2018: the year of the war of the W-word

At the beginning of December I promised I’d be back at the end of the month with my traditional round-up of the year in language and feminism. But I missed that self-imposed deadline, and I’ve ended up writing something a bit different from my previous efforts–longer, less list-y, and noticeably shorter on jokes. That’s partly about the timing (the festive season being well and truly over), but it’s also a reflection of what went on during the year I’m looking back at.

With a few exceptions (like the vote to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland) it wasn’t a great year for feminism. If 2017 was a year of hope, a moment when women came together to expose injustice and express their collective rage, 2018 was a year of disappointment and frustration, when we were often made to feel that nothing we said or did made any difference. Men continued to behave badly, and often with the same impunity that #MeToo was meant to have put an end to.

In the US, Brett Kavanaugh was elevated to the Supreme Court despite Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he had sexually assaulted her in high school (I wrote about this in November, but unlike the many commentators who dissected Ford’s style of speaking and its impact on her credibility, I focused on the language of the men). In Canada, minutes after posting a message of support for ‘the Incel Rebellion’ on Facebook, Alek Minassian killed ten people and injured 14 more by driving a van into a crowd of pedestrians (I wrote about this event too, and the debate it sparked on whether mass killings inspired by misogyny should be discussed in the language of terrorism). ‘Incel’ was among the words Oxford Dictionaries put on its shortlist for the Word of the Year—though ultimately it lost to ‘toxic’, as in ‘toxic masculinity’.

Several of the other news stories I blogged about were variations on the theme of ‘men being pissy about women treading on their turf’. A trivial but telling example was the reaction of the football-watching public to the women who were allowed, for the first time in history, to commentate on the men’s FIFA World Cup. Did these women have the Right Stuff, or were their voices just too shrill? Earlier in the year there had been a brief flurry of concern about the ‘unattractiveness’ of women swearing; later there would be a row about the ‘immodesty’ of women with PhDs who wanted to be referred to with the title ‘Dr’. Forceful speech, authoritative speech and expert speech continue to be treated as male preserves, on which women trespass at their peril.

But the theme I returned to most often this year was was our current preoccupation with ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusionary’ language, a perennially contentious issue which was at its most divisive in arguments about the use or avoidance of ‘woman’. Conflict about the W-word isn’t new: it was already simmering when I started this blog nearly four years ago. But this was the year when it came to a rolling boil. Between June and November a series of well-publicized incidents dramatized a clash between two opposing tendencies: on one hand, increasing pressure to adopt altermatives to ‘woman’, and on the other, a growing resistance to that pressure.

In June, Cancer Research UK ran a campaign promoting cervical cancer screening for ‘everyone aged 25-64 who has a cervix’. This avoidance of the W-word was not without precedent in the field of reproductive health: ‘pregnant people’, for instance, has been widely adopted. But this time the complaints were louder, and less easily dismissed as just the usual reactionary grumbling about ‘political correctness’ or language change in general.  ‘Hi Cancer Research’, tweeted one critic: ‘people who have cervixes are called women. Please stop erasing us. Thanks’. Others accused the organization of caring more about virtue-signalling than about clear communication, pointing out that some people who have a cervix may not be familiar with the word ‘cervix’.

In July there was controversy about a commemorative plaque in York that described Anne Lister, a 19th century landowner most famous for the coded diary in which she detailed her romantic relationships with women, as a ‘gender nonconforming entrepreneur’. The main objection to this phraseology was that it failed to identify Lister as a lesbian, but some critics also suspected that the group responsible for it had wanted to avoid specifying her sex. This apparent projection of contemporary gender identity politics into the relatively distant past (Lister died in 1840) prompted so many complaints (and so much media interest), the York Civic Trust opened a public consultation on whether the plaque should be reworded.

In September, activists campaigning against a proposed change in the law (if enacted it will allow individuals to be legally recognized as men or women on the basis of self-identification) sponsored a billboard displaying a dictionary definition of the W-word: ‘Woman. Noun. Adult female human’. This was immediately reported as transphobic hate speech; the company that owned the billboard took it down, and the message was subsequently removed or pre-emptively banned from several other sites. While the campaigners’ response (‘how can it be offensive to quote the dictionary?’) was disingenuous—they must have known that what offended their critics was not the quotation but the political statement they were using it to make—to many onlookers it did seem extraordinary that feminists could be threatened with prosecution for expressing the belief that only female humans can be women. Offensive though others may find that belief, the idea that its expression should be prohibited or criminalized raises questions about what we mean by ‘hate speech’ (this isn’t the place for a full discussion, but the recent broadening of this term/concept is something I’ll return to at a later date).

