming striped sundress

    2. (of a person's attitude or behavior) not fitting or appropriate; unseemly.
    it was unbecoming for a university to do anything so crass as advertising its wares

  4. Ellen K. said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 7:35 am

    I think the word, though not sexist, does have a different connotation when applied to a female, simply due to different ideas of what's becoming and unbecoming for each gender. And so even while innocently used by a speaker the same way he would for a man, it might at the same time for particular listeners bring up the idea that women are supposed to behave a separate way different from men.

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 8:04 am

    Mourning Is Unbecoming to Electra

  6. Alex said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    In both the federal, as well as a number of state bars, there is wording that threatens various sanctions for "conduct unbecoming a member of the court's bar". It is a catchall to avoid having exhaustive lists of bad behavior and seems to be what Ms. Healy was getting at and Mr. Tolman had in mind.

    Without any further category to describe unbecoming (e.g. "Unbecoming of the dignity of this debate…") it leaves too much for the listener to fill in. As MTBradley and Levantine pointed out, there is the other meaning of 'becoming' that refers to appearance, which I have only ever heard used in reference to women. Additionally, there is (at least in some circles) heavy discussion of how women are perceived differently from men when firmly asserting an opinion.

    In short, I don't think it is intrinsically sexist but it is a risky choice when referring to a woman with no other descriptors of her, such as 'debator', 'politician', 'candidate', etc.

  7. Jack said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 8:24 am

    @Liberman: I thought it might be likely that the comment sections of UK newspapers might provide evidence for this, but as you suggest it does not, at least so far as I can see.

    Likely my impression is mistaken, at least as a general rule, but I must say that the word "unbecoming" really did suggest that it is completed by the phrase "of a lady" or "of a women", and on first reading this article the examples with police officers and suchlike surprised me. As mentioned, it does appear the evidence does not bear this out, so I wonder where it comes from?

    [(myl) We know that stereotype formation often involves false beliefs about behavioral associations — thus the widespread false belief that women talk more than men do. Perhaps stereotype formation also (and for similar reasons) sometimes involves false beliefs about lexical associations.

    The basic mechanisms would be confirmation bias and perhaps an emotionally-boosted salience of confirmatory examples.]

  8. Brett said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 8:34 am

    I have definitely seen complaints about "unbecoming" before. Discussions on (I think) The Chronicle of Higher Education forums identified it as a word used to criticize women for certain types of behavior that might not be considered objectionable coming from a man. This LL post confirms what I suspected when I was reading the CHE discussion—that sexist use of "unbecoming" may not actually be that common, but it is nonetheless perceived to be out there.

    [(myl) As I noted, Tolman's original remark rebuked Healey for aggressive verbal persistence, which is certainly counts as one of those types of behavior that some may consider more objectionable on the part of a woman.]

  9. MTBradley said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 8:55 am

    I have definitely seen complaints about "unbecoming" before. Discussions on (I think) The Chronicle of Higher Education forums identified it as a word used to criticize women for certain types of behavior that might not be considered objectionable coming from a man. This LL post confirms what I suspected when I was reading the CHE discussion—that sexist use of "unbecoming" may not actually be that common, but it is nonetheless perceived to be out there.

    That would be similar to the argument made by Kieran Snyder's piece for Fortune earlier this week that the term "abrasive" is used disproportionately in performance reviews of women at 28 companies. I could be wrong, but my sense is that Healey is claiming that the term carries an inherently sexist connotation.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    U.S. law (section 933 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice) still provides that: "Any commissioned officer, cadet, or midshipman who is convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman shall be punished as a court-martial may direct." Wikipedia suggests, however, that this section has in modern times been used to court-martial female officers (and perhaps female cadets and/or midshippersons) w/o the statutory language ever having been formally amended to make it less gender-specific. I expect that a number of the hits for "conduct unbecoming an officer" would if expanded have the "and a gentleman" also present — the whole fixed phrase is certainly one of my immediate free-associations from "unbecoming" as a freestanding word.

