Language zealots lay waste middle ground of reason
Vancouver Courier
March 15, 1998

Usually when people argue about an issue, they adhere to commonly accepted rules of argument in which all appeals are made to reason. In the end, either one side wins, or the argument ends in stalemate. At issue is always the search for a reasoned answer.

For the zealot, though, there can be no argument, because dispassionate criticism cannot not tolerated. Concepts of truth and falsity have no meaning, because truth is circularly defined as whatever furthers the cause. No middle ground exists between the righteousness of their cause and the wrong they oppose. Thus, the hapless interlocutor must either embrace the faith or accept damnation as a heretic; that is, an “independent thinker.”

Still, even transparent arguments need to be challenged, lest they gain unwarranted currency. Thus, one must take issue with the Nattering Nabobs of Neutered Nomenclature and their drive to divest the English language of sexual distinction. Though the illogic of the 4N club has been discussed before, the underlying fallacy of its misbegotten crusade still gets a free ride. I refer, of course, to the ennoblement of change as a moral virtue.

In plain English, “change” is a neutral word that denotes nothing more than dissimilarity between states or conditions: e.g., water changes to steam and people change as they age. Change, per se, is neither good nor bad—it just is. What is debatable is the result of change—is it better or worse than what we had? Note: There is a choice of answer. Unfortunately, like all committed revolutionaries, 4Ners don’t admit that possibility.

Some, in an attempt to appear non-threatening to adversaries, will smile warmly and their eyes will take on the beatified glaze usually associated with religious proselytizers. When someone disagrees with them, they declare “It’s change!” as if the very word were divinely inspired.

Consequently, when defenders of standard English, for example, object to female thespians being called “actors,” they are either treated like benighted children “afraid of change,” or subjected to personal attacks.

In a March 7 Vancouver Sun op/ed article, language education doctoral student Renée Norman delivered the standard line: “Despite the fact that much has been accomplished to rectify gender-biased language… there is some resistance in the form of a linguistic backlash, a sort of reverse political correctness snobbery….”

By this sort of empty polemical posturing, I could make the equally valid argument that much is being done to reverse the Bowdlerization of English. Unfortunately there’s resistance in the form of a feminist backlash, a sort of political correctness snobbery.

It’s one thing to advocate a reform, but when the right to dissent is disparaged, we no long speak the language of an open society. Defenders of good English do not “fear change,” as Norman and others dogmatically assert—they just resent the fact that language is being co-opted by an interest group that hearkens only unto its own voice and has no regard for standards of linguistic accuracy.

In her article, Norman cites the example of “poetess” as a word that was “banished from literary use in newspapers” for having, as she put it, “diminutive feminine markings.” The charge of diminutiveness drives the crusade to purge the suffix “ess” from our lexicon because it is deemed offensive. That the charge has no basis in fact does not seem to matter.

In the spirit of honest enquiry, let’s examine “actress.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the definitive source), “ess” simply denotes femaleness, and is in no way diminutive, derogatory or disparaging. It traces the appending of “ess” to English agent-nouns to the 14th century (dweller/dwelleress). In the 15th century, the suffix “ster,” which was feminine, had come to denote maleness (except “spinster”), so the new feminine suffix “ess” was added.

Oxford notes that though many feminine nouns have fallen into disuse, some still exist when it’s necessary to distinguish the sex of the agent. Some of those in current use include “actress,” “patroness,” “poetess” and “waitress.”\

Now, what do you make of the title “actor Michael Learned?” Who’s he? Why, she is an actress who starred on the Waltons. How about “actors” Jean Reno and Jean Simmons?” (Hint: one’s a Frenchman.) I’ll let you sort out Pat Carroll, Pat Harrington and Pat O’Malley.

Does turning actresses into actors do anything but obfuscate meaning? How does this quasi-religious crusade, based as it is on a fallacy, further the cause of women’s equality? I cannot understand why women don’t embrace feminine endings as a sign of political and linguistic independence, and equality.

Speaking of which, it’s almost Oscar night, and we’ll soon find out, among other things, the Academy’s choices for best actor and best actress, both of which are equally important.