In October the Guardian reported on a survey that had asked ‘menstruators’ about their experiences of period pain at work.  Many readers complained, and on investigation it turned out that the researchers whose work was being reported hadn’t used the offending word themselves: they had referred to the survey respondents as ‘women’, and someone at the newspaper had ‘corrected’ them. The report was duly amended, with a mealy-mouthed footnote explaining that this had been done ‘to more precisely link the language with the survey it describes’.

The menstruation debate continued in November, when Sheffield Hallam University hosted a workshop featuring Chella Quint, the founder of the #periodpositive project and creator of what she wittily describes as a ‘flow chart’ about the language of ‘queeriods’. The project does useful work (for instance, taking up the issue of period poverty and urging the makers of menstrual products to stop using shame as a marketing tool), and the linguistic dos and don’ts on the ‘queeriods’ chart are mostly, in my opinion, sensible. No feminist I know would disagree with Quint’s suggestion that we should stop talking about ‘feminine hygiene’ products and referring to menarche as ‘becoming a woman’. These expressions aren’t just trans exclusionary, they are twee, archaic, and recycle ancient sexist beliefs (e.g. that menstruating women are ‘unclean’). They should have been binned long ago. But does the W-word really have to go into the bin with them, to be replaced by alternatives like ‘menstruator’ (Quint’s recommendation) and ‘bleeder’?

As the responses to the Guardian article showed, a lot of women find these terms both peculiar and offensive. And in this it appears they may not be alone. One interesting contribution to a discussion of ‘queeriods’ on Twitter came from someone who works with young trans people, and who reported that the trans men in her group also hated ‘menstruator’: one had said it ‘sounds like a Victorian gynaecological torture device’. ‘They like to be included’, she continued, ‘but they don’t mind the word “woman” being used’.

And indeed, why should anyone mind the word ‘woman’ being used in discussions of menstruation and pregnancy? There is something deeply irrational about the insistence that inclusiveness requires nothing less than the total avoidance of the W-word. If the point is to include everyone who menstruates or gets pregnant, that could surely be achieved by using one of the simplest tools in the linguistic box, the word ‘and’. Just as people talking about the armed forces have learned to say ‘servicemen and women’, people discussing reproductive rights or providing reproductive health services could say ‘pregnant women and trans men’. Why is it necessary to treat ‘women’ as a taboo word, a threat that must be countered by substituting arcane neologisms or obscure circumlocutions?

November was also the month when the Wellcome Collection got an unwelcome response to its publicity for an event designed for ‘womxn’. For many people this was their first encounter with ‘womxn’, a form whose X-spelling is meant to signify that it refers not only to women, but also to trans, nonbinary and queer individuals. And for the most part they were not impressed. Caroline Criado-Perez spoke for many when she commented, bracingly,

I’m really fed up of women being just a big grab bag of anyone who isn’t a proper default human, aka a man. Read some bloody de Beauvoir and pull your head out of your a**.

Taken aback by both the volume and the vehemence of the complaints, the organizers announced that they would revert to ‘women’.

All this might seem like a long-winded way of saying that nothing changed in 2018.  The familiar battle continued, and the familiar tropes were repeated. But however subtly, I think something did change. As the conflict escalated, both sides were forced to confront the reality that changes in the meanings and uses of words have to be negotiated: they can neither be imposed by fiat nor prevented by appealing to some higher authority. Nor can change be accomplished overnight: it takes time for new words to bed down, and for old ones to shed their historical baggage.

That last point was dramatically illustrated in December, when the W-word featured in a different kind of political controversy. During Prime Minister’s Question Time, as Theresa May addressed the House of Commons, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made an inaudible remark which may or may not have been ‘stupid woman’ (he maintained that it was ‘stupid people’, and we can’t be certain it wasn’t because speech-reading, which was the basis for the ‘woman’ claim, cannot distinguish related sounds (like the labial consonants p and m) with 100% reliability).

