The kids are alright

When I was a kid, I sometimes encountered adults who disapproved of the way I’ve just used the word ‘kid’. ‘A kid’, they would say, repressively, ‘is a baby goat’. They weren’t really objecting to the substitution of animal for human vocabulary. They just thought ‘kid’ was vulgar, a sign that the person who uttered it was uneducated and unwashed. They were using a spurious argument about language to proclaim their superiority to the common herd. They were also asserting their power, as adults, to hold young people to their standards of acceptable speech.

I was reminded of this last week when I read an article in Teen Vogue about the importance of using gender-neutral language. Clearly, I am not in the target audience for this publication, being neither a teen nor in any way voguish, and I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it before. But my interest in this particular piece was piqued after a number of people shared it on Twitter and commented on the absurdity of some of the terms it suggested—like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’ as gender-neutral substitutes for ‘uncle/aunt’ and ‘nephew/niece’.

I thought this was a bit unfair. I’d never come across ‘pibling’ or ‘nibling’ before, but it’s not hard to discern the logic behind them: they’re obviously modelled on ‘sibling’, a long-established word meaning ‘brother/sister’. Your ‘pibling’ is your parental sibling. I don’t know if it’ll catch on, but I don’t find it self-evidently ridiculous.

Anyway, I decided to read the Teen Vogue article for myself. And it got me thinking, not only about the perennially fraught relationship between activists of different generations, but also about the history of this type of verbal hygiene. Advice on using gender-neutral language has been around for over 40 years: the earliest English examples date back to the 1970s when I was still a teenager. So, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and what does it all mean?

What surprised me most was how much of the article could have been lifted from something written 40 years ago. Both the selection of ‘problematic’ forms and the suggested gender-neutral alternatives reminded me of classic second-wave feminist texts like Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s 1976 book Words and Women and their later Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, which was first published in 1980 (there’s a fuller account of the two women’s work in this 1990s interview). Teen Vogue suggests a number of substitutions which I’m sure English-speaking feminists of my vintage will recognise:

• Humankind instead of mankind
• People instead of man/men
• First-year student instead of freshman
• Machine-made, synthetic, or artificial instead of man-made
• Flight attendant instead of steward/stewardess
• Salesperson or sales representative instead of salesman/saleswoman
• Server instead of waiter/waitress
• Firefighter instead of fireman

This list echoes the preoccupations of the earliest nonsexist language guidelines, which put particular emphasis on avoiding (a) terms like ‘fireman’ and ‘mankind’, which  incorporated ‘-man’ (thus excluding women or implying that men were the norm); and (b) terms like ‘waitress’ that were formed by adding a feminine suffix to the generic/masculine form (this explicit gender-marking was considered both gratuitous and demeaning). Many of these terms were occupational labels, and that reflected one of the key feminist concerns of the time: combatting discrimination in employment. In Britain, where sex-discrimination became illegal in the mid-1970s, the new law required employers to use nonsexist terms in job ads. You couldn’t just advertise for a ‘salesman’ on the basis that ‘man’ included everyone, you had to spell out that women were welcome to apply by using either paired terms (‘salesman/woman’) or a neutral alternative (like ‘salesperson’). But it’s odd to see some of the old advice on job-titles being recycled in 2018. When did anyone last call a member of the cabin crew on an aeroplane a ‘stewardess’? Who still thinks of ‘firefighter’ as one of those newfangled PC terms?

On the other hand, this recycled list is a reminder that the old project of replacing male-centred with neutral terms was only partially successful. Four decades of complaints haven’t made ‘freshman’ obsolete, for instance, or ‘man/mankind’.  The list also made me think of the failed experiments which are always part of the history of any kind of verbal hygiene–all the proposed replacements for traditional sexist terms which didn’t make it into the mainstream, and are now largely forgotten. ‘Genkind’, anyone? How about ‘waitron’?

