War of Words
Notes on a language cop and her struggle


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.

June 20, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 11

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