Sensitive speakers of our secretary tongue find this preposterous.
August 12, 2019 12:21 PM   Subscribe

A Person Paper on Purity in Language, by Douglas Hofstader: a Swiftian satire of linguistic sexism in English. Most of the clamor, as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun "white" and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, straw white, whitehandle, and so on. The negrists claim that using the word "white," either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism. Therefore the libbers propose that we substitute "person" everywhere where "white" now occurs. Sensitive speakers of our secretary tongue of course find this preposterous. There is great beauty to a phrase such as "All whites are created equal." Our forebosses who framed the Declaration of Independence well understood the poetry of our language.
posted by MiraK (128 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
 
To me the single most amazing thing about this is that William Safire's name was so readily self-satirizing. I mean, what are the odds?

This blew my mind when I first read it in high school, probably closer to twenty years ago now. It absolutely changed how I spoke and wrote. And it blows my mind even more how often I still want to point people at it now.
posted by potrzebie at 12:43 PM on August 12 [11 favorites]


There's an anecdote about gender-neutral language that I had always attributed to Hofstadter, but it's possible it was only on a page that linked to his own on the subject.

Someone allegedly polled a mixed office for sentiments on the use of the word "guys" as a gender-neutral form of collective address. This response from one woman was said to have stood out:
"Well of course 'guys' is gender-neutral! Why, even guys use it that way!"
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:47 PM on August 12 [18 favorites]


Remarkably, the irony doesn’t age, just gets deeper.
posted by drossdragon at 12:49 PM on August 12 [6 favorites]


While still fighting for avoiding problematic use of language, a friend of mine (long-time cis male member of NOW, to paint a portrait) always noted that if gender-neutral language was sufficient condition for eradicating sexism, then Farsi-speaking countries such as Iran would be havens of feminism.

This has always been a bit of sand under my tongue, but I try to use it to keep focus on where the scope of the language approach can end. Always more to do all over!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:01 PM on August 12 [6 favorites]


Something can be necessary without being sufficient, eh?
posted by clawsoon at 1:04 PM on August 12 [49 favorites]


"Well of course 'guys' is gender-neutral! Why, even guys use it that way!"

The traditional counter to "dude is gender-neutral" is to ask a straight man if he "has sex with dudes."
posted by explosion at 1:16 PM on August 12 [99 favorites]


I'd love to see English overwritten with a new set of pronouns that have nothing to do with gender. Like a "first mentioned," "second mentioned," and "subsequently mentioned" maybe with variants that show personhood vs. object? But language evolves over time and can only be forced so far so fast. It's certainly gotten much less sexist in my lifetime, but has a long way to go. Singular they has made great strides, but as long as any pronouns are gender-linked they'll be tools of the patriarchy. You need multiple pronouns for them to be useful at all (it has to be clear who they're standing in for) but you have to link them to information that's not going to be used in icky ways. Maybe we should just learn to live without pronouns.
posted by rikschell at 2:07 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


The traditional counter to "dude is gender-neutral" is to ask a straight man if he "has sex with dudes."

That's an interesting stress-test for my preferred term, 'kids'
posted by aiglet at 2:18 PM on August 12 [41 favorites]


"Folks" is a good one... It also seems to pass the "has sex with..." test above?
posted by delicious-luncheon at 2:34 PM on August 12 [8 favorites]


nowt so queer as folk
posted by lalochezia at 2:40 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


One thing I really liked about ASL is that you establish locations for subjects of conversation, and then can point to those locations to reference them. Though you'd generally use descriptive terms potentially including gender and race to indicate who you were talking about if you don't have a name.

So we have gendered, racial, temporal (via rekschell), and spatial pronouns, with the first two being decidedly problematic. I imagine temporal pronouns could break down in asynchronous conversations, spatial ones in conversations which weren't visual or in person. We know that the first two types of pronouns are treated as immutable and universally agreed upon, and break down in situations where their is ambiguity, while the later two are inherently subjective and referential, but their ambiguity is perhaps a strength?

One can imagine other types of pronoun classifications, perhaps less useful because they wouldn't always be apparent, but interesting thought experiements. Re/Rer for rich people, Me/Mer for middle class and Pe/Per for poor people. Or Ce/Con for conservatives Me/Mod for moderates and Le/Lib for liberals. Or ones based on which nation they are citizens of, or political party, or based on some sort of horoscope, social status, or on which generation someone belongs to, or on age.

There's probably some excellent material for a science fiction short in there.
posted by gryftir at 2:41 PM on August 12 [9 favorites]


The other option, of course, to restore symmetry between the gendered words, woman and werman, allowing us all to embrace the gender neutral 'man', finally freed of its appropriation by one particular gender.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 2:43 PM on August 12 [17 favorites]


I'd love to see English overwritten with a new set of pronouns that have nothing to do with gender.

That’s pretty ambitious. I’d settle for something more modest as a first step: say, a “we” that explicitly included the person being addressed and another one that excluded them.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:02 PM on August 12 [5 favorites]


I realize my comment kind of sounds like snark but it actually isn't, just sort of sadly impossible
posted by vibratory manner of working at 3:36 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


ricochet biscuit: "That’s pretty ambitious. I’d settle for something more modest as a first step: say, a “we” that explicitly included the person being addressed and another one that excluded them."

So, we / we'all ?
posted by signal at 3:37 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


> One thing I really liked about ASL is that you establish locations for subjects of conversation, and then can point to those locations to reference them.

holy crap that is brilliant. english needs to adopt that yesterday. one set of pronouns for sentences like "and then this person over here said" and another for "and then that person over there said."

maybe four pronouns, one for each cardinal direction? additional pronouns could be made if needed by stringing them together, as in southwest and northeast.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 3:38 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


a “we” that explicitly included the person being addressed and another one that excluded them

When I was learning French it occurred to me that this might be the distinction between "on" (as actually used, not in your textbooks) and "nous," but that turned out to be quite wrong.

As for fixing English, yeah it will be hard. For the time being, I think we'll have to use infelicitous constructions using "-people" or somesuch. Occasionally, we can do better: "chair" > "chairperson" >> "chairman". "Congressmember" is nice. But it's pretty deeply imbedded: consider the names of the base-tending positions in softball.

