Linguistic Rantings

Note: This page is part of the archives of the Phrontistery, but is no longer being updated.

I have put together, for your entertainment and edification, a number of very brief diatribes on various aspects of language. Some of these are rather odd, and I may not believe them entirely myself. I hope that, even if any of these make you angry, sick and/or tired, that you will find the time to comment on what I have written here.

On Left and Right as Epithetic Terms

	I am certain that most of us have read a number of magazines, 
newspapers, etc., in which reference is made to "leftist guerrillas", or 
“leftist dictators”, and so on.  However, we do not see a similar 
frequency for the term “rightist”.  “Right-wing” makes regular 
appearances, certainly more than its counterpart.  This phenomenon seems 
odd, at first.  But, in a strange way, it may represent the use of 
linguistic propaganda by certain media outlets.  For, in using terms 
which refer to “wings”, there is a natural assumption of an assembly, or 
government, or some sort of avenue for discourse between differing 
viewpoints.  I have certainly never seen social democratic parties such 
as Canada’s NDP or Britain’s Labour party referred to as “leftist 
regimes”, but certainly as “left-wing parties”.  By using the term 
“leftist”, are we specifically using a particular prefix to turn an 
ideological term into an epithet?  And if so, why so?

A "Man"ifesto on Etymology

	Here is an oddity to consider.  There has been a movement in 
recent years towards gender-neutral language, with firemen now 
replaced by firefighters, ombudsmen by ombudspersons (Ombudspeople? 
Ombudsfolks? Oh, I give up …)  But there are some curious exceptions 
that I have never seen replaced.  Here are the examples that come to 
mind: manslaughter, mannequin, mandrill, hit man, con man, tax man. 
Incidentally, I have included only those “man” words with actual 
derivations from “man” and ignored words such as “manuscript” which are 
not etymologically gender-biased. (Yes, “mandrill” is really a 
combination of “man” and “drill” - although I don’t have a clue why).  
So, having a look at our list, what is it about these that has led to 
their retention.  I propose that it is their negative connotation which 
has led to their retention.  After all, “womandrill” would certainly 
raise the hackles of feminists and “persondrill” sounds like some sort 
of thumb screw.  And “womanslaughter” just doesn’t give the right 
impression - should it be “personslaughter”?  It would be interesting to 
see how many of these are changed in the various style guides on PC 
language that have come out recently.  All of this leads to the 
question: Should they be changed, or should we be permitted to retain 
masculine forms for negatively connoted forms?

On Gender in Latin-derived Nouns

	I would like to question the recent trend towards masculinization 
of feminine nouns of Latin form.  By this I mean “actor”, “aviator”, 
“doctor”, “professor”, etc.  It astounds me that the same people who 
insist that we use both “chairman” and “chairwoman” turn around and 
insist that “aviatrix” and “actress” should not be used, with the 
masculine forms to be adopted universally.  The theory goes that the 
latter terms are negatively connoted.  While this is certainly true, I 
wonder whether or not “chairwoman” will eventually come to have the same 
negative connotation.  We have not clearly identified the causal 
relationship between culture and language, without which we cannot hope 
to specify linguistic change.  A similar phenomenon is the use of terms 
for those with mental handicaps.  Firstly, they were “morons” or 
“idiots” or “cretins” or any number of colourful terms.  Then “retarded” 
came along, with “handicapped” hand in hand.  But both of these 
eventually came to be used, particularly among youths, as derogatory 
terms in and of themselves.  One wonders whether the now-in-favour 
“challenged” will suffer the same fate.  Judging by the number of jokes 
that arise about people being “vertically challenged” and so on, it 
seems likely.  On the other hand, the implicit meta-reference to 
political correctness that this new brand of terminology engenders may 
avert (or augment) the pernicious consequences of past usage.

On the Use of "So-Called" 

	One of my pet peeves is the use of the word “so-called”.  In its 
most basic and literal sense, it is unobjectionable, as if to say “X 
calls Y ‘Z’; I use the term ‘so-called Z’ only to indicate X’s use.”  
But (and this is a very fine but important distinction) there is a more 
pernicious form of “so-called” in modern academic writing.  It is used 
as a derogatory term, as if one word can refute the entirety of a 
developed theory.  Quite often, one sees reference to “so-called 
primitive peoples”.  At first glance, this might seem to be a use as 
above; “older anthropology says ‘primitive’; I do not espouse the term 
but merely use it to show its earlier faulty application”.  So far, 
fine.  However, contained within this statement is a much deeper 
meaning, which implies a fundamental flaw in the earlier reasoning which 
is not brought out simply by using “so-called”.  Again, this would be 
fine, especially if the topic was incidental to the main theme of the 
opus in question.  However, when one then uses ‘so-called primitives’ as 
a classificatory group, the problem begins.  Because, despite the change 
in terminology, people still know which societies are primitive, and 
which are not.  Furthermore, in using such terminology, the author 
implicitly expects the reader to understand what societies are being 
referred to. The use of the term ‘small-scale’ or ‘preliterate’ can 
replace the word, but it cannot replace the cluster of meaning which is 
still associated with the new term.  In using ‘so-called’, the writer 
serves not to produce a theoretical distinction between concepts but 
merely a linguistic one.  Unless one accepts the metaphysical premise 
that words themselves create reality, the use of ‘so-called’ in this 
respect is much more questionable.  

Return to Phrontistery