“Many colorful phrases — the very thing that makes language vivid and enjoyable — too often now are perceived as dangerous, and excising them risks diminishing the possibilities of communication. Few of us would want to read a novel devoid of colorful wording.” — Lawrence Krauss, The Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2022
The language police are at it again.
They have — to sort off with a sort of non sequitur — no joie de vivre. (I doubt that they know what it means.)
Think of words like cold fish, clock watcher, and dead drop, which are not on their prohibited list. Our language is full of idioms, slang, and clichés that are pungent and descriptive and just plain fun. The way good language in a work of fiction or poetry can wake you up.
Black box is now banned? Really? It means a flight recorder on an aircraft. We all read about the search for the black box when there is a plane crash. The box is black, and such a device could have been called just about anything. But black box is descriptive, with the adjective black pulling a lot of the weight. There is something comforting or reassuring about having words that fit certain situations that everyone understands. Now, if the language police have their way, we will have to come up with a new term, which will create at least temporary confusion. Yes, the boxes are black, but does black have any external (meaning, connotation as opposed to denotation) implications?
What about blacklist? Canceling this word does a disservice to history. Blacklist is a term that immediately bring to mind the 50s and McCarthyism. And it has nothing to do with race. Lack of regard for history? The language police could care less.
They are ignorant, fanatical ideologies whose incursions on our everyday speech and the language used in journalism and writing amount to an assault on the language.
NO — “to his people on earth” is deliberately wrong.
How can one — why would one — mistranslate unambiguous words from the Latin mass?
Glory to God in the highest.
and peace on earth to MEN OF GOOD WILL.
Men of good will is not a “generic” phrase. It means something. To men (yes, men) of good will.
Words have a literal meaning and a connotation. Here it is the literal meaning that is in question. In my mind, these beautiful words always have evoked the thought of a community of well-meaning people, of benevolent spirits. But the anonymous translator here (read, verbal axe-wielder) has substituted the anodyne “his people on earth,” e.g., earthlings. Presumably for the sake of political correctness. This strips the phrase of its meaning.
I am offended, deeply so, that someone would change the text of a beautiful mass by Beethoven, the text of the Latin mass which has existed for over four centuries.
I am writing this post because of — in response to — a development last week concerning so called “language policing” (a term I coined for myself, but it’s probably in common use now), or what would otherwise be termed an assault on our language from the PC crowd.
The development I am referring to was covered in the following articles:
“No More Manholes in Berkeley as City Writes Gender Out of Codes.” by Thomas Fuller and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, The New York Times, July 19, 2019
“Berkeley plans to remove gendered pronouns from its municipal code,” by Kayla Epstein, The Washington Post, July 18, 2019 (Boy, does that term “gendered pronouns” irk me!)
In an effort to make Berkeley more inclusive for its non-binary residents, the city council voted Tuesday night to make the language more gender neutral, following a city clerk review that found that the municipal code primarily contained masculine pronouns. [What is a “non-binary” resident? Don’t bother to tell me. The last time I recall encountering binary, it was in high school math. Now it’s being applied to gender by the PC philistines.]
Manhole will be replaced with maintenance hole. Sisters and brothers will be replaced with siblings. And he or she will be banished in favor of they, even if referring to one person.
“[M]an-made” will soon be “human made,” “chairman” will become “chairperson” … in the city’s municipal code.
… not only would the names of several professions change, but the pronouns “he” and “she” would be swapped out for “they” and “them,” and in some cases, individuals would be referred to by their title rather than a pronoun (“The Candidate” or “The Lobbyist,” for example.)
Keith Johnson, the chair of the department of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley … says the English language has been evolving away from gender-specific terms for many years. Stewardess is out of touch; the preferred term is of course flight attendant. Waitresses and waiters are now often known as servers.
Last month, Multnomah County in Oregon, which … includes Portland, passed a similar measure, replacing gendered pronouns with the singular use of “they” and related words. Miami replaced gendered words in 2017, and changed all singular pronouns — many of which had previously just said “he” — to “he/she.”
