Re: Words is only words???? -Reply

richley crapo (RCRAPO@WPO.HASS.USU.EDU)
Fri, 6 Jan 1995 15:30:13 -0700

Pat Crowe is certainly correct about the common
interplay of connotation and denotation in attempts
at engineering language change. (Anti-)
Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz did a lot of writing
about the same phenomenon in changes in
psycho-diagnostic labelling over the centuries--
each time the public learns the new term for for a
form of insanity and widely uses it to stigmatize
others, the profession invents a new technical term
with the same denotation, but it too filters into
public usage where it becomes the new
stigmatizing term. Thus, "insane" is replaced with
"mentally ill", which has to be replaced with "mental
disorder" or "psychopath" becomes "sociopath"
becomes "antisocial personality disorder". Even
DSM IV includes a reminder (to its assumedly
professional audience) that it's diagnostic
categories label conditions, not kinds of people.

I noticed a few years ago that at least locally, the
the media who early on had begun using gender-
neutral words and suffixes for generic statements
had fallen into the habit of using them as a specific
term for a female. (If it was a man, they said
"councilman", but when it was a woman, they said
"councilperson". So it seems that even the old
denotation can sometimes reappear in the guise
of a gender-neutral term.

But although I agree that this kind of thing does
happen, I don't believe that this fact captures the
entire set of processes at work, and that not all
intentional linguistic change is futile or senseless. I
don't believe, for instance, that "black American"
has taken on the same connotation that "nigger"
did when I was a child. And I think there is at least
one other good reason for cultivating a
"gender-neutral" discourse beside etiquette or
being PC (whatever that really is): clarity of

The real issue about usage is not a political
demand to "neutralize" or eliminate all gender
terminology from the language, but to give up the
ambiguous use of terms or suffixes that can be
ambiguously understood by the reader or hearer
as either "male" or "people". Back in 1973,
Hacker did an interesting little study in which he
asked a group of college students (!) to bring in
illustrations for a sociology text he was publishing.
He said he wanted illustrations for chapters titled
"Social Man," "Political Man," and "Economic
Man." He asked another group of students to
bring in illustrations for chapters titled "Society",
"Political Behavior", and "Economic Behavior".
Despite what grammarians might have said about
the complete propriety of using Man in the generic
sense of People, that's not how the students
responded. The group that were given the "male
terms as (suppose) generic inclusives, were much
more likely to bring in pictures of MEN rather than
WOMEN when compared with the second group,
who were much more balanced in their
illustrations. The fact is, women tend to be
overlooked, invisible, and forgotten when we use
male terminology as if they were generic terms. I'd
prefer to communicate more clearly than that. Is
that really so outrageous?

Richley Crapo.