Magazine | June 20, 2011, Issue

War of Words

Notes on a language cop and her struggle

‘The Woman Who Stopped Us from Saying ‘Stewardess,’” read a headline last month. The article was a celebration of Kate Swift, who had passed away. She is credited with rooting out sexism, or perceived sexism, in language. Credited by many, I should say, and blamed by a few. In addition to being a writer and editor, she was a gay-rights activist and a pro-choice activist. When I say “choice,” you know I’m not talking about education.

With her partner, a woman named Casey Miller, Swift wrote an essay called “Desexing the English Language.” That was for the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine, in 1972. That same year, they wrote “One Small Step for Genkind,” for The New York Times Magazine. (“Genkind” was to replace “mankind.”) They then produced a book, Words and Women: New Language in New Times.

I have written of Miller as Swift’s “partner,” and she was that, professionally and otherwise. (She died in 1997.) The word “partner” has had an interesting evolution. For decades, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote a column together, and they considered themselves “partners.” “My partner Bob Novak,” Evans would say; “my partner Rowlie Evans,” Novak would say. Toward the end, however, they started saying “writing partner.” I’m sure it was because “partner” had taken on the connotation of “gay lover” (to use an antique phrase). Obituaries used to employ the euphemism “longtime companion”; now they regularly say “partner.”

Back to “stewardess”: Why do some words get stigmatized and other words not? It can be a mystery. I rather regret the loss of “stewardess,” in part because I liked its companion, “steward.” “Flight attendant” seems to me sort of mechanical: like something out of robotics or early sci-fi. We used to call Amelia Earhart an “aviatrix” — the only time we ever used “aviatrix.” Wonderful old word. I see now that a dictionary has this usage note: “When relevant, sex is specified with the generic term: Amelia Earhart was a pioneer woman aviator.” Too bad.

In music reviews, I like to use the word “concertmistress,” when I can. It’s a beautiful, flavorful old word. I do my tiny bit to keep it in circulation. I would never, however, refer to Emily Dickinson as a “poetess.” Don’t know exactly why. It sounds denigratory to me. Am I inconsistent? Oh, sure. These things are often felt, rather than reasoned out.

Miller & Swift did not like traditional pronouns, at all. They wanted you to say “tey,” “ter,” and “tem,” for “he” or “she,” “his” or “her,” and “him” or “her.” They lost that one. And yet people can be very touchy about pronouns. When I hear, or say, “To each his own,” I don’t think of sex — of a man, specifically. I think of a person, or people, generally. But others don’t.

In Davos one year, I moderated a panel, and asked that each participant “say a few words about himself.” It crossed my mind to add “or herself,” but, in that split second, I thought, “No, everyone is grown up here. This is not Smith College. They know about English.” I was wrong. The first panelist was a woman — an anthropology professor — who said, “To begin with, I am not a ‘himself,’ I am a person.” The woman next to her — her partner, I believe — applauded, loudly, angrily, and alone. It was the sound of two hands clapping, so to speak. An incredibly awkward moment. And it taught me, or reaffirmed, that standard, or once-standard, English can be risky.

#page# “To each their own” is ungrammatical. “To each his or her own” is uneuphonious. Pick your poison. Or stick to your guns.

Like “tey” and the rest, “genkind” has not caught on, thank goodness. “Humankind” is bad enough. Why did people ever begin to think that “mankind” referred, not to people in general, but to men only? Why did they begin to think that about “man” — as in “the rights of man”? Recently, I read an article that quoted a religious woman of the 19th century. The woman used the word “man,” and the writer of the article felt the need to explain that, in the olden days, they said this, and meant nothing sex-specific by it. Has it come to that? Obviously so.

Swift & Miller did not want you to say “policeman,” but “police officer.” Not “mailman,” or “postman,” but “mail carrier.” (“The Mail Carrier Always Rings Twice”?) Verboten, too, was “fireman,” to be replaced by “firefighter.” In the wake of 9/11, and the attendant rescue operations, many noted that people were saying “fireman,” instead of the fussier “firefighter.” This was no time for political correctness, was the feeling. Of course, “fireman” can refer to a worker on a train or ship too — so maybe “firefighter” saves you a little ambiguity. (But who stokes fires on steam locomotives these days?)

