Does Language Equal Bigotry?

Co-Authored by Ellen Offner, Offner Consulting, LLC, Health care strategy and program development

It’s happened to us all. We have been called out for using the wrong gender pronoun or using a word that meant A and now means B. Language is ever changing.

Every three months the entire Oxford English Dictionary database is republished online, with new words added for the first time and older entries revised according to the exacting standards of modern historical lexicography.” : How many of us, reasonably literate people, realize that our language (the English language) is ever-evolving to reflect changing norms, experiences, and preferences? Language is not static. The editors of the August OED recognize this, and are constantly modifying the dictionary to keep it reflective of the society they serve.

Depending on your age, you may or may not know these words and their meanings. Genericide, noun; Screecham, noun; Freak flag, noun; Eephus, noun; King’s X, noun and interjection. Go to: http://public.oed.com/the-oed-today/recent-updates-to-the-oed/march-2017-update/new-words-notes-march-2017/ if you are curious. We suspect most of you won’t, it’s a nuisance and the old words are working just fine. Most of us don’t even realize that our spoken language grows and evolves to reflect changing times and mores. After all, how many people communicate in the Latin language these days? Or in ancient Greek or Sanskrit?

We suspect many of you are bemoaning that “things aren’t what they used to be, expressing the idea that circumstances or standards have deteriorated along with the . . . the wistful expression of attachment to “bygone days” that had become such a well-established trope that it began to be used to critique nostalgia rather than express it: “Things aren’t what they were! . . . Well, they never were!”

Language is a tool to use for communication and to help us get what we want. Whether we are immigrants or tourists, and speak a language different from the one in common use, we are stymied. Our options too are limited if we speak only the slang of our generation or ethnic group. We are labeled as unintelligent. Language also matters when it limits our imagination. Thus, in the second wave of feminism a great deal of energy was put into revising occupational categories. Mailman to mail carrier, stewardess to flight attendant. The labeling of female marital status Mrs. and Miss went out of fashion, as women declared individual personhood and demanded to be referred to as Ms.

We are currently in another battle over vocabulary, one that really may seem ridiculous to some, but which is no different from other language changes. It both mirrors and enhances social change; this is the transformation of gender pronouns.

Change is hard for us all. Many of us suffer from post-academic grammar paranoia. Whenever we use “they were,” a plural subject with a singular verb, we hear voices. Our seventh-grade English teachers are screaming that nouns and verbs must agree. Our high-school teachers chide us, sometimes from the grave, with a red correction pen across our handwritten or poorly typed papers.

Even the New York Times has taken a decade to use ‘they” as a singular, and modify “Mr.” and “Ms.” to “Mx.” Remember when switching to “Ms.” was challenging?

Allies are misjudged. The broadening of gender roles benefit us all. How many of us were called sissies or tomboys when we were gender role nonconforming?

As we broaden the borders of gender, we all benefit. Much as the Women’s Rights movement allowed women to wear pants on cold days and uncross our legs when sitting or accepted men wearing floral shirts. More importantly, we all benefit from the right to jobs, education and sports activities formerly reserved for a specific gender. We all benefit when we can use our instincts, talents, and abilities. We want each individual to be their (yes, we did it, we used a plural for one person) best self.

The trouble is, we are not perfect: it takes practice and time for language to change. We lapse into using the wrong verbiage out of many years of habit. Please, all of you who don't identify with the gender binary, understand that many of us are allies not enemies, and we come from across the gender spectrum. We understand that you expand the definition of gender. Language does not change instantly. Look at our actions, and listen to our hearts before you judge us as bigots. We need the same understanding understanding you want. We are trying and are determined to succeed in calling you by the pronoun that you prefer, and which respects your identity. We get it. After all, we were upset when others resisted calling us Ms. when it meant so much to us not to be called Miss or Mrs.

If we are to engage in effective dialogue across micro-cultures, we all need to understand that language constantly evolves and that it will take time to adapt. Adaptation is not a sign of bigotry--it is an expression of commitment to change.

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