Sexist Language

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Sexist Language, History, Culture and Misunderstanding

©Michael Krigline, MA (May 2005, revised 2010)

English Instructor at Northwestern Polytechnical University, Xi’an, China

I wrote this article while teaching at NPU in response to a student’s criticism about the ongoing presence of gender-related terms in English. At the end of the article, I’ve provided definitions for the bold vocabulary terms.

           Words mean things, but the meaning of a word is a complex reflection of the history and values of the culturein which the language evolved. As such, all languages contain terms which, if taken individually and objectively without a context, appear overly nationalistic and sexist. For example, the Romans considered anyone who didn’t speak Greek to be a “barbarian,”[1] just as the Chinese term for anyone not from China is “outsider” (外国人--lit. outside the nation person). As cultures change, their languages also change to reflect the changing values, but some terms remain—like “outsider”—even though they are void of their original derogatorymeaning. As the sexist language in English slowly passes into retirement, one must be careful about the assumptions one attaches to the words. Sometimes they tell the listener about a speaker’s worldview, but often they reveal more about the history of the English language.

           While it is true that languages evolve, this evolution is generally slow. Languages change by importing words from trading partners, or by ceasing to use words that no longer reflect the values of the culture. For centuries, the Chinese called the people of other nations “foreign devils” (鬼子), but educated Chinese people no longer use such terminology since it no longer reflects China’s values. Similarly, the antiquated idea that all doctors or all draftsmen should be males is no longer widely held in England or America, even though those words (and many other words that end in “-men”) still conjure up male images in the minds of many listeners.

           English evolved in male-dominated cultures, so this is naturally reflected in the language. After Germanic “barbarians” settled in Britain (starting in the fifth century), their languages slowly combined to form English (the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes dominated the British isles until the eleventh century). In addition, many English terms (especially legal or government terms) come from French, reflecting the historical fact that the French ruled England for two hundred years. The male dominance of these cultures can even be seen in the term “woman,” which comes from the old English word wifman meaning the wife of a man. Similarly, for centuries English-speakers used the masculine “he” to refer to a person with an unknown gender, instead of insisting on the cumbersomedouble word “he/she.” (Such a designation is common in many languages including Chinese, which uses a masculine character to refer to a mixed group of men and women—他们 instead of 她们.)

Another example concerns the pronouns used for God. The Christian Bible clearly shows that God is neither male nor female (Gen 1:27), but it is equally clear that God’s nature has more in common with a person than with an impersonal thing. Wanting to express God’s personhood (and in deference to Jesus’ example in calling God “Father”), English translators have traditionally used the masculine pronoun “He” (capitalized to show reverence) instead of “She” or “It.” Some modern writers are offended by this supposedly sexist language, which may in fact reveal the limitations of the English language more than a sinister mindset in the translators. Interestingly, Chinese translators take advantage of a fourth choice, using the pronoun 祂, which uses a pictograph for “God” in place of the male or female pictographs in he/she (祂, 他, 她, 它; pronouns referring to God, he, she, it respectivelyall of which are pronounced “ta).

           Furthermore, the English language reflects the realities of life before mechanization and coeducational  instruction. Until the industrial revolution, many jobs required physical strength and thus fell to men (such as firemen, policemen, and military servicemen, and thus each term ended with the suffix “-men”). Something similar is seen in Chinese characters like “male,” which pictures the idea of “strength in a field” (=+). Today, both males and females can perform many of these jobs, so the English language has changed to become more inclusive (e.g., fire fighters, police officers, and military personnel). Similarly, before the 20th century, obtaining a higher education was a privilege available primarily to the sons of wealthy people. Since women did not have access to universities, professional jobs were the domain of males and professional titles reflected this reality (e.g., Master of Science, School Headmaster).  This educational discrimination also ensured that only men would be draftsmen, doctors and councilmen, which in turn ensured that the male pronoun (he) could be used when talking about such professionals.