As I’ve mentioned in these pages before, I grew up in one of the most politically correct places in America, Ann Arbor, Mich. — and at a very, very politically correct time. This was a time when people were (seriously) saying “person-hole cover,” instead of “manhole cover.” We got to replacing “man” with “person” automatically. A friend and I would joke that Detroit’s mayor was “Coleperson Young.” Women, for some, became “womyn.” You also heard the word “herstory,” in rebuke of “history.” Get it?

“Chairman” fell into disfavor, replaced by “chairperson” or simply “chair.” Oddly, actresses, some of them, began to call themselves “actors.” A woman introduced herself to me as an “actor” just the other week. But will the Oscars drop the Best Actress category and have just one, for men and women — Best Actor? Don’t bet on it. Maybe “Best Actor, Male Division” and “Best Actor, Female Division”?

There came a time, certainly in “progressive” circles, when “husband” and “wife,” especially the latter, acquired a stigma. You were supposed to say “spouse.” When I was in graduate school, a young man came back to the dorm eager to tell us something: “I referred to Nancy Reagan today as ‘the president’s spouse,’ without even thinking. It just came naturally to me to say ‘spouse,’ instead of ‘wife.’” He was very pleased with himself — as though he had learned to love Big Brother, or Big Sister.

“Secretary” acquired an odor — not sure why. Don’t know why “assistant” is any better, any nobler. Rather like “flight attendant,” it seems to me more mechanical: A vacuum cleaner could be an “assistant,” but never a “secretary.” Incidentally, National Secretary’s Day has now been replaced by Administrative Professionals Day. And have you heard the story — a legend — about the young woman seated next to Henry Kissinger in the mid-Seventies? “What do you do?” she says. “I’m secretary of state,” he answers. “Oh, I’m a secretary too!” she responds.

#page#Some colleges and universities have stricken the word “freshmen” in favor of “first years.” “Sophomores,” “juniors,” and “seniors” are free of the dreaded “men.” But “freshmen” needed fixing.

Even the word “girl” is frowned on by some — “girl” in all circumstances. Tell you a story. In the mid-Nineties, I was living in Washington, D.C., and paid a visit to Kramerbooks, on Dupont Circle. Two young men, a customer and a clerk, were having a conversation. They were speaking of a mutual friend who had just had a baby. “Boy or girl?” said the customer. The clerk gulped and said — swear — “She had a woman.”

I personally am of two minds about “Ms.,” which has achieved absolute acceptance, even dominance. On one hand, it was always a pain to dance around marital status: Was a woman “Miss” or “Mrs.”? And it seemed slightly ridiculous to address an octogenarian as “Miss.” On the other hand, “Ms.” is so . . . so unattractive, kind of a non-word, don’t you think? In any case, I credit Gloria Steinem with saying at least one charming thing in her life. When the New York Times acceded to “Ms.” in 1986, she quipped, “Now I no longer have to be ‘Miss Steinem of Ms. magazine.’”

The question of language and politics is an old and freighted one, and I’ll just say a quick something about abortion. Years ago, on television, Kate Michelman, the famous pro-choice activist, was debating a pro-lifer, a woman whose name I forget. The pro-lifer spoke first, and, discussing pregnancy, referred to a “mother” and her “baby.” When it was Michelman’s turn, she said (as I recall), “First, let’s get the language right: It’s not a ‘mother’ and her ‘baby,’ it’s a ‘woman’ and the ‘fetus.’” I will say this, too: If “pro-choice” isn’t the greatest, and most brazen, lexical triumph in the history of politics, I don’t know what is.

Everyone accepts that language evolves, and most people accept that it ought to. There will always be “new language” for “new times,” to borrow from Miller & Swift’s subtitle. And yet I don’t see why we should surrender to new language that’s absurd, ugly, or merely PC. A tribute to Swift printed on The Nation’s website said, “A good memorial to Kate would be to let media outlets know when you see ‘mankind’ that it’s not good English.” Will the media outlets then have the nerve and sense to tell you to stuff it? I hope so, but I doubt it. Rarely are people so cowed as they are before language cops. (“Cowed and/or bulled”?)

According to the obituaries, Swift spent her last hours in a hospital called Middlesex. Given her struggle for “gender-neutral” language, that seems appropriate, almost poetic. During the George W. Bush years, she spelled the president’s name with a lowercase “b”: “bush.” Like “genkind” and the pronouns, that didn’t catch on. But “stewardess” is pretty much history, or herstory. Are we, is our society, the better for it? I don’t think so, but, you know — win some, lose some.

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