But while a lot of the actual terms on Teen Vogue‘s list are the same ones feminists discussed 40 years ago, the article’s framing of the issue is very different. Gender-neutral language is not presented as a specifically feminist concern, and the problem it’s meant to solve is not defined primarily as one of sexism. Instead, the main reason given for adopting neutral terms is, in the words of gender therapist Dara Hoffman-Fox, that

Using gendered terms […] is highly presumptuous, especially in today’s society, in which many persons are aware that they don’t identify as male or female and therefore are uncomfortable with this type of language.

In the past, feminists who advocated neutral terms weren’t trying to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about the gender of individuals.  Their aim was to challenge the more general presumption of maleness as the human default. That presumption has not yet withered away, but for readers of the Teen Vogue generation concern about it has been at least partially displaced by newer concerns about respecting individuals’ identities and making those outside the conventional male/female binary feel ‘more included and safe among us’.

This explains the presence in the article of some less familiar terms, like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’. Kinship terms in general didn’t feature prominently in old-style nonsexist language guidelines, since although they are gender-differentiated, they do not invite the objection feminists had to pairings like ‘waiter/waitress’, that the masculine term is unmarked and the feminine by implication a deviation from the norm. The only difference between ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, or ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’, is that one denotes a female relative and the other a male one. But if your main concern is to include people who identify with neither of those possibilities, it becomes a problem that there is no term you can use that doesn’t specify the relative’s sex. What do you call your mother’s nonbinary sibling or your brother’s agender child?

This is the gap neologisms like ‘pibling’ are meant to fill. At the moment the inventory of gender-neutral kinship terms is still a work in progress, a matter of people independently constructing wordlists and putting them online. Their proposals are many and varied, and some of them are clearly destined to join the list of failed experiments I mentioned earlier (if you find yourself adding a note like ‘also the name of a musical instrument’ or ‘cute term for penis in French’ you probably haven’t got a viable candidate). But if enough people have a use for terms that do this job, a consensus will begin to emerge on which forms are best suited to the task.

For me, though, the most interesting question the Teen Vogue piece raised about continuity and change in gender-related verbal hygiene was not about the words themselves, nor even about the arguments for using or not using neutral terms. It was more about attitudes to linguistic authority—about who can prescribe to whom, and how they should go about it.

Casey Miller and Kate Swift were initially very reluctant to embark on what became the Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. They didn’t want to be seen as the ‘word police’, telling people ‘Do This or Don’t Do That!’ This attitude was not unusual: the authors of non-sexist language guidelines often disclaimed any intention to be prescriptive. Their aim, they said, was not to impose new standards, but only to help writers achieve in practice the kind of accurate and unbiased writing they already believed to be desirable in theory. What could be more inaccurate and biased than the erasure of half the population? Drawing attention to the problem and giving advice on how to avoid it was just removing an obstacle in the path of good writing. I always found this rhetoric disingenuous–of course writing guidelines are prescriptive, what would be the use of them otherwise? But it needs to be understood in the context of the time.

Before the digital revolution, it was not possible to experiment with new conventions or terminology in the ways people routinely do now. Today you can (literally) spread the word via tumblr or Urban Dictionary, but in the print era, if you wanted innovations to acquire mainstream currency, you needed the support of gatekeepers like publishers, newspaper editors, and the producers of educational materials like school textbooks or college writing handbooks. These gatekeepers were predominantly men, many were linguistically conservative, and at a time (the 1970s) when second-wave feminist militancy was at its peak, they were inclined (though there were exceptions) to view demands for nonsexist language as threatening and ‘extreme’. In those circumstances it was politic for feminists to tread lightly. And of course, there is always a reason for women to be cautious about claiming authority. When they don’t downplay their expertise, as we saw in the #immodestwomen row earlier this year, they are liable to provoke hostility and resentment.

Teen Vogue, however, does not tread lightly. Channelling the spirit of our contemporary online call-out culture, it actively encourages word-policing:

Don’t be afraid to correct those around you, such as your classmates and even teachers, about using exclusive, gendered language… Depending on the situation, you can address the situation with the person publicly or privately, in person or through a message.

