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What's the good word?

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 02, 2017 10:25 am

Good Burkean conservatives do not go looking for changes to deplore. We are not William F. Buckley copycats, standing athwart history, yelling Stop! Rather, we hope that, in our mad rush toward change, our enthusiastic embrace of the new, we study our traditions to determine which are worth saving as the foundation on which to build the future.

Since my profession requires the careful use of language, that is the area in which I am most comfortable weighing change against tradition. When political correctness seems to be challenging the common usage we have generally accepted, when should I worry and when should I just let it go?

Such was my thought when I saw this headline over a story in The College Fix: Student penalized for using word 'man' on his essay. Now, you just know that story was written, and that headline composed, because somebody thought it was a deplorable acquiescence to political correctness to lower a student's grade (to a "B-" for what was described as a thoughtful paper) for using a version of "mankind" instead of "humankind" as the collective term for all humanity.

The professor begs to differ:

Davis circled “man” and referenced his Writing Mechanics Exercise #20, which draws a distinction between “mankind” and “humankind.”

Davis defended the penalization in an email to The College Fix. He explained that the “exercise and inclusion of 'humankind' are consistent with the Chicago Manual of Style, the style and the usage guide followed in the discipline of history.”

Davis also said the exercise is “not to enforce political correctness” but is “both a grammar refresher and a style and user guide.”

It seems to me that lowering the grade that much for one style violation is a bit excessive, but otherwise I happen to agree with the professor.

I do know linguistic conservatives who, to this day, object to the jettisoning of "man" and "mankind," because, damn it, if you study the etymology, you'll know the expressions come from words meaning both "the male of the species' and "the species as a whole." So for most of our history, the use of "man' or "mankind" was perfectly straightforward and neither intended nor taken as sexist. That only came about because of our modern, too delicate, sensibilities.

But as this aarticle points out, usage is not determined by origin:

The origin, of course, influences how a word is used in that it provides the starting point, but meanings shift over time, and lexicographers come up with their definitions by surveying how people actually use the words, not by studying the etymology. In other words, it is unreasonable to determine today's usage based on how the language was used a thousand years ago. If it were reasonable, we'd still be using "silly" to mean "blessed, fortunate" and "awful" to mean "inspiring wonder.". . . If people today perceive it as sexist, it is sexist, regardless of how it was used in ages past.

The change from "mankind" to "humankind" did not happen overnight. It evolved over time. The use of "mankind," in fact, started declining at the beginning of the 19th century. But, as the article notes, it's only since 1980 that "humanity" has been more frequent than "mankind." 

You can see this shift happening even in popular culture. Consider the famous opening lines of the Star Trek TV show. In the 1960s, when the original show aired, the starship Enterprise was on a mission "to boldly go where no man has gone before." By the late 1980s, when Star Trek: The Next Generation aired, this mission was "to boldly go where no one has gone before." This change was not a nod to political correctness, as Kroch's chart makes clear. It was simply a reflection of how quickly the use of "man" and "mankind" were changing throughout the English language.

So, all in all, not something I'm going to lose a lot of sleep over.


I will fret a little, however, over how we're letting our language hangups screw up our children.

When we were growing up, we called teachers, our parents' contemporaries and other adults "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss" and never thought anything about it. I doubt if many of us even thought, "Hey, unmarried chick" when we said "Miss so-and so." We just thought, "Here's a youngish but older than me" woman as opposed to "an older, maybe even (gasp!) beyond our parents in years" woman.

Then along came "Ms." and everything went to hell. Hundreds of articles, both amusing and serious, were churned out about how we were supposed to know which women preferred the new title and which didn't care if we knew their marital status or not, and woe to anywone who guessed wrong.

And naturally it didn't end there. We must not forget those for whom none of those titles will work, those who identify as genderqueer:

 Growing up, I assumed that the only way to have a gender-neutral title would be if I got a PhD and could make everyone call me “Dr”. For most of my life, I didn't realize that there was another way out of the “Mr/Ms” dichotomy. That changed when, in my junior year of college, a favorite professor of mine introduced me to an artist named Justin Vivian Bond who used a gender-neutral term that I had never heard of before: “Mx.”

Almost immediately, I fell in love with the term. Finally, I had a way to preface my family name that didn't require me to box myself into one gender category or another. I didn't have to be Mr Tobia anymore. And I didn't have to get a PhD so that I could be Dr Tobia. Instead, I could simply be Mx Tobia.

As a result of having to sort through all this nonsense, many parents seem to have lost the ability to instruct their children on how to address adults. Many have given up on the use of titles altogether.

Now that I'm a parent myself, I'm trying to figure out what my kids should call grown-ups, and it seems that "Mrs. Smith" is a moniker of the past. These days (at least in Los Angeles) most kids call adults by their first names. But do I want to adopt this casual practice in my own household? Not really. Can I avoid it? Not really.

As the mother of a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, I'd prefer that my kids use some sort of title to address adults; first names seem so casual! But the roadblock is that no one else does it. I don't want my children to be the only ones who use more formal terms, but I'm also not totally comfortable with them calling their friend's mom "Emily." Miss Emily? That's cute, but the "Miss" is a misnomer if the person is, in fact, a woman, and not a girl. Despite my qualms, we mostly use first names at this point. I'm going with the flow as I figure this out. And it's somehow less offensive when toddlers and preschoolers use first names; it's actually sort of adorable.

Actually, it doesn't seem adorable to me at all. It seems to be it sets up a lifelong dysfunctional relationship with authority. Naturally, we should accept only the authority we can verify as legitimate, but it puts us at a disadvantage to start out in life putting all authority figures on an equal plane withourselves. We will find it difficult to grasp the concepts of respect and deference and humility.

I had a friend who called her parents by their first names instead of using some form of "Mom" and "Dad," at their insistence. I don't know what that says about them, but being in their presence and hearing all the back-and-forth familiarity made me distinctly uncomforatable.

So, I will worry about that, thank you.


Finally, we come to our old friend The Associated Press Stylebook. A major change was announced early last month:

For the first time, the Associated Press now permits journalists to use “they” as a singular pronoun. The AP announced the style change last week at the American Copy Editors Society conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The change follows years of questions among copy editors, reporters and editors about the use of language specifically about people who are non-binary and don't use gendered pronouns.

[. . .]

his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.

No, by God, we musn't forget those non-binary people who don't use gendered pronouns.

Actually, the singular "they" has a long history, (explored here and discussed in this blog post) and has been used by many good writers. Sometimes, it's the best way out of a sentence when you don't know the sex of the person being written about or when the antecedent includes or implies both genders. "The energetic reporter is one who is barely ever at their desk." In 2015, a group of 200 linguists even made the singular they the word of of the year.

What heading does that come under? Doing the right thing for the wrong reason? At any rate, I will berate the AP for its politically incorrect cowardice (since my newspaper pays for their service, I guess I'm allowed), but not whine about its solution to the preceived problem. They gotta do what they gotta do. 


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