A good start will be to stop being hung up about the singular "they." It's been used in English forever, even by Shakespeare, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:42 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


consider the names of the base-tending positions in softball.
first .. bassist?
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 3:56 PM on August 12 [7 favorites]


First baster?
posted by MiraK at 4:06 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


On second thought, base-tending positions in softball should be no harder than the outfield positions which don't have the "-man" suffix. First baser is no odder than right fielder, unfamiliarity aside. But it's unlikely to change.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:07 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


First base guy
posted by Meatbomb at 4:08 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


we could use "first base," "second base," "third base," and "home plate" as spatial pronouns, with abbreviations for use in text. when speaking, I'd say "first base said this and then second base said that," when writing, I'd say "fb. said this and then and then sb. said that."

I like this system, because it seems more friendly and approachable (and also sort of homespun and all-american) than using cardinal directions. also, i like that the abbreviations echo the currently used ms. and mr. abbreviations, without the ridiculous demand that we need to announce the genders of all people at all times.

the only drawbacks I see:
  1. presumably uk english would have to use cricket fielding positions instead of baseball bases, and cricket fielding positions are all ridiculous-sounding
  2. teenagers would be reminded of what level of intimacy they had or had not reached with their partners every time they wanted to use a pronoun.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 4:09 PM on August 12 [7 favorites]


The problem with "first base" etc, is a potential confusion of the player, um, manning (ugh) that base and the runners who may be there at the time.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:11 PM on August 12


First base guy

Ace of base.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:14 PM on August 12 [15 favorites]


"first base" refers to the defensive player fielding the base, or to the base itself. "runner on first" refers to the offensive player occupying the base.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 4:15 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


"he plays first base" or "she plays first base" sounds natural to me, as do "she's first base" or "he's first base." "he's the first baseman" sounds fussy and overprecise to me, while "she's the first baseman" sounds genderqueer, like elly jackson from la roux has taken up sports.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 4:18 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


Forgive me but I just want to SQUEE over how deep that satire went.

- "Nellie Strongarm"
- Transposing marriage to employment status
- "secretary tongue" and "forebosses"
- "Is Nrs. Charles White ashamed of being black, perhaps? I should hope not."
- "Frankly, I think tomwhiteys are often the cutest little blackeys"
- "A truly female day"

I'm DED at how perfect it all is.
posted by MiraK at 4:18 PM on August 12 [14 favorites]


I did wonder what "Northern" is supposed to transpose to in the last sentence. Anyone got any ideas?
posted by MiraK at 4:24 PM on August 12


Wow, that was intense. The satirizing of sexist language was sharp, but when he introduced the language around racist labor relations it was like plunging in a second knife and twisting.
posted by biogeo at 4:38 PM on August 12 [9 favorites]


I did wonder what "Northern" is supposed to transpose to in the last sentence. Anyone got any ideas?

"... in the history of Northern White." == "...in the history of Western Man."
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 4:38 PM on August 12 [9 favorites]


I recently encountered descriptions of space missions that used the term "crewed" instead of "manned" (as in "Following a series of robotic probes, we'll proceed with a crewed mission to the moon."). At first this took me a moment to parse due to the near-homophone with "crude," but then it settled in nicely to my ear. I think the effort to search for more gender-neutral alternatives has led to an overall enriching of the language.
posted by biogeo at 4:43 PM on August 12 [13 favorites]


Often one can be said to "staff" something instead of "man" it, like when I staffed the company booth at the conference last week. I like "tend" from upthread as well.
posted by The Minotaur at 5:02 PM on August 12 [9 favorites]


I've come up with a handful of gender neutral honorifics for my own use, like

"Mir" (ma'am/sir)
"Pama" (papa/mama)

Just for fun around the house, though. They're not ready for the general market!!
posted by captain afab at 5:06 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


The traditional counter to "dude is gender-neutral" is to ask a straight man if he "has sex with dudes."

If you have young children that are girls, and you allow them to watch YouTube, you would not even question the fact that "guys" and "dudes" are gender neutral. I wouldn't be surprised if a million videos that started with a girl saying 'Hey guys..." got uploaded a day. "Hey dudes..." is a smaller amount, but it's increasing.

My 8 year old daughter even threw a "Hey bruh..." at me (her 38 year old father) the other day. I'm a pretty casual dad, but I had to draw the line there. She doesn't have to call me Sir or Father, but "bruh" is just a bridge too far lol.
posted by sideshow at 5:12 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


let it be known that i believe that parents and children of all genders should be allowed to call each other bruh.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 5:14 PM on August 12 [7 favorites]


To be clear, I'd have an identical reaction if a hypothetical son also called me "bruh".
posted by sideshow at 5:30 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


First base guy

Ace of base.


So the second base person would be Deuce of Base, right?
posted by tclark at 5:38 PM on August 12 [5 favorites]


I know that in Australia, 'guys' is considered gender-neutral ('boys' is used to refer to adult men) but it probably wouldn't pass the "do you have sex with guys" test. But then, neither does 'boys'.

But I think people really want guys to be gender-neutral, and I'm all for that, and I'm happy to police people using 'guys' to refer specifically to men.

After all, it's what happened to the word 'men', which leads to my favourite bit of etymology: 'men' used to be gender neutral, and the word for a male man was 'were', as in 'werewolf'. The female equivalent was 'wif', or 'wife', which by the same process became specifically for married women because the same society that decided that only males counted as humans also had no time for women who weren't property.

But that's not my favourite bot of etymology: my favourite bit of etymology is that female lycanthropes should, from an etymological standpoint, be called 'wifwolfs'.
posted by Merus at 5:46 PM on August 12 [29 favorites]


There's an anecdote about gender-neutral language that I had always attributed to Hofstadter, but it's possible it was only on a page that linked to his own on the subject.

Yeah, that’s from Hofstadter. I don’t know the article off the top of my head, but it’s somewhere in Metamagical Themas.
posted by emmalemma at 5:47 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


One final footnote: My book Gödel, Escher, Bach, whose dialogues were the source of my very first trepidations about my own sexism,

Bless this writer, truly.
posted by eirias at 5:48 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


> I think people really want guys to be gender-neutral, and I'm all for that

... why?
posted by MiraK at 5:52 PM on August 12


If you have young children that are girls, and you allow them to watch YouTube, you would not even question the fact that "guys" and "dudes" are gender neutral. I wouldn't be surprised if a million videos that started with a girl saying 'Hey guys..." got uploaded a day. "Hey dudes..." is a smaller amount, but it's increasing.

