Illinois bans male pronoun

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Jan 4 20:16:01 UTC 2007

The story appears to be true. _Time_ (Oct. 2, 1978) [from Time Online]:

  "When the city council of Woonsocket, R.I., three weeks ago approved some job descriptions that eliminated supposedly sexist language, a utility man became a utility person, whose duties included "building personholes." Ever since, Woonsocket has been the butt of jokes from as far away as California, prompting Francis Lanctot, a councilman, er, person, to voice his feelings in verse. Excerpt:

  "They said it was a federal law.
  And, like a moron, I took the bait.
  And conclusively proved to one and all
  That fools sail our ship of state.

  "Last week, in an effort to regain their dignity, the council members voted to go back to manholes, indicating that it will be a long time before a person-person delivers Woonsocket's mail."


"Cohen, Gerald Leonard" <gcohen at UMR.EDU> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Cohen, Gerald Leonard"
Subject: Re: Illinois bans male pronoun

I'm not surprised that the "personhole" (for "manhole") story =
doesn't appear on Snopes. I do remember that at the time of the =
personhole/manhole incident a reporter checked with a member of the city =
council which produced the change, and the council member did not see =
any humor in the matter; the council was simply try its best to comply =
with the regulation about avoiding gender-specific language.. This =
change was, of course, being regarded nationwide (however briefly) as =
political correctness run amok.
Now, whether it's possible at this late date to unearth the =
newspaper articles with the personhole/manhole story remains to be seen.
Gerald Cohen

From: American Dialect Society on behalf of Arnold M. Zwicky
Sent: Thu 1/4/2007 1:25 PM
Subject: Re: Illinois bans male pronoun

On Jan 4, 2007, at 10:34 AM, Joel S. Berson wrote:

> Have you looked at the urban legends sites, like Snopes?
> Joel
> At 1/4/2007 10:54 AM, you wrote:
> does anyone have credible specifics for this story? i suspect that
>> the whole thing is a fabrication.
>> the google hits for "personhole" suggest that it was, as one writer
>> said, a "satiric exaggeration". you can find cites, but they all
>> seem snarky rather than serious.
>> arnold

nothing on snopes. a search for {"urban legend" personhole} pulled
up only one possibly relevant item, the .sig for a regular poster to
the feministsf (feminist SF) mailing list:

"Personhole is not an acceptable de-sexed word." Shirley Dean, council
person from the Berkeley (California) City Council, explaining why the
Council changed the wording in a sewer equipment request, back to

(Shirley Dean was mayor of Berkeley 1994-2002.) this quote appears
in a fair number of other places. some have "council person", some
"councilperson", some "councilmember", but otherwise the quotations
are almost exactly the same. one site has it in a collection of
quotations from women in the year 2000.

one writer attributes the expression to a female mayor, but in
Sacramento rather than Berkeley:

That could apply to so many places in Kalifornicate! San Jose is my
leading candidate, along with Sacramento (FMR Mayor Anne Rudin's
"Personhole covers" anyone?), and of course, San Frankornhole!

then in a listing of feminist books for sale used i found a reference
to "the great 'personhole cover' debate":

Thom, Mary, editor
Letters to Ms. 1972-1987 Introduction by Gloria Steinem. Afterword by
Eva Moseley
Publisher: Henry Holt, NY [1987].
'First Edition.' xix, 264 p.; dj; fine. Includes Sex: Whose
Revolution Was It?; Men: Love, Marriage, and Just Friends; Parenting:
Bringing Up 'Free' Children; There's No Divorce Between Mothers and
Daughters; Small and Momentous Changes in Everyday Life; The
Workplace Revolution; Woman's Body, Woman's Mind; Language: The Great
'Personhole Cover' Debate; Up Against the Institution; You Can't Win
Them All; Or, Critics (and Crackpots) Take On Ms.; Milestones:
Readers Live Fifteen Years of History.

on the other hand, Sara Mills has written about "personhole cover" in
several places as an example of a media-invented term. for example,
in "Third Wave Feminist Linguistics and the Analysis of Sexism":

To clarify, "political correctness" is often seen as an excessive
concern for the sensibilities of minority groups (women, the
disabled, lesbians and Black people) which is manifested in a set of
media-invented absurd, terms, (such as `vertically challenged'
instead of `short' ; `follically challenged' for `bald' ; `personhole
cover' instead of `manhole/inspection cover') which no anti-sexist
or anti-racist campaigners have argued should be adopted. These are
often listed alongside `Ms' and `chairperson' which feminists
have campaigned to be adopted.


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