Robbo comments on my “first female congresswoman” posting:

This one drives me up the wall because I’m in the military.
Why are these are OK: ‘airmen’, ’seamen’, and ‘midshipmen’; but yet we have ’servicemen and women’ — which is too cumbersome, so we just use ‘troops’. Can we not get the idea that a ‘chairman’ can be a woman? Or a congressman? What about yeoman or alderman? Truly we can are enlightened enough to accept a historical title to be filled by either gender?

[The last sentence has a nice error — “we can are enlightened enough” — that’s probably a cutnpaste error, the result of shifting from an original formulation, probably with “we are enlightened enough”, to a somewhat more hedged formulation with “can”, but without fixing the “are”.]

This is a separate issue from the one I talked about in my posting, which was about the error “first female congresswoman” for the intended “first black congresswoman”, in a caption.

The caption writer was faced with a problem in expression. The writer wanted to say that Shirley Chisholm was the first member of the U.S. House of Representatives to be both black and female. The straightforward way to do this in the minimum number of words is

the first black congresswoman

You can’t parcel out race and sex in any other way without greatly complicating the description. In particular, there’s no

the first female congressblack.

In addition,

the first black congressman

(with congressman understood inclusively, taking in both men and women) won’t do, because it would be false: there were black Representatives before Chisholm, but they were all men.

What probably happened with the caption is a “semantic anticipation”: the writer was already planning for congresswoman, and the sex feature got anticipated in the prenominal modifier. Not a particularly surprising result.

But the other question, of how compounds in -man/-men are understood, is genuinely complex. What’s clear, to me at any rate, is that it’s obtuse to insist that either the inclusive interpretation or the male-only interpretation must always be the only interpretation. In fact, people’s judgments differ from compound to compound and context to context. The elements –man and –men, for some speakers, in some compounds, and in some contexts, call up specifically male referents — and for some speakers, in some compounds, and in some contexts call up referents with sex unspecified.

There are discernible tendencies, but they’re no more than that. In many  contexts and for many people, chairman is easily usable as sex-neutral (I myself prefer chair — don’t give me that absurd stuff about how a person can’t be a piece of furniture, as if you’d never heard of either metonymy or clipping — but I have no problem with chairman), while other compounds are edgy at best (I have a bad moment with Madame Congressman).

The point is that everyone should be able to deal with variation, and not to insist on their system as the only acceptable one — and not to disparage other people’s preferences as either the imposition of the masculine boot in gender matters or the imposition of “political correctness” in gender matters.

9 Responses to “X-men”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    There is a slight trend in favour of Irish-language titles in Ireland, since these avoid the problematic -man ending (e.g. “cathaoirleach” for “chairman”). Sadly, there are other, much larger, trends in the opposite direction.

  2. Robbo Says:

    Ouch…Uh…yeah…switching between “truly we are” and “truly we can be”. Oh well.

    I agree that it is obtuse to insist on one interpretation or the other, and I have no problem per se with the ‘-woman’ formation.

    What bugs me is that rather than using a simple word or phrase, it gets unnecessarily complicated, or just turned into a silly sounding word. ‘Spokesperson’ anyone? Makes me want to hurl.

    For example, there are critics out there who absolutely hate the use of the word ‘troops’ in the sense of ‘four American troops were killed in Iraq today,’ since a ‘troop’ is a formation of warriors rather than an individual. (by the way, a soldier in the cavalry is called a ‘trooper’, sometimes shortened to ‘troop’, so it can be an individual)

    One option would be to say ‘soldiers’, unless a Marine was also killed. Then, ‘four American soldiers and Marines were killed in Iraq today’. But if a Navy corpsman died while serving with the Marines: ‘four American soldiers, Marines, and sailors were killed in Iraq today.’

    Oh, hell, just say ‘four servicemen were killed in Iraq today’ — oops! One soldier was a woman!! Now what? Just say ‘four troops were killed in Iraq today’!

    I guess what interests me is what are those contexts when many people assume the -man formation to be gender neutral? Which are unacceptable? Which are offensive?

    In the case of the National Organization for Women, I bet they have a ‘spokeswoman’. Good to go. But I think that pretty much anyone at Dunder Mifflin can be a ‘spokesman’.

    I find that words that include the ‘-man’ in almost a half-syllable suffix are the ones that are the easiest to accept as describing a woman: chairman, spokesman, etc. The words that seem way too long because of the -woman formation seem the silliest: congresswoman, servicewomen, etc.