        As English and Chinese speakers embrace the value of sexual equality many of these outdated terms will change, but since languages evolve slowly it is equally unreasonable to expect all “sexist” language to disappear quickly. Where the alteration is easy, changes are much more apparent in modern English. For example, we can easily change policeman to police officer and chairman to chairperson. It is almost as easy to change sentences from singular to plural so that you can use the sexually neutral “they” instead of “he/she.”

           For decades, American writing teachers have encouraged students to stay away from sexist language. In a popular 1989 writing guidebook, DeWitt Scott says to avoid stereotypes that “put women down” and to remember that lawyers, officials and business people are less and less exclusively male. He also points out that “sexism isn’t primarily a question of language, but of assumptions underlying language.”[2] In other words, calling someone a “girl” can simply refer to her gender (especially if she is young), but to refer to your associate by saying “My girl will fix you a cup of coffee” reflects an immature or backward assumption about the modern role of women.

           Certainly, sexist terminology exists in the English language (and probably in every other language in the world), and we should rejoice as a lot of it passes out of our newspapers and books. Native English speakers can also rejoice that our forefathers—oops, make that ancestors—gave us a language without gender (like "le" and "la" to modify French nouns) and without little pictures (like the Chinese female pictograph ); words with gender particles and "female" pictographs would be much more difficult to make neither masculine nor feminine than "sexist" endings like "-men."[3]

           Contemporary writers should indeed be vigilant to reduce or remove the use of sexist terminology. But as we wait for the English language to change, there is no need to expunge gender-related language from historical records or to impugn the people who wrote that way as being sexist or chauvinistic. They were simply using the words available to them, and their writing can reveal a lot about the values of their time. Similarly, we should not automatically assume that current writers or speakers are being derogatory simply because they leave “-men” on the end of a word or refer to an unknown person as “he.”[4] We are all the children of our time and the product of our educational opportunities, trying to use words to convey our thoughts to others—which is never an easy task. In the long run, rash assumptions and name-calling will always contaminatehe communication process, while tolerance and patient listening should yield a clearer understanding.

[1] In Greek, barbarikos, meaning uncivilized or uncultured

[2] DeWitt H. Scott, Sigrid A. Metson, ed., Secrets of Successful Writing (San Francisco: Reference Software International/Novell, Inc., 1989), 76,77.

[3] Unfortunately, many negative Chinese pictographs (象形字) feature the character for woman (), including threaten (威胁), slave (奴隶), traitor (汉奸), amusement (娱乐), adultery (姦) and envy (妒忌), as well as positive words like forgive (宽恕), good (好), wonderful (妙) and safe (安全). My dictionary shows over 400 characters that include the female pictograph! For China to change this leftover from old philosophies would be much harder than changing chairman to chairperson, and to my knowledge there is no ideological or linguistic push for such changes.

[4] This is true for the same reason that we can’t label Chinese people (中国人) as ethnocentric because they claim to live at the "center of the world" ( meaning center or middle).




void, to be void of: (idiomatic) no longer containing sth; to be completely lacking sth.


derogatory: (adj) insulting; expressing a meaning that is disapproving or that is intended to lower someone’s reputation or status


antiquated: (adj) old-fashioned; out of date; badly needing to be updated


conjure up: [vt] to bring a thought or image to mind, often unexpectedly


cumbersome: awkward to use, often because of its unusual size


coed or coeducational: both genders together (for sports, studies, etc.)


alteration: a change or adjustment, or the process of that change


vigilant: to be especially careful or watchful so that you will notice any danger or problem as soon as it appears


expunge: [vt] to completely remove something unwanted from a written record (or from one’s memory)


impugn: [vt] to criticize or imply that someone cannot be respected


chauvinistic: unreasonably prejudiced in favor of one’s gender or group


contaminate: [vt] to do sth that yields a harmful effect, such as making a river dirty through pollution

© 2005 Michael Krigline. As far as I am concerned, people are allowed to print or copy this article, or link to it, for personal or classroom use.

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