What followed—May’s supporters gleefully denouncing the Labour leader’s sexism, while his own colleagues accused them of manufacturing their outrage–was as unedifying as most of what has passed for Parliamentary debate during the past 12 months, but it did raise an interesting linguistic question. What makes the phrase ‘stupid woman’ sexist? ‘Stupid’ is obviously an insult, but it’s not specifically a sexist insult; and May is, after all, a woman. Why is calling a female politician a ‘stupid woman’ perceived as more pejorative than simply calling her ‘stupid’—or than calling a male politician a ‘stupid man’?

Pondering this, I was reminded of Ana Deumert’s account of a landmark judgment in the South African Constitutional Court. The case concerned a white man who was fired from his job for using racially offensive language in a workplace dispute about parking. Finding he had insufficient space to park his own vehicle, he demanded the removal of an adjacent vehicle to which he referred as ‘that Black man’s car’. He didn’t dispute that he used those words, but he did dispute that they were racist, and sued his employer for unfair dismissal. Two lower courts accepted his claim that ‘that Black man’ was a purely descriptive phrase. But the Constitutional Court overturned their judgment, arguing that in a society with South Africa’s history of institutionalized racism, a white man’s reference to a Black colleague’s race could not be considered neutral: in context it was liable to be heard as an expression of contempt for an inferior Other. As Deumert explained,

The performative nature of language – its ability to cause effects – is rooted in its history, in the circulation and repetition of words and phrases across time. […] Words mean because they have meant before, and …wound because they have wounded before. There is no escape from history, from the meanings we inherit.

That women as a class are stupid is another proposition that has been endlessly repeated over time, and this has consequences for the way we react to verbal formulas like ‘stupid woman’. Whereas ‘stupid man’ will be heard only as an assertion that the individual in question is both stupid and a man, ‘stupid woman’ (especially when said by a man) can easily be taken to imply that the individual is stupid because she is a woman. Like the racism of ‘that Black man’, the sexism of ‘stupid woman’ isn’t in the words themselves, but in the cultural presuppositions we bring to bear on their interpretation, and which, as Deumert says, we inherit from history.

‘But hang on a minute’, a sceptic might interject, ‘I’m confused. First you said it was sexist for the Guardian or Cancer Research to avoid the W-word, now you’re saying it was sexist for Jeremy Corbyn to use it. Surely you can’t have it both ways!’

Actually, I can, because sexism in language is complicated. As I explained in another of last year’s posts, it manifests itself in two apparently contradictory ways. One is the exclusion/erasure of women, as with the pseudo-generic use of masculine forms like ‘he’ and ‘man(kind)’. The other, however, is the over-use of feminine gender-marking, gratuitously drawing attention to a woman’s sex in contexts where it’s irrelevant and where the effect is demeaning or derogatory (for instance, calling Jane Austen an ‘authoress’). These are different surface manifestations of sexism, but at a deeper level they reflect the same basic assumption–that men are the default humans.

This is one aspect of the traditional gender order that seems to have survived: we are seldom if ever exhorted to replace ‘man’ with terms like ‘mxn’, ‘ejaculator’ and ‘everyone who has a penis’. That’s another reason why some feminists resist analogous W-word substitutes like ‘womxn’ and ‘menstruator’. Whatever else it may be, a gender revolution that does not challenge the default status of men is not a feminist revolution.

I’d like to think that in 2019 both sides in this debate will turn the heat down, and put more energy into finding mutually acceptable solutions to practical linguistic problems. For some purposes I think we do need inclusive terms (as well as, not instead of, the W-word), but ideally they’d be less clunky, obscure and needlessly offputting than the ones we’ve been presented with so far. We can surely improve on words like ‘menstruator’, which no one seems to find satisfactory: why not follow the lead of the Twitter commentator mentioned earlier by asking trans men how they would prefer to talk about their periods? And before they dream up any more formulas like ‘everyone who has a cervix’, organizations like Cancer Research could try emulating the approach their scientists use when developing new treatments, by testing their proposals on a sample of the target audience.

