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Revision, Respect, and Etymological Cleansing

I’m in Seattle this week, to give a Jesse and John Danz lecture at the University of Washington. My topic is the scandal of English grammar teaching, and my thesis is that the language is basically in good shape—the scandal is the descriptive blunders of the bumbling grammar gurus and the myth-repeating usage snobs.

I don’t think English needs repair. But here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, the Washington state legislature thinks otherwise. Lawmakers are working on a gender-neutral language bill. They plan to revise every statute since 1854, repairing language that doesn’t treat the sexes neutrally. No more references to the duties of a jury foreman or the qualifications of a journeyman carpenter; no more regulations mentioning fishermen (they will be fishers) or sportsmen (they will be sports/outdoor enthusiasts). Not even references to penmanship will be allowed in legislative documents.

I’m a firm advocate of serious feminist causes, but I have to admit that I see this kind of etymological cleansing as slightly goofy. It’s quixotic to attempt control of something as naturally evolving as a human language. People go their own way. For example, women in the acting profession nowadays like to be called actors, not actresses—they demand that the formerly male-only term be applied to them. That’s their choice. This doesn’t seem a suitable area for legislative action. Only time will tell how such lexical evolution will turn out.

And surely it’s not the morphological composition of words we should be worrying about, but the societal reality. Switching from “chairman” to “chairperson” or “chair” will not do much for the hapless first woman to chair a committee if the male members won’t respect her authority. The prejudice and sexism is what we have to fight, not the morphological residues in some words (like brakeman, craftsman, workman) of a bygone age when these jobs were male preserves.

It’s odd to see people playing down social and legal facts while highlighting relatively unimportant linguistic points. Just last week, back home in Britain, the House of Commons passed a bill to make same-sex marriage legal (just as it has been in Washington state since December 9 last year). Prime Minister David Cameron introduced and firmly championed the bill, but more than half his Conservative Party angrily voted against it. Sir Roger Gale, a right-wing back-bench member of the party, declared hoarsely in the debate, his voice cracking with indignation, that “It is not possible to redefine marriage.” He really was talking about the definition. He saw the House as bent on committing a lexicographical act. He went on:

Marriage is the union between a man and a woman, has been historically, remains so. It is Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian almost, for any government of any political persuasion to seek to come along and try to rewrite the lexicon.

Sir Roger saw his party leader as tampering not just with society but with the dictionary.

Doubtless he has a worn Concise Oxford Dictionary on his shelf, with its satisfyingly conventional first definition of marriage: “1 the legal union of a man and a woman in order to live together and often to have children.”

He may not have browsed as far as the fourth sense, “4 an intimate union” (the example given is the marriage of true minds). That’s amply broad enough to encompass the new legal recognition of intimate unions between people of the same sex.

And if he looks at this online definition I’m afraid he’ll have a cow, because at Oxford Dictionaries they have already rewritten the lexicon (see where it says “in some jurisdictions”).

But we are not engaged in lexical revision when we extend legal benefits and rights beyond heterosexual couples. We simply extend the denotation of an established word to cover a slightly broader class of cases. Even Conservative Party members have always been happy with that in the absence of an ideological issue.

Were there anguished objections from right-wingers when sanctuary extended its meaning from the innermost holy recess of a temple to an area for the protection of wildlife?

Did Sir Roger howl when vehicle shifted from denoting a mobile machine to also cover liquid transportation media for drugs, and more recently to include investment products like bonds or certificates of deposit?

Those who grumble about changing the dictionary when they confront the progress of same-sex marriage legislation are not being honest with us. Sir Roger is not just warning against a closer relationship between sense 1 and sense 4 in the Concise Oxford. He thinks gay people shouldn’t be allowed the full status of matrimony. I disagree with him, and agree with the State of Washington. The dictionary has nothing to do with it.

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