"Dude" and "guy" are, for many speakers, gender-neutral as terms of address and as exclamations. They are absolutely still gendered as terms of reference. Addressing a bunch of women by saying "hey, guys!" is totally normal. But even young people won't refer to someone who they know is female as "a guy." The "so you're saying you date dudes" thing still works on teenage boys (to the extent that they're bothered by being made to look gay, and to the extent that they're taking you seriously rather than just fucking with you).
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:56 PM on August 12 [15 favorites]


My feeling about nonsexist English is that it is like a foreign language that I am learning. I find that even after years of practice, I still have to translate sometimes from my native language, which is sexist English. I know of no human being who speaks Nonsexist as their native tongue. It will be very interesting to see if such people come to exist. If so, it will have taken a lot of work by a lot of people to reach that point.
That is a nice metaphor and certainly applies at times for me.
posted by mark k at 5:57 PM on August 12 [15 favorites]


... why?

You'd have to ask the literal millions of little girls that have made it gender-neutral "why"?

Actually, For Science!™ I walked into the next room and I asked my 8 year old daughter about this, and she says that "guys" means boys and girls because if you only are only talking about "boys", you would just say "boys". She says thinking "guys" means just boys is "weird", and she answered in the same tone she would have if I had walked in wearing a trashcan on my head and asked "how do you like my new style???".
posted by sideshow at 6:00 PM on August 12 [7 favorites]


sideshow, my question is more about the part where you are "all for that" and further, you are happy to police people who use "guys" to mean only men! How come you don't see the point being made by this essay?

My children sometimes come home using questionable words that they believe are harmless and normal. I've always considered it my job to educate them about why that word makes some people uncomfortable. I can neither forbid them from using it nor change how they speak (especially with their friends) but I'm not going to sit idly by and let them grow up ignorant of the loadedness of language, and the power of that loadedness.
posted by MiraK at 6:05 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


I've noticed "guys" being used between young women in Australia, but I believe the "sex with guys" test would show it to be a gendered term even there.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:10 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


If you have young children that are girls, and you allow them to watch YouTube, you would not even question the fact that "guys" and "dudes" are gender neutral.

Unless this child answers “are you a guy or a girl” with “I don’t understand the question”, that isn’t a charming new story about kids who don’t see gender. It’s a tired old story about women being indoctrinated to use language which implicitly others each other and ourselves.

But I think people really want guys to be gender-neutral, and I'm all for that, and I'm happy to police people using 'guys' to refer specifically to men.

But why?

But that’s the proooooblemmmmmmm!!!! The genericization of male language, just like the masculinization of generic language, is part of a discourse between maleness and genericity. That’s not a gender neutral discourse. That’s a discourse without any concept like “gender neutral”— the generic in this language just is male.

If you really want to help, try getting folks who use “guys” for a group of all men to switch to the gender-neutral term “girls” instead. Notice that that task is utterly impossible, and sit with the discomfort of asymmetry.
posted by emmalemma at 6:11 PM on August 12 [61 favorites]


emmalemma yes those were the words I was looking for, argh, thank you
posted by MiraK at 6:14 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


I'm working on introducing the term 'clever Susan' (used to describe rotating trays used on tables or in cabinets) to my local lexicon, feel free to adopt it too.
posted by soy bean at 6:39 PM on August 12 [8 favorites]


There is a need for a casual gender-neutral word for a group of people! The strike rate of inventing a word artificially to address a need to describe something is pretty close to 0 - it's far more common for new words to take on meanings from words that already exist, and have them change, and those changes can be forgotten.

As an example of an artifical word, I'd offer 'dudettes', an attempt to grapple with the need for a casual word for a group of people while acknowledging that 'dudes' is not gender neutral. It's awkward, it sucks, and the only people who still use it are the Ninja Turtles, and probably not recently. See also the adoption of 'chair' over 'chairperson'.

I think some words can be redeemed - while I'd prefer 'men' to revert to gender-neutral, I acknowledge it ain't ever happening, but I think it's possible to make a gendered usage archaic. Look at what's happening to 'actor', which is also gender-specific.

I think 'guys' is a good candidate for having its gendered meaning forgotten because the etymology for it is quite recent, and it actually lost its gendered nature once before - originally, it comes from Guy Fawkes, but it fell into usage because the effigys burnt on Guy Fawkes night were referred to as 'guys', and these weren't, specifically, male. It's only when it got transferred back onto humans dressed in odd clothing that it started to re-acquire a gendered meaning.
posted by Merus at 7:06 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


iirc somebody in tech did Twitter polls a few years ago and found that the plural "guys" is often understood to mean men, while the singular"guy" is always a man, as in "JavaScript guys" vs "JavaScript guy."

In my opinion, this is another reason not to use "guys" for gender neutral groups.
posted by bagel at 7:09 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


I also really appreciate the “second language“ perspective. Interesting to self reflect, too, and realize that as a young man in the 80s I was a reactionary sexist. I would have said exactly some of the things in this essay. “What’s wrong with mankind?” indeed!

And it still irks me, as a fluent sexist English speaker, when I bump up on a phrase that I cannot easily render in my second language. Oh, well, little steps...
posted by Meatbomb at 7:22 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


I know that in Australia, 'guys' is considered gender-neutral

Really? I've always thought it was more specifically male here than in the US. Maybe times are changing.

We do have the plural form of 'you', yous (or youse), though.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 7:30 PM on August 12


Whatever happened to calling one's friends "my peeps"? Can we bring that back? Is it too late?
posted by domo at 7:33 PM on August 12 [5 favorites]


If you really want to help, try getting folks who use “guys” for a group of all men to switch to the gender-neutral term “girls” instead. Notice that that task is utterly impossible, and sit with the discomfort of asymmetry.
I have heard "just us girls" used in this way to refer to a bunch of men back in the early 90s by a man that was in his sixties. Probably a special case idiom though.

I think (and I actually wrote an email to Hofstatder back in the 90s after reading Le Ton Beau de Marot expressing this) that the use of "guys" as in you guys comes from English's lack of a distinct plural form of "you" (hence youse, youse guys, you guys, yall, yuns, and other various local slang variants that attempt to be a plural form of you distinct from the singular form).
posted by smcameron at 7:44 PM on August 12


I totally say “hey guys” to my two daughters when I’m trying to get their attention (as in “hey guys, who left the basket of laundry at the top of the steps”).

I think there’s also an east coast/west coast divide—I was once watching a pretty vicious email fight on a mailing list for math professors I was on, where one person said something like “hey guys” and the other person totally blew up about how sexist the first person was being. There was a lot of disagreement that seemed to be location-related as to how neutral “guys” was.

