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Women Get Hit Hardest With Nasty Nag Label

March 10, 1992|MARY ANN HOGAN

The dictionary defines nag as "a person, especially a woman," given to continual scolding, fault-finding, complaining or urging.

A 19th-Century epigraph holds that "a man was formed to bully as a woman was formed to nag."

Western literature is teeming with examples of the termagant, the shrew, the nagging and scolding wife--women who vex men with their sharp tongues.

In fact, the tradition of nagging might prove a case of semantic misogyny.

In Chaucer's medieval classic, "The Canterbury Tales," the Wife of Bath nagged three husbands to death, one of whom believed that it's "better to live with a lion or a foul dragon" than with a nagging woman.

"The position there is that in the male-dominated world, a woman's protest of her (inferior) position is called 'nagging,' " says H. Marshall Leicester, UC Santa Cruz professor of literature.

Studies show that women tend to be in the nagging role in relationships, and that may signify that women have tended to be the powerless and, therefore, the ones demanding change, says Andrew Christensen, a UCLA psychologist who has studied nagging.

Some scholars see nag as a construct used to describe anything women do that annoys men.

"The concept of nag only has meaning to men," says Deborah Tannen, the Georgetown University linguist whose books on communication differences have made her a lecture-circuit celebrity.

"The concept of nagging speaks to the very different sensitivities of men and women," Tannen says. "Men's antennae are attuned to picking up on anyone telling them what to do. They tend to perceive it as an attempt to dominate. But women see relationships as interdependent--we do things for each other. Women are really asking, 'Do you love me? If you loved me, you'd do these things. Your refusal tells me you don't care.'

"She is turned into a 'nag' as a result of their style differences," says Tannen. "It cuts to the core of their respective definitions of the relationship."

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