Mind your language

How sexist is your use of English? Ros Ballaster seeks help from a new guide
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The Independent Culture
for those PC bashers recently exercised about the anger of young white men or the reproductive noncompliance of young British women, Margaret Doyle's A-Z of Non-Sexist Language will be another irritant to cite at dinner parties and on arts programmes. In these post-feminist days where sexism has become, bizarrely, a gender-neutral activity, it is refreshing to encounter the assertion that "sexist language in this book refers to terms and usages that exclude or discriminate against women".

Doyle puts forward the simple argument that where language reinforces inequities of power it should be changed; where it challenges them it should be retained. The aim is to provide an "inclusive" vocabulary which will count women in the category of the "human" (not a sexist term apparently since it derives from the Latin humus for earth). Entries conclude with a range of temperate imperatives - "Replace", "Avoid", "Retain", "Be careful", "Better to replace" - and a list of alternatives from which to select. Occasionally a more exhilarating impatience with linguistic absurdity creeps in. "Virgin birth" is dismissed (quite rightly) as "a ridiculous term recently applied to women who have given birth without having had sexual intercourse. Their `virginity' is irrelevant. If you mean `artificial insemination', use that term."

Various methods are used for determining whether individual terms are sexist. The entry for the noun "master" is instructive. Here we are told that the word derives from the Latin magister for "chief", but if it is related to magis ("more") or magnus ("big") this would "make it non-sexist". Ultimately the issue is resolved on quite other grounds. Substitution of other terms (head, leader, etc.) is advised because, first "Some do object to it" and second, there is no parallel female usage ("mistress" carries largely sexual connotations).

The intractable difficulty at the heart of feminist endeavours to change language use is that it is women who are "gender-marked" in a sexist culture; hence, for example, the only incentive to find a non-sexist term for a job (fireman, postman, etc.) is when it is occupied by a woman (as Doyle acknowledges when she comments that "chairperson tends to be used only for women"). Solutions have largely consisted of attempting to conceal the gender of women rather than alert language users to the hidden gender of the universal male subject. It is in the "topic notes" at the end of alphabetical sections that the more stubborn problems are addressed: the difficulty of selecting an alternative to or dispensing with the generic pronoun "he" (Doyle's favourite seems to be the plural pronoun "they"), the woeful lack of a vocabulary for female genitalia that is neither abusive nor plain silly (Doyle and I are in agreement that we won't be using the word "yoni" in the near future).

Doyle assumes that all language users, like light bulbs, really want to change. This may not be entirely nave. The very familiarity of the alternatives proposed here ("marriage" for "matrimony", "police officer" for "policeman", "single woman" for "spinster") demonstrates how successful feminist initiatives have been. In 1946, George Orwell observed that "silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority". But it cuts both ways: the term "feminism", as this A-Z admits, has acquired increasingly negative associations at the hands of a vocal minority in recent years. The issue appears to be by whom and in whose interests change in language use is instituted rather than whether it should happen at all. It can't be long before one OED entry reads as follows:

Feminism The advocacy of equal rights for women (obsolete). More commonly used to refer to the late 20th-century movement now widely held responsible for inventing women's oppression and men's delinquency.

`The A-Z of Non-Sexist Language' by Margaret Doyle (The Women's Press Ltd) £6.99