“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will break hearts”
Words matter. Never mind breaking hearts, with words we can change our legal status, incite murder and move borders.
But most importantly, our language shapes our society, how we think and how we behave.
By intentionally adjusting our language, we can steer the direction of our future.
Women are the biggest minority humankind has known, having been sidelined and marginalised in the majority of societies since history began.
The way we use gender specific labels reflects and in turn influences how we think about genders.
For example, to take the words actor and actress or lion and lioness. Having two different words isn’t an issue in itself – the problem comes from the fact that one is the default and the other isn’t. If we don’t know the gender, we use the male form.
Some people will argue that it doesn’t matter which you use, it’s just a word, but it’s the very insiduousness of it that makes it so harmful.
Because using a male form as default leads to an unconsious but deep seated view that the male is the core and the female is the secondary, or sidekick.
As an aside, this imbalance is painfully evident with cartoon animals, where a ‘straight’ depiction is assumed to be a male, and to give the impression the creature is female, you must add eyelashes, a bow and or a skirt and high heels. The most mind bending of these is when it is a cow, complete with udders, being depicted. It is still assumed to be male unless it has eyelashes.
Thankfully, gender based versions of most job words are already falling out of use, which is great news. Now we just need to apply the same principle to all gender specific words where there is not a genuine factual need for specifying.
This goes for terms that at first glance seem respectful, such as ma’am. This can simply be replaced by ‘sir’, as they have done in the rebooted version of Battelstar Galactica, which should be applauded for its progressiveness in neutralising gender roles.
One of the worst offenders of this kind in my opinion is the word ‘mankind’ to encompass all humans. Every time I hear it I have to grit my teeth. And for those who say ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a word, get over it,’ I say, okay then. If it’s just a word and it doesn’t matter which one we use, let’s use womankind.
They don’t tend to like the idea of that, though detailed, well supported arguments tend to hail at the level of ‘pfff’ and ‘tshhh’, or ‘nah’.
So, let me repeat myself: By intentionally adjusting our language, we can steer the direction of our future.
The only question is – where do we want to go?