In that same email war, there was also a lot of criticism about using “guy” to refer to a variable in an equation when working at the board , as in “so next, we combine these guys [pointing] into a single term...”
posted by leahwrenn at 7:53 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


using “guy” to refer to a variable in an equation
Huh. I am pretty sure I've been guilty of this in writing code. searching github code for _guy turns up quite a few results (and that search is way more specific than was my intent). In my case, and in most others as well I suspect, there's no sexist intent, but if offense might be taken, it's easy enough to avoid.
posted by smcameron at 8:02 PM on August 12


So, what’s wrong with “folks”...? I like “y’all peeps” for maximal redundancy but it does seem a bit informal.
posted by zinful at 8:10 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Some of this seems like spoiling for a fight. I'm not super sympathetic to people taking offense when it's quite clear none was intended (e.g. taking offense when terms in an equation are referred to as "guys") It's one thing to point out that, "hey, your language here might have been better, what do you think?" vs. getting all pissed off.
posted by smcameron at 8:18 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Some of this seems like spoiling for a fight.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I think there's plenty worth fighting about when it comes to sexism in language. I just have trouble seeing "spoiling for a fight" in a satirical essay or indeed these comments. Is there a chance that your disagreement is what's leading you to see us as "all pissed off"?

The reactions in this thread are fascinating, IMO... Almost all of us seem to be feeling personally called out by the essay. I'm really enjoying this discussion.
posted by MiraK at 8:26 PM on August 12 [9 favorites]


I was referring specifically to leahwrenn's example of the email flamewar over referring to to terms in an equation as "guys". Would it have been better to refer to them as "girls" or "women"? Perhaps it would. Should males take offense if they had been referred to as "girls" or "women"? Probably the wrong question to ask, as the novelty destroys the symmetry of the question.

There's one way to view the usage of "guys" in a gender neutral way, as being the assumption of "default male", and there's another way to view it, as being the neutering of the word "guys". In my experience and opinion (and I might be wrong) it's usually more of the latter than the former, as the word is commonly used.
posted by smcameron at 8:35 PM on August 12


Some of y’all folks have forgotten your DeBeauvoir! Of course the masculine is neuter—it’s unmarked, it’s default, it’s neutral, it’s human.
The problem? Therefore, the feminine is the “marked” state, the second sex, l’autre...
Like, I’m from the west coast of the US, I totally say “dude”. But I also try not to! It’s a very little thing but it perpetuates this very big system of oppression through reenforcement of the weird binary, the Default and the Other, the unmarked and the Marked.
posted by zinful at 8:51 PM on August 12 [21 favorites]


That’s not looking for a fight, that’s covering your brain stem when you’re getting punched from all directions.
posted by zinful at 8:56 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


@zinful. Starting an email fight is covering your brain stem? Because someone referred to term in an equation as "guys"? Sorry, not sympathetic to that one.
posted by smcameron at 9:00 PM on August 12


i tend to use folks a lot, as a way to break myself of the habit of saying “guys.” when i write it i most often write is as “folx,” one, because the word “folks” feels uncomfortably... völkisch... on the page, and two, because (if you haven’t noticed) i collect obnoxious idiomatic ways of writing the way that other people collect troll dolls or thomas kinkade paintings. i’ve been trying to pronounce that x a little when i say it out loud, but i’m not sure anyone outside my head can hear it.

often i, west-coastishly, use the word “man” to refer to my gendered-female partner, as in “maaan, i love the hell out of you!” but neither of us are particularly invested in performing gender in any standard way.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:02 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


My 8 year old daughter even threw a "Hey bruh..." at me (her 38 year old father) the other day. I'm a pretty casual dad, but I had to draw the line there.

OMG that is so exciting (to me, and probably only to me and like five other people in the world who research kinship systems). There's a phenomenon in some languages of the world called "Crow skewing" (named after the Crow language, for which it was first described). It's where people call their cousin by the same term as they call their father or mother, i.e. they would call their cousin "dad" or their dad "cuz". The principle is basically (terminologically) treating people in your own generation and people in the generation above you the same.

It's pretty cool and NO ONE REALLY KNOWS HOW IT ORIGINATES. There's quite a bit of speculation. But calling your dad "bruh" is absolutely how this kind of thing could start. "Bruh" being a term of general friendly affection, but ultimately derived from "bro" < "brother". And then it loses its association with one's actual brother, and gradually loses the "same approx age" requirement, and voila!
posted by lollusc at 9:04 PM on August 12 [31 favorites]


I think nebulawindphone's point that there's a difference between "guys" used as a noun and "guys" used as an address is exactly right. In fact, some of my friends who are women will even refer to other women as "man," as in "Hey, man, how's it going?" or "Oh come on, man!" But of course none of them think that "a man" is a gender neutral concept, nor do they believe that they are actually referring to each other as men.

I think the fact that "guys" and even "man" can be neutered in this way while in general feminine-associated nouns can't be turned into neutral forms of address is reflective rather than causal of sexist privileging of male identity and perspective in our culture. (In contrast, I think gendered profession words like "fireman" or "actress" are both reflective and reinforcing of sexist attitudes towards work and gender roles.) In my view the value of calling attention to things like this is not necessarily to try to enforce a change in the language to use only forms of address with gender-neutral etymologies (for example), but to do, in a lesser fashion, the same thing that Hofstader's essay does: force you out of your comfortable, inattentive patterns, and think critically about what unspoken beliefs you may have that your choice of language reflects.
posted by biogeo at 9:05 PM on August 12 [14 favorites]


folx

Now you have gone TOO FAR!
posted by biogeo at 9:05 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


It can be hard when you have people from different levels of understanding about things like this, and add the issue of why micro aggressions are what they are and...yeah. It can feel like defending yourself in cases like that, if you are tender from the world being misogynistic in little nibbles, marking your identity as not belonging. It can make people blow up over something that doesn’t seem to make sense without the rest of the context.
But what I was responding to was whether evaluating this concern was fighty, which is how I read your comment (and forgive me for misunderstanding). Using true neutral/neuter language and encouraging others to do so is very like protecting the aspect of oneself that makes you a thinking thing, if you’re the one excluded from non neutral language.
posted by zinful at 9:06 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


Also now my True Neutral gnome bard will no longer use gendered pronouns or forms of address AT ALL EVER AGAIN they are already enby so this’ll be great
posted by zinful at 9:11 PM on August 12 [5 favorites]


lollusc, are there cases where female-gendered terms are Crow-skewed for use on men? I wouldn't be surprised if misogyny runs so deep that even cool linguistic/relational cultural phenomena like that discriminate against women... but here's hoping I'm wrong.
posted by MiraK at 9:15 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


the thing i love about sideshow's daughter's use of bruh is the egalitarian, or at least anti-hierarchical, sentiment it seems to embody. sort of like, "yeah sure bruh, you're a generation up from me, don't make such a deal of it." i believe it's the egalitarian aspect of it that sideshow objects to so strongly. i'm so glad that it's apparently a semi-common linguistic phenomenon.

parents get hung up on weird things.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:55 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


parents get hung up on weird things.