But to make these suggestions is to treat the issue as a technical problem of language planning, when of course it is much more than that: like most verbal hygiene debates, this is an ideological and political conflict played out in the arena of language. So, I predict that the struggle over the W-word will continue, and that the conflict may become, at least in the short term, more rather than less intense.

That’s not, I acknowledge, the happiest note on which to end this review of 2018. Nevertheless (and with apologies for the lateness), I wish all readers of this blog a happy new year. Here’s to courage, strength, and hope for better times ahead.

The illustration shows part of Gillian Wearing’s statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, which was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of (some) women in Britain gaining the right to vote. The words ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’ come from a speech Fawcett made in 1913 following the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby. Davison had been a suffragette, a member of an organization whose tactics Fawcett criticised; but despite their political differences, she spoke of Davison in a spirit of solidarity and mutual respect.  


Coming to terms with the past: what should we call Anne Lister?

This summer the city of York got its first LGBT history plaque, dedicated to the 19th century landowner Anne Lister.  It was placed at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Goodramgate, where in 1834 Lister and her partner Ann Walker took part in an unofficial marriage ceremony.

In the course of her life Anne Lister had numerous sexual and romantic relationships with women, as we know from her voluminous diaries, which were partly written in code to conceal the details. Since they were decoded in the 1980s Lister has been regarded as a significant figure in British lesbian history. To people already familiar with her story, therefore, it came as something of a surprise that the word ‘lesbian’ did not appear on the commemorative plaque. Instead the local LGBT group which was responsible for the wording chose to describe Lister as ‘a gender non-conforming entrepreneur’.

The pushback was immediate: many objectors visited the group’s Facebook page to protest, and a petition proclaiming ‘Anne Lister was a lesbian: don’t let them erase her story’ attracted over two thousand signatures. In the face of these complaints the York Civic Trust undertook to review the wording of the plaque. They have now opened a public consultation which invites people to choose between the original phraseology and an alternative that refers to Anne Lister as a ‘Lesbian and Diarist’.

Both these options are open to the charge of anachronism, projecting present-day concepts and identity categories back into the historical past. Though Anne Lister clearly understood herself as someone who desired women, she had no access to the conceptual frameworks that enable or even oblige us, 200 years later, to classify individuals in terms of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

In the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault famously argued that the modern notion of ‘the homosexual’ only emerged in the latter half of the 19th century. Before that, he maintained, discourse on sex focused on what people did rather than what or who they were; but the advent of a ‘scientific’ approach brought a new interest in explaining sexual behaviour as an expression of people’s underlying (and in the case of homosexuals, ‘deviant’) nature. ‘The 19th century homosexual’, wrote Foucault,

became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. …It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration: the homosexual was now a species.

From this perspective, labels like ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ are not just names for categories which have always existed in essentially the same form, just with different (or no) words attached to them. The terms come into existence along with the categories, and both are effects of the production of knowledge, which in modern societies, Foucault argues, is inextricably bound up with power and control. It follows that the problem of anachronism in language is both real and intractable. And as numerous commenters pointed out, the compromise chosen by the York LGBT group in the case of Anne Lister—describing her as ‘gender non-conforming’—is not really a satisfactory solution.

The group acknowledged that in practice the label ‘gender non-conforming’ is most often applied to people who identify as trans, non-binary or queer. But in principle, they argued, it could be used to describe ‘a broad range of identities, expression and behaviours that are non-normative and/or marginalised by a particular society or culture at a particular moment in time’. The implication seemed to be that whereas ‘lesbian’ names a specific identity that has only existed in some times and places, ‘gender non-conforming’ is more generally applicable: it says only that the person so labelled deviated in some way from whatever gender norms prevailed in their society.

I can’t say I’m convinced by this. One problem with the broad definition of ‘gender non-conforming’ is that it’s too broad (is there anyone on earth who has never deviated in any way from the prevailing norms of masculinity or femininity?). But in addition, the claim that it avoids anachronism does not stand up to scrutiny. There’s nothing timeless and universal about either the phrase ‘gender non-conforming’ or the assumptions embedded in it.