You could see this as a positive development–young women being exhorted to exercise authority directly and unapologetically–but in this context I don’t think it’s good advice. There may be cases where something does need to be challenged on the spot (if it was not only highly offensive but also clearly deliberate and malicious), but in most situations I think you should resist the urge to ‘correct those around you’. Not only is this interpersonally risky, it’s also very often counterproductive. Nothing is less likely to make a speaker change their attitudes than being scolded or publicly shamed for using ‘forbidden’ words. I learned that long before I was a linguist, from every adult who ever told me that ‘a kid is a baby goat’.

Teen Vogue, of course, is imagining the opposite scenario, in which an adult takes instruction from a teenager. I think this speaks to a more general cultural shift since my own teenage years. The authority to set linguistic standards is no longer seen to lie exclusively with parents, teachers and other adults: on some questions, including questions about what terms are politically acceptable or progressive in relation to subjects like gender, it’s now widely assumed that the old should defer to the young.

It’s also widely assumed that since the young will outlive their elders, their standards will eventually prevail. But one thing this glosses over is that you can’t generalise about what young people think, about language or gender or anything else. There are political differences and disagreements within as well as between generations. An example is the ongoing conflict about whether it’s exclusionary to use the term ‘women’ in discussions of abortion, pregnancy or menstruation. It wouldn’t be true to say that gender-neutral alternatives like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ are uniformly favoured by younger feminists and uniformly opposed by older ones: the issue divides opinion across generations. That was also true for some of the reforms feminists proposed in the past. I said before that the history of verbal hygiene is full of failed experiments; it’s also full of  unfinished arguments and unresolved conflicts.

Teen Vogue’s brand of verbal hygiene isn’t identical to what preceded it, but nor is it so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I may not love everything about it, I do think this article is doing something worthwhile: introducing a new generation to the idea that thinking critically about language is part of the larger project of creating ‘a society in which all people — regardless of gender, sexuality or race — have equal opportunities and freedoms’. The route may have changed, but the destination is the same.

To gender or not to gender? (Thoughts prompted by the death of Zaha Hadid)

Last week, after Zaha Hadid’s death was announced, someone I know posted on Facebook: ‘It’s annoying that the coverage keeps referring to her as “the world’s most prominent female architect”. Why not “one of the world’s most prominent architects?”’

Most people who responded agreed that it was sexist to put Hadid into a subcategory of ‘female architects’ rather than acknowledging her status as one of the leading figures in contemporary architecture, period. But one person dissented, arguing that since it’s still harder for women to succeed in most professions, drawing attention to Hadid’s sex underlined rather than detracting from her achievements. This commenter also felt that highlighting women’s successes explicitly was important, because it helped to inspire other women and girls.

‘To gender or not to gender’ is a question that has also divided feminist linguists. Robin Lakoff, author of the influential early text Language and Woman’s Place, is among those who have argued that using gender-marked language has a profoundly negative effect. In 2007 she explained to William Safire (who wrote the New York Times’s language column until his death in 2009),

The use of either woman or female with terms such as ‘president, speaker, doctor, professor’ suggests that a woman holding that position is marked — in some way unnatural, and that it is natural for men to hold it (so we never say ‘male doctor,’ still less ‘man doctor’).

She went on:

Every time we say ‘woman president’, we reinforce the view that only a man can be commander in chief, symbolize the U.S. (which is metonymically Uncle Sam and not Aunt Samantha, after all), and make it harder to conceive of, and hence vote for, a woman in that role.

What Safire had actually asked her about was an old grammatical shibboleth. Pedants insist that referring to someone as a ‘woman architect/ doctor/professor’ is ungrammatical, because a noun can only be premodified by an adjective, not another noun. In their view, therefore, it should be ‘female architect/doctor/professor’. This, incidentally, is bullshit. Countless everyday English expressions are constructed on the ‘noun + noun’ model: for instance, ‘apple tree’, ‘dog collar’, ‘garden shed’ and ‘wedding ring’. Adjectives can fill the same slot, but there’s no law reserving it for their exclusive use. In any case, Lakoff derailed the ‘woman v female’ debate by declaring that the right answer was ‘neither’. Women should just be called by the same word we use for men.

