Should we ban the word ‘bossy’? Does it have negative connotations?

Ellen's children, after their tiff over bossiness

Ellen's children, after their tiff over bossiness - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s 2.4 children

Stop being such a bossy boots!” came the scream from upstairs.

I raced to intervene before blood was shed and found my children squaring up to each other, both red in the face with hands on hips.

“What’s going on?” I asked my son who continued to glower at his sister.

“She keeps telling me what to do,” he said crossly. “She’s a little miss bossy pants.”

This is a regular bone of contention between the two.

And it is true that our strong-willed daughter has a tendency to command her brother as though he were a minion in her army.

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She always has a suggestion about how he could do things better and will speak her mind, even when her opinion is not asked for.

In fact she finds it almost impossible to button her lip in an argument. But I suppose it is difficult for a person to stop talking when they think they have all the answers.

Spirited, outspoken, strong-willed. These are all words I would use to describe my daughter. But I can’t argue with my son that sometimes “bossy” is a fair alternative.

Now I imagine most of you will have heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent campaign to ban this particular word.

The Facebook chief operating officer, backed by women to include Beyonce, the Girl Scouts, Victoria Beckham and Condeleeza Rice, has called for “bossy” to be booted out of our lexicon because it is “a deterrent to female ambition”.

The crusade, which some have pointed out is rather bossy in itself, accurately observes that the word isn’t really used for men.

Male leaders are more often labelled assertive, commanding or ambitious.

But there are other words with negative connotations used to describe women.

Feisty, fiery, strident, sassy, shrill, diva, high maintenance, headstrong and contrary, not to mention another word which starts with the letter B.

So why are we not banning those too?

It is for this reason that I am not altogether behind this campaign to rid ourselves of what is actually a fairly benign word.

Firstly I don’t really like the idea of censorship.

It smacks a little of the early days of radical feminism that sought to ban stuff rather than trying to create compelling alternatives.

But secondly I don’t believe that getting rid of the word will get rid of the problem.

For me, the problem is that “bossy” has become the go-to word for a female leader when not all strong women leaders are bossy and not all bossy women are leaders.

To lead and to boss are two very different things.

The dictionary synonyms for “bossy” are: domineering, overbearing, imperious, high-handed, dictatorial and controlling – all of which can be applied to both male and female.

The synonyms for leadership are: guidance, direction, control, management and supervision, which are equally not gender-specific.

What has happened to “bossy” is that somewhere along the way it has slipped into the vocabulary as a simple adjective to be applied to all women in power.

Now I have been called “bossy” since I was a kid.

As a child I was the eldest of three siblings I had to keep in order. In the workplace I liked to take on responsibility and manage other people. As a wife and a mother I am the one who runs the household.

I make things happen. I organise people. I tell it like it is.

Maybe that makes me a leader. Maybe it means I am bossy.

But to be honest either way, I don’t feel the label has stopped me achieving or prevented me being ambitious.

If you ask me, banning is really only for words that solely degrade or demean.

And perhaps instead of removing it from our vocabulary we could try to reappropriate it and give it a positive vibe.

After all, there are precedents for such reclaiming.

“Nerd” and “geek” used to be a put-down for boys.

Like “bossy” these words are not really that harsh, but they were not nice either.

They were used to describe brainy boys who were not athletic so just as “bossy” might be said to undermine female leadership, “nerd” might be said to have undermined male intellectualism.

These days geeks are no longer friendless and marginal figures, ostracised in their Dungeons and Dragons groups.

Thanks to the digital revolution that elevated alpha nerds like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to unprecedented power, not to mention the Hollywood rediscovery of Star Wars, Marvel Comics and JRR Tolkein, nerds are now on trend.

And most men are happy to identify with such a label.

So if “geek” is now cool, can’t we do the same for “bossy”?

After all, whether the likes of Beyonce and Victoria Beckham have been upset by being labeled “bossy” in the past, they can hardly argue the word has held them back, can they?

And you can’t tell me Sheryl Sandberg has had her talent and ambition crushed by such a taunt either – any more than her boss Mark Zuckerberg has been left scarred by being called a ”nerd”.

I think it’s high time we shrug off the negative connotations of “bossy”.

The fact is that no woman should be afraid to step up and say what they think. They should not be afraid to express an opinion. They should not be afraid to lead. And they should not be put off their dreams, goals and aspirations by a teeny, insignificant little word.

Laugh it off, girls. If you ask me, it’s five letters which mean you are on the right track.

After all, bossiness might actually turn out to be the driving force for your greatest achievements.

You can find me tweeting @EllenWiddup.