August 2011 was “gender English” month at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and a few of my recent posts there focus on this aspect of the language.
In “Problems with pronouns”, I address the issue of gender-neutral third person singular personal pronouns (I’m a singular-they man, myself), and wonder about the effectiveness of an experiment in Egalia, a pre-school in Sweden which forsakes gendered pronouns altogether:
Plural pronouns (they, them, their, themselves) have been used for centuries to refer to singular antecedents, not only in informal speech but in classic literature. This raises the hackles of sticklers, though, who protest that it contravenes grammatical concord. The influence of Google+ should give singular they a boost, but Facebook ran into difficulty here. Themself – which centuries ago was used where we now use themselves – is occasionally resorted to, but it is a non-standard form. [more]
My next post, “Getting cute about gender”, looks at the etymology and historical and contemporary senses of cute, a word whose usage is strongly skewed by gender. It also has a usage peculiar to Ireland:
Irish English has a version of this lesser sense of cute that is typically heard in the colloquialism “cute hoor”. Hoor in this case derives from whore but doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with sex; rather, it’s a general term of abuse applied usually to males, often corrupt ones. A cute hoor is someone cunning and devious. It’s commonly heard in political contexts, and has given rise to the noun phrase “cute hoorism”:
This is the kind of political cute hoorism that has the economy where it is today. (Irish Times, 30 June 2011)
Like many Irish insults, hoor is sometimes used with affection, even respect. It can also indicate strong or unhealthy fondness (“He’s an awful hoor for the horses/drink”). [more]
The BBC was criticised for continuing to use the word protesters for a few days after the term had become inappropriate. The broadcaster later admitted it had made a mistake; Fran Unsworth, BBC News head of newsgathering, added:
We try not to be too prescriptive, but yes we have said actually that they’re not protesters they’re clearly rioters and looters. They are more descriptive terms and we should try and be as accurately descriptive as we can be.
Though the BBC went out of its way to avoid terms that could be considered judgemental, other media outlets and commentators were less cautious. All sorts of words were used to refer to the rioters – looters, thieves, criminals, hooligans, thugs, yobs, idiots, cretins, scum, terrorists, feral underclass. A few of these are, to use Unsworth’s phrase, accurately descriptive; others are loaded with prejudice or carry a nasty subtext. [more]
Back to gender: “Fighting fire with ‘firefighter’” is about how some words become outdated for political reasons, and what dictionaries do as meanings “shift and drift and settle anew”:
Dictionaries record how language is used, so they can’t simply ignore sexist and discriminatory usages – or new terms that supersede them – no matter how objectionable some people might find them. But by tagging words and adding usage notes, dictionaries can point out controversies, indicate that a word is non-standard or politically incorrect, and trust to readers’ judgement. . . .
One of the arguments against gender-biased terms like fireman and chairman is that they suggest that these roles – and the power and bravery and other virtues associated with them – are the exclusive or particular preserve of men. Sexist terminology often takes the male as norm, the female as derivation or deviation, and men have long considered themselves the quintessential type: Joe Public as “modern man”, putting in man-hours with his manpower.
This led to a good discussion in the comments about (among other things) gender-neutral words for postman. There’s more terminology here – and difficulty – than I first supposed!
Eliza’s line (“Walk! Not bloody likely.”) caused a scandal, and the word Pygmalion was used for decades afterwards as a jocular substitute expletive, as in the title of this post.
Bloody retains a peculiar power to bother people. Just a few years ago, its use in a tourism campaign in Australia caused a considerable fuss. Michael Quinion reports on his World Wide Words website that the Australian prime minister couldn’t bring himself to speak the offending line (“So where the bloody hell are you?”) on radio, but that the tourism minister had a markedly different attitude: “It’s the great Australian adjective. We all use it, it’s part of our language.” [more]
That’s it for this month. As always, comments in either location are very welcome. You can find the full archive of my Macmillan Dictionary Blog posts here, or by clicking the relevant link in the top right corner of this blog.