Such idiocy, such barbarity — ignorance triumphant — perhaps deserves no comment.
A few thoughts, nevertheless.
“Gendered” pronouns (and “gendered” words) provide INFORMATION.
In school we used to call them masculine and feminine pronouns.
Gender is, as far as I know, a basic fact of life. Without being an expert, I would guess that the perception that one is male or female is fixed from — let’s say for the purposes of discussion — nursery school or kindergarten age. A child knows and perceives his or her class being comprised of boys and girls and knows that there is a difference and that this is a fundamental and pertinent fact.
When one meets someone, observes someone in public — on the street or in the subway, say — what is one of the things that is noticed without fail — perhaps the most fundamental thing? Whether the person met or observed is male or female. It’s not something one has to guess about, and it affects how we perceive others and interact on a basic level.
Our language and most other languages have pronouns and other grammatical forms that make a distinction between masculine and feminine, often, usually, in the case of male versus female pronouns, but also, in the case of many languages, nouns and other parts of speech (verbs, adjectives).
This is a GOOD thing. Because languages serve to convey information. To not do so and to strip a language of gender is to invite confusion.
Using they all the time in place of a singular “gendered” pronoun — he or she — is downright confusing, besides being uncalled for: a dismantling of our language and desecration of its grammar.
They gave a donation to the charity. Who did? My sister? My niece or nephew? My parents? Some altruistic citizens? An organization I belong to?
If I say that I really liked my waitress last night at the restaurant I dined in and give her a big tip for outstanding service, this is more informative than saying “I gave my server a big tip for great service.” And there is nothing wrong with this. We have (or had) a word for a male waiter and one for a female waiter. It’s degrading to call a female “server” a waitress?
There are some terms that, I will admit, even I have trouble with. For example, poetess. This was a term used in days of yore for female poets. It did seem to be singling women poets out as a sort of sub category of the class of writers who write poetry. I think Emily Dickinson should be called a poet, not a poetess.
But, to return to waitress and waiter. These are two words with a nice sound to them. Euphonic. We all know what they mean. Server is a much more bland (should I say bleached?) and more vague word. Server of what? Process server? Tennis player?
Chair for a department chairman or chairwoman seems ridiculous to me. A chair is something one sits upon. I get it: A woman department head doesn’t want to be called chairman. How about chairwoman? (Chairperson is too bland and “generic.”)
Man made versus human made (per the new Berkeley code)? This is one of those horribly vague and manufactured locutions such as “double plus ungood” in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Human made, as in by humanoids, not robots? This is idiotic. Man since time immemorial has been used to refer to humanity, as in “That’s one small step for man.”
“Manhole will be replaced with maintenance hole.” Yes, manhole undoubtedly comes from the idea that it is a sort of hole in the middle of a street where men can be found working below. They climb down the hole to do some task. And, yes, in the past, at least, almost anyone performing such a task was a man. (But the basic idea seemed to be that it was a hole where people might be found — in contrast, say to a rabbit hole.) “Sexism” aside, everyone knows what a manhole is, and one has a mental (pictorial) image of a manhole. So now we have to confuse everyone who will have to stop and think, maintenance hole, what’s that? Same thing as a manhole? This is messing things up, not making them more logical or sensible.
“Sisters and brothers will be replaced with siblings.” Sorry. But there’s a bit difference, like it or not, between saying “I had lunch with my sister yesterday” and “I had lunch with my brother.” Without any other information being provided (which, in a conversation, would be the case), we have been conveyed some information. Say I am talking with someone who doesn’t know me well, a coworker, say. I tell them: “During my vacation, I spent a week visiting my sister in Colorado.” That conveys much more information than saying, “During my vacation, I visited a sibling in Colorado.” And, what, in God’s name, is wrong with sister and brother? Are we going to get rid of father and mother? “My parent passed away last year.”
