Gender and Words

It’s only words

By Gwydion M. Williams

A small apology, in response to a reader’s complaint. In the last issue I referred to ‘ambulance men’. Since not all of them are male, I should of course have said ‘ambulance workers’. (Though not ‘ambulance persons’. Nor will Newsnotes ever speak of Dustpersons, Conpersons or IRA Gunpersons.)

The L&TUR exists to get people thinking about the world. We accept the modem shift to gender-free language, since some people find it very important Personally, I think that too much fuss is made about it. People can learn the jargon easily enough, without necessarily changing their underlying attitude. Since such shifts come much more easily to the middle-class intelligentsia than to manual workers, too much emphasis on ‘sexist’ terminology can be used as an excuse to freeze ordinary working people out of what is supposed to be their party.

I would also say that jargon is at least as much of a problem as ‘sexist’ language. There is far too much of it around. It can sound very grand and learned to use lots of rare words. It can be useful to some people to drop in a baffling term like ‘oblomovism’ to cover a gap in the logic. But it doesn’t add meaning.

To say ‘In the absence of the feline predator the rodent scavengers can engage in recreational activity‘ is actually vaguer than saying ‘while the cat’s away, the mice can play’.

If you want to be understood, avoid sentences like ‘A repair implemented ai this point in time will yield a net saving of human resources of the order of 88.889 per cent’. It’s much better to say ‘A stitch in time saves nine‘. And it’s even non-sexist, it does not say who should do the stitching!

This was an item in Notes on the News for March 1990.  It appeared in Issue 16 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.

For my later views on use of language, see Don’t Speak of Cold Misty Mountains and Confusing Mao with Mao.