Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Gender-neutral language

Maybe you heard about the legislation signed by the governor of Washington State requiring the revision of all existing laws to use gender-neutral language. Apparently the process has been going on for some time, and 3000 laws have been revised... going back to 1854. Florida and Minnesota have already completely revised their laws in this way. About half of all US states have made some move of this type.

Among the terms previously revised were fireman, policeman, clergyman, and ombudsman. The banned words catching the headlines now include fisherman, freshman, journeyman, signalman, and penmanship. A dispensation was granted for a few rank-and-role-related terms the military uses, and the term "manhole" is also permitted because no reasonable replacement could be found.

Some of the suggested terms are graceful, others, less so: fisherman becomes fisher, freshmen are first-year students (or first-year legislators?), journeymen are journey-level workers, signalmen are signal operators, and penmanship becomes handwriting (for those rare occasions one writes by hand, I guess). Just as chairmen are now chairs, ombudsman are now ombuds (moves that still sound odd to my ear).

I'm not opposed to language evolution, including an intentional move to use more inclusive terms. As a writer, editor, and student, I'm accustomed to looking for wording that is more accurate or respectful, even if it takes more space or takes some extra effort to avoid clunkiness. (It can be done!) I wonder what the price tag will be, though. Do we care enough about the benefits of these changes to make them, er, mandates? Today it's rewriting laws, reportedly a six-year task for Washington's 40-person code commission. Is that as far as it goes, or will we accept legislation that requires such changes be made across the board?  

Perhaps changes will be allowed to unfold more naturally and voluntarily (if indeed they do catch on) in other public contexts -- lest our public schools, say, divert too much scarce money and manpower (oops!) to retraining staff, rewriting software, and revising and reprinting any documents that refer to their high school or college freshmen. And what about the business sector? Will Fisherman's Friend and Fisherman's Wharf be working on name changes? Maybe they already are.

Recent news reports -- the conservative ones with some snarkiness -- note one industry that has recognized what some consider a potentially offensive term, and they areworking to replace it:
The residential real estate industry is even jumping on the PC bandwagon: the term “master bedroom” is being phased out, according to the Baltimore Business Journal. In its place, builders are beginning to use the term “owner’s suite” or “owner’s bedroom” to describe the largest bedroom in a home. A survey found that six out of 10 major Washington, D.C.-area home builders are making the change on their floor plans. The reason? “Master” is seen by some as offensive on two fronts: gender, where it apparently sounds masculine, and, race, where it supposedly conjures images of a slave-master. Not to be picky, but I’d think that those who find “master” to be racist would find “owner” offensive as well.
What do you think? How do you look at this issue, or this legislation?

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