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Jack Smith

Deperson-ize what you may, it's very clear, dislike of sexually ambiguous words is here to stay

June 25, 1985|JACK SMITH

Evidently the feminist campaign to person-ize the language has succeeded to some extent, judging by my mail; but a majority seems to take a sane view of this folly, as I do, and deplores it.

I have been reprimanded, you may remember, for calling our firemen firemen , instead of the official firefighters , which is sexually ambiguous and therefore apparently inclusive of women.

As I said, I accept firefighters . It is what they are, after all, men or women, and it does not sound contrived and silly, like chairperson or freshperson.

But I don't see why women should object to being called firemen, which simply means persons who fight fires, as human means a human being of either sex, and mankind means all of us--men, women and children.

But I defer to a letter carrier, who has personal feelings on the question:

"I am a letter carrier for the post office," writes Beth O'Sullivan of Seal Beach, "and when I ring a customer's doorbell and they ask, 'Who's there?' I say, 'It's your mailperson.' I have no problem with that word. It rolls easily off my tongue. . . . But I am insulted when I approach adults and they look me straight in the eye and say, 'Here's the mailman.' "

I believe the post office has skirted the problem much as our fire department has, by taking a sexually ambiguous title--namely, letter carrier.

That's not objectionable, but it's two words instead of one, and we have been saying mailman ever since I can remember, and few people have caught on to letter carrier . Our own mailman refers to his female substitute as a mailperson, not without irony.

That the attempt to person-ize the language can be ludicrous is pointed out by Tom Cullen of San Pedro: "I remember a haunting ballad of some years ago, 'Wichita Lineman.' Would it not be much improved by changing the words to read, 'I am a plant construction installer for the county'? And how about Nelson Eddy singing 'Give me some persons who are stout-hearted persons,' and a Welsh chorus singing 'Persons of Harlech'?"

Steve Allen, a man of multifarious talent, writes that he has discovered something as a public speaker: "If I am saying something uncomplimentary about the human race I am perfectly free to use terms such as man , mankind , manpower etc. But if my statement reflects credit on the human species then it is wise to avoid such terms.

"Apparently," Allen adds, "women wish to share in the credit for human accomplishment but are not quite so prepared to be identified as members of the species when the subject under discussion is the depravity, sinfulness and destructiveness, which have always been part of the human predicament."

I haven't noticed that women are reluctant to share the blame for the dark side of our nature, but they can't deny that they're human.

In their disdain for all nouns ending in man , there is a point that women almost never discuss, even when it is raised by some male chauvinist (speaking of distortions of the language) like me.

That is the man in the word woman . The word by which all women are known comes from the Old English wif-man . It is simply wife plus man . (The word man then meant humankind.) The first word for women in Old English was simply wife .

Though it should be humiliating to know that they are identified by a word that describes their function in humankind as wives, women know they cannot disown the word; to do so would be to leave them nameless, to abandon their identity in the language altogether.

What would be left: Lady? Female? Girl? Person?

Meanwhile they want to change the man in motorman , mailman and fireman to person . Actually, the man in those words does not mean male , it means person; a human being.

As I say, there are many who disagree.

"Today you wrote that if your house and babies were burning, you would scream 'Fireman!' " writes Hilary Sommers. "This is indeed interesting reading; however, it is insufficient reason to discourage the progress of a language whose nature is characteristically one of change and which strives (supposedly) for precision. Perhaps when you are less hysterical, you will know what I am talking about."

I assume that Hilary is a woman, partly because of her indignation. Actually, I did not say that I would scream "Fireman!" I said I would shout "Fireman save my child!" the point being that, under stress, one thinks in cliches, and the old forms prevail.

It is true that as soon as my hysteria subsided, I might be able to think of "firefighter." By that time I hope some fireman would already have saved my child.

A poignant point is raised by Sharon Noble of North Hollywood, an actress:

"I strongly support your point of view," she writes. "But I wish you had included the one that causes me the most irritation. I am an actor, and in my profession most of the terminology is sexless--writers of both sexes are termed writers; directors of both sexes are termed directors; singers and dancers, musicians, producers, script assistants, drivers of both sexes are still called by the same term. Then why is my husband an 'actor' while I am an 'actress'?"

I'm sorry, Miss Noble. That's just the way it is. Can you imagine calling Katharine Hepburn an actor? Elizabeth Taylor? Dolly Parton?

Actresses, like women, are here to stay.

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