Thursday, 22 October 2009

Ships and sexism

Language Log recently reported the death of newspaper columnist William Safire. He's not so well known in UK, but in the USA and among language enthusiasts he'll be particularly remembered for his "On Language" column for the New York Times Magazine.

The obituaries from linguists have been generally positive; although he started from something of a "language peeve" basis, he moved from that stance over the years and commentators such as Benjamin Zimmer (see Remembering the Language Maven) recall him as a nice guy who was genuinely fascinated with language and ready to learn from descriptive linguistics. Some of his early columns, however, were less in tune with that field; he was strongly prescriptive and traditionalist about usages with inherent gender, and in the mid-1980s, Douglas Hofstadter wrote in his book Metamagical Themas that "Safire has without doubt been one of the most vocal opponents of nonsexist language reforms". By 1999, Safire had considerably mellowed, and his article Genderese: Looking for a masterful Webmistress? asked merely if reform toward nonsexists form was moving too fast, and even endorsed a number of gender-free forms such as "firefighter", "police officer" and "mail carrier" (see Gender shifts in the history of English Studies in English language, Anne Curzan, Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Bearing in mind, then, that it ceased to apply to the later Safire, it's still interesting to read as a historical piece Hofstadter's A Person Paper on Purity in Language, by William Satire. This satire takes arguments against nonsexist usage collected from Satire's columns of the time, and recasts them in an alternate world where there is no sexism, but an inherent racism that is reflected in language. It's a diatribe against, for instance, the "negrists" who object to the phrasing of the Declaration of Independence, "All whites are created equal". Anyhow, enjoy: A Person Paper on Purity in Language.

Case in point: the practice of calling ships "she". In 2002 - see 'She' is no longer a ship, The Telegraph - formally altered its house style to refer to ships as "it". I don't feel strongly one way or another about that: seafarers have a practical job that isn't going to be altered by what pronoun they use, and the origin apears to be a respectful animism based on a ship's life-preserving and nurturing role, the positive aspects of being a "she". However, I'm always irritated by a spinoff of this usage: the frequent appearance in coastal gift shops of teatowels and other merchandise that use the metaphor of a ship being a "she" as vehicle for a parade of demeaning stereotypes about women. For example:
It takes a lot of paint to keep her good-looking. It is not the initial expense that breaks you; it is the upkeep ... it takes an experienced man to handle her correctly; and without a man at the helm she is uncontrollable.
Try complaining. You'll get, variously, blank astonishment; claims that it's a harmless joke; accusations of having no sense of humour; failure to grasp that the objection is not to ships being called "she" but about the statements about women used to explore this metaphor; etc, etc. It's a small manifestation of sexism, but it's still quite astonishing how people even now are happy to acquiesce in the demeanment of one sex. I assume shops wouldn't display posters saying:
Women need lots of cosmetics to stay good-looking. They place a crippling financial burden on their male partners, though not on first acquaintance. They need controlling by a man or will go delinquent.
Why should it be acceptable when dressed up as a joking metaphor about a ship?

- Ray

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