Words are powerful things. While the origin of the quote is disputed, back in the annals of history, several people opined something along the lines of “among great leaders, the pen is mightier than the sword”, referring to how the best leaders recognise the power of ideas before they recognise military power. Words fuel discrimination in huge ways, whether we dismiss this fuel or not. And words are one of the most insidious ways we disrespect and disclude women, transsexual, intersex, and homosexual people, even beyond the fact that words are largely classist due to the fact that you need a very good education to understand even half of them. Maybe thousands of years later, we’ll be arguing about who said that words determine the way we think.
There’s nothing political about political correctness- you don’t need to be left-wing to value social justice. It’s about taking away the power of words to dictate the way we think- have you ever wondered why talking about doctors gets people to assume you’re talking about men? Possibly because you’re used to having other subtle indicators in people’s language point out the gender of the person they’re talking about for you, which are largely absent with doctors. Possibly because the way many people use English assumes that male is the norm or default. One of the most wonderful things feminism has brought with it, to my mind, is the idea of English as a language that’s no longer normative, where there are a lot less assumptions about what a word, and therefore a sentence, means.
A prominent example of sexist words is that our pronouns are gendered and binary. Some people insist that you’re a he or a she, or if you’re lucky, a (s)he. (even if you’re intersex or transgendered or genderqueer) Recently we’ve been getting retro and using “they” as a nice ambiguously genderless pronoun, but it’s not catching and the more inflexible grammarians are rioting over plural ambiguity.1
There’s also the whole issue with -man and man-. Mankind? No, I think you mean humankind. Fireman? No, I think you mean firefighter. Chairman? No, I think you mean chair, or maybe chairperson if you like long words. Manpower? I think you mean labour. Manhours? I think you mean workhours. I’m still working on manhole2, however. 🙂
Then there’s sexuality- our labels for sexuality are mostly normative, even though our society is becoming a lot more pluralistic on this matter. I think here the teenagers have it right- we like boys or we like girls, or we like both. Saying that we’re gay or straight, hetero or homo, feeds into heteronormativity. Two wonderful new words should make your acquaintance: gynosexual and androsexual, respectively meaning “attracted to women” and “attracted to men”. Not only do these words not assume a norm, they can’t even identify gayness or straightness without you knowing who they’re being attached to. They also join bisexuality in uniting sexuality by the object of attraction- drawing attention to the potential similarities in what women and men are attracted to about men, and what women and men are attracted to about women. The mere existence of terms like this offer a subtle challenge to our ideas about sexuality.
It’s even more illustrative of how easy this type of thinking is that “Maori” can be translated as “normal”, and “Pakeha” as “different”. But I’ll leave the concept of pluralistic racial language to someone much better equipped to deal with it.
1If you’re one of those grammarians, I suggest to you that you attempt to resurrect the second-person familiar pronoun otherwise known as “thee” before you complain about us copying respected literary figures like Jane Austin in adding some general (and not just gender) ambiguity to our pronouns. And if anyone starts talking about gender being a grammatical term and having its meaning stolen by feminism, I’ll whack them over the head with my over-sized German dictionary (it comes with three genders included) as a way of introducing them to the idea that a term can have multiple contexts. Try mentioning the word “jerk” to a group of teenagers, then to a group of physicists, and you might see what I mean.
2Personholes have thus far failed to catch on, especially as they’re often taken to be innuendo. Product development is hard at work fixing this issue. 😉