Nah, I am in the "not your bro" boat as well with my sons. I am imagining that this is actually a pretty common happening in this time in the Anglosphere.

When my elder son tried calling me "bro" he was well aware that his speech act was transgressive, and my correction was pretty much performative. Subsequent iterations are purely for ironic or comic effect now.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:00 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Calling your parent "bruh" is acceptable if and only if you are asking if they lift.
posted by biogeo at 10:03 PM on August 12 [15 favorites]


Or anyone else, for that matter.
posted by biogeo at 10:05 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


There's a lot of fun non-gendered flavors of address to choose from, depending on intended formality, social signification, etc. (I, a lifelong Pacific Northwest resident, have ended up adopting "y'all" from an acquaintance, in contexts like "do y'all want me to order pizza tonight?") I'm not young/social enough to be confident that I'm entirely on top of linguistic trends, but I think "fam" is a currently in-use genderless term of address that can fill in where "dude" or "bro" might fit.
posted by NMcCoy at 10:11 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


lollusc, are there cases where female-gendered terms are Crow-skewed for use on men?

Crow skewing is specifically when you apply terms from one generation to the generation above or vice versa. In all the languages I'm aware of, it is done with both male and female terms (if they differ). So e.g. if you call your father "male-cousin", you would call your mother "female-cousin". Is that what you are asking?

Or are you asking whether there are languages that apply female kin terms to male kin? If so, I'm not aware of any where a word that historically meant something like "sister" came to mean "brother" or something like that, no. But it's very common for languages not to distinguish between the female and male version of a kin term (like English for "cousin", in fact), and we don't always know where those terms came from historically.
posted by lollusc at 10:16 PM on August 12 [2 favorites]


Calling your parent "bruh" is acceptable if and only if you are asking if they lift.

You joke, but I think this might actually sometimes enter through idioms. Like, I wouldn't have thought I had come across people calling their parents bro/bruh before, but now that I think back, my own brother frequently says to my mother "cool story, bro".
posted by lollusc at 10:19 PM on August 12 [5 favorites]


On [dude/guys/man]:

Yeah, we definitely need to distinguish between address and reference here. They're absolutely in the process of becoming neuter in the address sense but still firmly gendered in the reference sense--that's why the "so you have sex with dudes?" line works, and also why some trans women I know are fine with an emphatic "man" thrown into a sentence said to them ("Man, was that ever exhausting!") while I'm still upset about the time someone called me a "language guy," like, three weeks ago.

I did have one deeply charming linguistics professor whose response to the matter of "guys" was to consistently address the room as "chicas." He was fun.
posted by some_kind_of_toaster at 10:21 PM on August 12 [11 favorites]


> consistently address the room as "chicas."

Jajaja! (did I do that right?)
posted by smcameron at 10:24 PM on August 12


It's one thing to point out that, "hey, your language here might have been better, what do you think?" vs. getting all pissed off.

I'm part of a community that has an automated message if someone uses "guys", that politely and neutrally does exactly what you suggest.

People still regularly take offense at the notion that they might change their language.
posted by asterix at 10:35 PM on August 12 [6 favorites]


[One comment deleted. Please drop the "people are just looking for something to be offended by" sidebar; we've had a couple turns round that, and just reiterating comes across as just not really engaging with the points people have made.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:56 PM on August 12 [4 favorites]


The 'do you have sex with guys?' test isn't very convincing to me. Of course it forces a non-gender-neutral reading of 'guys', because otherwise the question has to be interpreted with the very strange meaning 'do you have sex with people (as opposed to non-people)?'. This doesn't mean that 'guys' can't be read or used in a gender-neutral way.
posted by Panthalassa at 11:18 PM on August 12 [10 favorites]


There's one way to view the usage of "guys" in a gender neutral way, as being the assumption of "default male", and there's another way to view it, as being the neutering of the word "guys". In my experience and opinion (and I might be wrong) it's usually more of the latter than the former, as the word is commonly used.
Other people have different lived experiences than you.
Which I believe is the point.

For example, in my experience, you are wrong.
posted by fullerine at 11:26 PM on August 12 [3 favorites]


@fullerine, fair enough. We have different experiences. Not so surprising. and good to know.
posted by smcameron at 11:44 PM on August 12


The traditional counter to "dude is gender-neutral" is to ask a straight man if he "has sex with dudes."

Wow, and you can tell it's 'traditional' because its intended effect depends on the provocation of homophobic disgust!
posted by Panthalassa at 12:21 AM on August 13 [8 favorites]


Also, I thought we weren't really into the whole 'analogise sexism to racism' thing? This essay seems pretty dated to me.
posted by Panthalassa at 12:25 AM on August 13


It’s actually kinda interesting that the MSM sex act is where the seeming neutrality of the masculine group/identity referent breaks down. Like, anyone can be a guy or dude when they’re just hanging out, existing and shit, but once they’re something that you* fuck, it suddenly makes less sense.



*you of course being a hypothetical straight dude, because of course you are
posted by zinful at 12:41 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Video of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza (feminist Catholic theologian, and coiner of "kyriarchy") in 2008:

At 26:39, "in order to lift into consciousness the linguistic violence of so-called generic language, I use the term 'women' (and not 'men') in an inclusive way. 'Women' includes men, 'she' includes he, and 'female' includes male. . . . I suggest therefore whenever you hear me say 'women,' you understand it in the generic sense. . . .

"Male-centered language systems understand language as both generic, and gender-specific. Women always must think at least twice, if not more, and adjudicate whether we are meant by so-called 'generic' terms such as brothers, men, humans, Americans, or Catholics. To use 'women' as an inclusive generic term invites men in the audience to learn, like women, how to think twice, and to experience what it means not to be addressed explicitly. Since women always must arbitrate whether or not we are meant, I consider this good spiritual exercise for men to acquire the same sophistication, and to learn how to engage in the same hermeneutic process of thinking twice, and of asking whether they are meant when I speak of 'women.'"
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:59 AM on August 13 [28 favorites]


The fact that sexism and racism are not analogous is exactly why a satire like this is effective. The point is not to claim that racism and sexism are the same, or even that sexist and racist language are equivalent, but rather to use the fact that many people are more sensitive to racist language to highlight just how pervasive sexist language is.
posted by Nothing at 4:05 AM on August 13 [18 favorites]


I seem to recall that in Samuel R. Delaney's Triton girl replaced guy and man as in girlmade and girlkind. But maybe I dreamt that. I need to reread that book.
posted by y2karl at 4:12 AM on August 13


Now you have gone TOO FAR!

