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Sexism and the English language

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A flight attendant

A flight attendant

By Betty Kirkpatrick

Much has been said and written recently about sexism in football. Will it ever be eradicated? That is doubtful, very doubtful. On the other hand, the English language used to be riddled with sexism and some of this has been removed, although not without controversy.

Time was, before the Women’s Movement turned its attention to language, when anyone whose gender was not stated or not obvious from the context was automatically assumed to be male. Thus, it was taken for granted that someone designated an author, poet, sculptor or manager was a man. If a woman managed to escape the kitchen for long enough to take on such a role, it was thought necessary to add the suffix –ess, as in authoress, poetess, sculptress and manageress.

As women began to get the equality bit between their teeth and more of them came out of the kitchen, they found this little add-on rather belittling. A long struggle ensued to get rid of the -ess, but in time author, poet, sculptor, manager and such like began to achieve a unisex status. Fortunately, air hostess took on the more accurate, if less glamorous-sounding, term flight attendant.

Language, however, like most things is far from being consistent and some –ess words, such as waitress, remain. For some reason the world of theatre is undecided. A female who appears in a dramatic production is sometimes referred to as an actor and sometimes as an actress. Given the poor press that the word actress has sometimes attracted, particularly when associated with bishop, I think I would opt for actor. Of course, -ess lives on elsewhere, as lioness in the animal world and princess in the world of royalty.

There was a real brouhaha over man when this was used as a combining form, as in chairman and spokesman. Again, anyone fulfilling such a function whose gender was not stated or not obvious from the context was automatically assumed to be male. When more and more women became involved in such activities they understandably objected to being labelled man.

When the word person was suggested as an alternative there was much heated protest from many quarters. Words like chairperson were considered to be extremely ugly and an affront to the English language. In time chairperson became quite generally accepted and those who did not like it could opt for the word chair. However, I do remember an elderly woman saying at a meeting many years ago that she would rather be referred to as a male (chairman) than as an inanimate object (chair).

The substitution of -person for -man when the gender is not known has had mixed fortunes. Spokesperson, like chairperson, is in common use, and, in the case of some words both forms exist. In formal situations when gender is unknown or unspecified and where political correctness is mandatory, such words as salesperson, lay person, craftsperson and barperson are likely to be found. However, in informal contexts, particularly in speech, people have a tendency to go back to their bad old ways and refer to salesman, layman, etc.

At the point at which controversy over -man and –person was at its height some people (probably men) began to exaggerate the situation by suggesting that a word such as manhole should become person hole. There was a genuine issue behind this non-hilarious suggestion. Should well-established idiomatic expressions such as the man in the street be changed? In the end, I think some compromises were reached and commonsense mostly prevailed. I have not heard of anyone wanting to substitute person in A man’s a man for a that.

The word man, sometimes written with an initial capital letter, has been used for a very long time to refer to people generally, as in Man’s discovery of fire. Although it has been recommended that people use human race to avoid both this use of man and the use of mankind, many people, including writers, tend still to stick to this use of man. In fact, in Old English, before the eleventh century, the noun man referred to a human being of either sex, wer being used for a person of the masculine gender and wif for a person of the female gender.

The aspect of sexism in language that caused the most controversy affected English grammar, formerly considered sacrosanct. When sexism was rampant in the language people were taught that sentences such as Each student must supply his own packed lunch or Each student is aware that he must hand in the essay today were absolutely fine, being grammatically accurate. Obviously, in such sentences the gender of the student was not specified and not relevant

Various ways round the problem of retaining grammatical accuracy were tried out, including using he or she or he/she (even s/he), his or her and his/her and so on. This was a bit clumsy and eventually grammar lost out to the anti-sexist lobby. Each student must supply their own packed lunch and Each student is aware that they must hand in their essay today became acceptable, even in school textbooks. All those years spent learning grammar and it came to this! Of course you can often, but not always, avoid both sexism and grammatical inaccuracy of this kind by putting such sentences in the plural.

Reverting to football, have linespersons crept in? I suspect not but I am not knowledgeable about football. Being a woman and everything…

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  • TheBillder

    Linepersons are now Referee’s Assistants, perhaps for this very reason. I think one can almost always find another word for the gender specific without risking poor grammar or being ugly – every group with a chair should surely present its public face via its spoke, shouldn’t it?

    So: chairman becomes convener, postman becomes postie (becomes even more militant TNT delivery operative?), manhole becomes access hole, the deputy leader of the Labour Party becomes Harriet Harperson (exception proves the rule).

    And to avoid the mismatch of pronouns:

    Each student must bring a packed lunch (not likely to bring someone else’s) and Each student knows the essay deadline. Shorter and just as meaningful.

  • Topher Allan

    I distinctly remember Billy Connolly’s take on the ‘manhole’ issue. He seemed to believe that women were so under-represented in the class of people who would actually climb down a manhole, that the name should stand as there was no gender ambiguity involved.

    I wonder what proportion of sewer workers is female, and if it’s a particularly low number, what we’re doing to break the glass, uh, floor.

    I think it would be good if we could end such names with ‘-human’. ‘Chairhuman’, ‘lineshuman’ and ‘spokeshuman’ may sound a bit sci-fi, but it neatly sidesteps the issue until robots start asking for equal rights. Manholes might have to be renamed though, as I’m not quite sure about ‘humanhole’.

  • simon

    It intruiges me that people think “a person must watch their back” is considered gramattically “wrong”. It seems to me that “their” has been selected by the mass of English speakers to fill the (previously vacant) “singular gender neutral” part of grammar. Or is language not allowed to change ever?

  • http://www.gravatar.com/avatar/e861d65d23c9f6ba2c1c4195ae57af23.png David Barrie Grieve

    If one was to use homo-sapien instead of human… blah blah blah….. Billy Connolly’s take on the ….. blah… ad infinitum (or in that general direction)

    It is an alive thing is language and it will alter in usage. It’s a shame though to have it decided by journalists or heaven forbid a minor broadcast executive from time to time .. oh wait a minute,, we don’t have a Scottish public television channel yet,…so that is not quite so applicable in Scotland… that would be a decision taken elsewhere as well……

    Language might change with an input from linguists, historians and related intelligentsii e.t.c., but it has most often made positive progress in situ through usage.

    I get pissed-off by the blasted ex-colonists in the new world flipping around with “actor” and deleting actress from the general vocabulary. Equality declarations and the aligned resentments are such a waste of time. We are what we are. I know that my wife is my superior and hereby declare my allegiance towards women (or womankind) being honourably recognised in public positions.

    Person is not a dirty word either.

    Case by case for words applying sexual specification as and when appropriate.