In a recent post about the role of dictionaries in matters of language and gender, Michael Rundell wrote that they “shouldn’t take sides in any area of language use” but that “in some cases this is unavoidable”.
Dictionaries record how language is used, so they can’t simply ignore sexist and discriminatory usages – or new terms that supersede them – no matter how objectionable some people might find them. But by tagging words and adding usage notes, dictionaries can point out controversies, indicate that a word is non-standard or politically incorrect, and trust to readers’ judgement.
For example, the Macmillan Dictionary definition of fireman makes explicit mention of its masculine gender – lest it be thought the default, as it once was. Not so long ago, fireman and air hostess would have been common generic terms for people in certain lines of work. Nowadays, gender-neutral options like firefighter and flight attendant are increasingly preferred.
Before an expression falls into disuse and another takes its place, there can be a period of tension over their respective advantages and acceptability. As people debate such questions, they seek guidance from authoritative sources like dictionaries, which track meanings as they shift and drift and settle anew. Lexicographers’ responsibility in this regard is illustrated in a wry cartoon by Hans Stengel.
One of the arguments against gender-biased terms like fireman and chairman is that they suggest that these roles – and the power and bravery and other virtues associated with them – are the exclusive or particular preserve of men. Sexist terminology often takes the male as norm, the female as derivation or deviation, and men have long considered themselves the quintessential type: Joe Public as “modern man”, putting in man-hours with his manpower.
Men’s longstanding cultural dominance may be seen in the tendency for woman-related words to take on negative connotations far more than do man-related words; Michael’s article mentions several. “Man-words” may be jocular or daft but they are rarely abusive. Little wonder that exclusively female coinages (like do-it-herselfer, girlcott, and femivore) often embody “ideas of empowerment”, as Kerry Maxwell notes in her MED Magazine article on women and new words.
The Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage says,
Society’s attitude toward women, not lists of new taboos, will continue to do the most to set the pace of change.
Dictionaries follow the people’s lead. English belongs to no one and to everyone, and whoever uses it gets to play a part in its constant evolution.