For one thing, its meaning depends on a sense of the word ‘gender’ which did not become established in English until the mid-20th century. We can be confident that Anne Lister wouldn’t have described herself as ‘gender non-conforming’. If that’s our criterion, incidentally, it’s also unlikely she would have called herself an ‘entrepreneur’. According to the OED, the relevant sense of that word, meaning the owner/manager of a business, did not appear in print until more than a decade after her death. (One critic of the plaque remarked that the overall effect of ‘gender non-conforming entrepreneur’ was to make Lister sound less like a 19th century landowner and more like the recipient of an award for the year’s most successful LGBT start-up.)

But perhaps all this agonising about anachronism is beside the point. A commemorative plaque is not a thesis: its purpose is to make whatever it commemorates intelligible and relevant to a contemporary audience. We memorialise historical figures like Anne Lister because of what they mean to us now, and the choices we make about how to do it, including what terminology to use, are always going to be shaped by what’s at stake for us in the present.

For most of those who got involved in it, what was at stake in the debate about the wording of the plaque was not some abstract theoretical point about the applicability of terms like ‘lesbian’ and ‘gender non-conforming’ to a person who lived 200 years ago. The issue was rather why one of those anachronistic terms had been preferred to the other, and what that said about contemporary attitudes to lesbians.

The commonest objection to the original wording was that, like the code Anne Lister used in her diaries, it seemed like a deliberate attempt to downplay if not conceal her sexuality. Why, critics demanded, was lesbianism being treated as the love whose name could not be spoken? Is the idea of sex between women still so shocking or revolting that it can only be alluded to in the vaguest and most ambiguous terms? But while I’m sure there are people who shy away from the L-word because of basic anti-lesbian prejudice, I wouldn’t expect to find them in an LGBT forum. In this case I think it’s more likely the group had a different reason for finding ‘lesbian’ problematic–a reason that was spelled out last year in a much-debated Buzzfeed article which asked, ‘Can lesbian identity survive the gender revolution?’

As the article’s author Shannon Keating explained,

Attitudes about gender identity are evolving, which has started to impact the way many of us think about sexual orientation. Young people in particular are more likely than ever before to identify outside the assigned-gender binary; trans men and women are joined by those who identify as genderqueer, agender, non-binary, genderfluid — to name only a few. …Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like “gay” or “lesbian” starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?

Not surprisingly, this article was controversial. Many lesbians were less than delighted to be dismissed as ‘stale and stodgy’, and some were vocal in their criticisms. Nevertheless, I think it’s true that the emphasis placed on gender identity in contemporary LGBT politics has affected the way sexuality is thought about. In particular, it has led to the adoption in some quarters of the principle that sexual orientation should be defined in relation to gender identity rather than sex. This opens up the possibility that someone like the ‘gender non-conforming’ Lister might not have been (that is, felt herself to be) a woman; and if she wasn’t a woman then her attraction to women wouldn’t make her a lesbian. If the York group was applying this logic, that would explain their otherwise puzzling reluctance to use the L-word.

This particular way of understanding the relationship between gender and sexuality is a relatively recent development, and as we saw in the row about the plaque, it remains highly contested. But the questions it grapples with are not new, and nor is their capacity to cause conflict.

Fifty years ago when I was growing up, homosexuality was commonly understood as a form of gender deviance or ‘inversion’. That was how my parents explained it to me: homosexual men and lesbian women were people who felt and behaved like members of the opposite sex. This mid-20th century common sense reflected the expert theories of an earlier period. The term ‘invert’ had been used by the 19th century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and the concept was popularised in Radclyffe Hall’s early 20th century novel The Well of Loneliness. It also shaped the way homosexuals were depicted in mainstream popular culture (something my parents and I were more directly acquainted with)–most commonly as effeminate, campy ‘queens’.

But by the end of the 1960s this understanding was being challenged. The new gay liberation movement promoted the idea that gender and sexuality were distinct and independent–a view championed in particular by younger, middle-class activists who found the association of homosexuality with effeminacy embarrassing, and saw it as an obstacle to achieving social acceptance. In a 1972 piece entitled ‘The fairy princess exposed’,  the gay liberationist Craig Alfred Hanson denounced the old-style queens as ‘relics of a bygone era in their fantasy world of poodle dogs and Wedgwood teacups’. Though these ‘relics’ were unlikely to change their ways, the movement needed to ‘expose our Princess Flora Femadonna so that our younger brothers will not fall into the lavender cesspool’.