It’s like hacking off the limbs of trees for some senseless reason. Deforestation. Who needs those trees anyway? They clutter up the landscape, can “cause” forest fires, and block one’s view. Better to clear the open spaces of them in the interests of prudence.
The great English writers would be rolling in their graves. Fortunately, they didn’t live to see what is being done to their tongue. You know what? England and, by extension, America have one of the world’s greatest bodies of literature. Guess what? The richness of the language — its stupendous vocabulary drawn from the world’s languages; the subtlelties of meaning and tone possible; the intricacy of grammar with much flexibility in things such as word order — has a lot to do with it.
Consider the following: I was walking down the block and saw a lady walking a dog. Woops! A humanoid walking its dog. Or should it be their dog?
Our language works very well, thank you. The PC language police want to make it less precise and rich. They want (to paraphrase a US Army officer during the Vietnam War) to destroy the language in order to save it, or what in their benighted view constitutes civilization (as they see it).
Orwell was on to something. He really was prescient.
“Push for Ethnic Studies in Schools Faces a Dilemma: Whose Stories to Tell”
By Dana Goldstein
The New York Times
August 15, 2019
states the following:
The materials [from a draft of California’s newly proposed ethnic studies curriculum for K-12 public schools] are unapologetically activist — and jargony. They ask students to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.” A goal, the draft states, is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.” …
It did not help that some of the terms used throughout the more than 300 pages of documents — “hxrstory, “cisheteropatriarchy,” “accompliceship” — were inscrutable to many in Sacramento and beyond.
Words like hxrstory and cisheteropatriarchy jump out at me. They horrify me. The fact of such words being used actually depresses me.
Nothing that can be imagined, dreaded, is beyond the language police.
Such words in particular suggest a thought to me. That the would-be PC czars (language-destroying Robespierres) hate the idea of GENDER. They wish gender didn’t exist.
It’s a basic fact of life, as I noted in this post, that — as far as I know — most people have a gender. Many words do too.
The fact that pronouns and other words are “gendered” is an artifice, so to speak, in that languages, while they developed naturally or “organically,” are not living, breathing things. A word does not actually have a gender. So, one can, in theory, contemplate changing the language with respect, say, to whether I say “he,” “she,” or “their”; “chairman” or “chairperson.” Whereas sex (masculine or feminine) in human beings is intrinsic at birth.
What depresses and bothers me — I find it patently wrong and anti-human — is that the PC language police — the zealots who want to abolish “gendered” words and go to ridiculous lengths to do so, coming up with abominations invented by them such as cisheteropatriarchy — are opposed to recognition being made of gender as something basic, intrinsic — a FACT, as it were. They want to revise gender out of the language (if not our consciousness) and suppress recognition of same.
I am a parent, and I would have been pleased to have had a daughter. I, in common with most men, like women. I am also happy to be male. Growing up, being a boy meant wonderful, open friendships with chums; playing sports and following professional teams; and other “male” things. I am glad I was born a boy, but I had no choice. If I “erred” in associating things like sports with masculinity (girls played sports even in those days, but there was more rigidity and adherence to stereotypes, admittedly, back then about gender roles and activities), so be it. I am not ashamed of or uncomfortable with being a male. And, I have no qualms about using “gendered” words. Why should I?
Here are some of the comments made by one of my critics:
My sense is the people you’re calling the “language police” are people who want to change the language for various reasons, including but not exclusively politically correct types. They are not government officials as in Orwell’s Thought Police. There are no “language police,” just individuals who feel that certain things should change, and there are enough of them to make this a matter of material debate. Why isn’t this just another form of evolution?
Languages do change over time — don’t they? And they change for many reasons. If language can’t change, shouldn’t we all be speaking the English of Beowulf?
