How sexist is your language?

Published 16th January 2012
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How sexist is your language?

Sometimes, the subtle connotations of words can make it easy to say something you didn’t mean to.  It’s important to bear this in mind when writing. You may need to consider the implications of even the smallest word choice.

The topic of today’s blog may not be something you’ve considered before. We hope that it will bring your attention to a significant yet often overlooked aspect of language. Ensuring that you say what you intend to is as important as correct spelling and grammar. As a translation and interpreting service provider, it’s vital that we pay attention to the nuances of what is said, and why.

As our society changes and modernises, certain words become obsolete or even unacceptable. This has been the case with many female-specific nouns, such as “teacheress” or “soldieress”. However, some, such as “comedienne” and “actress” still remain.  Because a masculine version of these words doesn’t exist. The feminine ones stick out, and seem to denote that it is unusual for women to perform this job. Of course, this is not just a feminist issue. When men take up roles traditionally fulfilled by women, they can be referred to with terms that seem derogatory, such as “male nurse” (or worse, “murse”). This raises the question of whether it is necessary to specify if a person carrying out a job is male or female.

Actress, actor, performer?

With some words, such as “actress”, there is an easily justifiable reason for this. Although “actor” could be used to refer to male or female performers. It is important for them to specify their sex when applying for acting jobs, as it does influence which roles they can play. Although nowadays, with actors sometimes playing the opposite sex, such as Cate Blanchett’s recent portrayal of Bob Dylan. However, I personally think that it would be clearer if “actor” was used only to refer to male actors. Maybe a third, gender-neutral noun be used as an umbrella term for actors of both sexes, for example, “performers”.

Some gender-neutral nouns have already started to enter common use, such as “police officer” as opposed to “policeman”, and “firefighter” instead of “fireman”.

Of course, some languages rely on pronouns less than English. So you have to specify whether someone is male or female.  This is just another reason why we don’t need to specify! If it’s necessary to mention the sex of a person, you can say something like: “The doctor gave her opinion on my test results”. This is a good way to be more specific, without drawing unnecessary attention to the fact that a woman has become a doctor.

What do you think of this issue? I’m sure it’s something that people feel quite strongly about, one way or another, and I’d be interested in hearing what you think!



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