1972. We were young, we were opinionated, we were almost certainly right about everything, and we were laying down the rules. A lot of things were going to have to change: attitudes about women, about gays, about war, about the environment. The language had to change, too.
For one thing, we were women. Calling us “girls” diminished us. Which was true. But it was normal. Calling yourself a “woman” straight out of high school felt like putting on airs. And about forty years. So if someone said “that woman” and pointed at us, we looked over our shoulder to see who they were talking about. It all took some getting used to.
Which is why it was so hilarious when my sweet Max reported he casually mentioned to his mother that he was “seeing a woman”—trying valiantly to make the usage sound normal—and his mother, scandalized, said “You’re seeing a WOMAN?” Basically, she thought he was seeing Mrs. Robinson, not me.
And that was well before he was seeing men, so that was not the issue.
Then we started tinkering with the words themselves, certain that we would effect lasting societal change. We made rules, by goddess. Some of our efforts skidded into the ditch, like “wimmen” and “womyn.” Those never got traction. You can try to steer the car your way, but sometimes nobody gets in the passenger seat.
Woman: it means wife-man. Clearly objectionable, needed fixing. Fun fact: “wimmen” is not only a creation of 1970s feminists but is also the exact same spelling of the original Old English word meaning “wife-man.” Oops!
It’s not that English can’t handle it. English can handle anything. English bears the boot-prints of every army that ever invaded it, which was most of them at one point or another. But the vanquished made off with the words of their conquerors as their own spoils. Consequently English has a vocabulary so large and rich it doesn’t even need to steal other languages’ lunch money. Other languages just pay tribute to English on their own. English is a broad, muscular juggernaut of an evolving language and it will survive all attempts to evolve it by fiat.
Juggernaut: Sanskrit/Odia Jagannātha, lord of the world. Large chariots bearing his image were said to have crushed devout Hindus who sacrificed themselves under their wheels. Stolen by English, 1342.
So today, once again, we are daily instructed where we’ve gone wrong. The rules are being laid down. It’s person with a substance use disorder, not addict. Person experiencing houselessness, not homeless person. Person with an intellectual disability, not Marjorie Taylor Greene.
I understand the point. It is thought that the attitudes and reality itself are as much influenced by the language we use as the other way around, and that in order to change those attitudes and reality, we need to make our language conform to our ideals. There’s truth to that, or some of that. For my money, “person experiencing houselessness” is no improvement on “homeless person,” which is quite as descriptive, nimbler, and doesn’t presume that the person saying it is passing judgment. Our mother tongue is fluid, agile, and compact, and you can pack a load of meaning into one sentence without larding it up with prepositional phrases like it’s French or something. It’s a superpower English has, and I wince to see it strung out and enfeebled by modern demands on it to carry all the water for necessary change.
I don’t think it needs to, either.
Every injustice, every insult, every offense that has ever been committed against a human being is already buried in this language, and been forgotten in the compression of time. The original offenses are no more dangerous now than dinosaur bones.
And yet we’re busy tying a clatter of tin cans on the bumper of our beautiful juggernaut.
Maybe these little engineering efforts are worthwhile, or at least worth thinking about. I don’t disagree with the motives, and I approve of kindness. But to the degree that our word usage undermines our ideals, I believe it is minor. Current dogma holds otherwise, I’m aware. Still, I think it’s something to celebrate when your own language allows you to take a headline like “person with a mental health disability reported missing from psychiatric institution,” and substitute “Nut bolts.”