I know that you’re using the language police in a figurative sense, but there is a huge difference between a New York Transit official changing a recorded announcement, or changing “Christmas Party” to “Holiday Party,” and Orwell’s organized and government-sponsored thought police. What’s happening now (and what has happened throughout recorded history) is that individuals are deciding on their own to change their language in ways they believe is important, and therefore English everywhere is growing and evolving, just like a tree. No tree endures forever. You of course don’t have to agree with changing “him” to “he/she.” People who do like this change aren’t necessarily busybodies — they are just using language that is important to them, for whatever reasons. Your desire to keep old trees standing is no different from their desire to lop off a branch here and there.
A random sampling of my responses to his comments includes the following remarks of mine:
Your point that languages do change is a good one. It’s enriching when it happens. Think about all the words English has absorbed from other languages. And, yes, we used to have “thou” and “thee.” Now it’s “you.” So, grammar does evolve. Let it evolve naturally, from the ground up, as it is spoken by living, breathing people, not as we are told to speak or write it by the “language police.” What you call “evolution” of language is not evolution, it’s a form of social engineering, so to speak, except in this case it’s not social policy, it’s language rules being imposed upon us.
I don’t see the concern about sexism in language as an “evolutionary factor.” I do see the change to “holiday party” as something the language police implemented. But, if it’s an office party or such an occasion attended by people of different faiths, yes, holiday party seems right. (Although I hate bloodless Orwellian locutions.)
What I care about, solely, and object strongly to is what I perceive to be attempts to sanitize, defang, and reconfigure the language in accord with some ideological agenda. I love my native tongue. I know that it is continually evolving and changing, but I am strongly opposed to busybodies trying to orchestrate this and to tell us, ordain, what is or is not permissible. That’s what I mean when I say I don’t like change. Let our precious language grow, develop, evolve, and endure like a tree. (The simile is apt.)
Of course, languages change — I would use the word evolve (as do species). It can be seen in English, including changes in usage. But, this is something that happens naturally, without the intervention of language police.
Today, in my reading, I came across a word that perfectly illustrates what I mean by languages evolving — NATURALLY.
meaning something cheap, showy, or counterfeit (“a vile Brummagem substitute for the genuine article”)
Brummagem (and historically also Bromichan, Bremicham and many similar variants, all essentially “Bromwich-ham”) is the local name for the city of Birmingham, England, and the dialect associated with it. It gave rise to the terms Brum (a shortened version of Brummagem) and Brummie (applied to inhabitants of the city, their accent and dialect, and frequently West Midlanders and their accents in general).
Brummagem and Brummagem are also terms for cheap and shoddy imitations, in particular when referring to mass-produced goods.
This is true, organic language growth. Arising from variations in pronunciation, and cleverness and serendipity. Not from mandates from language czars.
Such words are rich in associations and fun to contemplate.
I used to love the word spokesman — it had an Anglo Saxon ring to it. (I am probably wrong about its actual derivation.) Now, it’s the bloodless locution spokesperson.
At the university where I worked, we had a department “chair.” He was a piece of furniture in the department head’s office? He was he there to be sat upon? What’s wrong with chairman? (He was a man.)
We have servers now. What is wrong with waiter and waitress? The problem (I should say the issue), as see it, is that we all know what waiter and waitress refer to. Server is a much more vague term. We have a server in tennis and all sorts of people who serve, such as military personnel, civil servants, people in service oriented businesses, etc. What’s wrong with saying waiter or waitress? Oh, I forgot! Our language is supposed to be “gender neutral” now. Why? People can’t be differentiated in terms of their sex?
What’s next? I wonder if at some point man and woman won’t be abolished, and we will be required to say person. To say, in politically correct parlance, “I met a person yesterday,” with the listener being left to wonder — impertinently? — in the privacy of his or her poor, befogged brain: Was it (an acceptable gender neutral pronoun) what used to be called a man (a heretofore prohibited word) or (dare one be so impertinent to think that it should matter) that other banned term, a woman?
Language abuse — the destruction of our native tongue — has a life and a momentum of its own. It’s like the destruction of forests to make way for the advance of “civilization.”
