Re" "he" and "he or she"/ Congress becomes gender-neutral

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 10 17:05:46 UTC 2009

I sent the following a month ago.  Just for the record, here it is - not
"again," I hope, but if so, please pardon. I couldn't find it in either my
inbix or the ADS-L archives:


The problem with such tendentious arguments is that whatever ancient
prescriptivists may have believed, hoped, or intended about the workings of
English, which they sometimes imagined as reflecting Scripture, people have
been using "he" for centuries to refer to both sexes in certain general,
often formal, contexts.

Those who subscribe to the idea that generic "he" is sexist must also
subscribe to the doctrine of essentialism, namely that a word can have just
one correct meaning for all time, or else the etymological fallacy, that a
word's etymology is its destiny.

Every woman writer in English from Aphra Behn through Phyllis Wheatley, Mary
Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters,  Christina Rosetti, Emily
Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, Edith Wharton, Carson McCullers, etc., used
generic "he," (and "man") evidently without expectation that she would be
misunderstood or a belief that she was aiding in the subjugation of women.

My (mostly women) teachers too  - like just about everyone else's before the
early '70s -taught correctly that "he" had (not "must have" but "does have")
a generic use, especially in formal contexts, which most of us already knew
unconsciously.  We were warned not to use "they," which we did very
frequently, because "they" was "plural."  That reasoning too was fallacious,
of course, though in a harmless way. It had no political underpinnings.

Sexist beliefs and actions in the English-speaking world owe little or
nothing to the generic use of "he," and students have been poorly served
by the insistence that it is incorrect or, worse, wicked.  The primary
result of this fantasy is that older male authors, who do use "he"
generically, must now be explicitly absolved of charges of intentional
excluding or dismissing women. Older female authors must be absolved from
the charge of naive complicity.

There's little enough basis either for the notion that generic "he" is akin
to overt epithets like the "N-word." The perception that the N-word is
depreciatory, insulting, and racist (and this is notoriously not true in
certain social contexts) grew from a universal awareness among African
Americans of the extraordinarily high correlation of its use (esp. by
whites) with genuinely injurious attitudes and sometimes violent and lethal
actions. Conscious and programmatic rejection of generic "he," on the other
hand, originally reflected merely the demand of a certain intellectual
class. No one, as far as I know, has ever shown that habitual use of generic
"he" correlates significantly with sexist attitudes.

At this point, why should anyone give a $^!# ? Because essentialist
linguistics, with the etymological fallacy thrown in, is bad linguistics.
Generic "he" (not to mention generic "man") is undoubtedly doomed, which
doesn't much bother me (except for the stylistic difficulties its loss can
create). What bothers me is the rarely interrogated tendentious reasoning
that doomed it, or that triumphally hastened its doom, in the first place.


The American Dialect Society -

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