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The Freshperson Problem

Earlier this week, I had my copy-editor hat on and was working my way through a newsletter for a graduate program at the university. I was fixing typos, inserting and deleting commas (often for the sake of consistency), changing words to avoid repetition, and the like. Then at one point, I watched myself prescriptively cross out the phrase “freshman composition” and reword it as “first-year composition.”

I have long been a supporter of nonsexist language reform, from using singular generic they to replacing –man words with nongendered alternatives. Research I’ve carried out over the past couple of years has revealed that many efforts to find nonsexist terms for professions, for example, have been strikingly successful. The term police officer now far surpasses policeman in frequency in the Corpus of Contemporary American English—and not just in writing but also in speech. Firefighter seems to be replacing fireman, and flight attendant is replacing stewardess. In university departments, we now talk about chairs not chairmen. (Occasionally this does elicit a quizzical look outside academe when I say something like “When I was talking to the chair yesterday … ,” and some people picture furniture.)

It can be very difficult to get speakers to consciously change their usage, especially in speech, but nonsexist language reform has been remarkably successful. The success stems at least in part, I think, from the alignment of specific language reforms with the broader feminist movement.

Within this context of highly successful nonsexist language reform efforts, I am struck that I continue to receive—regularly, I must add—university documents that use the word freshman, both as a noun (e.g., when freshmen arrive on campus) and as a noun modifier (e.g., freshman courses). How has this –man word escaped reform efforts—and on university campuses no less (not all, but many), which are often characterized by their attention to just these kinds of language issues?

When I ask undergraduate students, they often tell me that they don’t think the word is still gendered. “The second syllable’s not even pronounced ‘man’,” they note (although, of course, this is also true of many other –man words, which have been changed). Some colleagues and I have proposed a study to see if students’ sense that freshman is generic holds up to empirical research.

Many critics have noted that if we were to change freshman, freshperson does not seem like a good alternative. It is clunky. I agree, and –person words have rarely been, in the end, speakers’ and writers’ nonsexist choice (consider police officer, firefighter, and chair). There’s frosh or freshie; I’m not sure those will make it either. Many law schools have successfully adopted 1L, 2L, 3L, short for first-year law student, etc.

More than 10 years ago, I trained myself to use first year when writing and speaking, which I have to say has worked quite well for me (e.g., when first years arrive, or first-year courses). And some universities have adopted first year. If (and when) someone says to me, “But first year doesn’t align with the other terms for undergraduate students,” I have to wonder what they’re talking about. The progression is already inconsistent, with sophomore, junior, and senior. I don’t see how first year is any more or less logical than freshman within that progression.

I’ll be interested to see how this linguistic situation plays out—and I hope to play a part in it. Will local reforms like mine, which replace freshman with an alternative, help to make a more global difference in standard edited prose? Will the word freshman be addressed more consistently in the nonsexist guidelines in style guides? (Right now it is largely absent.)

Speaking of style guides, I should note that I have used the word “prescriptively” throughout this post very intentionally, because nonsexist language reform is a highly prescriptive effort: It aims to guide/inform/prescribe to writers and speakers what language is more appropriate or preferred when it comes to words that could and/or do refer to both men and women. Usually prescriptivism is associated with efforts to stop people from splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, to encourage writers to use (or not use) Oxford commas, or to put an end to the use of hopefully to mean “it is hoped.” But as my colleague at the University of Southern California, Edward Finegan, and others have rightly pointed out, guidelines for nonsexist language are prescriptive too.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, prescriptivism should never go unquestioned. To paraphrase the linguist Deborah Cameron’s astute work in her book Verbal Hygiene, the interesting question is not “should we prescribe?” but rather: Who prescribes for whom, on what grounds, and toward what ends? Crossing out “freshman” is a reflex worthy of reflection: I’m changing the word in the hope of advancing nongendered language on its lagging fronts, with the belief that freshman may not be neutral, and that the words we choose for vocations matter.

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