A War of Words

Do you consciously say “chairwoman” or “spokeswoman?”  How about making sure you refer to him or her and always having to follow up with he and she?  You could resort to what Anthony Burgess does in his book 1985. He uses “heesh” instead of he/she (162). To such lengths we will go to prove we’re really not sexist that we will prove we are stupid.

Jacques Barzun in his Dawn to Decadence gives four reasons for using man when speaking of men and women: etymology, convenience, the unsuspected incompleteness of ‘man and woman,’ and literary tradition.

The Sanskrit root man, manu means human being.  In the compounds ‘spokesman’ and ‘chairman,’ man keeps the original sense of human being.  This is proved by the word ‘woman’ which etymologically is the ‘wife-human being.’

It is not just inconvenient but clumsy to use “man and woman” repeatedly and then have to follow it just as frequently with ‘his and her.’  “It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted.”  In this regard the feminists give us contradicting signals.  You have to say ‘woman’ when men are mentioned, but you are sexist if you say actor and actress.

If you discipline yourself to say woman every time you say man in the name of completeness or fairness, you are being neither.  What about teenagers?  What about anyone not yet considered an adult?

Finally, “[I]t is unwise to give up a long-established practice, familiar to all, without reviewing the purpose it has served.”  From prehistoric times Genesis 1 informs us, “And God created Man, male and female.”  Even if you don’t regard the Bible as God’s word, at least in 1611 when the King James was published, ‘man’ meant human being.  For centuries, zoologists have without apology spoken of the species Man.  Philosophers have spoken of “’Man’s unconquerable mind.’”  Poet Webster could say, “’And man does flourish but his time.’”  “In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only.  The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd” (Adapted from Dawn to Decadence, pp. 82-83).

Yet most people are willing to sound absurd rather than be accused of sexism, misogyny, or worse.  Check pastors on this.  See how many of them studiously are “men and women-ing,” “he and she-ing”, till heesh, I mean till sheesh, they have made so much of a distinction between them that their younger listeners think they are two different species.

See it’s not a war of words.  It’s a war being won one word at a time.  Firemen are firefighters.  Policemen are cops.  Waitresses are servers.  Stewardesses are flight attendants, but female pastors aren’t pastoresses; female priests are never priestesses, and female rabbis aren’t rabbits.  The first does not happen because the name change would highlight that something new has been created.  The second does not happen because only paganism has priestesses. The third doesn’t happen because you can’t say it without laughing.

Serendipitously after writing the above I read the article “Away with Words” in the February 18, 2013 issue of Time. It notes that half the states have taken steps toward using gender-neutral language in official documents.  However, they are finding it difficult to remove some “gender specific words.”  Here are the offending words that must remain: airman, manhole, man lock.  They have been successful at changing penmanship to handwriting, freshman to first-year student, and sportsman to outdoor enthusiast (p.12).

As offensive as the silly reasoning of the states is, even more so was the light airy manner the story.  It was the tone of a human interest puff-piece; the tone they never have when speaking about serious things like climate change or assault rifles or gay marriage.  Hey, they’re only talking about doing away with words, and abortion only does away with fetuses, and doublethink was only a problem in a novel.



About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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