Scotty: Sexist or just Scottish?

« previous post | next post »

Wells Hansen writes:

I recently heard some grumbling at the local pub over the new Star Trek's "Scotty" referring to Lt Uhura as "lass" or "lassy". Have the writers of the most recent iteration of the ST franchise created a sexist or dismissive Scotty  …or just a Scottish one?

I haven't seen the movie, and am not competent in contemporary Scottish sociolinguistics, much less those of the 23rd century. So I'll leave this one for the commenters.



  1. Simon Fodden said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 11:52 am

    "Lad" and "lass" were once very much Yorkshire, though I think mostly used for someone younger than the speaker.

  2. David & Jenny said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 12:42 pm

    Two Scots here (late 30s, west of Scotland). We'd consider it a bit inappropriate if someone Simon Pegg's age said it to a woman younger than him. Not a hanging offence, just a little patronising. However, in a workplace… (!)

    Much more likely to be used by grans and grandads without offence.

  3. Pavel Iosad said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

    It can certainly be used in a very sexist way, as in this clip of a (now former) Labour MP dismissing Nicola Sturgeon as the 'wee lassie wi a tin helmet on'.

  4. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 2:57 pm

    @ Simon and @Pavel. There's perhaps a loose connection with ragazzo/ragazza in Italian. It's narrow meaning is boy/girl through to late teenagerhood. Can also mean boyfriend/girlfriend. But can certainly be used disparagingly as a term of dismissal or condemnation. But can also be used among/between older men and women as a term of affection (not unusual to witness Italian aged pensioners greeting each other as ragazzi/ragazze, and like lads and lassies is very much contextually driven, from the Labour MPs clear sexism; to the affection of people who are well known to each other, and respect each other.

  5. Ari Corcoran said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 3:08 pm

    There is also a curious construction in Italian of ragazzo padre/ragazza madre, which is loosely translated as "single father/mother/parent", with a slight, to me, connotation of not being married. Absolutely no idea where this might fit into the lads and lassies part of the linguistic cosmos!

  6. RachelP said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

    I rather think this usage might have been in keeping with the speech of the original 'Scotty', and not so much with anyone actually Scottish. His style of Scottish-English was always fairly ersatz. It sounded like they would stick in any dialect words the writers could think of, without worrying too much about nuance.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 3:55 pm

    I think Ari Corcoran has it about right – it can be sexist, but it certainly doesn't have to be. Case in point:

    During the Scottish parliamentary elections in May of this year the Conservatives sent out a leaflet about the leader of the Scottish branch of the party, a 30-something woman called Ruth Davidson, whose big pitch was that people should vote Conservative to ensure a strong Opposition in parliament (since everyone assumed, correctly, that the Scottish Nationalists would have a majority). The leaflet had little pictures and quotes from a bunch of ordinary people saying that they were going to vote Conservative. One of the people was a 60-ish woman called Margo from Stirling, who was quoted as saying she'd never voted Tory before but she heard Ruth Davidson speak, and "I agree with what that lassie says so I'm going to vote for her". That "that lassie" is a stroke of PR genius – it says the speaker is a real Scot and an ordinary person, but at the same time it guarantees that the quote is genuine (because you wouldn't normally expect an election leaflet to EMPHASISE the youthfulness/callowness of a party leader) and makes it seem that anyone like Margo might reasonably decide it's time to vote for the Tories.

  8. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 24, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

    When I watched "Star Trek Beyond" I was mostly paying attention to the xenolinguistics (which I wrote about here), but I don't recall Scotty using lassie when addressing Lt. Uhura. I do remember him using it in his scenes with the character Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a headstrong young female alien. As Jaylah is outside of the Enterprise chain of command, vocative lassie might be a bit less problematic than it would be for Uhura.

  9. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 3:53 am

    Ben is quite right: I saw "Star Trek Beyond" on Saturday night, right here in Scotland with an audience of lads and lassies (I'll be submitting the receipt for the tickets to the Language Log accounts department today for reimbursement), and I don't recall any scene in which Scotty talks to Uhura at all. The part where he's saying "lassie" all the time are the comic-relief scenes of his first encounter with Jaylah, the alien scavenger with the zebra-striped face that the Enterprise crew encounter living in the wreck of an abandoned star ship. Scotty's casual colloquialism (addressed to a young person who is not employed by the Federation) didn't strike me as sexist at all. Are people really so exercised about political correctnesses these days that they stand around in pubs worrying about sexism in a humorous scene involving 23rd-century fictional characters one of whom isn't even human?

