September 3, 2013

Making the Ruling Person’s English gender-neutral.

There are no fishermen left in Washington State. They are all now fishers. There are no longer any firemen, only firefighters. The state’s clergymen have been banished to make room for a genderless clergy. All of the college freshmen have gone on to become sophomores and will be replaced by a new crop of first-year students. And none of them practice penmanship anymore, only handwriting.

It’s all part of a grand Utopian scheme of Washington’s starry-eyed efforts to banish gendered language from the state’s constitution and official documents. Tellingly, certain phrases have been left unaltered. You can still call a conman a conman, and a manhole will remain a manhole. And the word seaman will remain the exclusive domain of man.

Washington is now the fourth state (after Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois) to mandate gender-neutral language in its official documents. The state’s Office of the Code Reviser will keep its 40 employees busy as they pore over an estimated 40,000 sex-specific legal references at taxpayer expense in their attempt to diligently un-gender them.

“This was a much larger effort than I had envisioned,” Welles told Reuters. “Mankind means man and woman….There’s no good reason for keeping our legal terms anachronistic and with words that do not respect our current contemporary times,” she/he/it said.

“Words matter,” commented Liz Watson of the National Women’s Law Center regarding Washington’s move to neuter its legal jargon. “This is important in changing hearts and minds,” and we all know that changing hearts and minds is far more important than, oh, balancing the budget, lowering taxes, or easing unemployment.

Sociolinguists Crispin Thurlow is enthusiastic about the new law, possibly because they keep sociolinguists named Crispin Thurlow employed in what are by any objective measure nonessential jobs.

“Changing words can change what we think about the world around us,” Thurlow says. “These tiny moments accrue and become big movements.”

That’s the problem with tiny moments. Unless you stop them immediately, they blossom into big movements.
But the movement’s been growing for decades in the halls of academia and the corridors of power. “You can get people to change their language,” claims Amy Sheldon, a professor from the University of Minnesota. “It doesn’t automatically change whether people are acting sexistly and non-sexistly.”

Dear Amy—you can try to get people to “change their language” until dream-catchers magically emerge, but you’ll only get me to use the word “sexistly” when you pry it from my cold, dead lips.

The website to Sarah Lawrence College—which, if I’m not mistaken, was named after a (do I dare say this?) woman—offers Gender Neutral Language Guidelines that provide a frightening glimpse into the latter-day tendencies to get everything backward. Their handy how-to manual accepts the term gendered as a verb, as if sexual dimorphism is a diaphanous social construct and one actually has to inject gender into the language, yet it frowns upon “transgendered” in favor of “transgender,” as if to imply that these poor creatures were born that way.

MIT offers a guide for removing the word man from everything except, oh but of course, the word manslaughter.

The American Psychological Association, which seems acutely afflicted with the mental disorders peculiar to modern ‘isms, offers Guidelines to Reduce Bias in Language and, because it’s absolutely and undeniably necessary, methods for Avoiding Heterosexual Bias in Language.

Movements are afoot to de-gender The Bible, the entire English language, and every language known to mankind—sorry, I meant every language known to humanity.

A German university even switched all masculine-generic language over to the female form.

Where will it end? Will Manhattan become Personhattan? Will MENSA morph into PERSONSA? Will we have to hire gender-indeterminate scriveners to alter Lincoln’s Epersoncipation Proclamation?

But alas, this is all part of progress. None of this is insane or trivial or reflective of people who are so hopelessly sheltered, they’d scream at the sight of their own gender-neutral shadow.

Still, I suppose it’s only fair to expect that, at any given point in history, language should reflect the times. The problem is . . . we live in far too interesting times.