Written by Jen Offord

In The News

“I’ve always worn my Essex Girl identity like a badge of honour”

Two women from Essex have launched a petition to have the term ‘Essex girl’ removed from the dictionary. Our own Essex girl Jen Offord ain’t afraid of no dictionary definition.

The cast of The Only Way Is Essex. Photo: ITV2.

The cast of The Only Way Is Essex. Photo: ITV2.

A colleague recently posed this question: “You’re from Essex aren’t you, Jen? Does that trouble you at all?”

“No,” I replied honestly, “I dine out on being from Essex – it’s the north of the south, and everyone knows northerners are better than southerners.

“It’s a talking point,” I continued, “Even if that talking point is a complete stranger calling you a slag to your face.”

In the last few days, I’ve wondered if perhaps this should bother me more, as a campaign was launched by Natasha Sawkins and Juliet Thomas to have the term ‘Essex Girl’ removed from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which defines us thus:

“Essex girl n. [after Essex man n.] Brit. derogatory a contemptuous term applied (usu. joc.) to a type of young woman, supposedly to be found in and around Essex, and variously characterised as unintelligent, promiscuous, and materialistic.”

No two ways around it, it’s an offensive, and indeed sexist, definition. But let’s be fair, there are a lot of offensive words in the OED: a whole host of racial slurs, for example. In its defence, the OED’s publishers say it’s a historic dictionary – it reflects the use of the term by society, which can change over time.

Speaking to the Daily Mail in response to the petition a spokesperson said, “‘We can’t make changes as a result of a petition as this would go against our descriptive editorial policy and undermine the evidence-based approach that our dictionaries are built on.”

The OED has a point: maybe its inclusion of ‘Essex Girl’ isn’t the problem so much as other people’s attitudes. Because it’s true that, even in 2016, people want to make a joke about my great county. I’ve been on holiday and had non-English people ask me, “Where are your white stilettos?” I’ve been asked with a nudge and a wink if the old adage about Essex girls is true. Chance would be a fine thing, mate.

For me, it’s just the tip of the discriminatory iceberg batted against by all women – not just Essex Girls. After all, it’s not uncommon for women to be judged on our sexuality, supposedly inferior intellect, less than ‘ladylike’ manners or a whole host of other social descriptors rather than on individual merit.

But it’s not even just an attack on women, it’s an attack on class, the notion that Essex is – as very well put by Tim Burrows in the Guardian this week – London’s dumping ground. A dumping ground for things that it finds unsavoury, from landfill, to the ‘problem families’ we didn’t want in Stratford embarrassing us during the Olympics.

“I dine out on being from Essex – it’s the north of the south, and everyone knows northerners are better than southerners.”

It’s an attack on a county that has some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country, an attack on a county perceived as working-class, with its ports and car manufacturers, and that’s why we’re stupid and unclassy on top of being promiscuous.

I’ve always worn my Essex Girl identity like a badge of honour, to the extent that when we were at university my flatmates and I formed a mock girl band called Wessex in homage to our Welsh and Essex roots.

Fortunately, I’m able to respond to any less-than-flattering remarks with all the reasons why Essex (or at least my part of it) is great.

For example, Britain’s oldest recorded town, Colchester or Camulodunum, is where Boudicca (an honorary Essex girl) slayed the Roman army like Beyoncé, if Beyoncé had been an ancient Iceni queen. In Colchester. It was an important town in the English Civil War, and from where many of the nursery rhymes now entrenched in our language originated (Humpty Dumpty was a cannon, not a massive egg, fact fans).

Essex has natural scenes of such beauty Constable saw fit to immortalise them. It’s got beaches, it’s got winding country roads, which are pretty damned good for a cycle if you’re that way inclined; it’s got castles and a zoo, which was at some point home to a collection of Zedonks (donkey-zebra cross, you’re welcome).

Essex has got sport: Fatima Whitbread, Sally Gunnell and Rio Olympic gold medallist Saskia Clark all grew up in Essex. It’s got a rich history in the arts, too: FUCKING SADE GREW UP IN CLACTON, HELEN MIRREN IN LEIGH-ON-SEA, GUYS. How could I possibly be inferior by default when I come from stock such as this?

It’ll be pretty obvious to anyone who has a conversation with me or any number of Essex women that the Oxford English Dictionary definition does not define us, but if someone wants to take a blanket stereotype and judge me on that basis, I ain’t bovvered, babes. Wot, are they fick or somefing?

@inspireajen

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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen

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