As this rhetoric makes clear, there were divisions and tensions within the emerging gay ‘community’: not everyone had the same ideas about what it meant to be gay or what would constitute ‘liberation’. Lesbians had their own version of the conflict dramatised in Hanson’s attack on the ‘fairy princess’: as I noted in an earlier post, the new generation of lesbian feminists were often critical of the older culture of butch-fem relationships, which they saw as aping heterosexuality and reproducing traditional gender roles. Like their gay male comrades, they wanted to challenge the idea that same-sex desire was integrally bound up with gender deviance (or to put it another way, that all desire was fundamentally heterosexual–that every sexual relationship must involve a ‘masculine’ and a ‘feminine’ partner, even if they were both women or both men).

Today we are seeing another shift in ideas about the relationship between sex and gender, identity and desire—one which is also exposing divisions within the community. I’m not suggesting this is a straightforward case of history repeating itself (or reversing itself), but the questions being raised are not completely unfamiliar either. In some form or other, they may even have been questions for Anne Lister and the people around her in the first half of the 19th century.

But that isn’t what’s at issue in the dispute about the wording of her commemorative plaque. What the plaque will show, whatever it ends up saying, is not how Anne Lister defined herself, but how we have chosen to define her. And what makes that so contentious is not what we can’t know about the past, it’s what we don’t agree on in the present.

Note: at the time of writing it is still possible to respond to the consultation about the plaque: if you want to read the background information and then register a view on the competing options you can do so here.  

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.


This month I finally got round to reading Jessa Crispin’s much-hyped book Why I Am Not A Feminist. In fact, Crispin does consider herself a feminist: what her book takes aim at isn’t feminism as such, but a particular kind of ‘lifestyle’ feminism which she finds vacuous and self-absorbed. And one sign of this vacuity, she argues, is an obsession with linguistic minutiae:

…what becomes most important are the things on the surface. Like using the right words, rather than the wrong words. (The fact that the right words keep changing does nothing to quell the anger that builds in Internet feminism when you use the wrong words.)

This is an easy way to score political points, because the belief it mobilises—that if you’re worrying about mere words you must be neglecting the stuff that really matters—is deeply embedded in English-speaking culture. The idea that debating language is a trivial and ineffectual pursuit is expressed in a gazillion stock phrases and sayings: ‘Deeds, not words’. ‘Empty rhetoric’. ‘Just semantics.’ ‘He’s all mouth and no trousers’. ‘She talks the talk but can she walk the walk?’

By coincidence, while I was reading Jessa Crispin’s book I came across another piece making the same kind of argument, but from a very different political standpoint. This one appeared on a conservative website, the Daily Caller, under the title ‘Whiny and broken: the linguistic minefield of today’s politically correct tranny’. And it resembled Jessa Crispin’s text in another way too: just as Crispin is a feminist criticising other feminists, the author of ‘Whiny and broken’, Sophia Narwitz, is a trans woman criticising other trans people. ‘Each day’, she complains,

the habitually angry leftist LGBT “community” is creating semantic rules that are all but impossible to navigate unless you have helped lay the groundwork yourself.

She goes on to give examples:

I bet you didn’t know it’s wrong to say ‘transgendered’ now. Apparently the ‘ed’ at the end of the word is offensive. … They feel it invalidates a transgender person because people don’t become transgendered. They are born that way.

And later:

These people even cry depending on whether you put a space in transwoman or not. I am not joking. I think it’s not offensive if you say it as trans woman with a space, but honestly I don’t even care to check. I’m not going to waste my time googling nonsense, because — guess what — none of this fucking matters!

What Narwitz calls ‘googling nonsense’ was actually the first thing I did after reading her piece. This is because I remember the Great Political Correctness Furore of the 1990s, when it was common to discover, if you bothered to look, that the linguistic rules people were ridiculing as trivial, or denouncing as a sinister Orwellian plot to control people’s thoughts, had in fact been made up—not by the so-called ‘PC Brigade’ but by their opponents and/or people satirising the phenomenon. Thousands of primary school children were not, as the tabloids alleged, singing ‘Baa Baa Green Sheep’ because the thought police had decreed that any reference to a black sheep was racist. And absolutely nobody was seriously advocating the substitution of ‘vertically challenged’ for ‘short’. That was a joke. So, before I pondered Sophia Narwitz’s argument, I thought it would be prudent to check her facts.