The reflections of mine which follow concern a point of grammar that bothers me. The usage which I object to occurred in the following article which I was reading on Monday.
“Casualties of the Cashless Society: Those Who Get Seasonal Tips”
by Douglas Quenqua
The New York Times
December 18, 2017
It is not a unique occurrence or example. The passage in the Times article was as follows:
“It’s a peculiar quirk of modern city life. The stock market is on fire, unemployment is down, and the average price of a Manhattan apartment is now more than $2 million. Yet good luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse.”
The reporter, if he wanted to be politically correct, could have used the awkward locution “his or her” (i.e., “his or her purse”), which I don’t particularly care for. (Nevertheless, I myself use it when I feel called upon by context to do so. But, I don’t feel obligated to use it. It depends upon my writerly instincts. In my opinion, that’s the way it should be. My or anyone else’s writing should be based upon personal preferences in matters of style, not a ukase from a language czar.)
But, the Times writer wants to show off his PC credentials with his in your face “her.” It is meant to produce a frisson in male chauvinist types. But, it actually amounts to “incivility,” so to speak, when it comes to conventions of language and audience expectations. By “audience expectations,” I mean those of the Times’s readers. If you think this is an extreme point of view, see discussions of how a writer should always keep his or her audience uppermost in mind as a “first principle” of composition in books such as June Casagrande’s It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences. The unexpected “she,” rather than “he,” or “he or she,” produces a sensation of disorientation — and temporary confusion — in the discriminating reader.
“[G]ood luck finding anyone with paper money in her purse” annoys me. I quoted the passage to a friend of mine (a male) with an advanced degree who has very liberal views on politics, affirmative action, sexism, homophobia, and other issues and asked him what he thought. He agreed with me. He didn’t like the use of “her” in this instance and said it annoyed him too.
The abbreviation Mrs. signifies a beautiful honorific pronounced as Missus, and the honorific Miss, which is not abbreviated, has a beautiful sound (unlike the atrocious and downright ugly Ms., which is unpronounceable, but who cares? — we shall not have sexism in the workplace!). We are talking about ancient words embedded in our glorious language.
The French have the abbreviations M., spelled out and pronounced as the elegant Monsieur; and Mme and Mlle, pronounced and spelled out, respectively, as the euphonious Madame and the even more euphonious Mademoiselle. What a beautiful word.
What about the Spanish Srta. for the beautiful sounding honorific Señorita? Have the language police come up with an ugly substitute (one that does not indicate marital status) yet? I fear that they have.
I wonder if “Mademoiselle,” the 1970’s hit by the rock band Styx, will have to be retitled in the name of political correctness.
And what about the hit song “Adios Senorita” by Ivory Joe Hunter, which is still played? Title change? It’s never too late to correct the past sins of a benighted, politically incorrect lyricist.
More ominously, what about the musical Miss Saigon? Should the title be allowed to stand? Should it be changed to “Ms. Saigon”?
This is not nitpicking on my part, and it is not a trivial matter. Ask New Yorker copyeditor Mary Norris, author of the best seller Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. As she says, “Pronouns run deep.” The PC types are all for conservation (of the wilderness and the natural environment). Why do they want to tear asunder our language? Like nature, it should be conserved, which does mean embalmed or ossified.
If a reader of this blog disagrees with me, she is welcome to post a comment.
His response was complimentary. However, he did critique a few assertions I made, namely, the following:
I love studying grammar and cannot understand why modern day self-appointed language “experts,” as they style themselves, want to or simplify, essentially emasculate — in the name of political correctness or conforming to their misguided, benighted theories of how language and English composition should be taught — language instruction.
