July 31, 2003

Feminist Vocabulary

Posted by shonk at 04:01 PM in Feminism | TrackBack

I got to thinking recently about people who refuse to use words like "mankind" or "history", claiming that they're sexist. Now, first of all, to me, this seems really, really trivial. I mean, even stipulating that women are and always have been oppressed, they were never oppressed by words. Words are just sounds, or, at best, concepts; they are totally incapable of taking action. They are effects of culture, not causes (Wittgenstein and Jaynes disagree with me on this, in part, but let's keep the argument simple). Hence, if you are going to fight oppression, fight the causes (e.g. people, social institutions, etc.), not the effects. At least, that's my gut feeling.

Furthermore, the whole thing is made even more ludicrous by the fact that most of these words are not, technically speaking, sexist at all. Take, for example, "mankind". Here is Dictionary.Com's etymology of the word "man" (look for the "Usage Note"). You'll note that in Old English, "man" was entirely gender-neutral, so "mankind" literally means "humankind" or "person-kind" or whatever other gender-neutral synonym you prefer. Similarly, "history" derives (by way of Old French) from the Latin "historia". However, the Latin possessives look something like "suus", "sua" and "suum" (look here for a cool Java Latin/English dictionary); in other words, the root word was not intended to mean "his story", and the fact you can parse it that way in English is, apparently, a coincidence.

The moral of the story is, if it makes you feel better to say "herstory" or "personkind", then go right ahead, but realize that the words you are substituting for are not actually sexist.

(Just trying to alienate as many readers as I can in the first two days)