Being an English teacher, the usage and the power of language is a daily reminder to me how—even in the small words we say—gender, racial and all forms of oppression can be re-enforced, leaving little room to be challenged.
I’m finding there is a fine line at times between a much needed political correctness to changes in the way we speak, or a descent into absurdity. Perhaps the hardest challenge is figuring out which usage is which; should a ‘man-hole’ become a ‘person-hole’ –or some other terminology (or is it one of those absurd small things that waste time?)
I have written previously on this blog about the usage of “guys” as a generic word used for groups. Recently another discussion I entered was about whether lady or ladies is an offensive word. From arguments on both sides, by female and male, I have heard a strong condemnation of its usage and an equally strong feeling that it is one of the better words to describe a woman. Personally I had started to make a conscious effort a few years back to refer to women and not ladies; and I still think in practise it is a much safer, if somewhat harsher, word.
Those opposed to its usage argue against it as a descriptor word on two main basis. Firstly, the connotation often associated with ‘lady’ is one who fits the nineteenth century image of a soft, sweet, well-mannered, obedient young lady/wife who is willing to support her husband and stand behind him all the way, without any ambition or real power. It is a limiting word used to dismiss woman as equals in a sarcastic swipe (as per my title). Secondly, the connotation of a “Lady of the night” also not only limits this woman’s viewpoint, but plays on her sexual prowess as an object that can easily be manipulated.
Yet there are others who see stopping the usage of ‘Lady’ as one of those aspects when equality should not come at the expense of femininity; on the contrary that feminism is not a drive for an androgynous race of wo/men but rather a quest for complete equality and choice; those who still choose to be traditionally feminine (as in pretty, caring for one’s self and appearance…) remain so. Thus for them ‘Lady’ is an acknowledgement of this; it is a sign that their holistic nature has been seen; and when used, in contrast to ‘woman’, brings a more personal touch and an acknowledgment of themselves.
So what do you think? What should we (male and female) call someone who is not a man, a male, a guy, a dude, a gent, a chap, a bloke, a fellow,…as in someone who is equal but whom language fails to identify positively and with strength. As a male who has privilege (far more than I most probably am aware of) I should, in humility, listen to the voices of the female. But whose voice do I listen to? And who should decide who is right?