Day #259 He said, she said: the gender wars

A friend’s post on Facebook knocked a few thoughts loose in my head on the topic of language and gender. This guy is a friend from my college days. He’s very erudite, well educated, well travelled, and has lived in various places that range from the highly cosmopolitan to the middle-of-nowhere. We are not in touch often these days but I often pay attention to his Facebook because he always posts articles that provoke thought and discussion, not the the kind that simply exist to provoke outrage. While he has strong opinions on certain issues that are important to him personally or professionally, he is generally fairly reserved in his own opinions while occasionally presiding over some highly spirited debates between other people in the comments to his posts.

This week he posted about Yale University’s decision to end use of the official use of terms “freshman” and “upperclassman” in favour of “first-year” and “upper-level” (“End of ‘Freshman'” Inside Higher Ed, 18 September 2017).

My friend did not publicly agree or disagree with the article. He merely highlighted the section pointing out that while official language can be changed at will, it is much harder to change the vernacular, meaning that the term “freshman” is likely to persist in the daily lexicon for some time.

Now, the article actually does not shed light on Yale’s motivation for this step. The reasoning behind it is all speculative. However, it’s likely that the references to “inclusivity” and “diversity” are not too far off the mark. Now, as a woman I understand the difficulty some people have with the issue that while English does not possess gendered nouns in the way of other languages like French, it is still littered with gendered words and expressions. The very basic rule of English grammar on pronouns rests on using “he” when referring to an unspecified male or female person. The revolt against this has led to some very awkward written language with “he/she,” “s/he,” “him/her,” the ubiquitous resort to the simpler “they”, or the pointed substitution of “she.” Honestly, this sort of thing doesn’t bother me. Sometimes words are simply a linguistic tool to convey a meaning, and any gendered connotation is imputed by the listener and not the speaker. Other times words are deliberately meant to diminish or separate, or their unconscious choice reflects an implicit bias. It’s the intent behind the speaker’s words that matters to me, not their superficial outward appearance or similarity.

But to what degree is usage of this sort of language a reliable indicator that  change is needed?

“Where does it stop?” I asked my friend. “If you take this to its logical conclusion, are we going to have to get rid of the words man/woman or human? It’s easier to change the definition of something that the label itself.” After all, I went on, is there anyone actually left in academia that associates the term “freshman” with a particular gender as opposed to a gender-neutral reference to first-year students? My friend corrected me to say that it is possible to change official language in any which way to reflect to reflect an official organisational position. It’s the vernacular that requires time, and willingness, to change.

I do not disagree, but I rather believe that he may have missed the mark I was trying to make. Organisations can (and should) change their official language as required. This is necessary to stay on message, reflect social change, advance their marketing goals, and for other reasons. However, if the rationale for this particular change is, in fact, “inclusivity” as the article suggests, I question the motivation and its necessity. To me this particularly move smacks strongly of a solution seeking a problem. Does anyone really feel left out by the term “freshman”?

Language needs to change when a word no longer reflects the reality of every day life or when a word is co-opted to mean something else by a significant enough portion of the population. Describing your current mood as “gay” or “queer” is likely to be misunderstood these days. And once upon a time “mulatto”, “negro”, and “colored” were considered acceptable descriptions whereas now they are derogatory and taboo in conversations, unless one is actively seeking to offend. Many words continue to be used long after the source of their origin no longer exists (my favourite example being the “why we say ‘hang up’ the phone” tweet).

And when it comes to official titles the stakes can be very high.  Needing to “hoover” your carpet is precisely why Google single-mindedly resists efforts to add “google” to the dictionary as a verb. An excellent local example here is the longstanding concert venue just on the north side of the Liffey which, for years and years, used to be known as “The Point”, deriving its name from the Point Depot, the train station which was the original purpose of the historic building which the venue now occupies. For almost twenty years people flocked to The Point to see events ranging from Frank Sinatra to Britney Spears. It’s hosted comedians and boxing fights. In 2008, however, after extensive renovations it was rebranded as the O2 following a sponsorship deal between the owners and the telecoms company of the same name. Many people were upset by the change and swore they would never refer to it as the O2, however, and “The Point” lingered in the social consciousness for quite some time after the official change. More recently, O2 was bought out by another telecoms company and the concert venue was duly rebranded as “3Arena”. Few resisted the change, other than to roll their eyes at today’s crass commercialism, because “The O2” never garnered any emotional resonance for the local population. While this is certainly a superficial sort of change in the linguistic sense, it is important commercially and financially for the company involved, so the change reflects the bottom line and not any sort of attempt at a social statement.

Sometimes re-branding (or lack of it) is significantly more controversial. There have been many failed attempts to rename Dixie State University in Utah, and the long running controversy over the name and logo of the American football team “the Washington Redskins” is still alive and kicking. Then there is the furore (or storm in a tea cup, depending on your point of view) over companies who prefer the generic term of “happy holidays” to the more specific “Merry Christmas”.

But what’s the difference between all of these and “freshman”? And why are some changes necessary whereas others appear senseless or merely as lip service? When it comes to gender in language, there has been a steady evolution of terms like the replacing of “Chairman” with “Chairperson” (or simply shortening it to “Chair”). An increasing generation of female thespians refer to themselves as “actors” rather than “actresses” (an issue on which a very quick search dug up this interesting op-ed piece). School principals are now the norm rather than Headmasters and Headmistresses.

