An Alphabet of Feminism #10: J is for Jade
Stones on Parade.
A word that may suggest stones or horses, depending on your point of view. Naturally, these senses are distinct, and jade is accordingly given two separate entries in the dictionary.
The first refers to the stone, itself a hybrid of ‘two distinct minerals’, which ‘for their hardness have been used for implements and ornaments’. These two, Nephrite and Jadeite, originate in different languages (lithos nephritikos and l’ejade respectively), but connect at the identical meaning ‘kidney / colic stones’, in allusion to jade‘s perceived medicinal properties. Famously fascinating to Chinese artists in particular, from as far back as the Shang dynasty, jade was also valued for its hardness and concomitant indestructibility (hence its use in burials, as in the Mayan example on the left) – much more than a simple gemstone.
A Horse of a Different Colour
Jade‘s lexical half-brother form is of unknown origin, though possibly connected to ‘yaud’ via the Icelandic ‘jalda’ (= ‘mare’). Its first citation appears around 1386, and here jade is glossed as ‘a contemptuous name for a horse’, or ‘a horse as opposed to a riding horse’. Its pejorative status may explain its feminine etymology: mares were generally used in Days Of Yore for more everyday work than that chosen for stallions and geldings, losing their rights to many of the Sexy Jobs (racing, fighting, hunting, fishin’, shootin’) because of their perceived Attitude Problems, especially during estrous.
I am, alas, no equine expert so I cannot claim to know how much of this derives from suspicious anthropomorphism and how much from observable truth. It sounds as dubious as similar assertions that ‘all’ women are mardy, but if some horse-fancier out there can prove otherwise, well, I bow to your superior wisdom, and toddle back tail-drawn to the dictionary, where it is safe and warm.
Bring On The Dancing Horses.
More vaguely, jade can signify a rather delicious list of equine insults: ‘a roadster, a hack, a sorry inconditioned wearied or worn out horse; a vicious, worthless, ill tempered horse’, but (and the dictionary is very specific on this point), it is only ‘rarely’ applied to a donkey. In extended meaning, it can be ‘generally’ applied to a horse in a kind of affectionate usage ‘without depreciatory sense’, where its main appearance is in Renaissance comedy. Thus, in Jonson’s beautiful Alchemist (c.1610), the servant Face resents being made to ‘stalk like a mill-jade’.
Alas, since the decline of horses as a major method of transportation, the utility of a catch-all insult for useless specimens has come into question, and nowadays the word is rare. We are left with the slightly more familiar sense, arriving in the 1550s, as ‘a term of reprobation applied to a woman‘. In this instance, it is unclear exactly what it means: its citations largely sound like tautologies, as in ‘an expensive jade of a wife’ (from the Spectator in 1722), and I suppose its significance is in extending the ‘useless’ tag of the original equine. Indeed, given the dictionary’s conservative tendencies over citations (and the early date for this last term) we can assume that these first and second uses of jade are feeding off each other, and probably almost synonymous.
However, like its original horsey meaning, jade as a woman can also be jocular, apparently in alignment with ’hussy or minx‘; and this latter may, incidentally, derive its playfulness in extension from another animal origin, mynx (‘a puppy’) and / or the Middle Dutch minnekijn, meaning ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’. We might also think of Minnie, herself a sort of feminist icon, if you will.
But one of the surprising things about this surprising word is its gender neutrality: thus its third meaning, in application to a man, ‘usually in some figure drawing from sense 1′, that is, (here we are again) back to horse insults. This is the usage it has in The Taming of The Shrew, an early Shakespeare release that titularly plays with subordinating occasionally recalcitrant beasts and frequently riles audiences with its ostensibly despicable gender-politics:
Petruchio: …Come, sit on me,
Katherina: Asses are made to bear, and so are you.
Petruchio: Women are made to bear, and so are you.
Katherina: No such jade as you, if me you mean.
William Shakespeare, The Taming Of The Shrew (c.1590-4) II.i.198-201.
The ‘Shrew’, Katherina, here dubs her ‘Tamer’ a jade in this third sense, playing with the punning meanings of ‘bear’ that have immediately preceded. Asses are made to bear; so are women. Oh ho. Fun with zeugmas.
But Katherina gives as good as she gets, Minnie-style, using jade to succinctly imply that Petruchio is the sexual equivalent of ‘a sorry, ill-conditioned or worn out horse’ (which in asexual extension gives us jaded as ‘worn out, cynical’ – probably the only form of this word still in common use). That the horse in question may have began lexical life as a ‘mare’ seems contextually unimportant, since nowhere in the history of sexual politics is a woman expected to ‘keep up’ or indeed do much more than ‘fall back’. Nonetheless, it is interesting that the male should be attacked here on explicitly sexual territory, which also draws attention to jade‘s arguable antonyms, ’stallion’, and ‘stud’.
So where does jade leave us now? Sometime around the 1970s, it was the first sense of the word that spawned the (unisex) name meaning ‘jewel’ or ‘precious stone’, as indeed jade the gem now endures in everyday language. But the flip-side of this now almost obsolete word is its punning sexual suggestiveness, where it is interesting to note that this is one ostensibly female word that turns back to bite its male accusers. A jade’s trick indeed.
NEXT WEEK: K is for Knickerbocker