Neutered English: No more manhole?

As a living language English is constantly changing and rightfully so.

But in recent years a trend based on good intentions may be going too far, namely that of neutering the language.

It arises from the desire to undo the prejuduce against women that characterized the English language and acknowledge women’s increased role in public life.

The French language is gender specific, strictly designating all nouns as being either masculine or feminine.

Were you speaking with a Frenchman (or Frenchwoman) and referred to a house as le maison rather than la maison, he (or she) might have trouble understanding you and think you were engaging in a verbal spoof.

English is much less formal, lending itself to frequent alterations and variations.

Titles that change the end of a word from -man to -woman such as chairman and chairwoman are fine but why would anyone want to call the leader if the group “chair” thereby turning a person into a piece of furniture?

For centuries female performers have been called actresses, male performers actors; now, more and more female performers are calling themselves actors. But why, since (at least in this day and age) actresses and actors are equal, just biologically different? Glenda Jackson’s bravura performance a few years ago as King Lear notwithstanding, would anyone want actors and actresses to have to compete against each other for Academy Awards?

The word man in mankind has often been used to denote humankind thereby demeaning half the human population. Nowadays, this seems both predjudicial and quaint.

More people than ever now consider themselves as being non-gendered and are rejecting either male or female designations and pronouns for themselves and others of like mind. In a sentence normally calling for a he or him, or her, they use the plural (and asexual) word “they” thereby violating normal grammar to assert their personal bent. Should the rest of us feel obliged to follow their special misuse of English grammar?

Of course there are some words or terms that might be better changed to help put women on an equal footing with men. Unions calling themselves “The international Brotherhood of. . . “, or signs saying “Men Working” both seem, at best, unfriendly to women.

Many organizations including the U.S. Congress have asked their members to no longer refer to brothers and sisters but instead to siblings, a perfectly good word but a much less descriptive one. Next, son and daughter may have to be replaced by child or offspring and husband and wife by spouse. Thus far parent has not been mandated to replace father and mother.

There are instances where a new designation seems to sound better than simply changing from man-to-woman, for example, postman became letter carrier and stewardess, flight attendant.

But what could be wrong with leaving a gender designation in a title as long as it did not discriminate against the other sex? A few years ago, the (mostly female) members of the Berkeley, California, City Council voted to discontinue the use of the term manhole which has been in use for centuries, replacing it with utility hole. Seriously.

Residential real estate agents in California are starting to use the term owner’s suite instead of master bedroom to avoid the sexual (and class) bias inherent in the word master.

But we still refer to both male and female students in their first year of college as freshmen and probably will continue to do so, unless a more euphonic, gender neutral term is found. Also, the academic title fellow continues to be applied to women as well as men; since no one has come up with a suitable feminine equivalent.

Some gendered words are better left as is. Manspreading, the term referring to males spreading their legs while riding buses and subways refers to what has been exclusively a masculine activity; unless women take it up, let’s leave it alone. While there is no female equivalent of yes men (who would want one?), we could call such people of either sex obsequious persons — but let’s not. Women are seldom if ever the subject of a manhunt; maybe we can also keep that as is. May we leave the Isle of Man unchanged? And what do we do with manure?

Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville.

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