Gender Neutral Language

So last night the topic of gender neutrality in the likes of policeman vs police officer came up and, unsurprisingly, I have an opinion on this and thought I may make a blog post detailing said stance.

First let's look at the etymology of the word. Man can be derived right back to a Proto-Indo European root *man-. Proto-Indo European being the reconstructed ancestral language of most of the Indian and European languages, although sadly unattested, and was spoken around 4000BC. Moving a little closer in time in Old English, c800AD, the word mann meant, as it still means in some contexts today, a member of the human race with wer (or waepmann) and wif (or wifmann) meaning a male and a female member respectively. Incidentally wer still exists in modern English in words such as Werewolf, perhaps a female werewolf should be called a *wifwolf, and the word wifmann evolved to become the modern word woman. It wasn't until about 1000AD that mann acquired the additional meaning that had previously been associated to wer and not until 1300AD that wer itself disappeared from English. Now what about man as a suffix? I was unable to track down at what point it began to be used in such a fashion, so can't comment as to whether or not it was before or after wer had disappeared from English. However, the word policeman, which I shall occasionally return to, dates back to about 1829, so well after wer had disappeared. Wikipedia states in its article on man that

The word has historically been used very generally as a suffix in combinations like "fireman", "policeman" and "mailman", because those jobs were historically only jobs that men did. Now that there is an increasing number of women in these jobs, those terms are often replaced by neutral terms like "firefighter", "police officer" and "mail carrier".

Unfortunately this passage is uncited because I'm unclear as to whether this is a better or worse interpretation compared to saying that when the terms were coined they were jobs specifically done by men, but that this didn't necessarily determine the words used.

So in this argument I think there are basically two things that need to be determined. The first is whether the language change would actually help usher in a gender neutral society. I find this unlikely. My favourite example for this is China in which my understanding is that they have gender neutral language (at the very least the pronouns are) but I think one would be hard pressed to pull them up as a good example of gender equality. The other comparison is to a word such as mathematician. The etymology of mathematician takes us back to the Greek word mathema which just meant learning, study or science. The suffix -an also has no gender overtones. However I know when I use the word mathematician to describe someone they will usually think of a male, and this isn't surprising. In general males are overrepresented in maths which brings me to the second problem: men are overrepresented in many of the jobs that make use of the suffix -man. So let's say that police officer did replace the term policeman, as long as the underlying problem (I've been told it still exists) of the police being an "old boy's club" is addressed I think it far more likely that this will constitute the first step of a euphemism treadmill such that police officer will also end up being interpreted as a male member of the police for no other reason than because they are overrepresented. 'So what happens if gender neutrality is reached in a place such as the police but the word policeman is still used?' I hear you ask. Basically, again in my opinion, this is a problem that will take care of itself. The meanings of words are not static, nor does the collection of words that make up a language remain constant. I would predict that most likely since the former meaning of policeman would have become obselete the meaning would likewise change to mean something more like what it did in Old English. Or possibly another word will be introduced to cover the new need for meaning, such as police officer, but the point I feel is often missed is that I don't think this is something that will need to be pushed for.

As a final comment to try and push my point home I was sent an article by Sequoia some months ago about a group, I think, of primary children (I may try hunt out the story later and link it here) who had been brought up using the word firefighter, however after a trip to actually meet some they all started using the word fireman. Unfortunately it was not clear from the article whether this is how the firemen were referring to each other, or whether or not there were any women on the team, however I do find it quite telling.
Edit: Sequoia says that she remembers them being all men.