I have to agree here. You see, Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon, the mistake you have clearly made is that, like "folx" is singular. If you are using it to refer to a gender-neutral group of people, you must use the plural form: "folxen".

Also, as a southerner, let me remind y'all of the ready availability of "y'all". I use it all the time, non-ironically, and often need to remind folxen that English used to have a perfectly cromulent second-person plural, "you"*, but then "thou" had an identity crisis and "you" assumed its burden as well. Now poor "you" has become too overworked, and "thou" seems to be down for the count... so instead we can give "you" a little boost from "all" to help share the burden of re-asserting its intended plurality. And they're so buddy-buddy in this form that it only makes sense to conjoin them into one word. You see, y'all? "Y'all" is perfect, natural, and flawless English. Use it without fear, and if people question you, repeat unto them this argument, and they shall be convinced, or damned.

* I have gone to great pains to avoid bringing "ye" and "thee" into the discussion. That way lies madness.
posted by jammer at 4:57 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


I grew up in Ohio with “you guys” as the plural you. Now I live in North Carolina and, seriously, “y’all” is so much better! I use it all the time now, even up north. It just makes life so much easier and points up how problematic “you guys” is. Bonus feature: “all y’all.”
posted by rikschell at 5:14 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


ada palmer’s terra ignota series is set in a middle-distant future where gendered language has fallen way out of favor and is considered an archaic perversion. it’s narrated by someone who considers themself — no, himself — to be one of the most perverted people alive, and so genders most of the people he talks about. what’s interesting is that the way he assigns gender is determined not by whether we’d consider that person afab or amab, but on the cultural and interpersonal roles that person plays. right up front he makes a point of gendering most people from “the cousins,” a faction that’s organized around an ethos of care, with she/her pronouns. the main cousin we see in the novel is a sort of itinerant secular pastor who we would gender male, who is sexually attracted to people we’d gender female, and whose description reminds me strongly of male tweepop singers (i like her a lot, even though she’s way out of her depth when she has to interact with perverts and political schemers). the narrator’s use of she/her pronouns for her rapidly becomes non-dissonant. at points the narrator argues that one of their culture’s blind spots is that they actually do gender people, but that their use of they pronouns allows them to pretend they don’t. he thinks of (what he sees as) the fact that the cousins are female as something like a dirty open secret.

another character is an intensely violent, sexually predatory, swashbuckling, sadistic (in the bdsm sense and also in the plain-language sense) outlaw who we would gender female and who is not at all trans. the narrator’s use of of he/him pronouns for him, and his use of he/him pronouns for himself, works, even when he’s showing off his disrespect for social norms by letting his menstrual blood flow freely down his legs.

one of the main plots involves a group of conspirators attempting to hijack most of the political ruling class through using transgressive, archaic, highly gendered behavior — high femme dress and demeanor, ultra-masculine dress and demeanor — as a sort of perverse weapon; they assign pronouns and gender roles roughly like the narrator does.

later on in the series there’s a sort of reveal where we get physical descriptions of several of the main characters and realize that we wouldn’t gender them the same way that the narrator does. it’s a really interesting effect; we have to immediately work out exactly what it is about those characters that we have to reassess. turns out, not all that much.

it’s a really interesting take on gender and i recommend it highly to anyone who’s interested in this sort of thing.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 5:35 AM on August 13 [8 favorites]


The fact that "guy" can be understood as gendered in many contexts -- "one of the guys", "guys night out", "guy or girl"-- means that saying "in this context 'guys' is gender neutral" sounds a lot like "in this context 'men' refers to all people".

Maybe the 10 year olds of today are using language differently, but we were having this same conversation and saying "'guys' is gender neutral" 30 years ago when I was 10, too.

I grew up saying "you guys" and I haven't been able to break the habit, but I'm trying.
posted by jomato at 5:48 AM on August 13 [6 favorites]


The linked paper (which is fabulous!) and discussion have made me realize that I've been subconsciously avoiding using "guys" as a catch-all gender neutral term for some time. I mean, let's be fair - it really isn't, regardless of current usage. I think it started in my classroom, because it just felt too weird for me, a female teacher, to address a group of teenaged boys and girls (with girls usually outnumbering the boys) as "guys". I tend to go with "friends" instead. It's a pretty good generic term: "OK friends, let's try this next example". I also often go with "mathies" or "my lovely matheletes" (yes, I do teach math). When my students are irking me, I resort to "people", as in "People! Can we focus here!". I don't think it's as hard as some would have it seem to eliminate "guys" as as a habit. There's usually always something better and more specific to the particular group you're addressing. If I'm talking to the people I play ultimate or soccer with, for instance, I go with "teammates" or "fellow sportsters". If it's my fellow teachers, I go with "colleagues" or "friends" again (I think "friends" is my go-to default). Failing everything else, "y'all" pretty much always works. Words really do matter, I'm starting to understand, particularly when it comes to reinforcing the male-dominant tendencies of our society.
posted by Go Banana at 7:33 AM on August 13 [5 favorites]


Also, I thought we weren't really into the whole 'analogise sexism to racism' thing? This essay seems pretty dated to me.

It was originally published in 1983, so... yeah.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 7:39 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


"Mathletes" for all! (My Latin teacher always called us "scholars," no matter how un-scholarly we were being.)
posted by asperity at 7:55 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


> I tend to go with "friends" instead. It's a pretty good generic term

comrades.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:15 AM on August 13 [7 favorites]


I work in a heavily male dominated field and am often the only woman on my team. I sometimes catch myself originating emails to more than one person on my team with "Hey guys"--my preferred replacement is simply, "Hello, everyone."
posted by Sublimity at 9:16 AM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Part of the problem is that some of the terms and phrases deemed unacceptable are actually embedded in local and regional patterns of speech. I hadn't been fully aware of certain NYC quirks in the way I talk until someone pointed them out. I say "you guys" because it's a pretty specific New York regionalism; I'm a native New Yorker and when people ask me to stop saying it, it's like asking me not to speak like where I'm from. "Hey, guys" is gender neutral here; it's the plural "you." I'm not going to start using stuff like "y'all" or "folks" for the same reason I don't call behavior "shirty" or "stroppy" or "mardy"; to me, it's affected to adopt locutions to try to make you sound like someone you're not, and I'm not comfortable with it.

