Friday, 14 July 2006

Men’s and women’s sana in corpore sano

An early rulebook of a sport in which I was involved professionally for some years had a preamble which contained the following charming statement: Throughout these rules, wherever the masculine gender is used it shall be held to embrace the feminine. This was later revised to read clumsily, as something like Where we say “he” we mean “he or she” and so on; obviously if one allows women to join in chaps’ games it must be made clear to them that the rules apply to them as well, otherwise they might try to take advantage.

The Guardian stylebook advises its writers that the word mankind should be avoided and humankind or humanity used instead. The 1926 Fowler’s Modern English Usage merely notes how the word should be pronounced differently to distinguish its two meanings ....with the accent on the second syllable for the ordinary sense of the human race but on the first for the special sense of the males of a family &c.

Those were innocent days. In 1968, according to the OED, the word sexism first entered the language, meaning “the assumption that one sex is superior to the other and the resultant discrimination practised against members of the supposed inferior sex, esp. by men against women; also conformity with the traditional stereotyping of social roles on the basis of sex”, and since then things have become much more complicated.

The modern Fowler (or at any rate Burchfield’s third edition, the best I can do) finds it necessary to provide numerous articles on particular instances of sexist language as well as an extensive essay on the topic in general:

….Feminists and others sympathetic to their views, from about the 1970s onwards, have attacked what they take to be male-favouring terminology of every kind and have scoured the language for suitable evidence and for gender-free substitutes. Their argument hinges on the belief that many traditional uses of the language discriminate against women or render them ‘invisible’ and for these reasons are unacceptable ….When reviewing the Handbook [of Non-Sexist Writing, 1981] the Irish writer Brigid Brophy complained about the ‘leaden literalness of mind’ [of the authors] and ‘their tin ear and insensitivity to the metaphorical content of language’ ….Other writers show in their works that they propose to ignore the shrillest of the advice of feminists ….In English Today (1985) the sociolinguistic scholar Jenny Cheshire concluded ‘There is a built-in masculine bias in English and this does have very serious implications for both the women and the men who use the language. And this bias will not disappear unless there is some measure of conscious reform in the language’
But where is the evidence that ‘conscious reform’ will be accepted by the English-speaking public? None of the significant changes to the language in the past century has come about by ‘conscious reform’. And none will in future unless the whole community singly and collectively decides, not by edict or proclamation, and not even by a vote in the House of Commons, to allow new fashions to be regarded as standard, or at any rate irreversible.

All that sounds unexceptionable, if a bit stuffy, but that was in 1998; some later writers may be more inclined to deplore the inherent sexism of the generic masculine. But most people (good non-gender-specific word, that) can probably see no real alternative.

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