If we could choose only ONE word to bring English into balance between our two primary sexes, what would it be? If you knew what it was, would you be interested? I hope so! WElcome to WEnglish for WEquality, Lesson One.
You might think that as a linguist, I’d have discovered this ONE WORD long ago.( If you consider August of 2008 a long time ago, that concept works.But our English language has been in use for hundreds of years, so my ‘aha' is quite recent–only fourteen years as of this writing). Be sure to check your search engine if you want to get more specific about how old English is, and expect to see a variety of opinions.
That ONE WORD insight changed everything for me. It began as I noticed ‘He’ on our Periodic Table of Elements. ‘He’ in that context is how ‘helium’ is abbreviated. Helium: defined as a ‘noble gas’ might cause some humorous responses, but that’s not what caught my eye at first;
it was ‘He’, a decidedly masculine word (intentional or otherwise).
As I studied ‘he’ words more closely, I discovered, quite by accident, that ‘THE’ is the most common word in English. If we put ‘T-H-E’ through our WEnglish Word Collider (more about that in a later blog), it’s easy to see that it’s a masculine word because it has ‘HE’ in it, as do thousands of other English words. Some language enthusiasts suggest that how we spell words has a subliminal influence that we’re not even aware of.
In her book, ‘Unspinning the Spin, renowned linguist Rosalie Maggio calls ‘he’ a pseudogeneric word. Donald G. McKay (in Cheris Kramarae, ed., The Voices and Words of Women and Men) says that each of us hears the pseudogeneric he over a million times in our lifetimes and the consequences of this kind of repetition are “beyond the ken of present day psychology.”
In other words, as we read English, words containing ‘HE’ are seen so often that we subconsciously can’t HElp but think of men. Consider that even our words ‘sHE’ and ‘HEr’ contain ‘he’ as do thousands of other English words. T-H-E set me off on a journey that hasn’t ended. Once you feel ‘THE’ impact, it’s hard to ignore.
WEnglish for WEquality(™) has a fix for T-H-E that makes it a neutral word. Once we show you, (which is our next blog) you’ll see how easily WE can open our language doors to include all of us. Meanwhile, take a look at anything you’re reading and identify all words containing ‘he’ to observe how pervasive these are. Don’t despair! Next time:
‘THE E-Z FIX FOR THE’.
Yours for an inclusive English,