But the pedants obviously didn’t get that memo: last year, when Hillary Clinton announced the start of her campaign, there was a new outbreak of handwringing about whether she should be referred to (in the event she’s elected) as a ‘woman president’ or a ‘female president’. On one side we had the usual objection that ‘woman’ is ungrammatical, while on the other we had people saying that ‘female’ was disrespectful—more appropriate for describing livestock than the leader of the free world.

What no one seemed to be asking was Lakoff’s question, why the president’s sex needs to be specified at all. True, if Clinton wins in November there will be a ton of ‘America elects its first ____ president’ stories, and someone will have to decide what to fill the blank with. But after that, we can surely just refer to her as ‘the President’. It’s not as if people are going to confuse her with all the other serving presidents of the US. Or even with her husband, a former US president. We’re talking about a nation that elected two presidents named George Bush: they ought to be able to manage without constant reminders that Hillary is the female President Clinton.

But what about the idea that there is value in drawing attention to the achievements of women as women? Some feminist linguists do favour using gender-marked language to make women’s presence in the world more visible. Even if you accept Lakoff’s argument that  referring to ‘a woman X’ rather than just ‘an X’ reinforces the perception that ‘Xs’ are prototypically men, there are reasons to doubt whether using unmarked terms does much to shift that perception. Research suggests that gender- neutral occupational labels are still typically interpreted as referring to men where the role they denote is culturally stereotyped as male (e.g. ‘lorry driver’ or ‘firefighter’). Replacing gender-specific terms with generic/inclusive ones seems not to override people’s real-world understanding of the relationship between gender and occupational status.

My own view (as usual) is that there isn’t a single, simple linguistic solution to this problem. It’s a decision I think you have to make case by case, because so much depends on the specifics of the context. And the effect will also depend on how any gender-marking is done, using what specific label.For instance, there are contexts in which I would refer to someone as ‘a woman writer’ (as well as contexts where I would simply call them ‘a writer’). But there are no contexts in which I would use the term ‘authoress’, because that word does not just convey that the writer is a woman, it also implies that her work is trivial and inferior.

The baggage that has become attached to certain words in the course of their history of being used is relevant to the great ‘woman v. female’ debate. In his column on the subject, William Safire expressed surprise and disappointment that feminists now seemed to prefer ‘woman’ to ‘female’ and ‘gender’ to ‘sex’. He put this down to a growing cultural squeamishness, describing those who have ‘turned against’ biological terms as ‘faint-hearted sociological euphemists’. Readers who know more about feminist theory than Safire did will be aware that the ‘sex/gender’ question is complicated. But in the case of ‘woman/female’ there are more straightforward reasons for preferring ‘woman’ to ‘female’–and they have little to do with squeamishness about biology.

‘Female’ is not just interchangeable with ‘woman’, as you immediately realize when you look at a corpus (a large collection of authentic examples). My own quick-and-dirty search of the 100 million-word British National Corpus turned up a crop of ‘female’ examples like these:

1. My poor Clemence was as helpless a female as you’d find in a long day’s march
2. ‘Stupid, crazy female’, was all he said as he set about bandaging it.
3. A call yesterday involved giving the chatty female at the other end one’s address.

These are typical examples of the use of ‘female’ as a noun, and they all involve a male speaker making a disparaging judgment on the individual he’s referring to. The judgments would remain disparaging if you substituted ‘woman’ for ‘female’, but to my mind they would be less unequivocally contemptuous. Whereas ‘woman’ can feature in positive as well as negative judgments, it’s hard to think of any context in which the noun ‘female’ is used to praise its referent: no one would say, for instance, ‘my late grandmother was an absolutely marvellous female’.

Does the contempt conveyed by the noun ‘female’ have anything to do with its being, as Safire suggests, more biological than sociological? In the examples I’ve just quoted there isn’t any explicit reference to biology, but in some cases the term does seem to have been chosen to foreground the issue of biological sex difference, and the motive for this may be overtly anti-feminist.

