Here are two sentences from pages 394-5 of Paul Lovinger’s The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style, sentences that come just after Lovinger quoted five examples of a newspaper columnist’s use of a certain word — a word so appalling that he censors it himself:
“Although most writers do not display such voracity for bad language, that clumsy barbarism, ‘s—,’ is polluting the English tongue. A radical weekly uses it regularly along with a grotesque plural version”
Now, let’s stop for a second. Lovinger is not referring to the standard scatological s-word, so perhaps you’d like to take a guess at what this barbaric word is before you continue reading. To encourage you to do so, I’ve placed the answer below the fold.
The answer? Spokesperson.
I sometimes fancy myself inured to prescriptivist exaggeration, because I waste so much of my time reading books claiming the certain death of our once proud culture will result if people are permitted to continue confusing your and you’re. But every dang time I think they can’t beat me, the prescriptivists have to go and crazy it up a notch. For some reason, prescriptivists simply hate gender-neutral language, whether it’s changing titles (spokesperson, chair) or using gender-neutral pronouns (he or she, they). And I just can’t understand the problem.
Let’s look at spokesperson. The alternative is using spokesman for both genders, which would have to have some benefit to offset the fact that it’s really weird to call a woman a man. I don’t think the benefit is aesthetic, since I can’t find any special aesthetic charm in spokesman that spokesperson lacks. Frankly, I think they’re both kind of ugly amalgams, so all you’re doing is switching one awkward word for another. No problem there.
Perhaps, you might charitably say, Lovinger objects to spokesperson solely because it is a modern invention. Spokesman, I’ve just found out from the OED, is an old word, dating all the way back to the 16th century. Spokesperson is of course much newer. But Lovinger objects to spokeswoman as well, and that word’s first attested in the OED in 1654. Then maybe he really resents the extra syllable in spokesperson, which takes so many milliseconds to say? Well, no, because he also objects to the use of chair instead of chairman.
No, Lovinger’s objection is specifically to the gender neutrality of spokesperson. He makes this clear earlier in the book, when discussing the morpheme man:
“That millennia-old syllable was threatened in the sixties and seventies when a radical movement arose to fix what was unbroken and break what was fixed. The mistaken belief that -man- meant male, coupled with the perverse notion that masculinity was ipso facto bad, gave rise to several circumlocutions. They pollute the language to this day.”
I simply don’t understand this complaint. The push for gender-neutral language hasn’t got anything to do with a belief in the inherent badness of men; it’s simply that it’s odd and dismissive to refer to a woman as a man. Lovinger points out that man originally referred to a human being of either gender, and that this meaning is retained in contemporary English. He’s only half-right. Gender-neutral man is still more or less accepted in general, historical, and idiomatic uses like (1a):
(1a) A man cannot live on bread alone.
(1b) A human cannot live on bread alone.
I am able to interpret these two sentences as being equivalent, although I’m helped along by the fact that this is a common idiom. But the ungendered interpretation doesn’t always come through:
(2a) No man has ever had a baby.
(2b) No human has ever had a baby.
I only parse (2a) as a factual statement. I only parse (2b) as a lie. Let me make it even clearer:
(3a) Kenny is a pleasant man and a great father.
(3b) Kathy is a pleasant man and a great mother.
Just look at (3b) and tell me again how mistaken it is to think that man means “male”. The default meaning of man in Modern English is an adult male human. It is only in certain situations that the ungendered interpretation becomes available.
So I ask you, my friends, what’s the beef with gender neutral words? Why do they inspire such vehement and irrational opposition? Honestly, I don’t know. The only remaining explanation I have is some misguided fear that the entire language will be changed if we change a couple of words. And I can understand not wanting to change every word containing the morpheme man. Woperson, for instance, seems a silly replacement for woman. Likewise, I am not convinced that manhole is better off as personhole. Perhaps that’s it; perhaps the anti-neutral grammarians lay awake at night picturing these strange new words laying siege to their dictionaries. But the only people I’ve heard suggest such changes are people who are against gender-neutral language and are trying to make the whole argument sound frivolous by claiming that the neutralizers will have us all saying wopeople if we don’t stand up to them.
And let’s think about why more people back spokesperson than woperson. Just as the ability of the word man to be gender-neutral varies from context to context, so too does the neutrality of the morpheme man vary from word to word. Let me offer a few examples of how this works for me. If man is a stressed syllable, the word feels less neutral than if man is an unstressed syllable (spokesMAN vs. SPOKESman). If the word refers to a person, the word feels less neutral (spokesman vs. manhole). If the word can be readily decomposed into morphemes, it feels less neutral (spokesman vs. woman). If the word is very common, it feels more neutral, since people tend to overlook the literal meanings of common compound words. One last consideration is how easy it is to get a gender-neutral version of the word. I have to admit that congressperson has always sounded very strange to me, so I still do occasionally use congressman in generic cases, but I do so with a very unstressed final syllable.
So manhole is more acceptable to me than spokesman because manholes aren’t people. Woman is fine because it’s not readily decomposed, it’s extremely common, and its final syllable is unstressed. Spokesman isn’t, because it refers to a person, is readily decomposed, and isn’t very common. Different people can choose where they draw their lines, but it’s silly to simply reject all gender-neutral words out of hand, and it’s silly to think that spokesperson sends us down a slippery slope.