Grammarians have told us for decades that words such as "salesman" and "policeman" encompass anyone who may hold such jobs. But try this: Imagine a restaurant filled with businessmen. What do you see? A group of men with dark suits, ties, and expense accounts, most likely.
A few years ago, your mind's eye would probably be right. And that, of course, is how a stereotype is born. But today, women executives are beginning to join the men at executive lunch table, and they are also riding in the front seat of squad cars and heading sales staffs for companies.
Since changes have come in deed, attempts to change the words should surprise no one. And so comes "The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing for Writers, Editors and Speakers."
You can almost hear the distant gnashing of teeth by language purists as Casey Miller and Kate Swift present their evidence in this slim volume (134 pages including index). The authors examine our words, trace their histories, and show how language gives men and women unequal treatment and is often used as a subtle and not-so-subtle putdown of women. They point out that the English tongue has saddled women with the diminutive titles "poetess," "sculptress," and "executrix" and excludes their sex from "chairman," while reserving for them exclusive rights to the title "charwoman."
The authors point to belittling expressions such as "in terms even a housewife can understand" and take advertising copy writers to task for assuming that a "housewife" is not a "working woman," although she often works longer hours than salaried employees.
In every case, the book offers alternatives, some of which sound more contrived than others.
For example, the authors applaud new names that the US Department of Labor has given jobs to make them sex neutral ("airline steward, stewardess" to "flight attendant"; "forelady, forman" to "supervisor"; "Watchman" to "guard").
One group of critics has decried the change to "fisher" for fisherman, citing the long history of the word "fisherman." But authors Miller and Swift use the tidy counter argument that the word "fisher" was used in the King James version of the Bible several times, and "fisherman" only once.
Undeniably, though, some of the new concoctions seem awkward.It's hard to think of the person who presides over a committee as being a "chair," and it might take a while to adjust to "camera operator" and "longshoreworkder." But in many other cases, new terms recommended by the authors are already in general use. And at least they go beyond the simplistic remedy of affixing the word "person" wherever "man" is now found.
Perhaps the most telling observation in the book is that writers often tell too much when describing women. Stories wander off on tangents about how the woman dresses, her relative attractiveness, and her family status, even when these things may not be relevant.
To avoid the trap of unequal treatment, the authors propose a test which is basically, "Do for women the same as you would for men." If a parallel statement sounds natural for a man, then it passes.
They cite a TV listing: "Powerful lady attorney and confident young lawyer team up to defend a wealthy contractor accused of murder." The test: How natural would it be to say "young male attorney" or "wealthy gentleman contractor"? Not very, we assume.
The same test goes for picking among the words "girls," "ladies," or "women." For example, a 25-year-old man would not be labeled a "boy," so neither should a woman be called a "girl," goes the logic. And the word "lady" should be used as sparingly as "gentleman." Usually, advise the authors, the term "woman" is best.
This book is taking up a gigantic struggle, because our words are so close to us and because they spring from centuries of a civilization that has assigned a narrow role to women. But even under the burden of such a past, changes are already slipping into our language. Who doesn't hear speakers carefully insert "his or her" where they once would have said "his"? The title "Ms.," for all of its opponents, is showing up in stylebooks, and some news media are giving equal treatment by dropping social titles altogether for men and women. Not to mention the fact that male names now share the dubious privilege of being attached to half of the season's tropical storms.
If some of the ideas in "The Handbook of Nonexist Writing for Writers, Editors and Speakers" are unworkable (It suggests adopting "they" as an unsexed singular pronoun), the writers at least make an interesting case for them ("You" was once considered plural only, they maintain).
This book is a prod to think harder about the meanings of our words, and that is what communication through language is all about.