Here, for instance, is what a Texas businesswoman named Cheryl Rios posted on Facebook after Hillary Clinton announced that she was running for president:

A female shouldn’t be president. …with the hormones we have there is no way we should be able to start a war. Yes I run my own business and I love it and I am great at it BUT that is not the same as being the president, that should be left to a man, a good, strong, honorable man.

When challenged she stood by her comment, saying: ‘The president of the United States, to me, should be a man, and not a female’.

What’s striking here is the way Rios uses the non-parallel terms ‘a female’ and ‘a man’ (rather than contrasting ‘a female’ with ‘a male’ or ‘a woman’ with ‘a man’). The consistency with which she does it suggests it isn’t just a random accident. It may not be a fully conscious choice, but she has evidently chosen her words to mirror her general proposition that women, unlike men, are in thrall to their biology, and are consequently unfit to hold the highest office.

There’s nothing ‘faint-hearted’ about objecting to the label ‘female’ when it’s used in this way and for this purpose. But that doesn’t mean we have to object to all uses of it for all purposes: as always with language, it’s horses for courses. For instance, it doesn’t bother me when I read in a scientific paper that the researchers ‘recruited a balanced sample of male and female subjects’. In a discussion of sex I’d be more likely to refer to ‘the female orgasm’ than ‘the woman’s orgasm’. Conversely I’d be more likely to say ‘women’s underwear’ than ‘female underwear’ (and don’t even get me started on ‘Female Toilet’: when it comes to that phrase I am, unashamedly, a pedant. Sex is a characteristic of toilet users, not toilets themselves.)

But this discussion of the merits of competing terms does not resolve the larger question of whether it’s desirable to use any kind of gender-marking in references to women like Hillary Clinton and Zaha Hadid. Hadid herself had a view on this (one which, interestingly, seems to have changed over time). She’s been quoted as saying:

I used to not like being called a ‘woman architect’: I’m an architect, not just a woman architect. Guys used to tap me on the head and say, ‘You are okay for a girl.’ But I see the incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all.

It’s not hard to understand why successful women in heavily male-dominated fields so often say, ‘I don’t want to be judged as a woman, I want to be judged on my merits as an astronaut/conductor/ mathematician’. But the reality is that women can’t avoid being judged as women; whatever we say or do, we can’t make the world treat our sex as an irrelevance or a minor detail. And maybe we shouldn’t want it to be treated in that way. Another thing Zaha Hadid said on this subject was:

People ask, ‘what’s it like to be a woman architect?’ I say ‘I don’t know, I’ve not been a man’.

As this answer implies, sex and gender shape every individual’s life-experience: the difference between men and women isn’t that men aren’t affected by their maleness, it’s only that they are rarely asked to ponder its effects. Women, by contrast, are endlessly required to explain how their femaleness influences everything they do.

If Hadid herself declined to play this game, others were happy to play it for her, both during her life and after her death. Here, for instance, is what Bust (an online magazine that bills itself as ‘a cheeky celebration of all things female’) had to say last week:

The world became a little less whimsical today with the loss of Zaha Hadid. The Queen of Curve, who was widely regarded as the most famous living female architect in the world, passed away today at the age of 65.

It’s hard to imagine that future obituaries of male ‘starchitects’ like Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano will use words like ‘whimsical’. I chose to mention these two because they designed (among other things) the somewhat whimsical Pompidou Centre in Paris–while Hadid designed (among other things) the not-so-whimsical Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Kircaldy. As you’ll see from the illustration, this example of her work demonstrates her skill with straight lines and sharp angles. Nevertheless, she’s ‘The Queen of Curve’. Oddly enough, when men design curved structures, like Norman Foster’s dome over the Reichstag in Berlin, that isn’t seized on as their unique signature, nor do people routinely compare the buildings to female body parts.

‘To gender or not to gender’ remains a tricky question. In language as in life, what we need is a middle way. Women should not be defined entirely by their sex; but nor should we have to disclaim it entirely to be given whatever credit our contributions to the world deserve.