From 'dull' demographics to passionate talk of the 'demmed'

"Mr. Speaker, you have been demmed."

This is how Geoff Plant warned his colleagues in the British Columbia legislature last April about electronic "data mining." He argued that privacy, autonomy, and anonymity are being seriously compromised by global marketers who sort through ever-expanding spheres of seemingly harmless data to cluster people into various demographics - hence the word "demmed."

Not having an archive to a data-mine, I have no way of knowing whether Mr. Plant subscribes to the Utne Reader, or if he had seen a headline in its March/April 2000 issue: "The Beautiful and the Demmed, You are what you buy - wherever you live." But I do know it is in just such fashion that words eventually enter the accepted vocabulary.

First, someone uses the language creatively, even daringly, in an effort to communicate and possibly to entertain - then others, sensing a powerful and/or playful formulation, repeat it and keep it alive.

"Demmed" brings to the sometimes dry and dreary realm of demographics a certain zip and passion - not least because the sound is so easily associated with the words "hemmed" (as in "hemmed in"), "condemned," and most obviously, "damned." In fact, in this euphemistic sense, "demmed" is nothing new. It will be familiar to readers of the "Life and Exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel," by John Blakeney, who used it liberally in the novel. "That demmed clever woman" and "That demmed elusive Pimpernel" are two chapter headings.

Little did Blakeney know that we would all be demmed.

'Sex' or 'gender'?

Eric Klieber of Cleveland writes to say he is "fighting a long and losing war against the use of the word 'gender' for 'sex.' " He takes the Monitor to task for "false prudery" in often using "gender" to mean "sex," as in this recent sentence: "Some mixed schools have even experimented with classes that don't technically exclude anyone, but aim to address the needs of a certain gender."

People and other living creatures, as males and females, are categorized by sex, Mr. Klieber contends, and things are categorized by gender - masculine, feminine, or neuter.

This logic is compelling; language, however, is not perfectly logical. Dictionaries indicate that "sex" has been accepted as a meaning for "gender" since the 1300s, perhaps because this has its advantages.

Take, for instance, this sentence: "Sam would not be in trouble, if it were not for his sex."

Is Sam being discriminated against because he's not female? Or is he in trouble because of his sexual behavior? In the former case, substituting the word "gender" for "sex" would prevent a lot of unnecessary ambiguity.

Using "gender" to refer to the sex of a person is standard English. The popularity of this usage is attested by such dictionary-sanctioned phrases as "gender gap," and "gender-specific."

And given these terms' frequent use - especially by those pursuing gender studies - references to human gender are even less likely to be suppressed than the data-mining of the global marketers.

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Send language questions to Lance Carden, the Monitor's copy and style editor, at turnsofphrase@ csps.com or One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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