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What’s in A Word? Much More Than We Think!

With Special Guest: Author Adrien Sdao

 

Waiting somewhat patiently at the information desk in my local Barnes & Noble a few months ago, I was accosted by a paperback displayed on a small table nearby. It literally grabbed my attention and has held it for quite some time. The book had a matte black cover with the words ManUp (with no spacing) in large letters on the front. “Man” was in white, “Up” in yellow, and a cross was standing proudly at the top of the U. The subtitle: Becoming a Godly Man in an Ungodly World—workbook included.

 

So many images and judgements packed into those 9 words. (I’m counting ManUp as one.)

 

Just 9 words. Wielding a world of power.

 

I wondered who would be drawn to such a book? The pull is certainly there—the title is extremely provocative—but what kind of person would be hoping to find himself within those pages?

 

Man Up? Godly Man?

What exactly is a “Godly Man?” I wondered. And who gave the author the authority to claim to know the answer and possess the ability to guide men in that direction (whatever that direction may be).

 

I saw that book in June, right before Father’s Day—a lifetime ago in our rapidly changing social and political environment. But it has stayed with me. Its message feels even more powerful today.

 

Man Up. It’s a phrase that people use all the time, without giving it much thought. But we are entering a new time when it comes to what flies between men and women, boys and girls. Maybe we need to take a closer look at our words, question our language. And I have a few questions about “Man Up”:

 

  • Since when has “man” become a verb?
  • What does “Manning Up” really mean?
  • What does “Manning Up” look like?

 

Can’t you just hear the judgements screaming out in that phrase—judgments about a “right” way to be a “man,” the “suck it up” attitude, the shaming of feelings, the bullying tone?

 

Adri – A Self-Portrait

And what about the subtle, but powerful, messages about the inferiority of women?

 

Many words we use on a regular basis are shaming—particularly to women. Think about these “feminine” adjectives: “Bitchy,” “Catty,” “Hysterical,” “Emotional”—and even the seemingly innocuous “Blond!”

 

What do these words say about us as a society? And when we use them ourselves, what do they say about us?

 

Gender-biased Language—What Is It?

 

Gender-biased language includes all words and expressions that only reference one gender when discussing a concept that includes all people. “Mankind” is a perfect example. “Human” is another. How many such words can you think of?

 

“Man-made,” “workman’s compensation,” “man-hours,” for example.

How about the words “woman” and “women”? (Some people prefer this spelling: womyn.)

 

The English language is particularly biased to favor men. We can see this is not only in specific words but also in our grammatical rules (which are changing—thank goodness)! Not too long ago, using masculine words was the “proper” way to refer to a person when we were unsure of his or her gender. Students were instructed to use male pronouns (he, him, his, himself) when the subject’s gender was unspecified, or when the subject included both males and females: “Each student is responsible for his own homework,” is a good example.

 

What’s the Big Deal?

 

While most of us don’t consciously favor men (and exclude everyone else) in our language, the words we choose do make a difference. Language reflects culture, societal values, and norms. And, it influences the way we think. Gender-biased words have an effect on how we value things in the world—including people.

 

(If you are interested in more of the science about the connection between gendered language and thought, you might want to check out Steven B. Jackson’s article in Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culture-conscious/201209/masculine-or-feminine-and-why-it-matters.)

 

Words in the Workplace

 

Gender-biased words can impact how we think about jobs and, in turn, affect employment opportunities.  Words like “mailman,” “policeman,” and “fireman,” for example, bring male images to mind; would you want your granddaughter to think there’s no place for her fighting fires? Maybe—it’s dangerous work, and you might want her to choose a safer path. But would you feel the same way about your grandson? If not, why not?

 

Just food for thought.

 

Next, let’s consider the word “chairman.” I don’t think any of us would want any woman we loved to miss out on the chance to break through the glass ceiling—given that’s her goal. But have any of us ever been blocked from climbing another rung on the professional ladder because we are women? Don’t we all know someone who has? Gender-biased language may have something to do with this!

 

Consider this riddle (It’s an old one, but if you’ve seen it, it’s worth revisiting):

 

A father and son get in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital. The father dies. The boy is taken to the operating room and the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy, because he’s my son.”

How is this possible?

Answer: The surgeon is the boy’s mother!

