“One” Small Step for Humankind

Eliminating gender-bias in the English language has been a preoccupation of mine for many years.  During the 1980s, I came up with an idea that I believed would be a useful remedy for one kind of gender-bias rampant in English nouns.

My hopes that this idea would gain wide acceptance escalated when the Chicago Tribune in 1986 published a piece I wrote that advocated this change.

But despite my hopes that this idea would catch on (and although a number of people told me how much they liked it), it went nowhere.  During the intervening 27 years, everyone (including me) has moved on and dealt with this issue in some other way.  But I still think my idea is a good one.  Here’s why.

Back in 1986, I observed that few people were concerned with gender-bias in our language. Those who preferred gender-free language were using “person” instead of “man,” and “he or she” instead of “he” alone, and pretty much leaving it at that.  Others had refused to make even those substitutions and continued to use traditional parlance, much of which had an undeniable male bias.

Maybe the underlying problem was sexism, pure and simple.  But I preferred to have a more generous view and came up with another conclusion.

The fundamental question, then and now:  Why do so many people continue to use words like “man” to mean men and women?  I think I know the answer.  The persistent use of the word “man” and all of the words that use “man” as a suffix—policeman, fireman, repairman, deliveryman, Congressman, and all the rest—can be blamed on a simple fact:  It’s easier to say “man” than to say “person” or any other word or suffix of more than one syllable.

Why haven’t words like “Congressperson” caught on?   Because it’s easier to say “Congressman.”  (I’d be satisfied with “Member of Congress,” like “Member of Parliament” in the U.K., but that hasn’t caught on either.)

Let’s face it.  Even the most dedicated feminists among us would prefer to say mailman instead of mail carrier or repairman instead of repairperson–IF the shorter versions were gender-neutral–because they’re easier to say.  But any word that includes the suffix “man” cannot be gender-neutral.

People can tell me that “man” includes both men and women until their faces turn blue, but I don’t believe it for one second.  Why?  Because the word “man” conjures up the image of a man.  Just think back to your childhood.  Do you remember when you were being taught the meanings of the most basic words?  Who did your parents point to when they said the word “man”?  A woman?  C’mon!  All of us were taught that “man” means a man, not a woman.  No wonder we’re confused a few years later when we encounter writing or speech using “man” that purports to mean both men and women.

It’s almost impossible to say “businessman” and envision a woman.  The same goes for every other word using the suffix “man.”  But if we balk at such infelicitous terms as “businessperson,” what substitutes can we use?

I propose using the suffix “one.”  This suffix is commonly used as part of our everyday speech.  Think of the words “anyone,” “everyone,” “someone,” and “no one.”  No one quibbles about those.  On the contrary, the use of “anyman” or “everyman” would be comical (they sound downright medieval to me).  Why not, then, extend use of the suffix “one” to other words where we have traditionally used “man”?

In recent years, some gender-neutral terms, like “firefighter,” have caught on, and for that I’m grateful.  But many people still cling to the old descriptions, like policeman and Congressman.  If we adopted my proposal, the word “policeman” could become “police-one.”  “Congressman” could become “Congress-one.”  (I’ve added a hyphen for clarity until people become accustomed to the new usage, but that hyphen could disappear as the usage became second-nature.)  Adding “one” instead of “man” or “person” is both gender-neutral and easy to say.

These new words sound strange at first (and in print they look even stranger, especially if we omit the hyphen).  But after you use “one” a few times, it begins to trip off your tongue as easily as “man” because, like “man,” it’s only one syllable.  It also doesn’t sound very different from “man” (“person” does), and you don’t have to stop to think about which suffix to use every time you want to describe someone.  Instead of trying to remember “mail carrier” and “police officer,” you could just use “one” for all of them.

Why don’t you try it?  Try saying mail-one, police-one, sports-one, Congress-one.  Even…snow-one!  It might take a bit of getting used to, but I think it could work.

In my view, it’s never too late to do the right thing.  So even though we’ve come up with ways to get around sexist language, using awkward words like “spokesperson,” it’s not too late to make things even better.

Do you agree with me that we should stop using language that excludes half of humanity?  If you do, we could try this new approach.  If each of us tries it, maybe we can start a trend that changes the English language in this small but important way.

Why don’t we do it?  Let’s be bold.  Let’s target one day to try this experiment in gender-free language and see what happens.  I propose trying it on the first day of the first month of 2014.

Please join me.  On January 1, 2014, let’s try using this short and easy way to include absolutely everyone.

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