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JACK SMITH

No Place for the New Genderless Words in His Lexicon

July 16, 1991|JACK SMITH

I have refrained from commenting on the new Random House Webster's Collegiate Dictionary because I don't have one.

I already own at least eight dictionaries (one is enough), and I see no reason to add one whose main contribution seems to be the inclusion of politically correct words like herstory for history , watron and waitperson for waitress and waiter, and womyn for women .

I have sometimes been called sexist for my objection to genderless words, but I do not believe that women's cause is advanced by the use of such words as herstory and womyn .

Although I still have not seen the dictionary, I trust that the several reviews I have read have quoted it accurately, and my comment is limited to the entries quoted.

Herstory is of course ridiculous. History is history, whether it is about men or women. Besides, the his in history does not refer to men; it comes from the Greek histor , meaning learned. If women want to call themselves womyn , I don't object. But what does a woman call herself? Waitron and waitperson are simply absurd. I suspect they'd rather be called "Hey, you!"

Random House also admits such coined words as heightism and weightism to denote a prejudice against the short and the fat. Of course we no longer use such names as Shorty and Fats, which used to be heard on every school ground. There are several synonyms for fat persons (heavy, big, large, weighty), but what do you call a person who is short?

If giving it a name will discourage such prejudice, I can't oppose it. But I'd have more compassion for a fat waitress than for a fat waitron. A waitron sounds like a robot and a waitperson sounds sexless.

Meanwhile, Martin E. Mullen Jr. sends me a copy of Smith College's guide for sexless and non-pejorative language.

Smith lists ableism as meaning oppression of the differently abled , meaning persons who are not handicapped or disabled but merely differently abled. It is an embarrassing euphemism that I doubt the handicapped would apply to themselves.

A new one is lookism , "the belief that appearance is an indicator of a person's value." Smith notes that both those who do meet our standards of beauty and those who don't may be oppressed by lookism. Lookism is an attitude that is widely held and not easily discouraged. There's not much we can do about the fact that a pretty girl is like a melody. (Make that pretty person. )

Smith also blacklists ageism , meaning the oppression of the young and the old in the belief that they are incapable of taking care of themselves. Alas, such incapacities exist. But of course the young and the old don't like to be reminded of them.

Mullen also sends an article on "Discriminatory Language" from a publication called the Creative Secretary's Letter. It suggests such acceptable synonyms as adulterer for adulteress ; adventurer for adventuress ; former student for alumna or alumnus ; single person for bachelor ; beach attendant for beachboy ; betrothed for fiance and fiancee and surviving spouse for widow or widower .

Adulteress , I admit, like aviatrix , is a sexist word, in that a woman may be just as adept at adultery as a man and need not be identified by sex. But adulteress has an especially sinful sound to it; one thinks of the scarlet letter.

Adventuress likewise evokes a romantic image; one thinks of Ava Gardner in her safari clothes in "Mogambo." Adventurer just wouldn't be evocative of Ava in that role.

Of course single person will not do for the time-honored bachelor ; can you imagine saying "the most eligible single person?" Of course its opposite, bachelor girl , is probably an anathema to women, and spinster is worse. Why not simply say that the man or woman is single? Or why say?

Betrothed is often used, but it has a medieval sound that fiance and fiancee do not. Fiance and fiancee are happy borrowings from the French, like hors d'oeuvre , and give us a convenient choice of gender endings.

Substituting surviving spouse for widow and widower I do not see at all. In origin the word widow is genderless. In Old English it meant separate . Men need not feel slighted by that er tacked on to make it masculine. Can you imagine a man telling a woman he meets on a cruise, "I'm a surviving spouse"? All he needs to say is "I'm single."

It's up to you. None of these words will stay in the language if they don't get the popular vote.

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