So, at this big funeral the other day for a local real-estate executive, the congregation is preparing to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Great old hymn, yes? Glad expectations arise. That is, until the second verse: “Christians, we are treading where the saints have trod.” Wait now—didn’t it used to be “Brothers”? Sure did.
A lot of used to be’s mark English usage in an age grown too comfortable with the presumed need to conform language to the ideology of feminism, with its cultivated disdain for words that savor of male dominance or whatever.
The New York Times’ recent obituary for Kate Swift explained how this lady, coauthor of The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, helped American society entangle its collective tongue in crude and adversarial exercises on the order of “Christians, we are treading . . . ”
What’s wrong with that, you ask? Aren’t the folk who sing it Christians? Generally. There’s this, additionally, though: Putting the whammy on male nouns and pronouns—as Kate Swift enjoined and feminists came to expect—doesn’t even make political, far less literary, sense.
All this business dates, naturally, from the 1970’s, when Swift and her, er, partner (the Times’ word) Casey Miller came to contemplate the sad state of public discourse and set out to do something about it. They succeeded, what’s more.
“[E]verything we read, heard on the radio and television, or worked on professionally” as editors, they said in the Preface to another book on which they conspired, “confirmed our new awareness that the way English is used to make the simplest points can either acknowledge women’s full humanity or relegate the female half of the species to secondary status.” Accordingly, they reframed the discussion. If language really put the male boot on women’s necks, new ways of talking and writing were wanted.
The assumption was a large one—contrary in fact to reality. There was never any male conspiracy, conscious or unconscious, to subordinate women through the manipulation of words. When it comes to “man,” as Jacques Barzun noted, “The Sanskrit root man, manu, denotes nothing but the human being and does so par excellence, since it is cognate with the word for ‘I think.’” “Woman,” Barzun related, “is etymologically the ‘wife-human being.”
But, then, no one ever successfully overestimated ideological feminism’s regard for mere facts. The feminists of the 70’s, when Swift and Miller were in their heyday, were a touchy and resentful bunch. It bugged them that men were getting away with domination-by-symbol. “Everybody has his book” was sexist, on account of its obvious implication that such a claim could refer only to people with zippers in the front of their trousers—the “his” set.
What to do, what to do? Force change down society’s throat, that was what. Inappropriate use of his meant there had to be equal time for her. Thus, “Everybody has his or her book.” A needless and verbose construction, yes, but there was worse; to wit, “Everybody has their book,” which isn’t even grammatical. Everybody is singular, their plural. The two don’t work in harness together. Well, tough—as feminists saw things. Ideology trumped exactitude and good sense, as well as precedent.
Wherein, of course, nothing whatsoever was new. Ideologues always insist on having their own way—inspired often enough by success at inventing their own facts. The agonies of the English language since the 70’s hardly compare with other feminist-inspired afflictions—e.g., the myth of a woman’s “right to control her own body.” And yet the former are properly seen as just one more evidence of the social disorder we ignore at some cost to intellectual cohesion.
There’s first of all the uselessness of the needless: the time-consuming nature of it all. When nothing is amiss (save in particular people’s minds) there’s no point in extravagant exercises such as the Reform of Sexist Language. If “Brothers, we are treading” works as well in hymnody as “Christians,” etc., because everybody—including the late Kate, I presume—knows what it means, one doesn’t waste time sanitizing the nonoffending offense. The sanitation gang can, in fact, make things worse. It irritates, it annoys, it even angers. It starts fights that didn’t need starting, diverting attention from more urgent considerations. It arouses resentments. Like that of one lady I know at “Christians, we are treading” and locutions of the same sort. These inspire her to drown out (in ladylike fashion, natch) the wrong words with the right ones.
Then there’s the witch-hunt that follows the inspiration that sexist language must be routed out and stomped on. A frenzy commences—or, rather, in Swift’s day, commenced; it’s pretty much perfected at this stage. New biblical translations have to step gingerly over or around the male stuff. What was familiar becomes unfamiliar, at some cost to common discourse. See Psalm 1: “Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked.” Formerly, “Happy is the man . . . ”
Not that the purposes of good English are served, except we have to remember that the purposes of good English aren’t paramount in the witch-hunt for sexist language (assuming, hmmm, it’s OK to say witch, a word no doubt unfairly associated with crones of the female species). Various people claiming authority over public taste tell us, for instance, that we can’t use man at all, in the generic sense. No more chairmen—we now have “chairs,” articles of furniture. No more firemen—it’s “firefighters.”
As I say, it’s now perfectly fine, if not wonderful, to pair a plural pronoun and a singular noun. Go on—reinvent the rules of English. It’s all for ideology. Teaching writing at the university level a few years back, I found it hard indeed to impart the necessity (as it generally has seemed) of symmetry in sentence construction—plurals and plurals matching each other, in other words. I laid down the law. No their in signification of “his or her book.” Wouldn’t work. Far better the recasting of the sentence: “All had their books.” Yet what was this but a device—a formula for avoiding the burden of sounding like either an illiterate male chauvinist pig or just a chauvinist pig or sow.
Society’s compliance with calls to get its linguistic act together said nothing complimentary about society. Up went hands in gestures of helplessness. It didn’t matter. That was the way it was. We could live without male generic pronouns. What’s in a word? A rose by any other name . . .
The silliness of the whole femspeak enterprise is what dismays even more than does the appreciable harm that femspeak wreaks on English. The remaking, in part, of a language should commend itself on practical grounds: something gained for something taken away. What’s been gained is hard to spot, with or without a flashlight. Barzun puts it nicely: “[I]t is hardly plausible to think that tinkering with words will do anything to enhance respect for women among people who do not feel any, or increase women’s authority and earnings in places where prejudice is entrenched.”
Shouldn’t that have been plain enough to readers and reviewers of the late Kate? What were reasonable people supposed to think about a crusade against sexist language? Weren’t they supposed to look a little askance? The reason they didn’t, perhaps, is plain old wimpiness. Oh, please don’t call me a sexist! Greatly (through your diligent labors) has my field of vision been enlarged! I see, I see at last the terrible wrongs our forefathers wrought. Wait—I mean “our forepersons”! Please, please don’t hit me!
Why should this sort of thing not be the case in a society, among a people, whose favorite word for bad behavior is inappropriate? The social bully gets his way in America just by demanding in a well-practiced tone of outrage. How dare you . . . ? Why can’t you understand . . . ?
The feminists have worked this side of the street for decades, scattering mere males with the breath of their anger. Of course the males threw in their hands. Everybody has had their say—and guess who lost.