[Addendum] The 1960’s, a learned friend of mine once opined, was the Golden Era of American education. I would not dispute this. I experienced it in English and history courses, in foreign language courses, and in mathematics instruction. To get an idea of how low conceptions of foreign language pedagogy have sunk since Alexander Lipson’s time, one might take a look at the following article: “Toppling the Grammar Patriarchy,” by Carmel McCoubrey, op-ed, The New York Times, November 16, 2017
The respondent to my post, a high school Latin teacher, wrote:
As one teaching a language today I do take issue with a couple of your assertions:
— to say the sixties was a Golden Era in American education is to assume it is now in a period of decline. Surely it is under assault (by the current administration, for starters), and educators have much to learn from successful models elsewhere (take Finland, for example). But there are many noteworthy successes that combine the best of traditional approaches with effective innovation.
— in the New York Times article to which you refer the teachers who ask for change on both philological and philosophical grounds raise important issues. To dismiss them as PC police with misguided and benighted theories is a straw-man argument. I, for example, will inform my students that 99 Roman women and one Roman man would normally be referred to as Romani, masculine gender. That is the fact. But this then invites a discussion of how ancient Roman society was patriarchal, as revealed in so many ways in their language, and what are issues with patriarchy then and today. The word virtus or “virtue” in ancient Rome meant manliness (vir = man) as shown, for example, in bravery in battle. In Victorian England virtue probably most often referred to a woman’s chastity. Gender as it pertains to language and grammar is a legitimate issue in constant need of review and revision, so while I might not agree with every position taken by the French women [discussed in the New York Times article], I respect what they are doing.
I do appreciate that you read my blog post and took the time to respond and critique it.
I respect your opinions and how you present them.
My view is that
— critiquing current trends such as political correctness does not necessarily imply faulty thinking or a straw man
— languages and their grammars are organic — the product of a long evolution — and should not be messed with
— educational standards have declined out of a zeal to make the curriculum “inclusive” and palatable to all … you can see it in English and writing classes, math, social studies, etc.
I realize that you are a foreign language teacher with impressive academic credentials. It seems that you have surpassed me in the study of foreign languages and knowledge of linguistics.
Still, if it’s “la table” in French and “el mano” in Spanish and the “collective pronoun” in French for they is “ils,” masculine, I think things should remain that way and the language police should be shunted aside.
I don’t like change.
Languages have such complicated, intricate grammars. … I have read that this is true of languages of unlettered, supposedly “primitive” civilizations such as the Iroquois family of languages (which I read about in a classic work by Lewis Henry Morgan) … they are exquisite structures that should inspire reverence as the study of plants would.
To mess with languages to me is equivalent to uprooting a stately old oak tree and trying to “treat” it chemically to produce nicer foliage after being replanted.
It’s just one of the changes to the conductors’ script that started earlier this month.
… This morning you may hear the train conductor say something like: “Good morning, riders.”
— “New York Today: Subway Announcements Get a Human Touch,” by Jonathan Wolfe, The New York Times, November 13, 2017
The language commissars are pernicious. Yes, pernicious. Defined as “having a harmful effect, especially in a gradual or subtle way.” They are gradually eroding and stripping of its vitality our precious English tongue.
What, in God’s name, is wrong with saying “ladies and gentlemen”? It’s a polite phrase. It needs to be replaced with something “gender-neutral”? Meaning, no words or phrases that indicate gender will henceforth be permitted?
Language is a living, breathing thing. It’s organic, just like nature. Don’t let the over the top, politically correct language czars ruin it. Not only are they totally wrong in their excessive zeal and fanaticism to eradicate words in the language as it is spoken, they are ignorant, and their stupidity is dangerous.
George Orwell was prescient in inventing a language, Newspeak, in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, that would replace English, getting rid of supposedly superfluous words, so that a word such as bad would be replaced with “ungood.”
I can just see it, an announcement or sign on the subway or in a subway station: “Be careful with perambulators carrying passengers under age five to avoid the possibility of their getting caught in an escalator or being too close to the edge of a subway platform.”
I thought baby was a gender-neutral world, but perhaps it will someday be deemed politically incorrect and will have to be replaced by an alternative such as “parentally supervised minor.”