Verbal Energy

Gender-neutral disasters and other news

The Monitor's language columnist finds herself reluctant to give up on generic 'man,' especially in contexts where there isn't a good substitute.

I like to think I'm reasonably alert to bias-free language. But I have to admit a colleague brought me up short the other day. She took exception to the term "man-made disasters" in a book project we were working on. Our style guide says we're supposed to use bias-free language, she rightly pointed out. Shouldn't we find a substitute?

I found myself balking at her suggestion – in part because I don't feel all gender-specific language is biased. The potential for "bias" is there, however, in language that would serve to limit some people's opportunities or belittle their contributions.

And so if "letter carrier" is a term that encourages women to apply for jobs at the post office, well, of course, let's have letter carriers instead of "postmen." If the informal term "congressman" suggests to anyone that woman's place is in the home but not in the House, then let's stick with the more inclusive – and constitutionally correct – "representative" instead.

As someone old enough to remember when newspapers carried ads for "help wanted – male" and "help wanted – female," I can attest that all this is a good thing.

Perhaps more to the point here, one could argue further that the "man" of "man-made disaster" is humanity at large, and not specifically males. But what really tripped me up was the lack of a good substitute phrase – nothing that works quite as neatly as "letter carrier" does for "postman."

The notion behind disaster is of an "ill-starred" event. As the Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, "The sense is astrological, of a calamity blamed on an unfavorable position of a planet." "Aster" in the word is related to the Greek word for "star."

Disaster has a double life. It's in wide use as a term of opinion and judgment. The Economist, for instance, pressed "disaster" into service the other week to sum up the results of Australia's Aug. 21 election, which left the country with its first hung parliament since 1940.

But disaster is also a rather matter-of-fact umbrella term for any of several different kinds of events that cause damage and suffering.

These fall into two broad categories – natural and other, let's just say for now. Natural disasters are earthquakes, wind, fire, flood, drought: your basic biblical plagues, plus or minus a tsunami or a volcanic eruption.

On the "other" side of the chart are events of potentially similar gravity but with a human cause. Some of these occur strictly within the human sphere: Wall Street meltdowns, for instance. But others play out in the natural world: wildfires sparked by arson, for instance, or flooding caused by negligence of levees, or an oil spill caused ultimately by technological hubris. For these situations, "man-made disaster" is the term we've got – for now, at least.

But language does evolve. On the radio the other day, I heard the term "human induced," which might be what we move to for this need. Observing the fifth anniversary of hurricane Katrina, the NPR radio program "Living on Earth" broadcast an interview with a woman in Grand Bayou Village, La., who spoke of her storm-battered home with a sense of rootedness that the more peripatetic among us can only envy:

"This is our place in the universe. This is where the Creator set us down. In spite of all the impacts that have come at us, both natural and human induced, we're still here. This is where we belong."

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