 

Were you stumped? If you were, you’re in good company. It turns out that 78% of self-described feminists in a study conducted at BU were not able to solve this riddle; even they did not imagine that the surgeon could have been a woman (or that the surgeon could have been the boy’s gay, second father).[1]

 

Have you ever caught yourselves describing a physician you know as a “female doctor?” If not, I bet that you’ve heard the expression. Have you ever stopped to question it? Do people feel the need to describe physicians as a “male” doctors? I don’t think so. It’s clearly understood.

What about the terms “male nurse” or “working mother”? Does anyone ever say “working father”???

Let’s talk sex.

While things are certainly beginning to change linguistically in the work world, sex and sex roles are a whole different linguistic animal. When it comes to the language of sex, gender differences, biases, and judgments still thrive.

Here’s one example I saw in the study “Sexism in Language” by Professor Xiaolan Lei, published in the Journal of Language and Linguistics.[2] What comes to mind when you think of the expression “man on the street?” Success? Knowledge? Switch “man” to “woman on the street” and many people would take a 180 shift—to prostitute.

 

Hmm … I rest my case.

 

Here’s another interesting linguistic sex gem: According to Professor Lei, North American English has no fewer than 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman, but only twenty for sexually promiscuous men! (I have reached out to Professor Lei for the list—I am wracking my brain to come up with the words—and if he sends it to me, I will pass it along.)

 

All Gender-Referenced Language is Biased

Adri – Another Self-Portrait

So, we’ve explored the male/female thing, but implicit in this very discussion is a deeper bias. Why do so many of us think solely in terms of male/female? Haven’t we learned that gender is more fluid than that? When we use any gendered terms, we are excluding/discounting/rendering invisible all those who identify as non-binary or agender. I, for one, don’t want to be guilty of discounting anybody—any body!!!

Remember the grammar example I used above—how students were instructed to use the male pronoun “he” when referring to a person whose gender was unspecified? Well, lots of us—me included—used to think we were being progressive by instead saying “he or she” or switching it up (sometimes using “he” at other times “she”). Guess what, my friends—that “progressive” approach is not gender neutral! But if we use the pronoun “they,” we will cover everyone—and isn’t that what we’re aiming for?

I have to admit that this language shift felt awkward at first for this English teacher. “They,” in my mind, had always represented more than one. But then I realized that that is exactly the point. We want to create the space for more than one—for every-one—so “they” it is and will be!

(For an interesting and informative discussion on gender neutral language—especially pronouns—check this out: https://lifehacker.com/how-to-use-gender-neutral-pronouns-1821239054. There are many other helpful guides online as well.)

What Does This Have to Do Rediscovery?

Everything!

Our world is in the midst of great change—in technology and in social norms. Most of us grew up without ever questioning language. There were rules, and we knew them. There were good words and bad words; words we said when we were with our parents and others we saved for our friends. We may have cherished language and sentences in the literature we read (Yes! Kids and adolescents read books back in the day!) But the connections of language to thought, of language to belief systems, and of language to opportunity—and discrimination—were just not on our radar. Now that we have greater awareness, we are faced the freedom—and responsibility—of choice.

How will we express ourselves? Which words will we choose?

 

Let’s Experiment

I am offering up this challenge: take note of the gendered words you use.

Keep a list of those as well as any gender-neutral words you consciously choose as alternatives. Reflect on how the different words make you feel.

Little conscious shifts in language can be empowering—to you and to others around you. 

 

Was a time that language/gender or other “identifying” label created a barrier for you? 

 

LAST BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST

I have asked my dear friend—and co-MFA student Adri—to collaborate with me on this post. Adri is a beautiful writer and a trans person. They have generously shared the piece “you erase my nonbinary identity when.” The piece has two parts, each with a short introduction, each from Adri’s perspective at a different stage of their life.

 

Please read, learn, enjoy. And check out Adri’s other published work:  http://lunchticket.org/author/adrien-sdao/

 

you erase my nonbinary identity when

 

December 4th, 2011 – I was living on campus at UC Irvine, and I’d finally come to realize that I couldn’t cure my gender dysphoria by ignoring it. I joined a support group on campus for trans people. I gained not only friends, but also a more nuanced understanding of gender. I thought back to my childhood feelings, to my interactions with my family and with strangers, to the war with my body that had begun at puberty and never ended. I knew I needed some solution that would stop my periods, change my voice, and bring my true face into the world. I knew I was not a girl, but I also knew I would never be a man. I came to understand my gender as nonbinary (neither male nor female), and more specifically, agender (without gender entirely). These terms are more than just words. They are a way to communicate who I’ve always been with a society that is just beginning to understand these things are even possible. In December 2011, I was six months shy of beginning testosterone. I was frustrated with the world around me and its unshakeable focus on the binary gender system, so I wrote this list.