    Note fwiw the old-fashioned class-based minor premise that officers and officers-in-training are expected to be or at least act like gentlemen whereas enlisted men including NCO's (the ones who stereotypically say "don't call me sir, I work for a living" in movies with boot-camp sequences) are free of that specific obligation.

  11. GAC said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 10:32 am

    This very much appears to me like something that became offensive because of the context. He was implying (or was perceived to imply) that harsh language is "unbecoming" for a woman, due to moral beliefs that women should be demure and polite.

    Oddly, what comes to mind immediately is the term "articulate", which is often considered racist when applied to African Americans, the reason being that black people are often stereotyped as having "improper" language or incapable of sophisticated discussion. I wonder if a comparison of the two would lead anywhere.

  12. hector said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 2:49 pm

    My gut response was, it sounded sexist to me. Somewhat similar to "uppity," when it was widely used against African-Americans who dared to talk back. If I was a woman, and I was strongly pressing a point in an argument with a man, and he then accused me of "unbecoming" behaviour, I would assume he was calling me "uppity," engaging in behaviour above my natural station in life.

  13. SamC said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

    I read his statement and think, "Would he have used the adjective 'unbecoming' if his opponent was a man grilling him on his honesty?"
    Agreed with the above comment by MTBradley that the problem is the secondary definition of unflattering/unattractive.
    We don't think of that connotation when a policeman or military officer is called unbecoming, but as soon as it's applied to a woman, both definitions are in play. Unbecoming -> man = unacceptable behavior. Unbecoming -> woman = unacceptable, unattractive behavior.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 4:55 pm

    SamC: do you have an answer to your own question? Presumably male politicians being "grill[ed]" by political opponents about their honesty from will likewise sometimes seek to change the subject by criticizing their opponent for the tone in which the grilling is being conducted. Would such a politician claim that his (male) opponent's attack was "unbecoming" or use some different word? As to hector's point, it is impossible to believe that if Tolman had received the same attack from a male opposing candidate he would have said "excellent point, Bob, and thanks for speaking up — I think you're right that the voters deserve to hear more about my work as a highly-paid lobbyist for private interests instead of the talking points my campaign staff told me I should try to focus on." Tolman would have done *something* to try to change the subject and to criticize the male opponent for bringing the subject up in the first place — the question is only whether he would have used the same words or different ones. It may well be the case that some people appreciate assertiveness and constructive criticism from male colleagues in a workplace environment while reacting negatively to the same behavior from female colleagues, but pretty much no one running for public office values assertiveness and constructive criticism from the rival candidate(s) for the same office.

  15. SamC said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 5:59 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: It's a fair point. Age & respect play a big part, I think. Would a young "upstart" debating an old-boy incumbent call this kind of questioning "unbecoming?" It would still be considered a gutsy move, and one that smacks of dodging the question with a fair amount of presumption. Against a man or against a woman, he's claiming authority to judge what's appropriate or not in the debate. What are his qualifications for being arbiter of appropriate behavior? Against a woman, that presumption takes on hints of sexism because people sensitive to history hear the implication that he belongs, & she's not following the social rules. Overly sensitive? Maybe, maybe not.

  16. Russell said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 8:05 pm

    I did a quick sorting of the 32 instances of "unbecoming" in the BNC using the BYU's interface into whether the thing that was unbecoming was applied to a man/woman or their behavior/appearance/property; or to a mixed group or a generic/non-specific person.

    in the genre fict_prose: 11 women, 3 men, 3 mixed/other
    pop_lore: 0 women, 2 men, 3 mixed/other
    ac_humanities_arts: 0 women, 1 men, 1 mixed/other
    non_ac_humanities_arts: 0 women, 2 men, 2 mixed/other
    other genres: 1 women, 2 men, 1 other

    (I did this in the car and without clicking through to the full context of every instance, so some labels are likely wrong)

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 29, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

