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Enforced language usage change
Jul 29, 2011
Al Shaw asks, “Did I miss the announcement when actresses and stewardesses and hostesses disappeared?”
Shaw is being facetious. He knows he didn’t miss anything.
Overtly feminine nouns began receiving bad press from the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s. Shortly afterward, feminine and masculine nouns were proclaimed “non-inclusive.”
This “problem” was seen as unimportant by most people. Nevertheless, an active campaign to alter usage ensued. Let’s look at examples of this language change.
Actresses are clearly female. In the past, actors were always male. Today, actors can be either men or women.
Other words indicating gender were also changed. Thus, both stewards and stewardesses vanished from airlines, replaced by flight attendants. Waitresses and waiters got the axe in favour of servers.
I have few problems with removing ess and ette, but when it comes to the generic man, I take issue. Although some suggested substitutes for man are reasonable, others are absurd.
Letter carrier is a decent alternative to postman or mailman, for example, but probably few real people now speak of fishers rather than fishermen.
Suggested alternatives are often awkward. Spokesperson is a pretentious replacement for spokesman. And doorperson sounds ridiculous. Is greeter any better? I think not.
During the recent royal wedding, commentators still spoke of footmen, thank goodness, and it’s hard to imagine anyone seriously using watchperson. Still, I remember an amusing exchange of letters in the Edmonton Journal regarding personhole covers.
What do stylebooks say?
From the Canadian Press Stylebook: “The generic man is regarded by some as excluding women. Instead of man or mankind, you can write people, human beings, humanity ... Don’t get carried away. To write ... person-eating tiger ... is being hypersensitive.”
CP Style finds both actor and actress acceptable.
Canadian Style, a manual for Canadian government employees, strives for political correctness: “Avoid ... the generic man to refer to people ... and, where possible, as part of a compound.”
This source offers examples: “Synthetic or manufactured, not man-made; labour personnel, staff, not manpower — (Staff operate a booth, not man a booth); ordinary people, not man in the street.”
Canadian Style doesn’t mention manhole covers, but does warn against feminine endings. “Do not feminize occupational titles by adding ess, as in ‘manageress,’ ette as in ‘usherette,’ and ix as in ‘executrix.’”
The London Times Style Guide cautions against “feminine designations, such as authoress, poetess, wardress. But actress is such common usage that it is acceptable.”
Such language neutering results from the feminist movement, the same force that insists on he/she, his/her, etc. The campaign has been highly accepted in some areas. Still, I cannot imagine inclusive language will ever replace some of the so-called “sexist” language everyone uses. “Person the ramparts!” will probably never become part of our idiom.
Although modern feminism surfaced in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the late 1970s/early  1980s that feminine and masculine words were emphatically deemed problematic.
So, Al Shaw, if some announcement about actresses, etc., had been proclaimed, it would probably have been about 1978.