 

you erase my nonbinary identity when

 

you say “boys and girls”

you say “men and women”

you say “ladies and gentlemen”

you say “sir” or “ma’am/miss”

you label bathrooms/locker rooms “men” and “women”

you label clothing as “boys/men” and “girls/women”

you segregate housing by sex

you split the class into male groups and female groups

you say “it would be easier for me to call you ‘he’ than ‘they'”

you assume my pronouns are “she” and “her”

you suggest that I take T to become more ambiguous-looking

you assume I’m going to take steps to transition at all

you hold doors open for me (esp. if you force me to step through first)

you assume I cannot assist with physical labor of any sort

you talk to me about your period as if I am another girl

you talk to me about anything as if I am another girl

you categorize me as “FtM” or “transmasculine” or a “transman”

you tell me I would look better with long hair

you call me “pretty,” “handsome,” or any other adjective with a gendered connotation

you assume that because I am quiet that I am demure

you won’t use certain language around me (curse words, words seen as crude or unfit for use around women)

you compare me to women physically, emotionally, or mentally

you compare me to men physically, emotionally, or mentally

you assume things about my sexuality

you assume things about my sexual past

you label products I have to use “feminine” (“feminine hygiene products”)

you assume I want to look like or be perceived as a male

you assume I want to distance myself from all things female

you think that I can’t be trans because I like to paint my nails, because I don’t bind every day, because I giggle, because I don’t try to “pass,” because my mannerisms seem “female” or “feminine”

you think I should give up the label of “sister” (a label I embrace because of the importance my siblings, especially my seven-year-old sister, place on it)

you think my hobbies are “girly” or “feminine” (I like to crochet and sew)

you assume I should know how to cook (I burn water trying to boil it)

you assume I am delicate or dainty in body or mind

you call me “female-bodied” (this is a nonbinary body)

you assume I ever had to come out (I have never actually come out as nonbinary but everybody in my family and circle of friends know)

you have an “M” box and an “F” box but no “other” box

you say “gender” when you mean “sex”

you say “women” when you mean “females”

you assume that me in drag would be me dressed as a male

you assume that me in drag would be me dressed as a female

you assume that I dislike wearing dresses

you think my fears are “girly” (I dislike insects, car wrecks, and horror movies)

you call me a “tomboy”

you call me a “dyke” or “butch” or “lesbian”

you tell me to choose one or the other

 

June 1st, 2018 – Six years on testosterone has brought about all my desired changes. My dysphoria has morphed into a tamer, more tolerable beast. I’m not planning for any surgeries, though that could change in the future. I’m still nonbinary and agender. I still like to crochet, and I’m still scared of bugs. Now, I’m more likely to be called “sir” than “miss,” though it doesn’t feel like an improvement. These days, though, I’m far more likely to be seen for what I am—not she, not he, but they.

 

you erase my nonbinary identity when

 

you say “man” and “woman” are opposites

you make generalizations about men and women

you make generalizations about trans people

you misgender trans people you don’t like

you misgender trans people who haven’t yet medically transitioned

you misgender trans people who will never medically transition at all

you intentionally misgender any person, trans or cis, for any reason

you assume my gender does not change over time

you assume I plan to have surgery

you think my transition is incomplete

you think my transition is complete

you think I will take T for the rest of my life

you think I will live as a boy for the rest of my life

you talk to me or about me as if I am a man

you talk to me about women as if there are no women present

you attempt to validate me as a man

you call me “handsome” or a “gentleman”

you call me “man” or “bro”

you attempt to validate me as a gay man

you call me “gurl” or “hooker”

you assume I am either straight or gay (I’m bi)

you assume my pronouns are “he” and “him”

you continue to call me “he” and “him” after being told my pronouns are “they” and “them”

you think my pronouns are “preferred” (they’re mandatory)

you look at me in disgust

you say “I don’t understand why you have breasts”

you tell me I need a haircut

you laugh when I wear a dress

you say my gender presentation confuses you

you validate my nonbinary identity when

you use gender-neutral terms for me

you brainstorm new gender-neutral terms with me

you use my mandatory pronouns when I’m not around

you ask if certain gendered words are ok (brother is great, never bro)

you replace the “unisex” stick man and woman bathroom sign with an “all gender” sign

you scope out or accompany me into a gendered bathroom

you seek out gender-neutral bathrooms when we’re together

you compliment my jewelry

you compliment my clothes

you compliment my eyes

you compliment my work

you talk to me as if I am a person, not a gender

 

Adrien Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the Young Adult genre at Lunch Ticket. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.

