Brand building through storytelling

My brief career as an expert on gender-neutral language

It’s been seventeen years since a piece of my prose inspired a week or so of headline-making fury. A Toronto Sun columnist accused me of “pathetic, whining, whacko, feminist claptrap.” A radio host denounced my “evil, vile pamphlet dripping with slime.” Irate callers lambasted the Ontario Women’s Directorate for having the temerity to publish a 35-page booklet on non-sexist language, anonymously written by me. I’ve never felt more reviled—or less visible. I would read the morning paper in my bathrobe, wondering what new slurs were coming my way from people who didn’t even know I existed.

I hadn’t given much thought to non-sexist language (or gender-neutral language, as it’s more often called these days) when the Directorate offered me the project. The public had been asking for guidance on how to write for mixed audiences without unconsciously alienating women. Quite a few of the requests came from media companies (employers of those who would later cast themselves as put-upon champions of vivid prose and independent thinking). As a magazine writer with a knack for reader-friendly copy on potentially off-putting subjects, I was deemed just the person for the job. I could have polished it off in a couple of weeks but I spent a month gathering examples of everyday language that sent the unintended message “It’s still a man’s world.”

For my lead, I chose Canada’s national anthem: O Canada, our home and native land/ True patriot love in all thy sons command. I’d been singing these words without a second thought since I came to Canada in my late teens. My beef with “O Canada” was its blandness—so much standing on guard, so little rousing imagery, and a plodding melody to boot. A U.S. citizen at the time, I missed the drama of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But while working on the booklet, I had to wonder what it would have been like to grow up with an anthem that identified sons as little patriots and made no mention of daughters. At the time I didn’t know that “sons” was not a Canadian tradition but a change from the original “thou dost in us.” (A critic could have taken me to task for this but no one did.) The fix I suggested—and have been singing to this day—was “all of us.”

Even so I had mixed emotions when Prime Minister Stephen Harper, not exactly a friend to women or a champion of progressive causes, suddenly proposed earlier this month to revisit “all thy sons” and just as suddenly dropped the matter. Like most Canadians, I detected a convenient distraction from more urgent and embarrassing issues. And meanwhile the usual suspects were howling in outraged defense of “tradition.”

The other day I dug out my one copy of the notorious booklet, Words That Count Women In. Something of a period piece, it reflects a time in which “chair” was a controversial substitution for “chairman” and major media were portraying women as either fragile flowers or sex kittens. Today Sports Illustrated would never publish a sentence like the one I quoted about figure skater Katerina Witt: “She’s so fresh-faced, so blue-eyed, so ruby-lipped, so 12-car-pileup gorgeous, 5’5″ and 114 pounds of peacekeeping missile.” Nor would an accomplished speaker be welcomed to the podium with the kiss-off line (also quoted) “On top of all that, she’s got great legs!”

Words that put women down or erased us entirely had my generation on edge, and the effort to set things right involved some laughable excesses. A magazine I wrote for introduced the dread neologism “s/he”—until the editor saw reason and agreed to alternate between “she” and “he.” A few noisy zealots tried to ban the expression “rule of thumb” on the mythical grounds that it originated with the bygone practice of sanctioning wife beating with a stick no thicker than a man’s thumb.

I included neither “s/he” nor “rule of thumb” in Words That Count Women In, yet among my common-sense tips I tucked a few clunkers that now have me rolling my eyes. Avoid “kingpin?” There’s no better word for Tony Soprano. And how about “patronize,” derived from the Latin for father? Where would we be without it?

I’d as soon justify the ways of God to man as write another booklet on gender-neutral language. I intend to keep on using “workmanship,” “motherly” and “trollop” as long as I can craft a sentence. But I’m equally determined that “all thy sons command” will never pass my lips. Now if I can just rewrite at least one “we stand on guard for thee,” I’ll finally be singing “O Canada” with a glowing heart.

The new frontier in the language wars is age-related condescension. Why do young whippersnappers think it’s okay to call me “dear” and my husband, too? Click here to read more.


Posted by Rona

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