The New Rules of Usage
August 14, 2003
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, its 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 Id 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 Id used the word without knowing this. I didnt
see why Chinaman should be any more offensive than, say,
Frenchman, but I didnt want to offend anyone, so I made a
mental note never to say it.
More recently Ive read
that Oriental is also offensive, because people in the Far East
dont consider their homelands the Orient. The term is
Eurocentric, or something. To me this is like saying we
shouldnt use the word here, because one mans
here is another mans there. Such
language merely reflects some peoples perspective; theres
nothing invidious about it.
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 didnt 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 mens names. Im not sure whether its 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
arent 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 wasnt 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!