Some some might say, perhaps it is time for “freshman” to go, since it’s been a long time since first year college students were exclusively male. But does this change accomplish anything? Or is it an empty gesture to appease a particular faction, or even worse, that sort of attempt at inclusivity which borders on obsessive political correctness on which many conservative-leaning folks these days blame much of society’s ills. Changing something solely to avoid even the remote possibility of causing offence without actually knowing or understanding if such offence is being given is, in my opinion, somewhat irrational and, potentially, detracts energy from other more serious issues. Another friend of mine said that this put her in mind of an article she read about how the city of Los Angeles prioritises the fixing of the less damaged streets, because fixing the really, really bad ones is harder and more expensive. (For this golden nugget, see this column in the L.A. Times by Steve Lopez)

A woman ascending to the top position on a high powered corporate board could very well have good reason to avoid the term “Chairwoman” or “Chairman”. Presiding over a table full of dominant men, as is still common in the world of business and commerce, a woman usually needs the complete arsenal available at her disposal to assert her leadership and influence and avoid looking weak. This includes everything from being conscious about her wardrobe to the amount of time she allows herself for sick days, the ruthless suppression of any reference to personal family life lest it be perceived as a feminine weakness, and yes, even the language she chooses to use to describe herself. Some women attack this issue by stripping the gender away from the label (ie Chairperson) and others do this by deliberately taking on the gendered label and disassociating the term from its gender specific roots and making it their own (ie, “Madame Chairman”, or the way “airman” is now applicable to both men and women in the Airforce).

My issue with consigning the term “freshman” to the dustbin, however, is the fact that, unlike women fighting their way to the top ranks of their respective sports or industries or fields of study, there is no differentiation of rank between female and male freshmen. And if we begin to take offence to all terms which include the word “men” even when they are generally accepted as inclusive, then do we indeed need to reconsider our usage of the word “human” or “mankind”? It sounds ridiculous, and yet if you believe one is necessary and the other is not, I cannot for the life of me find the distinction between the two. There are some who go as far as changing the spelling of the word “woman” in an effort to disassociate the word from the tradition of defining women by reference to the male norm. I find this particularly ironic because a cursory look at the etymology of the word “man” reveals that it was a gender neutral term in Old English, meaning a male or female person, or and indefinite pronoun. It did not begin to take on the meaning of “adult male” until sometime around 1,000 CE.

That does not mean that all attempts to get rid of the implied male default are not worthwhile. One example which I encounter once a year particularly rankles me and stems from an obvious historical hangover of exclusive men’s clubs. Every autumn a couple of annual licensing applications cross my desk at work. One of these clients, a golf club, has long been accepting of female members but retains an archaic throwback to a time before women were allowed to join. So every year, as part of the District Court licensing application process, I make a note of the various members of the management committee and bristle when I come across the titles “Lady Captain” and “Lady Vice-Captain”. Why? Why? The men’s titles are simply “Captain” and “Vice Captain”. Is it really so hard to keep the roles straight by having two “Captains” that one of them needs to be presaged by the gender? Or if specifying the gender is so important, should they not have a “Gentleman Captain” and a “Gentleman Vice Captain”? This is an excellent example of where an organisation could change an official title to promote a more equitable position, as the status quo explicitly makes maleness the default and femaleness the “other”.

But again, this is not the case with “freshman” and when I encounter these sorts of efforts at gender-equality lip service, at some point I just have to ask: why? Is it really not possible to get over our implicit biases without stripping the entire English language of every single reference to “man” when it might include a woman? It seems to me that language these days is pulling in opposite directions – at one end we are eliminating potentially offensive words as fast as we can to promote equality while on the other hand there is an ever-increasing proliferation of new gender-specific words that have come into being exclusively to highlight sexist stereotypes, such as “man flu”, “mansplaining”, or “mumtrepreneur” .

Yes, to a certain degree, language and labels help to code the way we think and perceive the world. This is why educators try to discourage discrepancies such as calling boys “outspoken” but girls “bossy”. But as humans sentient primates capable of reason, we are also capable of changing the definition as much as we are capable of changing the term itself. Indeed, the definitions of words shift constantly over time, and it is well-acknowledged that language is a living thing. In contract to, for example, French, English is particularly fluid. There is no “official” version of the language, (although the OED would love to say otherwise) and indeed it is a mishmash of romance languages, Germanic languages, and borrows liberally from around the globe.

“Freshman” in my opinion is one such example where change is simply more effort than it is worth. It has been a longstanding common place term for all first-year students. Any residual sexism that female freshmen may face on a college campus is not going to be cured if they are suddenly going to be called “first years”. Professors who are patronising to female students are not suddenly going to take female first-years more seriously. (In fact, the more retrenched academic dinosaurs may use this as further ammunition to belittle female students.) Male freshmen who have never learned to respect the opposite sex are not suddenly going to turn into courteous gentlemen. Female students who enter college lacking confidence are not suddenly going to hold their heads up high and feel that they are, after all, on par with their male counterparts just because they are now “first-years” and not “freshmen”.

Does language have to  change to address changes in our world, including eliminating biases and prejudices? Yes. Does that mean that every gendered word is worthy of a lexicographic rewrite? I don’t think so. We have limited resources and we should spend them where they can do the most good, rather than patting ourselves on the back for repaving perfectly good streets while real problems go unaddressed.


While this essay was written by me, much credit must be given to my friend Vee, who gave me great feedback on the first draft. It’s amazing how small changes and the reordering of some sections can take a mediocre argument and strengthen it so quickly. Also, she is entirely responsible for the reference to the streets of LA and for the brilliant metaphor (in my opinion at least) in the conclusion. Any mistakes or opinions are, of course, my own. 

1 Comment

  1. Great post! Really well thought out and well written. Personally, I think as kids can no longer speak or write properly, I would like them to concentrate on actually using words and using language, instead of worrying about whether a word is too masculine or feminine. What annoys me most is, when I now get an email from my daughters school, after the signature they list preferred pronouns. While I realize that everyone is entitled to think and feel and be, I fear that we will no longer be able to speak without offending someone.

    Liked by 1 person

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