    SamC: per wikipedia, if you take the sex difference out of it, Tolman is 54 and has held elected office before (although not this one – it's an open seat because the incumbent is not seeking reelection); Healey is 43 and has not (although she has worked as an appointed assistant to the outgoing incumbent she is seeking to replace). Her desire to bring up his years spent as a lobbyist while out of office is clearly a tactic (which is not to say it's an unfair one) to neutralize his claim to have greater experience, and a record of achievement when he was in the legislature blah blah blah. So who should be respectful and deferential to whom? (FWIW there is no partisan difference – they are opponents in the primary for the Democratic nomination; the last time a Republican candidate won this particular office in Massachusetts was 1966.)

  18. J. F. said,

    August 30, 2014 @ 10:11 am

    BTW, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle is available for free online here:

  19. Stephen said,

    August 30, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

    @Jack My experience also in the UK is essentially the exact opposite of yours.

    I think that I have heard the expression "unbecoming of a women" but that did not come to mind at all before I read it in your comment.

    My first thoughts about the usage of 'unbecoming' were; 'conduct unbecoming', typically for a military officer; and someone describing someone else's words as 'unbecoming of your office', e.g. an elected (possibly appointed) official being rude to someone they are dealing with in their official capacity.

  20. V said,

    August 31, 2014 @ 1:01 am

    English is my second language, I'm in my 30's, and "unbecoming" when it refers to a woman certainly sounds sexist to me.

  21. V said,

    August 31, 2014 @ 1:06 am

    N.B. I've never lived in a majority English-speaking country.

  22. pjharvey said,

    September 1, 2014 @ 2:19 am

    One possible reason for (over?) sensitivity on this point is that in the pattern "conduct unbecoming an X", some people may think of X=woman as a common value.

    And if it is the case where the phrase is assumed in general to apply to a woman, then it could be that the subject is elided based on that shared assumption.

    That could explain why "Conduct unbecoming a woman" doesn't occur in COHA's 400-odd millions of words. It wouldn't occur if the phrase were more like 'that was rather unbecoming', or similar. It would also make a useful search harder to achieve.

  23. Bloix said,

    September 2, 2014 @ 12:13 am

    "Unbecoming" is a very odd word, isn't it? The etymology shows how far the meaning of "become" has strayed from its origins.

    The modern word has two different meanings arising from a divergence in meaning that (a little googling implies) is 600 years old.

    One meaning is unattractive. The other is inappropriate.

    Usually in modern usage, the not appropriate usage is found in the phrase "conduct unbecoming," because "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" is an offense proscribed by the military criminal code. Otherwise it's usually combined with a noun – unbecoming for a university, etc.

    It seems to me that unbecoming when not in that sort of phrase generally means unattractive – although I think it's very rare. "Not very becoming" is a euphemism for "ghastly" when applied to clothes or conduct, but "unbecoming" seems to me to be more or less obsolete.

    In this case, Tolman said, "You keep going down that path, Maura, it's just unbecoming."

    What did he mean? Did he mean, what you're saying is inappropriate for a candidate? That seems most likely, but why was it inappropriate? Did he mean, "what you're saying is unattractive?" That's kind of peculiar, but the whole expression – 'it's just unbecoming" – is kind of peculiar.

    I vote that he probably did not mean to be offensive, but this is an odd word, an obsolete word, ambiguous and likely to be misunderstood, and easy to avoid – so why not avoid it.

  24. anonymous pterodactyl said,

    September 2, 2014 @ 1:55 am

    My intuition is yelling about the same distinction as Bloix – I would probably not blink if he had said her behavior was "unbecoming of X", but the lack of qualifier as to *what* it is unbecoming of leaves the impression that he is commenting on her whole being, and her attractiveness/worth as a woman.

    There's somewhat of a parallel to the difference between saying someone is an illegal immigrant, and saying that they are an illegal. The former is a true or false statement about their residency status, while the second contains strong connotations of judgement on their overall worth as a person.

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