Gendered Words Are Unintentally Harmful!

Updated: Jul 12

I came across an article on thelocal-fr.cdn, which was talking about the innovation of inclusive writing in French. For the uninitiated, this is all about trying to account for the traditional designation of French words as being masculine or feminine. I am not particularly familiar with French, but it would seem that most jobs are traditionally gendered male—think fireman, policeman, etc. in English. Well-meaning people have decided to resolve this by modifying the words to make them feminine—‘la presidente’ rather than ‘le president’, using both words in documents ‘le candidat ou la candidate’, or using a median-point, e.g. “musicien·ne·s—male musician (musician), a female musician (musicienne) and their plural form.

On the surface, this seems reasonable as a way of accepting and acknowledging that women play an equal role in society and can do any job. Moving from French to English, I wonder if it plays into an unintentional linguistic trap. Consider the job title ‘actor’ or ‘actress’. Both are gendered terms for the same job and both actors and actresses are equally useful or useless to society, depending on your viewpoint. Yet merely by there being two terms for the same thing, the question is asked: which is better or more valuable? Human nature being what it is will always assume that where there is a distinction, there must be a difference in value.

This is apparent when we talk of actors and actresses. Simply by dividing the profession of pretending to be someone else into two groups based on their sex, we create a subconscious distinction that tends to be self-reinforcing. As such, while the best male and female performers should be judged against each other, they are judged against only those of their own sex. This encapsulates my concern with the fight in French and English to gender professions and words. If a person is good at what they do, they deserve to be judged against all their peers, not against only part of them.

By demanding that a fireman who happens to be female be called a firewoman, or a nurse who is male to be called a male nurse, it creates a distinction that unintentionally divides the profession on sexual lines. This follows with all such divisions, be it male nurses, female doctors, male midwives, black sportsmen, white women, etc. Some suggest that this can be solved by creating new words such as firefighter, which lack the term man in them, using neutral genders such as das rather than die or der in German, or doing the median point method in French as mentioned previously. However, I wonder if this is a bit misguided.

In most cases, our conceptions of professions, colours, or activities being masculine or feminine stem not from anything real but merely from popular conceptions which were only ever true in narrow timeframes and in constrained geographic locations. Take nursing and nurses, this is popularly considered a female profession to the extent that the term ‘male nurse’ is used to denote a male practitioner. Yet for most of history, it was male-dominated, only becoming female-dominated in the nineteenth century, after which and until WW2, men who worked in the profession were paid less and faced discrimination similar to women in other fields. The colour pink being associated with red was also considered masculine until the late nineteenth century. Even household tasks that might have been considered women’s work in some cultures were considered men’s in others.

Furthermore, this focus on masculine or feminine professional titles ignores the actual etymology of the words. The modern speaker assumes that midwife is female due to the word wife in the title. Yet etymologically, it means with (mid) woman (wif), i.e., the person who is with the woman giving birth. In the same way, most words with man at the end don’t denote maleness but have their origin in the old-English ‘mann’ meaning person, not the old-English ‘wer’ meaning male human.

So, what is my point? In essence, I am suggesting that much of the angst caused by the supposed gendering of words and professions are due to a misunderstanding of their gender-neutral origins (at least in English). Furthermore, in our attempts to be more inclusive by modifying language, we end up unintentionally creating linguistic divisions that lead inexorably to real divisions. Instead, I suggest that we take the time to explore the history of our languages before assuming a bigoted history, which often did not exist. If we still feel that words with suffixes like ‘man’ create too much confusion, why not simply devolve the word to its older form. Make fireman ‘firemann’, policeman ‘policemann’, midwife ‘midwif’, etc. It has the simplicity of not changing spoke English or creating confusion, yet it would make the gender-neutral etymology clearer.

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