The War Against Sexist Language

InsleeWashington state governor Jay Inslee recently signed a bill that goes a long way toward ending biased language in state documents. The new law originated in the House, where it won a 70-22 victory. It then passed the Senate unanimously.

That brings the number of states that have passed “gender-neutral legislation” to eleven, with nine others considering similar action. Liz Watson, a National Women’s Law Center spokesperson, applauds the trend. “Words matter,” she commented. “This is important in changing hearts and minds.”

According to Reuters, most purging of sexist language consists of adding “she/her” to traditional “he/his” phrasing. But there are more significant changes as well. For example, the words “fisherman” and “freshman” have been banned. In their place will be “fisher” and “first-year student.” Other reported changes replace “journeyman plumber” with “journey-level plumber,” “penmanship” with “handwriting,” and “signalman” with “signal operator.”

Some terms resist meaningful change. “Foreman,” “manhole cover,” “family man,” and “confidence man” are examples. Remove the male references in these cases and the terms lose their intended meaning. “Foreperson” suggests one who came before others, or the person one used to be before changing, rather than the person in charge of something. “Confidence person” suggests someone in whom people place confidence, rather than a swindler.

In pondering the new laws against sexist language, I was drawn to two very different lines of thought.

One treated the matter humorously, for example by noting that the removing the word “man” from the vocabularies of the linguistically challenged would seriously damage their ability to communicate. Take the following sentence (Henny Youngman would have added “please”): “Like, man, you know, my friends are all saying this law will, like, restrict our vocabulary man, you know.” Outlawing “man” would cut the number of words by over ten percent. And if the language police went further and banned “like” and “you know” too, the inarticulate would be driven to silence. (Pause and drum roll before adding, “and maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”)

From there, the humorous line of thought might lead to imagining a group of linguistically challenged individuals filing a discrimination lawsuit against the state and arguing that having a limited vocabulary is a disability. And so on.

The other, more serious line of thought concerns how I would view the traditional use of “man” and “men” if I were a woman. This line of thought seemed more interesting to me, even though some feminists might take offense at the supposition that a man could even begin to appreciate a woman’s perspective. They could be right, but I decided to follow this line of thought anyway.

My approach was simple. I searched for words that contain “man” or “men” and then asked myself, How would you feel about these words—I mean really, honestly feel—if you were a woman?” Here are my findings:

WORDS: Mendacious, mendicant, manipulation, manure

MY REACTION: [Smiling] I take no offense at associating men with lying and begging because these associations are far from positive and have a certain ring of truth to them. And as for the association of “man” and excrement, well . . . . [laughing]

WORDS: manager, establishment, mandate, manifesto

MY REACTION: This group of words is more interesting. They all denote power. And the fact that the terms also denote maleness is a reminder that men have always had more power than women.

WORDS: mental, acumenMensa

MY REACTION: I’m not surprised here. Intelligence has long been associated more with men than women. I’m not sure whether this language development came as a consequence of men having power, but it surely has been a positive reinforcement for men. And I have no doubt that it contributed to the notion that subjects such as math, science, and engineering are too difficult for the female mind. That notion would be amusing if it hadn’t deprived society of so much talent.

WORDS: menstruate, menopause, manicure, mending

MY REACTION: The association of these words with “man/men” is more annoying than the previous associations because the words concern matters that are related exclusively (the first one) or most commonly (the other three) to women.

WORD: manslaughter

MY REACTION: This one is particularly insulting. It’s a fact of history that in many cultures women’s lives are not as valued as men’s. Women can be sold or bartered. They can also be punished and even killed for being raped, while the rapist receives no punishment. The fact that there is no legal term specifying the wrongful taking of a woman’s life (for example. womanslaughter”) adds insult to the injury.

WORDS: woman, female

MY REACTION: The first word underlines the reality that women’s very identity is defined by their relationship to men. (Originally, the term “man” was the only one used to signify a human being. The term “wifman,” short for “wifeman,” came later and evolved into “woman.”) The word “female” has the same limitation. In other words, it is impossible for a person who is not of the male gender to speak of her gender without referring to “man” or “male.” The more I ponder this fact, the more offensive I find it.

WORD: amen

MY REACTION: Even if a woman manages to change her mental image of God from masculine to feminine or a pure spirit encompassing both masculine and feminine attributes, she can’t end a traditional prayer without referring to men. Of course, she can devise some other ending that does not include “man” or “men,” but I can’t help feeling that she shouldn’t have to.

The further I pursued my experiment of putting myself in a woman’s place, the more my thinking changed. I am no longer inclined to think of the war on sexist language as merely Political Correctness or feminist overreaction, though it can be either or both. Rather, I regard it as a helpful way to give women the respect that has been too long denied them.

Put another way, if our language negatively affects the way we think of and act toward half our population, then I’m in favor of changing it.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved