Thursday, September 24, 2015

Inclusive Language: No One or No Man

I was never really interested in Star Trek until I wanted impress a boy I liked in high school. As a group of friends, we watched the older movies.

As it happens, I married another Trekkie. The first few months of our marriage we watched the original Star Trek where I heard "To boldly go where no man has gone before" with every intro.

The Faux Pas


During my Modern American Usage class the next semester, the professor asked for examples of sexist or inclusive language.

"Where no man has gone before," I said.

Suddenly two or three people in the class objected: "No, it's 'where no one has gone before.'"

I cowered, but I knew I was right!

Well, I hadn't watched Star Trek: Next Generation yet where Gene Roddenberry had changed the introduction to inclusive language. I wish I had defended myself better because what I shared showed the evolution of inclusive language and the feminist movement from the 60s to 80s.

The Generic Man


Over thousands of years, our language has narrowed generic human nouns and pronouns into gender-specific nouns and pronouns. Old English used wer for adult male, but speakers replaced it with man. The meaning of man meant male or female until AD 1000. It retained the sense of people for longer. Mankind and manslaughter still mean male or female or both, though we are switching to humankind.

The feminist movement spearheaded language change where we created gender neutral terms. For example, look at the switches in these job titles:
"Funny Hospital Sign" by Linneae Mallette

  • Steward/stewardess--flight attendant
  • Waiter/waitress--server
  • Congressmen--members of Congress 
  • Actor/actress--gender neutral actor
  • Policeman--police officers
Congressman and policeman are examples of male dominated occupations. Ironically, we distinguish men in traditionally female vocations. Eventually, we may not distinguish gender for these jobs:
  • Male nurse
  • Male elementary school teacher

Clunky Pronouns


Inclusive language has led to rather clunky pronouns. We have such strange constructions as s/he, he or she, or generic 'one.' He or she, him or her constructions seem more popular. Some publications choose male or female pronouns based on their target audience.

We humans prefer simplicity and drop clunky word constructions over time. Other languages have gender neutral pronouns built in so English speakers are gradually changing to the singular gender-neutral they/their/them (or rather returning to a gender neutral term). The style manual community is beginning to recognize this grassroots solution too.

Oxford Dictionaries recognizes the change to singular they/their/them here, and Author Annette Lyon discusses it here. So if a teacher or professor complains about your use of singular they, refer them to those two links. However, it's probably best to follow their style guide for a good grade.

Correlating Male and Female Pairs

"Enjoying the Day" by Bobbi Jones Jones

When using male and female pairs, the roles should match. For example, man and wife changes to husband and wife. Some argue that this doesn't make any difference, and it doesn't always matter. Yet it can mold society.

In some cases of unequal male/female pairs, sexist language promotes sexual conquest.

Occasionally, I here the lyrics to "Only Girl in the World" by Rihanna on the radio, which reflects our broader culture. (Not to pick on Rihanna, just the words. She may or may not mean to promote this idea and she has experienced abuse herself.)

Read the lyrics:
Cause I'm the only one who understands how to make you feel like a man (yeah)
Want you to make me feel like I'm the only girl in the world.
Apparently sex makes a male a man and a female a girl.

First, an adult male does not have to have sex in order to be a man. He is already a man by definition. Teenage males and men need more encouragement to value lasting intimacy over one night stands (females too).

Second, indicating an adult woman as a girl demeans a woman of her maturity and strength. Women are not beneath men, but equals. The man/girl pair in this song perpetuates violence against women. And the opposite woman/boy pair perpetuates violence against men.

Looking at Someone's Intent


"60s Lips" by Talia Felix
We are sensitive about how we use certain terms in our language, including sexist language. We've made many strides to inclusive language, but their remains "sexist" language. I put it in quotes because not everyone intends to be sexist when using these terms. 

Older generations use terms from their time periods meaning no disrespect. Newer generations--like me--use terms they grew up with and exchange their terms over time. 

So what can you do in these situations? 

First, look at the person's intent beneath the spoken word. That's what really matters. 

Second, You may kindly correct someone in private. No need for public shaming. Publicly or privately shaming someone shows your disrespect toward others (despite your efforts for inclusive language). Most people will respect your position when you show respect for them. They may even follow your example.

If someone uses sexist terms with intent to hurt, call them out in private. Some cases may necessitate a public reprimand, but do so respectfully. After all, inclusive language is about respecting everyone.

Sometimes correcting sexist language only wastes our effort. Some people don't care to change their attitude, and correcting them will only exhaust us. Some people won't understand what we're talking about. Others may understand and respect our position, but still use some features of "sexist" language, meaning no disrespect. For example, some "sexist" language--like generic man--isn't meant to be sexist in most situations.

A Change of Heart


Every few decades, we change terms for races, developmental problems, mental illnesses, and so on. For example, the term for special needs has changed within my lifetime from slow, mentally retarded, handicapped, developmentally delayed to special needs. I don't even know the current term because it's constantly changing. After a decade, any term--no matter how politically correct--has a negative connotation.

So how do we stop the negative connotation?

We must change our hearts first toward others different from us. Likewise, inclusive language itself won't change how genders view each other unless we respect our gender and the opposite gender.

As we respect and love one another despite our differences, inclusive language will take hold.


Have you ever corrected someone for sexist language? Have you ever been corrected for sexist language? Do you think you need to work on your own heart?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Here's Why Side Does Not Belong in Upside Down


I awoke and stared at a children's book on my floor. It was upside down. Where did we get the phrase upside down? It is literally the up side being down. I looked up the etymology of the word and I was wrong. Here's the real way the word came about:

Upside down comes from Middle English upsadoun, or the combination of up so down. So meant as if, so it meant up as if down. Nothing to do with the word side. Upside down first appeared with side in the late 1500s. Earlier written versions retained so.

How did side come into our phrase upside down?

Somewhere along the line, we probably confused the 'sad' of upsadoun to mean side. Without widespread literacy or writing, humans rely on sound to make meaning. We have the word upside which is up + side that came into Enlish several hundred years later (1610 written). The phrase inside out is literally in+side+out historically. I wondered if side was related to the word so, but side is from a separate root Old English sid (which means long). Considering these phrases, upside down seems like it should have been side and not so originally.

The side in upside down makes more sense in my mind than up so down. Middle English speakers thought so too. Maybe I should just write and say up so down and see if anyone understands me. How many blank looks do you think I'll get?