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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.