 

 

Thanks for reading, everyone!!

See you next Monday!

Diane

Diane Gottlieb

P.S. The very name of this blog was inspired to push back at gender-biased language. Why menopause, for goodness sake? I did my research, and I am pleased to report that both our monthly blood flow (menstruation) and the cessation of such were not named with the masculine in mind. The “men” in menstruation and menopause come from the Greek root “mene,” which means “month.” The Greek “pausen” actually translates to stop, or halt, not pause as we think of it, which makes sense too, as in menopause we are not pausing our menstrual cycles but are kissing them good-bye!

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.bu.edu/today/2014/bu-research-riddle-reveals-the-depth-of-gender-bias/

[2] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d03a/fdaa103c8526b75523cdadbacfd4a4d27041.pdf

 

12 Comments

  1. Jerry Parent on October 18, 2018 at 1:23 am

    Thanks Diane and Adri for sharing such a powerful essay, and message! I have to admit that even I was stumped by the father/son riddle. I did, however, go to the “gay” father side, for obvious reasons. I felt (rightfully) shamed, however, for not immediately going there with a womyn as the doctor! Bad Jerry!

    The only point I will push back on is the holding of a door for someone else to pass through it. It is who I am as a person, and I do it regardless of identity. It’s my way of saying to someone that you are valued in my eyes, and hope you will pass on a kind deed to someone else. My feelings get hurt when I am scolded for doing it, and that has happened. Life is too short to scold someone over a kindness! Also, I lived my life growing up in the hotel business, and I would have been fired if I didn’t do that! Ha!

    I was so grateful, however, to read both of your perspectives on this subject. So important that this message gets out there. I would have personally loved to have seen this published in LT. Maybe a new version of it next PP? I will no longer be the editor, but it’s a perfect fit for the publication!

    Love to both of you…
    J

    • Diane Gottlieb on October 18, 2018 at 6:13 pm

      Hi Jerry! Thanks so much for your thoughts! I, too, was stumped by the riddle–on both counts! I am totally with you on the holding of doors. When any person holds a door for me, I do feel valued. When they don’t, I get pissed! I hold doors for everyone–isn’t that the least we can do for our fellow humyns (did I just come up with that–lol!)
      And thanks also for suggesting we bring this to LT! I will run it by Kori and see what she thinks!
      We will all miss you–but best of luck as you move on to the next!

  2. Dorothy on October 17, 2018 at 3:04 pm

    I’m exhausted… i have always tried to live my life with kindness being foremost in my interactions with all people. I think there are many different lifestyles and identities that go along with them, how can we as a people accomodate each ? Especially as “new rules” aren’t we replacing unwanted “old rules” with the new? For me I will continue to strive to be as kind as I can to all people without the stressful apologies, because I have never meant to harm consciously or unconsciously.

    • Diane Gottlieb on October 18, 2018 at 6:16 pm

      I hear you, Dorothy. I am not sure if you read Adri’s response to Greta when she raised a similar concern, so I’m reposting it here for you. I think it will make you feel less tired!

      “I wanted to say that my intent is certainly not to judge anyone. The list is meant to bring attention to both overt harassment and microaggressions I’ve encountered in my everyday life, and to provide solid ways for cisgender people to be allies. For a nonbinary trans person, the binary language most folks use without thinking about it can be extremely othering/isolating. By avoiding binary-gendered language, or by simply being more inclusive with your language (ie., “boys and girls” become “kids” or “friends,” “ladies and gentlemen” becomes “colleagues” or “esteemed guests,” etc.), you validate the feelings and lives of nonbinary folks, many of whom keep their nonbinary identity a secret from the world at large. It makes a huge difference, at least to me, when I hear cisgender people working to change their language–especially when they don’t realize there are any trans folks present! After all, language and thought are intimately related, and if the language is changing, so are people’s thoughts.