Trackback URL for this post:

http://skepticsinthepub.net.nz/trackback/180

The use of terms like

The use of terms like policeman has got little to nothing to do with a "gender neutral society" or euphemisms - the word is still the same and describing the same thing but it's the suffix that's been changed to a more neutral term. It's more that there was the practice of assigning masculine gender to neutral terms in some areas which becomes rather silly when the policeman you are likely to meet could just as well be a women. The change in terms used more reflects changes within society where the situation has changed but the language hasn't caught up and seems anachronistic in the context in which it's used. Hence, when the gender isn't known you use police officer, if you know the gender it's acceptable to use policeman or policewoman. This can be contrasted with medicine where gender neutral terms like "nurse" or "doctor" have always existed and a doctor or nurse can refer to either a male or female. It's the same with "mathematician". These still remain gender neutral irrespective of what associations with gender a person might make in their mind, simply because they don't have a gendered suffix. A "doctor" will still be a person that practises medicine and it seems to be constructing problems that really don't exist to take it into the area of euphemism treadmills and the proportion of genders in different work areas when talking about changes in usage of language in this instance. That men or women might choose to work in one area more preferentially is not a problem in or of itself, the issues start when there are socially constructed barriers put up which prevent a person adopting whatever profession they choose. The interesting thing about that is that the glass ceiling for men that might choose to enter a typically female dominated profession may not exist. Instead it's more likely to be a glass elevator despite the social stigmas men can sometimes encounter on entering those roles. http://scienceblogs.com/christinaslisrant/2010/01/so_what_about_men_in_w... has more information.

Actually your reply hasn't

Actually your reply hasn't gone too outside my original post so I may as well give a reply a go.

It's more that there was the practice of assigning masculine gender to neutral terms in some areas which becomes rather silly when the policeman you are likely to meet could just as well be a women.

You seem to be one of those who has trouble acknowledging man has more than one meaning. From wiktionary:

man (plural men)

  1. An adult male human.
  2. A mensch; a person of integrity and honor.
  3. An abstract person; a person of either gender, usually an adult.
  4. (collective) All humans collectively; mankind. Also Man.
    prehistoric man
  5. A piece or token used in board games such as chess.
    A professional person.

This can be contrasted with medicine where gender neutral terms like "nurse" or "doctor" have always existed and a doctor or nurse can refer to either a male or female

Which raises an interesting point as well. I've heard of a 'male nurse'. If the terms were actually neutral in people's minds (drawing a difference between that and the dictionary meaning) the first term would become redundant and be omitted.

These still remain gender neutral irrespective of what associations with gender a person might make in their mind, simply because they don't have a gendered suffix.

This is a sort of off topic. I'm more interested as to whether or not people may make associations in their head simply because a word has a gendered suffix. It is clear that people do when it is genderless, but I am unaware of any clear examples when the converse is true (or otherwise).

the issues start when there are socially constructed barriers put up which prevent a person adopting whatever profession they choose.

Right! In which case it should probably be asked as to whether or not potentially gendered job titles do actually make a barrier.

I find the revelation about the glass ceiling not existing for men in female dominated groups interesting. It would even support an idea I heard about in March that in fact the glass ceiling may not actually be due to some sort of latent psychological bias but rather due to the different ways men and women make decisions and think being selected for differently.

"You seem to be one of those

"You seem to be one of those who has trouble acknowledging man has more than one meaning."

In this case it does have one meaning. Policeman, as in a male police officer, not man, as in "mankind". As stated before that's just semantics, you could also use "constable" or "police constable" as well to describe the same occupation. Same as the semantics used in stating "male nurse" which is a term that can be used when you are talking about a particular male that is a nurse (much as the policeman/policewoman distinction I made in my post which is permissible when you know the gender of the person you are talking about). Actually "psychiatric nurse" can mean a male nurse as it's a branch of nursing which has traditionally had a high proportion of males working in it, but that again is an association which may or may not hold true and can be anachronistic when faced with a female psychiatric nurse. As for job titles, I'd say that it is the least of it to focus on terminology although I'm having difficulty thinking of an occupation that is titled in a gendered manner and always has been. Easy enough to think of engineering, plumbing, scientist, tool making, policing/law enforcement and others that don't have this but harder to think of one that has a definite association one way or another. The real barriers were and are situations where females were barred from education or taking up an occupation. Hard to imagine a time when women couldn't even get into medical school, let alone be a doctor. That's changed and many females now enter the medical profession.

