August 14, 2003

by Joe Sobran

     A reader scolds me for calling myself "gay" in the 
old sense, on grounds that the word now means 
"homosexual." Sorry, but I love the word. Why should I 
yield it to a cause I consider unsavory?

     Even the staid NEW YORK TIMES has adopted the new 
meaning, dropping the pretense of journalistic 
neutrality. The rest of the unbiased liberal media have 
followed suit. Partly, I suppose, it's a matter of 
convenience: it helps keep headlines short. But it 
insinuates approval of something most people still 
consider abnormal, distasteful, and even sinful.

     The media bend over backwards to avoid being 
"offensive" to "minorities" -- certain favored 
minorities, anyway, or what might be called the forces of 
Organized Touchiness. When I was a lad, "colored" was 
considered a perfectly polite word for people of African 
ancestry, as in "the National Association for the 
Advancement of Colored People." But then "colored" began 
to seem condescending, and was replaced by "Negro." In 
time "Negro" yielded to "black," which had formerly 
seemed rude. Once I'd gotten used to "black," we were 
instructed that the correct term was "African-American." 
Today, "colored" is passe, but "people of color" is 
acceptable. White people have remained white all along, 
for some reason.

     Many years ago I read that the word "Chinaman" was 
offensive. I swallowed hard, wondering how many times I'd 
used the word without knowing this. I didn't see why 
"Chinaman" should be any more offensive than, say, 
"Frenchman," but I didn't want to offend anyone, so I 
made a mental note never to say it.

     More recently I've read that "Oriental" is also 
offensive, because people in the Far East don't consider 
their homelands the Orient. The term is "Eurocentric," or 
something. To me this is like saying we shouldn't use the 
word "here," because one man's "here" is another man's 
"there." Such language merely reflects some people's 
perspective; there's nothing invidious about it.

     Even pronouns have fallen under the scrutiny of the 
new verbal etiquette. I was taught that it was wrong to 
say, "Everyone has their own favorite," because 
"everyone" is singular and "their" is plural. The proper 
way to say it was "his own favorite," because "his" 
agrees with "everyone" and might refer to a person of 
either sex.

     But in time, "his" became offensive, or at least 
"insensitive," to women (or at least to feminists), so 
the press became cluttered with "he or she" and "his or 
her" and "himself or herself." Sometimes a feminine 
pronoun seemed to be acceptable for referring to both 
sexes, or to an antecedent of unspecified sex, as in 
"Every philosopher has her own favorite." I actually read 
this in a book by a philosopher of the liberal 
persuasion, who didn't seem to worry about offending 
males with his pronouns. Out of curiosity I scoured the 
index, but was unable to find the name of a single female 

     Naturally the word "mankind" is now out of favor. So 
are feminine forms like "actress." Even hurricanes -- 
half of them, anyway -- are now given men's names. I'm 
not sure whether it's still permissible to refer to a 
ship as "she"; but I shudder to think of the countless 
women whose feelings have been wounded over the centuries 
by foul-mouthed sailors calling their vessels "she."

     Even that archconservative lexicographer Dr. Samuel 
Johnson acknowledged that language is in constant flux, 
and can never be frozen; but many of these novelties 
aren't natural, organic changes. Far from making English 
more expressive, they impose new inhibitions on it, 
forcing us to change our habits and customs and to feel 
we can hardly open our mouths without walking on eggs.

     And at least the old rules of usage were mere 
matters of style; it wasn't considered morally wicked to 
violate them. But the new rules are dictated by political 
militancy, and breaking them may have serious 
consequences. Use the wrong pronoun, and you may be 
legally liable for creating a "hostile workplace 
environment," or some such thing. "They nailed me for 
grand larceny. What are you in here for?" "I broke the 
he/she rule at the office."

     And the old rules aspired to elegance and economy. 
The new rules are like Federal regulations, needlessly 
complicating our lives and making us self-conscious when 
we should be relaxed. Big Sibling is watching you!


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