The -tide of reform

Sometimes it behoves people to adopt and accelerate changes in the common vocabulary of their language for political or cultural reasons. Mankind, once the norm, is now widely and rightly considered an inadequate term for humankind. Ditto chairman for chairperson, fireman for firefighter, and similar sexist and androcentrist terms.

In other cases, though, such attempts to ‘fix’ a language are misguided to the point of absurdity. I think we’re better off without huperson, woperson, personslaughter and personhole covers.

Of course, it’s not always gender that’s at issue. Here’s an account of one mercifully short-lived attempt at linguistic reform in the name of religion:

In the nineteenth century, British politician Thomas Massey railed against Catholicisms in the English language and proposed to the House of Commons that Christmas should be renamed ‘Christ-tide’ to avoid reference to the Catholic mass. When Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli stood up, however, to ask Thomas Massey whether he was then also prepared to change his own name to ‘Tom-tide Tidey’, the matter was closed.

From A History of Language, by Steven Roger Fischer.

Previously: Aborting the sexist pronoun.
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18 Responses to The -tide of reform

  1. Hahahahaha Disraeli’s riposte was brilliant!

  2. Joy says:

    I agree that woperson, huperson, and your other examples sound funny (though I’m less sure about personholecover for some reason). But objectively they are no sillier than chairperson (or simply chair), firefighter, or where I live now (Newfoundland) fisher in place of fisherman. Is there really any objective reason why we’ve adopted some gender-neutral terms but not others? I don’t think so. I think we find woperson and the others funny simply because we’re not used to them – they aren’t “going too far” anymore than firefighter or fisher is.

  3. Stan says:

    Jams: It was! I wonder whether it was impromptu, and I marvel that Massey apparently failed to anticipate it.

    Joy: I think some words, like woperson and huperson, failed to find favour not just because they sound silly, but because they’re morphologically unsound. People know or intuit that woman and human did not derive from man, spare rib style, whereas the compound structure in terms like fisherman and policeman shows undeniable bias.

  4. John Cowan says:

    Quoth Wikipedia:

    In 1990, the city of Sacramento, California officially renamed all its manholes to “maintenance holes” out of concern for gender equality. The name “maintenance hole” was selected because the term shares the same initials as the word “manhole”, thereby eliminating the need to change the MH labels on the city’s utility maps.

    WP also lists the names utility hole, cable chamber, inspection chamber, access chamber and confined space. Human only coincidentally looks like man, as Thomas only coincidentally looks like mass, but one horselaugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. (H.L. Mencken)

    In the WP article on manslaughter, I found this interesting bit: “The provocation [which reduces murder to manslaughter in U.K. law] must be enough to make a reasonable man do as the defendant did. The reasonable man has the same sex and age as the defendant [...]“

  5. Joy says:

    I’ve never actually seen huperson or woperson – I have definitely seen womyn and humyn, though, in feminist publications (which I imagine is where chairperson and the others got started). The “morphologically unsound” argument wouldn’t apply to personhole cover (which I’ve used in jest ever since I slipped on one, 30 years ago, and broke my leg).

    I don’t think that morphology is why neither woperson nor womyn has taken hold – I’d look for a sociological explanation rather than a linguistic one. And I’m sure that they only sound silly to us because they haven’t taken hold – I daresay chairperson and firefighter sounded silly when they first emerged too.

  6. John Cowan says:

    Joy: I think you’re quite right about the sociological factor being what’s important here. Chairperson is indeed a neologism, and I think it clunky; I much prefer chair, which goes back (in the sense of a person) to at least 1658, long before there was any notion of women occupying chairs of power or honor (except the throne; throne is also sometimes used in place of king or queen). Likewise, firefighter is dated by the OED to 1903, long before it replaced fireman officially. There’s something to be said, when eliminating words that carry freight like this, for replacing them with words that already exist but don’t carry it.

  7. Stan says:

    John: I like maintenance hole and utility hole as alternatives; MH has the edge because of its practical convenience. The Wikipedia page you quote links to a NYT bulletin from 1990, which reports:

    Public works officials had proposed finding a non-sexist term in jest, but Mayor Anne Rudin liked the idea and the debate quickly spread.

    I don’t know if we’ve had this debate in Ireland.

    Joy: Yes, their newness would have a lot to do with how silly or awkward they sound. Both chair and chairperson sounded or looked odd to me when I first encountered them (probably in my teens) as replacements for chairman. The latter word is now the one that stands out for the wrong reasons, even though chair and chairperson invite amusing literalist images. Thanks for your helpful point about the role of sociological factors.

  8. The Ridger says:

    What I can’t abide is the person who uses “-person” but only for women. That is, he (it’s almost always he) will speak of “police persons” but say “policeman” if it’s a man; “mail persons” but “mailmen” – this isn’t non-sexist at all, and is in fact more sexist that just saying “mailmen”.

  9. Except that woman did indeed derive from man, and words like cheeseburger cast doubt on the idea that word-coining shows any respect for the sensibilities of the etymologically aware.

  10. Stan says:

    The Ridger: Yes, I’ve noticed this on occasion. Sometimes it’s deliberate provocation, and other times it’s more a complete (and disheartening) failure to be less chauvinist.

    Harry: You could make that case, but I think it’s fairer to say that woman comes from wifman, via wimman, both of which literally mean (or rather, meant) “woman human being”.

  11. Trey Jones says:

    The real problem with woperson is that it still contains son. The correct über-PC term is woperdaughter.

  12. Stan says:

    You’re right, Trey. How could I have missed it? But your revision leads to other troubles, such as the potential for highly inappropriate mispronunciations of perdaughterslaughter.

  13. Joy says:

    No, Trey (& Stan), that would be woperchild! And perchildslaughter. Not to mention perchildholecover and a few others…

  14. @Stan The fact that the meaning of man has shifted over the centuries doesn’t negate the fact that woman comes from man, in the way that human does not. On some level, however misguided, woperson makes a kind of sense, at least more sense than huperson.

    Logically it ought to be wifeperson, but then of course the problem would be the modern meaning of wife. And so the whole can of worms opens up, as the witty comments on this post so aptly demonstrate. Fundamentally, the problem is surely in seeing the concept of “woman” as a specialist variety of the default “man” (modern sense, =male). Really man ought to mean person, with a term like “husbandman” to mean specifically a male “man” (old sense, =human).

  15. Stan says:

    Joy, I’m putting you in charge. Please let me know when this mess has been sorted out.

    Harry: point taken, with thanks. I agree that the idea of man as default and woman as secondary, even abnormal, is the nub of the problem; a culture’s ills and imbalances will manifest in its language. We need a new, equitable set of dogmas, or none at all. Or rather dogtide.

  16. Trey Jones says:

    Alas, woperchild makes no sense in referring to someone feminine (it’s hard to avoid those contentious words!), because the gender of the someone is known. perchild is for someones of unknown gender. So you has masculine man, feminine woperdaughter and neuter perchild. Totally logical.

    On a more serious note, -man in woman or human is morphologically opaque to most speakers of modern English, even if etymologically true—unlike the morphologically transparent chairman or fireman. It seems to be a happenstance, like the -son in person I’ve been making fun of (which really has an etymological morpheme boundary right in the middle of it: prósōpa + na –> perso-n.)

  17. Claude says:

    Thanks! This is all very amusing. Disraeli had said once, “Life is too short to be little.” You could always count on his great sense of humour to see the ridiculous immediately. I so admire him. Love your anecdote!

  18. Stan says:

    Trey: Thank you for clarifying both your silly and serious points.

    Claude: Seeing the ridiculous in things is a very useful ability, very rare in a politician! Thanks for your comment.

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