In this case it does have one

In this case it does have one meaning. Policeman, as in a male police officer, not man, as in "mankind".

Although that is a possible meaning as stated in the orginal article I was not able to come up with evidence that it is not man as in mankind, just that that is the definition that most people seem to assume isn't the right one.

As stated before that's just semantics

We're talking about the meanings of words and thus necessarily semantics...

you could also use "constable" or "police constable" as well to describe the same occupation

True, but I'm asking whether it's inappropriate to use the word policeman, not whether there are other words that describe the same occupation.

Same as the semantics used in stating "male nurse" which is a term that can be used when you are talking about a particular male that is a nurse

It's not quite. In the policeman case the question is whether a (now) gendered word may have genderless interpretations, in the case of nurse the question is whether a genderless word may have gendered interpretations which, as in the example of male nurse, I would say is the case.

much as the policeman/policewoman distinction I made in my post which is permissible when you know the gender of the person you are talking about).

Well again this depends. The use of the term policewoman could be due to two possible reasons. The first is that the man in policeman is actually due to the definition of man as male, however another possibility is that policewoman is due to something like hypercorrection (the reason that words like octopi, virii and unsymmetric are incorrect).

Actually "psychiatric nurse" can mean a male nurse as it's a branch of nursing which has traditionally had a high proportion of males working in it, but that again is an association which may or may not hold true and can be anachronistic when faced with a female psychiatric nurse.

I would consider this to be in the same category as nurse but with the genders swapped.

As for job titles, I'd say that it is the least of it to focus on terminology although I'm having difficulty thinking of an occupation that is titled in a gendered manner and always has been. Easy enough to think of engineering, plumbing, scientist, tool making, policing/law enforcement and others that don't have this but harder to think of one that has a definite association one way or another.

True, the topic in question is the terminology though and there are guides, goverment and otherwise, which say what terms should and should not be used with, as far as I can tell, the intended aim of an equal workplace. Drifting a little from the topic I think it would be a better idea to not actually try affect peoples langauage, as another poster pointed out it's really an uphill battle, but rather the terms used to describe the profession should be monitored carefully. When you end up with a word, regardless of it's etymology or form, whose meaning is actually gender neutral you'll know your goal has been accomplished. I would add that arguing that a word like policeman shouldn't be used after becoming gender neutral, even if it once referred solely to men as supposedly evidenced by having the word man in it, is essentially the genetic fallacy.

The real barriers were and are situations where females were barred from education or taking up an occupation. Hard to imagine a time when women couldn't even get into medical school, let alone be a doctor. That's changed and many females now enter the medical profession.

Too true, but again not really the question being focused on here. :P

At the end of the day,

At the end of the day, stylistic decisions and political correctness have limited influence at best.

For every editor that bans the word "tweet" from use in their publication's articles, ten thousand people will have used it inside an hour. Journalism is not the final word of correct English usage that it once was. English stylists have been well and truly buried by the cacophony of the hyper-connected, the humdrum of the SMS soldiers.

If an English stylist or a political entity decides that language should be one way or another, the only people who are going to listen are those who get a kick out of pointing out grammatical errors on a web page. Common usage is not affected by these types of debates. The notion that an elite few can steer the English juggernaut is well and truly dead. Arguing one way or another seems about as useful to me as an electric toothpick.

By all means, have the debate but, from where I'm standing, it serves little pragmatic purpose. There's no point in arguing over the map if nobody's at the steering wheel.

Excuse me while I use my Strunk & White as a coaster.

TBH in this case I wasn't all

TBH in this case I wasn't all that interested in starting a debate. More just 'this is my position done in a slightly more clear way than my less than sober state last night'. I don't know that I have particularly much more to say on the actual topic. Not without a lot more reading which I don't have time for right now. :P

Also: Strunk & White is great. ^_^