Posted by: Jack Henry | August 15, 2018

Editor’s Corner: Richard Lederer’s “Is the English Language Prejudiced Against Women?”

One of my Editor’s Corner helpers left this article on my desk. It brings up some interesting points that I thought I’d share with my fellow language lovers. (Some edits were made for the sake of Human Resources.)

Is the English Language Prejudiced Against Women? by Richard Lederer

Women make up the majority of the population in almost every country in the world. Yet concern has been growing that the English language stigmatizes women as an inferior group of human beings, undermines their self-images and restricts their perceptions of life’s possibilities. As a way of examining this contention, I ask you to answer the following questions as precisely and honestly as you can and to compare your responses with the comments that come afterward.

1. Which of the following people are married and which are single: Mr. John Smith, Mrs. John Smith, Miss Mary Jones, Ms. Mary Jones?

Mr. John Smith may be married or single, but Mrs. John Smith is definitely married. In addition, she has acquired her husband’s last name, passively defined in relationship to his identity. You think this form is timeworn and proper. But it isn’t. Martha Washington would have been mystified to receive a letter addressed to Mrs. George Washington.

Miss Mary Jones is, of course, unattached, but Ms. Mary Jones, like Mr. John Smith, may be single or married. It is the unequal state of affairs that exists between Mr. John Smith and Miss Mary Jones that women are protesting when they ask to be identified as Ms. rather than Mrs. or Miss, or simply as Mary Jones. Ms. is a sincere attempt to return to a connubially neutral name for women that matches the one for men.

2. If a king rules a kingdom, what does a queen rule? If a man mans a station, what does a woman do? If a man fathers a movement, what does a woman do?

Queens, of course, rule kingdoms, not “queendoms,” and nobody “womans” a station or “mothers” a movement. Apparently, we English speakers feel that nouns like queendom and verbs like to woman and to mother are too weak. But language can change. The rise of to parent in our language has given us just the androgynous word we need to express the co-adventure of being a parent and to unite the two genders in mutual activity.

3. What do you picture when you hear or read the following expressions: The Ascent of Man, Renaissance man, Language separates mankind from the other creatures, A teacher affects eternity. No one knows where his influence stops. (Henry Adams)?

Do words like man, mankind and he include women and children? This question was tested by sociologists who asked 300 college students to select illustrations from pictures that were supplied for chapters in a textbook. One group of students was presented titles such as “Social Man, “Industrial Man” and “Political Man,” the other titles such as “Society,” “Industrial Life” and “Politics.” Results indicated that the word man evoked pictures of males participating in that activity far more than women or children. Another survey revealed that children from kindergarten through seventh grade interpreted the sentences “Man must work in order to eat” and “Around the world man is happy” to mean male adults, not females and children.

Read and hear this: “Whan that April with his showres soote/The droughte of March hath perced to the roote . . . .” These are the opening lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English between 1387 and 1400. The history of English, like that of all living languages and living things, is the history of unstinting change. I believe that our vocabulary can evolve so that men, women and children can be free to imagine and explore the full range of their human potential.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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