    And -person usually means you just can’t make a decision.

    I do admit that in the Navy, when describing a woman named Jones, ‘Seaman Jones’, and ‘Fireman Jones’ seem fine, but ‘Constructionman Jones’ sounds a bit odd.

    Another issue on the -man describing a woman is group vs. individual. ‘Servicemen’ to describe 10 men plus Jennifer Jones? What about ‘Chairman Jennifer Jones’?

  3. Ellen K. Says:

    I much disagree with Robbo on -person. Oh, I do like think “congressperson” sounds odd. But maybe because I’ve just never heard it. Robbo’s example with that, spokesperson, sounds fine. And, for me, the reason “seaman” and “fireman” sound fine and “constructionman” doesn’t have nothing to do with who they are describing. The one I’ve never heard/seen before sounds the oddest.

    But sometimes, respecting women as equal to men means venturing into the unfamiliar.

  4. The Ridger Says:

    I’ll observe that my sister, a deputy fire chief, wants “firefighter”. Her partner, a police lieutenant, wants “police officer”.

    OTOH, Andrew Greeley has a character who’s always using “-person” (porterpersons, coast guard person, police person) which is horrible sounding AND he only uses them for women. (Which is a nifty bit of observation and character, I think.)

    “Troop” has been used for a single person since before the Civil War, as Tim Sager at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pointed out over at You Don’t Say.

    I’m not sure if I can tie all those together, but I guess I’d say: consistency and reasonableness are hard to find.

  5. The Ridger Says:

    Hmm, that link to You Don’t Say doesn’t work. It’s old, and I hadn’t changed my post when the Sun changed their urls. Here’s the real url

  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Robbo, about troop used as a count noun: we’ve returned to this topic on Language Log several times:

    GP, 2/25/05: Two troops killed:
    AZ, 2/25/05: Look lively, troop!:
    AZ, 12/8/06: Plural, mass, collective:
    (has section on TROOP specifically)
    AZ, 1/30/07: Support our troop:

    The third of these comes with an addendum on another solution to the soldier/sailor/Marine problem and the male/female problem:

    [Addendum 12/9: A military informant reports the frequent use of servicemember, at least in administrative contexts, and a Google search confirms that it occurs in such contexts with some frequency, and also occasionally in news reports from military sources: “A U.S. servicemember was wounded Feb. 24 when a vehicle…” (DefenseLINK News).]

  7. Robbo Says:

    I can’t remember the author who was so recently decrying ‘troops’ (she also complained about the use of ‘folks’). From my personal experience, it’s no big deal. I have seen a soldier addressed as ‘troop’, and your links above show that it’s been going on for a long time.

    To add another wrinkle, I have known Marines who don’t like the term ‘troops’ because they consider it an Army term: “We have Marines in this unit, not troops!” To describe an actual unit, it’s only used in the Army. A troop is the same size as a company.

    But back to the gender issue, people deserve to be called what they want, when possible, like The Ridger’s sister. In the Navy and Air Force, though, women are still airmen, seamen, firemen, midshipmen, etc. I’m doing fine ‘respecting women as equal to men’ but I think that’s fine — which is good because it’s not about to change.

  8. John Cowan Says:

    I remember being puzzled as a child by references to “5,000 troops” in news reports of the Vietnam War, which I vaguely thought of as perhaps 30-40 men (turns out that was too small), and wondering why they didn’t say “150,000 soldiers” instead.

    I think count noun is misplaced here: troop is always a count noun, the issue is what it counts.

    In Naomi Novik’s wonderful Temeraire series of novels, set during the Napoleonic Wars in an alternative Britain, the Navy adapts to the necessary presence of women in its Aerial Corps (“Aerial Corps”, in Napoleon’s time? RAFO!) by resolutely ignoring the contradictions. A mixed group of midwingmen is addressed as “gentlemen”, and the female member of it is called “Mr. Roland”, just like all the rest.

  9. arnoldzwicky Says:

    John Cowan: “I think count noun is misplaced here: troop is always a count noun, the issue is what it counts.”

    Well, yes, and I said that (collective vs. non-collective, but both count) in my long and geeky posting on the subect. What I said here was responsive to the immediate context of this discussion.

    That earlier posting took me about 50 hours to write, and I doubt I’ll return to this subject again, except to link to this posting.

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