She wasn’t making her examples up. The ‘transgender not transgendered’ rule is now a highly codified norm, appearing in, among other sources, the reference guide to LGBT terminology produced for media professionals by GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation);  it has been explained for a general audience in such mainstream publications as Time magazine. There are also many sources for the other rule Narwitz mentions, prescribing the two-word form ‘trans woman’ rather than ‘transwoman’. In each case the prescribed form is presented as what ‘the community’ prefers, whereas the proscribed form is associated with ignorant or malicious outsiders. But in fact that’s an oversimplification: there isn’t only one ‘insider’ view. Some community members dissent from the current orthodoxy—and they aren’t all right-wing zealots who would be happy to write for the Daily Caller.

In 2013 the trans blogger Cristan Williams devoted a post to the ‘trans woman v. transwoman’ issue. She began by reproducing part of an email she had received objecting to her ‘cissexist’ use of ‘transwoman’ to describe herself.

“Trans” should be used as an adjective to describe “woman.” When the two are linked together, it becomes a noun all its own, distinctly separating it from other groups of women, acting as a qualifier instead of a mere description. Conjoining the words together denotes that the two ideas can’t be separated, that being trans is somehow fundamentally different from any other characteristic a woman can have.

Then she explained why she disagreed with her correspondent. First, she argued that the proscription of ‘transwoman’ as transphobic or cissexist misrepresented trans history. It implied that the one-word form had been invented by outsiders as an insult, when in fact it originated among trans people themselves, and had a long history of being used in some trans communities. Second, she rejected the ‘adjective good, noun bad’ argument. ‘Businesswoman’ and ‘congresswoman’, she pointed out, are nouns: do they imply that the person so labelled is fundamentally different from all other women? Would their meaning be totally changed if they were written as two words rather than one?

Williams also offered a more general thought about what’s ultimately behind this kind of dispute:

I sometimes feel that the language polemics we so enjoy are created in part to support an environment which chases the ghost of empowerment through the reactionary policing of highly nuanced lexical epistemologies that inevitably privilege certain segments of the trans community over others.

Although I’m not included in Williams’s  ‘we’, when I read this observation it really resonated with me. What she feels is pretty much what I feel myself whenever I witness yet another Twitter spat about whether such-and-such a word is ‘problematic’, or contemplate the endless proliferation of ‘things not to say’ pieces with titles like ‘The Ten Words You Should Never Use to a Lesbian’, or ‘Five Ways Your Punctuation Could Be Making People Feel Excluded’.  But my problem with this sort of thing isn’t the same as Jessa Crispin’s: it’s not simply the fact that people are wasting energy on disagreements about ‘mere’ words. It’s more the way they’re going about it—by creating arbitrary shibboleths which are then used to police the boundaries of acceptable discourse within an already small and select community of the like-minded. It’s an example of Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’, or the sectarianism satirised in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (where the People’s Front of Judea hate the Judean People’s Front even more than they hate their Roman imperialist oppressors). And it can get very ugly.

The word ‘shibboleth’—Hebrew for an ear of corn—features in the account given in the Book of Judges of the behaviour of the Gileadites towards their defeated enemies the Ephraimites. When the surviving Ephraimites tried to flee, they found their access to a ford across the river Jordan cut off by Gileadites who would only let them cross if they could prove they weren’t members of the enemy group by pronouncing the word ‘shibboleth’ in the Gileadite way, with an initial ‘sh’ sound. If the Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked the ‘sh’, pronounced it ‘sibboleth’, they were slaughtered. This use of a small and otherwise meaningless distinction (‘shibboleth’ and ‘sibboleth’ are just variants of the same word) as a test of in-group versus out-group identity is the source of the word’s meaning in English, where it can denote a custom or practice that marks membership of a group or sect, a minor detail that is accorded disproportionate weight, or a rule which is fetishized, so that the letter of the law becomes more important than the spirit. The linguistic rules I am calling shibboleths have all these characteristics.

