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Sexist English Language

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A couple of days ago, a newspaper featured a big photo of a woman rearranging a stack of fruits in a market stall. The caption of the photo had this lead sentence: "A fruit vendor mans her stall in Saddle, Kibungan in Benguet."

That sentence looks and sounds peculiar. There's really nothing grammatically wrong with it, but its use of the verb "man" gives it a masculine sense that strongly contradicts the fact that the person in the photo is a woman. English verbs don't have gender, of course, but the verb "man," which means "to serve in some entity or oversee an operation," has an obvious built-in male bias, and English happens not to have a feminine equivalent for it. A woman can't woman a fruit stall, but a man can man it.

This linguistic problem, of course, doesn't mean that we should forever be stuck with masculine-sounding sentences in such situations. We can get rid of the gender bias by simply using a verb other than "man" when it is a woman that carries out the manning action. The verb "tend," for instance, can do the job beautifully: "A fruit vendor tends her stall in Saddle, Kibungan in Benguet." When all is said and done, word choice--not male bashing--is still our best tool for achieving gender-neutral English.

The male-gender bias of English is actually much more pronounced and well entrenched in its nouns and pronouns. As we all know, it was standard English usage until recent times to use the term "man" to denote all people, as in the following age-old aphorisms: "Man does not live by bread alone." "Man is a social animal." "All men are created equal." "A dog is man's best friend." (It was as if women did not exist or did not count at all in the old days.) Today, however, English usage now strongly encourages the following nonsexist equivalents of those four sentences: "People do not live by bread alone." "People are social animals." "All people are created equal." "A dog is everyone's best friend."

Another strong manifestation of the male-gender bias of English is the male stereotyping of the traditional occupations, practically all of which had been given names with the term "man" as suffix, such as "chairman," "policeman," "fireman," and "postman." Only in modern times has there been a concerted effort to come up with gender-neutral equivalents for them.



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