      About the list–it can be boiled down: Don’t make assumptions, about anything. Gender is not defined by hobbies or clothes. Offer to accompany your trans friend into public restrooms. That’s about all the important stuff!”

  3. Andrea Auten on October 16, 2018 at 2:05 am

    Adri Sdao is the first nonbinary colleague and writing friend I’ve known. When I stumbled during a seminar and publicly used a pronoun not preferable, I found Adri immediately afterward and began a conversation that engaged the relationship we have now. I said, Forgive me, I am underdeveloped in my language, but not in my respect. Adri met me with equal respect and thanked me for my candor. Since that time, I have retooled the muscles of my own language.

    I want womyn to replace the other term. I want lady to just plain go away. Hysterectomy is particularly offensive because I’ve suffered through one and the history (HIS-story) is pretty awful as to why they’re called hysterical procedures in the first place. But I DID have to have mine and my fine lesbian surgeon saved my ovaries which I was able to live with intact for 10 more years before they too had to be removed. I want to honor you both for your powerful language and life understanding pursuits, here.

    Former students have found me through social media who are gender identifying differently from the days when I taught them. The trust relationship I cherish between student and teacher remains the same and these students know I’m unchanging in my care for them. What I offer as an ally is the lighthouse that remains lit. Language changes, words adjust, and I will constantly ask how people want to be addressed. What stays the same is loyalty, integrity, and perspective.

    • Diane Gottlieb on October 16, 2018 at 2:18 am

      Hi Andrea! Thanks, so much for sharing your thoughts. I am not surprised that your former students have reached out to you–your love and care are constant!
      I also had a hysterectomy–cervix first and ovaries a few years later. When I had to decide whether or not to let go of my cervix, my male doctor told me not to be “greedy.” “You already have 3 healthy children,” he said. Wish I had your doc!

  4. Nicky Mendenhall on October 13, 2018 at 3:42 pm

    This is an amazing post! I learned about using “they” – I am so happy to know that this is the option preferred. Thanks for the education!

    • Diane Gottlieb on October 13, 2018 at 7:33 pm

      Thanks, Nicky! There is so much to learn and think about, so much that we have for so many years taken for granted that needs to be turned on its head! I am actually not sure if “they” is the preferred option for everyone. I know that it’s Adri’s. I will defer to Adri on this one.

      • Adri on October 14, 2018 at 6:06 pm

        That’s right, Diane. It’s always best to ask each individual what pronouns they use. For me, they is best, but for other trans people, binary options such as he and she can be the most validating.

  5. Greta Holt on October 12, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    To answer your question, no. But I was surrounded by such strong womyn that I assumed the male pronoun did include womyn and that no harm was being done. As my generation has known since the ’70s movement, though, language does matter. I recommend last night’s Jimmy Kimble show with Lynzy Lab and her “A Scary Time” (for Boys.)

    Adri’s art is beautiful, and I wish them the best in the YA world. Their list is daunting, though. How can communication and love take place if those of us who are finding our way toward them are so judged? Ah-ha, but without these lists, we have no frame of reference for how to communicate!

    • Diane Gottlieb on October 13, 2018 at 1:40 pm

      Hi Greta! I am so glad that you had strong womyn models! Language does matter, and sometimes it is hard to find our way to the right words. I appreciate your question and have passed it on to Adri. They will get back to you!
      Thanks so much for jumping in on the discussion!

    • Adri on October 14, 2018 at 6:19 pm

      Thanks so much for the compliment about my art! I wanted to say that my intent is certainly not to judge anyone. The list is meant to bring attention to both overt harassment and microaggressions I’ve encountered in my everyday life, and to provide solid ways for cisgender people to be allies. For a nonbinary trans person, the binary language most folks use without thinking about it can be extremely othering/isolating. By avoiding binary-gendered language, or by simply being more inclusive with your language (ie., “boys and girls” become “kids” or “friends,” “ladies and gentlemen” becomes “colleagues” or “esteemed guests,” etc.), you validate the feelings and lives of nonbinary folks, many of whom keep their nonbinary identity a secret from the world at large. It makes a huge difference, at least to me, when I hear cisgender people working to change their language–especially when they don’t realize there are any trans folks present! After all, language and thought are intimately related, and if the language is changing, so are people’s thoughts.

      About the list–it can be boiled down: Don’t make assumptions, about anything. Gender is not defined by hobbies or clothes. Offer to accompany your trans friend into public restrooms. That’s about all the important stuff!

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