And I don't see anything wrong with appropriating "guy" to mean "person." In fact, most people seem to get awfully touchy with any language rules they deem "prescriptivist," except this one.

tl;dr: Language is complicated and I think it's probably best to assume good faith until proven otherwise.
posted by holborne at 9:54 AM on August 13


...it's like asking me not to speak like where I'm from. "Hey, guys" is gender neutral here; it's the plural "you." ... I think it's probably best to assume good faith until proven otherwise.

ok well in good faith, I am also from that area, and have stopped using language in that way. I feel like it's important to speak like you respect the individuals you're interacting with.

so imma have a robot correct you every time you use "guy" to mean "person," if you do it in a space where we've deployed that tech. You can have whatever community norms enforced by whatever in your own space.
posted by bagel at 10:18 AM on August 13 [6 favorites]


Good faith means that if I hear a person say "you guys" I don't assume they meant any harm by it. But if you've been presented with arguments that "guys" is gendered and gendered language is harmful, and you decide to continue to use that language anyway, then people are allowed to judge you for it.

I also grew up in a state where "you guys" was standard. I agree that it's hard to change, but it's not impossible. I would add that it's pretty easy to change in written communication if you care to. For example, I write "Hi everyone" all the time now. At first I decided I'd rather sound stilted than use a gendered term, but now I'm so used to it that it just sounds normal.
posted by jomato at 10:35 AM on August 13 [6 favorites]


Comrade! Fellow Worker! mates

Mates is easiest, everyone's your mate, passes the sex test no worries
posted by Acid Communist at 10:44 AM on August 13 [5 favorites]


I used to call everyone "dude" "man" etc until my wife asked me to stop it with her. Makes her feel misgendered. So, not universal.

I agree that we Southerners are lucky to have y'all -

- and if y'all don't like it, y'all will have to pry it from my cold dead larynx
posted by captain afab at 10:57 AM on August 13 [5 favorites]


hey mates,

acid communist wins.

mateys is also acceptable, though a little affected unless you're an actual pirate
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:02 AM on August 13 [1 favorite]


And I don't see anything wrong with appropriating "guy" to mean "person." In fact, most people seem to get awfully touchy with any language rules they deem "prescriptivist," except this one.

The phenomenon has been researched pretty extensively by linguists, sociologists, and psychologists. It has been demonstrated that masculine forms, when employed as generics, do not function generically in a cognitive sense. They reinforce and possibly create bias towards masculine representation. You can say that "guys" is a gender-inclusive term all you'd like, but the science tells us that it evokes masculinity.

This research foundation underpinning the advocacy of gender-neutral terms represents a pretty substantial difference from other language prescriptions which not only lack such rigor, but can be shown with cursory linguistic analysis to lack any scientific basis.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 11:14 AM on August 13 [9 favorites]


I also want to add that while "dudettes" has never caught on, to the best of my knowledge "enby" was coined by Tumblr user revolutionator in 2012, initially transmitted via Homestuck fandom, and got used earlier in this very thread.

(my personal pet theory is nobody likes extra keystrokes or syllables, but every boy, girl, enby, and/or comrade likes informality)
posted by bagel at 11:18 AM on August 13 [4 favorites]


I solved the "what do you use to refer to a group (of cats)" problem by calling them assholes. So far this hasn't extended well to humans but I have hope.
posted by jeather at 11:33 AM on August 13 [3 favorites]


Then there's the guy who always addresses groups of guys with, "Hey, ladies!"

I don't think they mean it as a gender-neutral term.
posted by clawsoon at 12:14 PM on August 13


does y'all pass the sex test?

"hey, y'all. do y'all have sex with y'all?"

"do y'all have sex with all y'all??"
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 12:48 PM on August 13 [6 favorites]


In fact, most people seem to get awfully touchy with any language rules they deem "prescriptivist," except this one.

The apparent double-standard is easily resolved once you realize that the problem isn't prescriptivism, it's the reasons for it.

Sometimes "prescriptivism" is used as shorthand for rules whose reasons are bad, like trying to make English more like Latin or reinforcing discriminatory hierarchies. But that's just an issue of potentially confusing usage. For example, it doesn't follow that it's okay to use slurs because asking people to stop using slurs is prescriptive.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:54 PM on August 13 [4 favorites]


When I read this before (in 2001) I was aware that the binary description of racism was inadequate, but completely ignorant about nonbinary gender issues.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 1:01 PM on August 13


It's really not prescriptivism at all. Prescriptivism would be claiming that 'chairman' isn't a word and it's bad grammar to use 'chairman' instead of 'chair' or 'chairperson', which is worlds away from saying the word 'chairman' is outdated and using it is not nice.
posted by capricorn at 1:02 PM on August 13 [5 favorites]


to the best of my knowledge "enby" was coined by Tumblr user revolutionator in 2012, initially transmitted via Homestuck fandom, and got used earlier in this very thread.

(my personal pet theory is nobody likes extra keystrokes or syllables, but every boy, girl, enby, and/or comrade likes informality)


FWIW, there are plenty of us nonbinary people who don't like the term "enby".
posted by Lexica at 2:30 PM on August 13 [2 favorites]


Unless this child answers “are you a guy or a girl” with “I don’t understand the question”,

The specific child in question did just exactly that. Well, she didn't say “I don’t understand the question” verbatim, more of a scrunched nose and "wha??????" expression until I moved onto something else.
posted by sideshow at 2:47 PM on August 13


The phenomenon has been researched pretty extensively by linguists, sociologists, and psychologists. It has been demonstrated that masculine forms, when employed as generics, do not function generically in a cognitive sense. They reinforce and possibly create bias towards masculine representation. You can say that "guys" is a gender-inclusive term all you'd like, but the science tells us that it evokes masculinity.

Do you happen to know whether the consensus is that this is still the case where the masculine form is being used in a generic way to refer to a mixed gender group of people who are all present in the discussion where the term is used (all in the room, on the email chain, etc)?

My entirely non-scientific feeling is that use of the term ‘guys’ to refer to a group that’s not present in the discussion (someone at Company X talking about “the guys at Company Y”) evokes masculinity, even if it isn’t meant to, but when everyone being referred to is in the discussion and known or visible to each other (“OK guys, let’s start the meeting”), the masculine bias and reinforcement is at homeopathic levels because it’s so obvious that the word is being used in a neutral way.
posted by inire at 3:47 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]


Fwiw, I personally started to use enby when self-IDing because 1) it was pointed out that NB was already in use to mean "non-black" and 2) in general I am trying to avoid negative identification for myself (being "not something" as opposed to being something).

