31 May 2021

Verbal Issues That Go Beyond Pet Peeves

I originally thought I was going to write the usual frivolous rant.

You know the kind of thing—how people say, "just between you and I." Would they say, "just between we?" Why can't they figure this out?

Or, "Let's face it," as a preface to a generalized assumption about what people think, usually one that I don't share. I once heard a highly respected mystery writer say, "Let's face it, you can never have too many handbags." I responded tactlessly because I honestly thought she was kidding.

But mere verbal peccadillos are hardly worth talking about these days. What's really making me bite nails is the way today's extremists insist on making language, beautiful language, political, and try to impose it on us all with extreme prejudice.

My first post-motherhood job in 1977 was an editorial job at McGraw-Hill, a publisher that was proud to have created the first guide to nonsexist language for its editors' use. I felt like Wonder Woman as I changed the likes of "workmen" to "workers" and "every man" to "everyone" in my big project, an accounting textbook. It felt wonderful, and there's no question in my mind that it made a difference to women. What's happening now feels more like an attack on free speech. More than one fellow writer has said to me privately that it's not safe to say what you think. There's a fine line between changes and censorship, between the evolution of language and the imposition of a political party line that uses language to impose its views.

I'm not talking about the use of "they" and "them" as singular subject and object pronouns for a trans, non-binary, or gender fluid individual. That's the usage that's evolved, so let's accept it. The problem starts when self-appointed language police start "correcting" users of traditional pronouns, ie "he, she, him, her," in reference to individual men and women.

We hear a lot lately about the right for groups of people to call themselves what they themselves wish to be called. Most of us take this very seriously. We respect the right of former Hispanics to be called Latinx, of former African-Americans to be called people of color, or former transsexuals to be called trans people. In fact, I was corrected the other day when I referred to someone not present who'd changed their name from Someone-a to Someone-o as a trans person. Apparently, since that person might be gender fluid, gender expansive, or non-binary rather than trans (neither of us knew), I wasn't supposed to use a noun at all, but stick to a pronoun, they, in a sentence in which a noun was called for. I've been fighting for the rights of others my whole life, and I'm not afraid to stand up and say, If this be treason, I'm still gonna use a noun.

I thought an online corporate training module on workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation went too far when it counseled employees to avoid the term "pregnant women," substituting "pregnant people." I googled "pregnant men," and it seems trans men do get pregnant. It's a serious issue. A significant number become depressed or suicidal as a result. But if pregnant women become invisible—well, women have been invisible before, and it's not a good thing.

One last beef. We all have the right to be called what we want to be called. Really? All of us? Speaking of invisible, I'm not happy, as a Jewish woman (only two degrees of separation from people who died in Auschwitz), to be labeled a "privileged white." If so, why are white supremacists throwing bombs into synagogues? Evidently they're reading a different set of labels. Finally, I'm a woman with the organs and identity I was born with, and I never asked to be called a cis. I do not give my permission to be called a cis. I am woman, hear me roar.


  1. A good piece. It seems there are always people who are eager to turn justified change into an excuse for power grabs.

  2. Thanks, Janice. Fascinating and appalling how that keeps happening.

  3. Liz, I think you covered the subject in a very competent manner. Thank you. Part of my problem these days is that this old he dinosaur has trouble keeping up with the rapid changes. I have no intention of offending anyone, but sometimes have no idea of how to call who what, yet it appears they can call me anything they want. It seems the Rules Police can keep changing the game.

  4. The changes are indeed rapid, and hard to memorize. (Patton Oswalt did a great rant about that in one of his stand-ups - "Talking for Clapping" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ah1b758tycA&list=PLmffvsgBbSwQmPQOICzKPlZJsTeQNpYlA&index=6 - start at about the 3:00 mark)
    Meanwhile, the Alexandrian Greek poet C. V. Cavafy had it much easier - Greek has 3 pronouns and you can use the neuter one for whatever you choose, no offense taken.

  5. R.T., it's hard for anyone of any spiritual persuasion or none to criticize the Serenity Prayer, which pinpoints "the wisdom to know the difference" between changing (standing up for/ naming/ policing etc) YOURSELF and trying to do the same for other people. It's not only offensive, it's impossible. And gives you symptoms of loss of serenity, like insomnia and IBS.

  6. Eve, I bet the young among the Language Police don't know the ancient Greeks already knew about "they," singular. They who do not study history...

  7. Oh Liz. I'm so glad you launched this discussion. You're brave to step into the minefield… a male's big feet would have left a huge blast hole in the blog.

    My NYU is now giving folks a choice of 30-some sexual identities. Predictably, they were assailed on the left for omitting numerous selections in their paltry list, and criticized by the right for attempting it at all.

    Even more stumping is an Alice-in-Wonderland confusion and conflation between one's pronoun and one's actual biological organs. Can we imagine birth-control packaging in the future?

    Don't people have more important issues to address?

    Interesting viewpoint:

    1. Referring to your concluding paragraph about Jewish privileged whites, I stumbled upon the most ghastly, evil naming of all.

      I confess I found the Karen-outings mildly amusing, especially since I know a real Karen named Karen whom the appellation fits to a leotard T. And then I saw references to a 'Sara'– explained to me as a Jewish Karen. These — can I call them ƒ-tards? — went on to say the ultimate Sara was Anne Frank.

      The thought brought– and still brings– a sickening punch to the gut. Pity they can't have a tiny taste of what she went through. What a bizarre world we tiptoe through.


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