Verbal Energy

Why 'spokesperson' still irks me

Not all gender-specific language is sexist.

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As I prepared to move to Canada from Germany 15 years ago, a colleague gave me some tips about what to expect in the new post. "They're very politically correct in Canada," he warned me. "They say things like 'spokesperson.' "

In Germany I was used to a language with all kinds of inflections to indicate not only gender but number and case as well. There, politicians address crowds as "dear citizen-esses and citizens."

But in American English at that point, spokesperson was more likely to show up in academia or the helping professions than in official usage – "The English Department sent a spokesperson to meet with the dean."

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

Language evolves, however. Alas, as I sometimes say. By the time I returned to the States after a few years in Toronto, spokesperson had gained such a foothold in America that eventually I felt moved to blog under the headline "Why 'spokesperson' drives me round the bend."

And now as the Benghazi-gate drama unfolds on the Washington stage, with Republicans seeing the biggest political coverup since Watergate, and the Democrats seeing an attempt to derail the presumed presidential aspirations of Hillary Rodham Clinton, what's getting my attention is the consistency with which Victoria Nuland is referred to as the "State Department spokesperson."

C'mon! I holler at the radio. The whole world knows she's a woman!

As one who counts herself to have been a feminist since about age 3, I feel qualified to make this argument: Gender-specific language isn't necessarily sexist. What matters is the point at which gender is specified.

In the realm of potential, and opportunity, it is important to be gender-neutral: "The Department of Public Safety needs to hire five more police officers," for instance; not "policemen." But we all know that, right? And we know it wasn't always that way and shouldn't be taken for granted.

But once we have a specific person in a specific situation – as is the case with Ms. Nuland – to cling needlessly to the equal-opportunity term is to play down women's achievements.

The Wikipedia article on "spokes-person" – and yes, there is one – includes this: " 'Spokesman' and 'spokesperson' can refer to both men and women." But men will be disproportionately referred to as "spokesmen" for some time, I predict, and "spokespersons" will be disproportionately women.

Anonymous, they say, was a woman. So, I fear, is "spokesperson." For one who loves language, it's hard to argue for words that have less meaning than more.

English is blessed with "common gender" nouns that serve well as equal-opportunity titles: doctor, lawyer, professor, carpenter.

But spokesman/spokeswoman is a special case. Someone who presents himself or herself before others to speak on behalf of some entity (the State Department, the mayor's office) has a visible and audible human identity. This includes gender, sense of humor (or not), maybe predilections for quirky bow ties or bright scarves or funny glasses, and whatever else goes into a distinct individuality.

Any "spokesperson" whose gender we don't know is not a real spokesman or spokeswoman in this sense. And an "anonymous spokesperson" is an oxymoron. If we can't do better than "An anonymous spokesperson said the ministry had no comment," we're better off saying, "The ministry declined comment."

Spokesperson still irks me.

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