And for some reason, it gives me more of a sense of identity than the term nonbinary. Even though it literally comes from that term. I guess it's just nice having a small, simple word that belongs to me, like "dude" or "gal"
posted by captain afab at 3:54 PM on August 13 [5 favorites]


My entirely non-scientific feeling is that use of the term ‘guys’ to refer to a group that’s not present in the discussion (someone at Company X talking about “the guys at Company Y”) evokes masculinity, even if it isn’t meant to, but when everyone being referred to is in the discussion and known or visible to each other (“OK guys, let’s start the meeting”), the masculine bias and reinforcement is at homeopathic levels because it’s so obvious that the word is being used in a neutral way.

I definitely do not feel that being called one of the guys when I am in the room is a nice neutral meaning, but then I had fights about whether "Everyone returned to his seat" could refer to a mixed group twenty years ago and whether my sense that it could not was "real", so I have strong feelings here.

I don't think that while guy still is in regular use to mean men specifically it can have a truly neutral use.
posted by jeather at 4:26 PM on August 13 [7 favorites]


Lexica: FWIW, there are plenty of us nonbinary people who don't like the term "enby".

Yes, that's very true in my experience also. I should clarify that all people who wish to be addressed as boys, girls, and/or enbies literally tautologically prefer informality in that instance. There are social and historical contexts where "comrade" is not a casual, playful term, but I feel like this thread isn't one of those.

:)
posted by bagel at 4:37 PM on August 13


Although the article addresses it in the postscript, I remain uncomfortable about the analogy implied between racism and sexism. It was very clever and very effective, but it kinda uses the plight of one group to highlight the plight of another.

In "our" discourse the default man or woman is a fully enfranchised majority-race citizen (the NYT's beloved diners in random midwestern state) and everyone else is peripheral. I don't think the article handled this terribly insensitively, particularly given when it was written, but it still feels slightly off to me. Even on its merits PoC includes PoC women.

The "all lives matter" "controversy" represents the problem. I mean yes, of course all lives matter. But nobody making an issue out of it cared about that. Anyone asserting "black lives matter" clearly meant that black lives matter too. To emphasize all just means that you care about preserving the status quo and ignores the "too."

This isn't as deeply embedded in language as the male/female distinction, but it is deeply embedded in the semiotics of language. On the one hand, that's good. It will not take a major change in how we use language to fix. On the other hand it's bad because it will take a deeper change in how we understand the language we use. "Solving street crime" is a phrase without specific linguistic markers, but I assure you it has wildly different meanings to you depending on who you are.

So anyway, effective and instructive, but ugh. I like to think he (despite his clear weakness for too-clever-by-half rhetoric) would not have written it today.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:50 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]


I mean, he writes in the postscript, "I admit that rereading it makes even me, the author, uncomfortable! Numerous friends have warned me that in publishing this piece I am taking a serious risk of earning myself a reputation as a terrible racist." So I think he was aware of its ickiness even at the time. It certainly doesn't read as less icky today.

Both sexism and racism are terrible. It seems to me like sexism is the original form of oppression: patriarchy predates written language, whiteness as a legal concept only dates back to 1681. Both are really hard to root out, but if thinking about one helps us understand the other in certain ways, I don't think it's detrimental to either cause.
posted by rikschell at 6:58 PM on August 13 [3 favorites]


I agree, rikschell. He knew it was a bit icky and he owned it. It feels a bit ickier now (to me). Both issues are still alive today. Better use of language will help with the one issue; better empathy will help both.
posted by sjswitzer at 7:34 PM on August 13 [1 favorite]


(There are still, of course, language issues around racism. And they are, sadly, still contended politically. But these issues are not deeply embedded in language. Racist language is easy to avoid for anyone who cares to try. Sexist language is a tougher nut to crack.)
posted by sjswitzer at 7:45 PM on August 13


(Ugh, well, I am wrong again. There are definitely issues around dialects of English and what is considered proper usage and improper.)
posted by sjswitzer at 7:52 PM on August 13


but it kinda uses the plight of one group to highlight the plight of another.

I don't think this type of "using" is inherently bad or wrong, tbh. Analogies are not morally wrong, and I consider it to be an act of solidarity rather than oppression olympics to map one type of oppression onto another. The point is to draw attention mainly to one of them, sure, but not in a way that diminishes or denies the other oppression. That's important!

It would be different if, for example, Hofstader had implied that racism is not as deeply embedded in our language as sexism is, but no, "a truly female day" is a knowing nod to the fact that he could easily write another essay about the various ways anti-blackness is ever present in English. Or if he had implied even by omission that racism isn't as bad as sexism, but no, the commentary on labor as it relates to blackness is quite as pointed as his commentary on sexism.

The objection to "using" one oppression to talk about another only becomes problematic when the point is to minimize or diminish or deny either oppression in relation to the other. A classic example is Richard Dawkins with his "Dear Muslima" post. What made that type of "use" wrong were the following features:

(1) He was not highlighting a problem faced by an oppressed group - he was doing the opposite. He was silencing someone else who was talking about a problem faced by an oppressed group.

(2) And in fact, he was trying to shut down someone from an oppressed group who was speaking up about oppression by members of his own group, in his own country, in his own culture, at his own conference. In other words, he was using a different oppressed group's struggles to protect himself from pushback from people he is oppressing.

(3) He STOLE the stories of people he had no connection to purely for his own gain. Like, Richard Dawkins is not well known for his life-long work to better the lives of Muslim women in Muslim countries. He has no history and no background of such efforts, no connection to the women whose life stories he used for his own purposes. He stopped caring about Muslim women in Muslim countries immediately after making his rhetorical point. He stole their stories and then tossed the stories aside when they no longer served him.

All of these features are absent from Hofstader's essay, afaict. Hofstader is highlighting a problem faced by an women, not silencing any black person's complaints through this essay. Hofstader is not protecting himself against accusations of racism by writing this essay - he's just speaking up against sexism for its own sake. Hofstader's work on sexism in language did not begin or end with this essay, it was a lifelong preoccupation on which he did other work.
posted by MiraK at 9:57 AM on August 14 [5 favorites]


"Going to market" is how people said it in ye olden days.

"Going to hospital" is how the BBC says it in ye present day
posted by y2karl at 1:45 PM on August 14


"Man, was that ever exhausting!"

I always thought the "man" in that context was just an exclamation, not a naming of the person being spoken to; i.e., functionally equivalent to saying "God, was that ever exhausting!"

Or maybe it's a secularist thing.
posted by heatherlogan at 2:00 PM on August 17


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