Many US states are taking all the sex out of state statutes. The goal is to make the language of the law gender-neutral. The gender neutrality movement seeks to encourage the use of language that avoids “distinguishing roles by what reproductive organs people happen to have in order to avoid discrimination arising from the impression that there are social roles for which one gender is more suited than the other.”
In Washington state for the last six years, state officials have been rewriting state laws that go back all the way to the state’s foundation in 1854. That’s a lot of law. Sometimes it’s easy: “policemen” become “police officers,” “firemen” become “firefighters,” “freshmen” become “first-year students” and “penmanship” becomes “handwriting.” There are lots of pronouns to be changed, too, resulting in “he or she,” “him or her” and “his or her.”
But some patriarchal terms proved to be a bit more challenging. In terms of gender neutrality, “manhole” is clearly not neutral; it implies that these are male-only holes or that women cannot descend to sewer level as readily as their male colleagues. However, alternatives such as “utility hole” are subject to misinterpretation and confusion, so that a “manhole” will remain a “manhole” in the state of Washington. (What is it with English and the whole “hole” terminology deficit? For example, the place where you stick the gas nozzle when fueling up the car – is that a gas hole? I don’t think there is even a word for that.)
“Changing words can change what we think about the world around us,” says sociolinguist Crispin Thurlow about the change of language. “These tiny moments accrue and become big movements.” Whorfians like Thurlow say that words make the woman (or man), but I’m not so sure..
Many think these efforts at post-hoc political correction are so much window dressing. Others are opposed to the entire notion of gender neutrality in the belief that there is a biological basis to sex roles.
Personally, I’ve been gender-obsessed since about 14, so I would probably have to hire an editorial hatchet-man to get my language snipped. Every since elementary school, I’ve always had trouble with criticism from editors and educators, but doted on any signs of life from my readers, out of terror that my prose is toppling over silently in lonely literary thickets. Big data tells me that my readers are mostly women, and I am writing about an industry that is mostly run by women, and I am ever so desperate to keep you guys with me until the next sentence, at least. So are women more likely to prefer gender-neutral language than men? I just don’t know, even after spending almost 90 seconds researching this on Google. But maybe what we want is not the point. It’s about what we should want.
I’ve got to stop here to tend my own garden, so I invite readers to finish off this post by tying this to translation in some way. (Gender-neutral language strongly encouraged). Is anyone translating for gender-neutral? I don’t think we’ve had it come up more than a few times ever.
Or we can go with a linguistic wrap-up, As in “My Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis Right or Wrong. Crispin?