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Playing with Words . . . and Culture

The newspaper we subscribe to is the Peninsula Daily News, which is daily from Sunday through Friday. Since the important news items of interest are Peninsula-related, the front page is more likely to report on the newly crowned Irrigation Festival Queen than on the results of the Presidential election (page 3.) Even if the PDN is limited in its spread of national and world news, I still miss a Saturday paper.

Our morning routine includes staying in bed long enough to have tea and read the paper. Therefore, paperless Saturdays disturb the routine. Undaunted, my husband often turns to his cell phone to read the latest scoops from CNN or the BBC while we drink our tea. Last Saturday, he read a story about two Indiana school girls who objected to the orange diamond-shaped warning signs that announced to motorists “Men Working.”

The complaint of these little girls was heard by the City Council and immediately acted on with a resolution banning gender-discriminating signage. The resolution proclaimed that the Council “chooses to take official action to promote equality and inclusivity." Okay, fine. But where do we draw the line at replacing our language (generally one of the indicators of our ascendancy over the animal world) with pictures (which even the animals understand)?

I remember when the male-female issue of language first began to make headlines. A favorite joke I heard was that changing mailman to mailperson wasn’t enough. Since mail sounded too gender-biased, now our letters are delivered by a personperson. And of course the original all-encompassing meaning of “man” has been long forgotten and the word has become a threat to those who do not consider themselves men.

Ah, but where is that line drawn? Mankind cannot be altered to humankind now, can it? After all, there’s that word man in it. Does human become huperson? Is a woman (non-man) to become a non-person? Uh oh, manual labor is only for those with Y chromosomes? That’s easy—change it to personal labor. Oops, the meaning disappeared. I thought I had it right when I changed manager to personager, but oh dear, now I’ve tread on the age bias issue.

My cynicism aside, I’ll point you to an article posted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill about gender-neutral language in writing. (Frankly, I don’t consider myself gender neutral since I haven’t been spayed.) If you are a writer aspiring to wide readership in our present day diluted culture of language (whew, is that bias or what) then do take seriously the UNC guidelines. They really are important. Remember, it’s far easier to change your writing than to change your audience. Check out

I know that I’m woefully behind the cultural language times. That’s fine with me. After all, this is my Journal post and I’ll write it any way I want. I still call them waiters and waitresses and see absolutely no condescension implied in those terms. I still believe that mankind includes all of us who don’t have fur, fins, or feathers.

The best part of it all is that I choose to write historical fiction—no problem with gender language. It is what it is. I can embellish history but I sure can’t change it! I’ll happily live in the present and write in the past.

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