Fighting fire with ‘firefighter’

Posted by on August 22, 2011

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.

Comments (11)
  • I wish someone would create a gender-neutral term for ‘postman’ — still defined in MED as ‘someone [not 'a man'] who delivers mail’. The only one I know of is the informal term ‘postie’. I thought there might be some officialese term such as ‘postal delivery operator’ which covers both genders, but according to the Royal Mail website, the official term is ‘postman / postwoman’. I believe the US term ‘mailman’ has the same problem; ditto the British term ‘binman’. Fro subjective reasons I’m not entirely sure about, both ‘postperson’ & ‘binperson’ sound distinctly bizarre. Any suggestions?

    Posted by Janet Gough on 22nd August, 2011
  • Janet: I think the ‘approved’ term in the U.S. is ‘mail carrier’: see e.g. this article in Reader’s Digest:
    http://www.rd.com/13-things/13-things-your-mail-carrier-wont-tell-you/
    The wikipedia entry on the US Postal Service uses mail carrier too.
    Could any American English speakers confirm this?

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 22nd August, 2011
  • Thanks for the link Michael — I hadn’t heard ‘mail carrier’ before to refer to a postie, I’d thought it was the company rather than the person delivering. So that covers the US term – and presumably ‘garbage/waste collector’ is also OK for Brit ‘binman’.
    I wonder why English hasn’t come up with similar non-gender-specific terms? My parents call the person who delivers their post ‘the post lady’ – but that’s probably because a) they’re trying not to annoy me by implying she’s a post*man*; b) they generally use ‘lady’ as a respectful term for a woman; c) the term ‘postie’ is perceived as too informal; & d) there really doesn’t seem to be any generally-used non-gender-specific/non-register-marked terms.
    As for the binmen, I’ve yet to hear any viable Brit alternative that doesn’t specify gender. ‘Refuse collector’ is possibly the PC/official term, but I’ve certainly never heard it used in general conversation (‘the refuse collectors are late today’? – no, it’d have to be ‘the binmen haven’t been yet’, politically incorrect or no).

    Posted by Janet Gough on 22nd August, 2011
  • Janet, Michael, thanks for your comments. Postman is an awkward one, and its replacement terms seem to have gone in several different directions. Postperson doesn’t work for me either, because the post- part isn’t transparently about mail – instead, it makes me think of a postmodern person or a transhumanist! I like postie, but it would probably be too cute or casual for formal use.
    Mail carrier is curious. My first impression on hearing it was that it sounded impersonal, as though it referred to a vehicle or machine rather than a person. Janet, it’s interesting that you had a similar reaction to it. Wikipedia says the official label is a “letter carrier”, which I think is a little more human, though it’s longer and less accurate.
    Postman and postwoman seem fine, but a fully standard gender-neutral term would be handy. Postal worker?

    Posted by Stan on 22nd August, 2011
  • Like you Stan, I think I react badly to ‘postperson’ because ‘post’ is so polysemous (‘postscript: since leaving my post, I’ve posted a post-dated post, posthaste, about a post-war ?postperson?’), whereas ‘postman’ & ‘postwoman’ are sufficiently assimilated into the language for native speakers to know who exactly is being referred to.
    ‘Postal worker’ is too vague for me as it’s used more generally to refer to people who work in sorting offices etc as well as the people who deliver mail — also, like ‘binman’ in my earlier comment, I’d never say ‘the postal worker was late today’ instead of ‘the postie/postman/postwoman was late today’.
    Hey ho, seems we still have a way to go with PC job titles!

    Posted by Janet Gough on 22nd August, 2011
  • Stan:
    As a newspaperperson since the 1960s, I have close experience with this problem, as do lexicographers. Many of the de-gendering suggestions arising from the women’s movement made me squirm; “herstory” for history is one example. In the beginning, many took the tack that “postman” was a generic term. The language, as always, will sort itself out.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 23rd August, 2011
  • Janet: Yes, exactly. Post- simply has too many possible meanings to be obvious enough in a new compound that doesn’t offer any other clues. You make a good point about postal worker, that it doesn’t differentiate between in-house postal workers and, well, mail carriers. I can see postie remaining popular in everyday contexts, but the jury is still out on a more official term. How about mailer? Too reminiscent of Norman?

    Marc: Herstory made me squirm too, at first, but I have softened somewhat towards it. Though it’s etymologically misleading, I don’t think it’ll ever be widespread enough to seriously confuse anyone; it seems to occur almost always in feminism-related discussions, and I acknowledge the points its coinage is intended to illustrate. Jane Mills wrote that the word is “guaranteed to annoy most men, many women and almost all linguists”!

    Posted by Stan on 24th August, 2011
  • Here in SF I think it’s common to say postal clerk when in the actual Post Office, and mail carrier if one is referring to the man or woman in the field delivering the mail, “stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness…”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Postal_Service_creed

    Posted by Kcecelia on 24th August, 2011
  • Forgot to mention: A good usage note is one of life’s great pleasures.

    Posted by Kcecelia on 24th August, 2011
  • Thanks for the report from SF, Katherine, and for the link to the US Postal Service creed. I really like it, and it reminded me of the moment halfway through Laurie Anderson’s O Superman when she draws on the same lines.
    Your note on usage notes is noted, and happily agreed with.

    Posted by Stan on 24th August, 2011
  • [...] to gender: “Fighting fire with ‘firefighter’” is about how some words become outdated for political reasons, and what dictionaries do as [...]

    Posted by Genderally speaking « Sentence first on 1st September, 2011
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