Having been thrown about by English-speaking academics in the few decades previously, the early 1990s saw the term “political correctness” gradually creep into mainstream British oral and written communication. Pushing the mass media to review their editorial policies and exhibit greater sensitivity to race and gender bias: such a change was met unsurprisingly with substantial critique by protestors claiming that it inhibited their freedom of speech. However, in considering gender not simply as biological sex, but rather something relative, cultural and that changes over time, just like language, progressive yet subtle alterations to gender-biased words have inevitably been made over the past two decades. As 2016 approaches, we shall take a look at which words have been and gone, and which prejudiced weighty letter combinations are hanging on in there.
“God the father”, “stewardess” and “fireman” have all slid out the back door to make way for their gender-neutral successors: “God the creator”; “flight attendant” and “fire-fighter”. While “Policeman” has been assigned a female counterpart in “policewoman”, as have “business man”, “spokesman” and “waiter”. These last new recruits to the English language should be welcomed warmly, right? Wrong. They are gender-neutral wannabes. Despite inclusive PC intentions, assigning male or female linguistic alternatives to professional titles still marks a gender distinction between people carrying out the same job. The English language is, after all, gender neutral, so in these circumstances, it could be seen both unnecessary and irrelevant to draw attention to a person’s biological sex.
A classic controversial example of attempting to be inclusive and PC in professional language is the “male nurse” vs. “nurse” reference. A product of its time and culture, the definition of “nurse” has, up until recently, always specified a “female” figure. So today, the fore placing of “male” is used either by those with an outmoded vocabulary, unaware of the changed definition of the now gender-neutral word “nurse” (“a person whose job is to care for people” – Cambridge Dictionaries Online), or by those who view the gender distinction as necessary in such a profession. It is ultimately an undisputable fact that some women prefer to see a female nurse as opposed to a male – a difference that is therefore not gender-biased, but instead provides clarity.
In romance languages where gender distinctions are inherent in the grammar, it might seem less relevant to question gender-specific job titles than in English. However, at times, linguistic formation can automatically imply a woman’s inferiority, without us even realising or acknowledging the weight of our chosen word. For example in Italian, female equivalents to “dottore”and “professore” adopt the suffix “essa”, traditionally implying “wife of”. This linguistically insinuates a women’s subordinate professional position. Even where female job titles do exist in two gender-specific forms in Italian, such as “Ministro” (“Ministra”), the masculine form still dominates when pluralised and the female version is very often ridiculed, as in the substitution of “ ministra” for “minestra” meaning “vegetable soup”. We should embrace gender difference both in and outside of language, but not when it is to the detriment of one of the parties concerned or when it is contextually irrelevant.
In spite of striving for political correctness in all means of communication, gender biased words and phrases still litter both the English and Italian languages, for example, “madrelingua” (mother tongue), “patria” (fatherland), “middleman”, “man the desk” and “no man’s land” to name a few. However, implementing simple changes to a language and its usage is much more complex than we might first think. Language is both a product and a reflection of its longstanding political, social and cultural identity, therefore simply erasing words could suggest a failure to acknowledge a language’s delicately intertwined history and formation. In the pairing of gender and language form, biological differences have also played a key role, stemming from the woman’s duty as a child barer. Linguistic evolution, though, is inevitable, and we are collectively in control of our languages. We must only remember not to be oversensitive, but to simply be aware of the weight of the words we select to express ourselves. You can choose to show linguistic awareness every day in the following ways:
- Use collective pronouns. Choose “one”, “you” or “their” instead of “his” or “her”. (We must of course acknowledge the liberal makeup of our society today, by seeking also to include transgender individuals.)
- Be inclusive. Say “people” or “humankind” instead of “mankind”. Say “folks” or “friends” instead of “guys”.
- Be creative. Seek other ways to express yourself when faced with irrelevant or negative gender-biased phrases or words.
If you’re interested in reading more on gender-biased language in English, you can take a look at some of the earliest books published (circa 1991) on the subject: “The Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage: A guide to Non-discriminatory language”, “The Handbook of non-sexist writing” and “The Elements of non-sexist Usage: A guide to inclusive spoken and written English”.