The most obvious sign that a rule functions as a shibboleth is that its observance or non-observance becomes an acid test of whether someone is friend or foe. The use of a prescribed form means the writer is ‘one of us’, a political ally on the right side of whatever the argument is, whereas failure to observe the rule indicates that the writer is an adversary, on the wrong side of the same argument. That, in turn, may be taken to license punitive action—pile-ons, name-calling, personal abuse and threats. This is particularly likely to happen in public forums online, where people’s words will often be the only thing you have to judge them by. But in that setting it is also likely to catch cases where non-compliance does not reflect hostility or bigotry, but merely the unfamiliarity or opacity of the rule to people who don’t belong to whatever network it emerged from.

Another sign of a shibboleth is that you can’t question either the rule or the argument that justifies it without being assumed to have the ‘wrong’ political beliefs—even if, like Cristan Williams, you are a member of the group in whose interests the rule is ostensibly being advocated. This isn’t just an issue with gender identity labels. Consider the recently influential argument that the formula ‘commit suicide’ should be avoided because it stigmatises people who take or attempt to take their own lives. The linguistic point is that the verb ‘commit’ has a strong association with criminal or sinful acts (other words that commonly follow ‘commit’ include ‘crime’, ‘murder’ and ‘adultery’): its use in relation to suicide reflects the historical definition of that act as both a crime and a sin. Since that is no longer how we think about suicide, we should stop using an expression that recycles the attitudes of a less enlightened time.

But it is possible to be 100% committed (sic) to the goal of de-stigmatising suicide while still thinking that the linguistic argument is based on inaccurate and simplistic assumptions. It assumes that anyone who hears or utters ‘commit suicide’ must be mentally accessing the negative meaning of ‘commit’ and the associated understanding of suicide as a crime/sin. But that isn’t necessarily the case. We still talk about the sun ‘rising’, but that doesn’t mean we think it actually ‘rises’. In the context of the formula ‘sun + rise’ we rarely think about the meaning of the word ‘rise’ at all.

This example is given in a blog post by Dariusz Galasiński, a linguist who has written extensively on the language of suicide. In addition to noting that we have little evidence about what ordinary language-users make of the expression ‘commit suicide’, Galasiński makes the important point that it’s unlikely to have the same meaning for everyone.  Arguments that ‘we should use X and avoid Y because X means this whereas Y means that’ consistently overlook how much variation there is in the way words are used and understood. There is also variation in the way people think about the issues behind the words. Some people who have contemplated or attempted suicide tell researchers they find the agentive language of ‘committing’ less stigmatising and disempowering than alternative formulas which suggest a lack of control over one’s own actions and decisions (e.g. ‘die by suicide’ or ‘lost to suicide’). Other research has found that being highly conscious of the stigma attached to suicide may deter people, especially men, from acting on suicidal impulses. Does that mean avoiding ‘commit’ might actually harm some members of the group it’s meant to help?

What Galasiński is questioning here is not just the rule proscribing ‘commit suicide’, but the idea that any argument for prescribing one form of words while proscribing another could be applicable in every context and to every case. Language is rarely that simple. But the power of the shibboleth depends on the conviction that some ways of using language are always right and others are always wrong—that it can never be OK, for instance, to refer to an adult woman as a ‘girl’, or to prefer the passive to the active voice. What this encourages is self-policing and bad faith: ‘I don’t understand why X is wrong/I don’t really believe that X is wrong, but if I’m going to be attacked for using it I’d better just steer clear’.

I see engaging in arguments about language as an integral part of doing any kind of politics. I can’t imagine a serious political movement that wouldn’t ask questions like ‘what does this term mean?’ or ‘how should we talk about this problem?’ In that sense I disagree with commentators like Jessa Crispin who say that arguments about language are just a trivial distraction from ‘real’ politics. But I do think there’s a problem with the way some of those arguments are conducted. If language matters, then we need to be able to reflect critically on the way we use it. And there is nothing reflective, or self-reflexive, about the shouty, judgy, self-righteous policing of anyone who doesn’t sound just like you.

The image shows a detail from Doris Salcedo’s artwork Shibboleth I (2007)