  10. mollymooly said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 6:16 am

    In support of RachelP's theory, the late Anton Yelchin, who spoke Russian, reprised some of the cod-Russianisms originated by Walter Koenig. Earlier, the remastered "Star Wars" retained and even enhanced some of the well-known bloopers from the original release.

  11. Ted Kijeski said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 8:28 am

    I'm just glad I have lived long enough to see the phrase "vocative lassie" in print.

  12. KeithB said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 8:35 am

    Which raises an interesting question. Is the script in Star Trek a literal rendition of the Federation-Speak of the time, or a "translation" into our version of English. The easy out for the scriptwriters would be to say that "lassie" has become by the time of the federation a totally neutral way to address a female of any kind.

  13. Faldone said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 11:32 am

    Of course we have to look at this usage not in the light of 21st century Scots English but 23rd century Scots English.

  14. ella said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 12:40 pm

    I love this blog

  15. BZ said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 3:35 pm

    This has always been an issue of artistic license in Star Trek (as well as other shows set in the future or with aliens). You have random fully translatable Klingon words or phrases uttered by Klingons who are otherwise speaking English. I don't recall any future slang in Star Trek beyond the made-up tech and stuff that goes with it. The closest you get to that is the "stardate" date/time system, which has been replaced by more or less the current dating system in the reboot films.

    For a show that is clearly meant to present English as spoken in the future, see Firefly.

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 8:08 pm

    Obviously "lassie" is gender-specific, but would the same MP who condescended to Ms. Sturgeon (20 years younger than him, per wikipedia) have plausibly referred to a male political rival of the same age and substantive views as Ms. Sturgeon as a "wee laddie wi a tin helmet on"? Would that have had similar rhetorical force to a Scots-speaking audience?

  17. K. Chang said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 12:00 am

    For comparison, in the ORIGINAL Star Trek, Montgomery Scott (then played by Jimmie Doohan) did use lass more than once to fellow officers.

    TOS: "The Lights of Zetar"

    Scotty: Well, I'm sure that's what the lieutenant wants. She just didn't understand. [To Lt. Romaine] Did you now, lass?
    Chapel: [imitating Scotty's brogue] Well, with a bedside manner like that, Scotty, you're in the wrong business.

    —- and later —-

    Kirk: Scotty, where have you been? Where are you?
    Scotty: In the sick bay.
    Kirk: Are you sick?
    Scotty: Oh no. I was just checking on the lass. She's going to be fine and there's nothing wrong with her.

    Of course, this is back in the 1970's.

  18. DWalker said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 11:49 am

    "Of course, this is back in the 1970's."

    Well, the original series aired from September 1966 to June 1969. Close enough!

  19. MPC said,

    July 27, 2016 @ 6:53 am

    Perhaps Scotty is resorting to such repeated micro-aggressions of this kind in order to reestablish his patriarchal dominance in the face of a strong female figure.

    Or it's a friendly diminutive.

  20. Victor said,

    July 28, 2016 @ 2:33 pm

    Just to follow up on KChang's comment, I did recall Douhan using lad, lass, laddie and lassie in multiple episodes and later in the Star Trek movies. In some cases, it was used as a mannerism, but, in others, the usage was clearly dismissive, although not overtly sexist. There are several databases that contain entire scripts (as subtitles) so it should be possible to track them down for comparison. Given the nature of the film, i suspect, this was meant as a bit of a micro-tribute to Douhan.

  21. Gary said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 4:17 pm

    No one says that except in Hollywood and the Simpsons. Scots refer to girls as lassies. But no one every calls someone "lassy". It's just another stereotype.

  22. warenhaus said,

    August 2, 2016 @ 4:37 am

    Is there one point we definitely absolutely can agree on? Namely that, sexist or not, Pegg/Scotty simply says it (way) too often?

RSS feed for comments on this post