Among the Intellectualoids

The War of the Words

The non-sexist dismantler of English has died.

By 5.20.11

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Dammit, it's not "Everybody has their book"!

It's "Everybody has his book." His! His! His! Got that?

Not many do, I confess: for which outcome the blame attaches in no small degree to Kate Swift -- may her recently departed soul rest in peace -- and her disagreeably influential books on, ahem, non-sexist writing. Swift made the dismantling of English fashionable for purposes of consciousness-raising. May the Lord show her better things at this momentous passage in her career.

The idea behind Words and Women: New Language in New Times and The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing was that men (those brutes) used the English language as one more tool for the depreciation of women's worth. Look at "his," considered as the all-purpose singular pronoun. When you wrote it or said it, you were conceding the notion of male centrality.

Well, you weren't, but people thought this way back in the '70s, when Swift and Casey Miller, her "companion" (hardly an encouraging designation), were pouring forth their sentiments about language reform.

In the preface to Words and Women, the two reformers noted that before they formed their understandings, "everything we read, heard on the radio and television, or worked on professionally confirmed our new awareness that the way English is used to make the simplest points can either acknowledge women's full humanity or relegate the female half of the species to secondary status."

That settled it. They were right. Therefore, the language had to change. It was OK -- no, it was de rigueur -- to pair a singular noun with a plural pronoun. If not that, we were to write, "his or her," uselessly adding two syllables to the construction. The politics came first; everything else followed.

The big target of course was the word "man." It got in the way of everything: made you think life revolved around the particular sex (or "gender," if you preferred) whose pants came with zippers in the front. So it was out with "firemen," "workmen," and "chairman." It was all, hello, firefighters and workers, and "Ms. Chairperson, I move…" The word "son" suffered similar torments.

Tighter feminists even than Swift-Miller touted the healing properties of "wo-myn" or "wo-person." The latter abortion inspired, among linguistic reactionaries, the satirical locution "wo-perdaughter." Well, I mean, doesn't the whole business here concern politics rather than lower concerns, such as grace, dignity, and continuity; not to mention comprehensibility?

Jacques Barzun, among many others, demurred in the face of all this balderdash. In From Dawn to Decadence, his summing up of the past five centuries, Barzun explained: "The Sanskrit root man, manu, denotes nothing but the human being and does so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for 'I think.'" "Woman," he said, is "etymologically the 'wife-human being."

"The truth is," Barzun continued, "that any sex-conscious practice defeats itself by sidetracking the thought from the matter in hand to a social issue -- an important one, without question. And on that issue, it is hardly plausible to think that tinkering with words will do anything to enhance respect for women among people who do not feel any, or increase women's authority and earnings where prejudice is entrenched."

Sigh. He's, oh, so right. And, oh, so out of order in all the forums that teem with hard-eyed, crop-haired folk waving feminist handbooks -- e.g., The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. This thing isn't about communication. It sure isn't about beauty. It's about politics -- the theology of modern times. Whatever stands in the way of political reconstruction has to be reconstructed.

The churches themselves, custodians of the old theology, concede as much. The hymnals and prayer books of the '70s -- the Swift-Miller age -- were cunningly redrafted to reflect the New Realities. Sexist words like "king" and "lord" can be hard to extinguish in the face of Christianity's unanimous teaching. Likewise, the troublesome likes of "he" and "him" abound in Scripture. You can't always get past such. A person can try, though, can't she? And so: Psalm 1:1, the Book of Common Prayer (1928): "Happy is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly…." Psalm 1:1, the Book of Common Prayer (1979): "Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked…"

The late Ms. Swift grasped a truth of a certain kind: Language shapes and teaches. Want to propound a new "truth"? Get control of vocabulary and grammar. (Orwell certainly knew as much.) The vocabulary of feminism, as roughed in by The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, gives the proponents of that viewpoint a leg up (a "limb up," as the Victorians would have said) in the sexual egalitarianism drama they seem bent on enacting.

OK, everybody today has indeed got their book. But it's wrong! It's also gratuitous, awkward, and -- forgive me -- just plain stupid.

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About the Author

William Murchison is a Dallas-based columnist for Creators Syndicate. His latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.