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 The New Rules of Usage 

August 14, 2003

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 passé, 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.

[Breaker quote: Is good English offensive?]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 philosopher.

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!

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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