Wednesday, May 04, 2005

For PC and sexy talk

Max does the conservative thing where you criticize politically correct language reforms. Really, I think a lot of the terms he rejects are better than the ones he likes. Take, for instance, "Christian name" versus "given name." If I hadn't heard the terms before, I wouldn't say that anyone in my family ever had a "Christian name," but I'd know what a "given name" was. And then there's his preference for "cleaning lady" over "housecleaner." The specifically feminine connotations of "cleaning lady" are unnecessary. Unless she cleans in a particularly exciting fashion, her gender is irrelevant to the job. Does Max want the notion that cleaning is women's work to gain sanction from our most ready expressions? (If he thinks so, Liz had better do something about that.) Furthermore, I see no reason to prefer "man-made" to "synthetic".

Overall, I'm pretty happy with the trade society has made over the past few decades. I have no desire to use language that perpetuates unwholesome stereotypes. I do, however, like to talk about sex. My sense is that the norms for casual conversation have shifted so that it's more generally permitted to say fun raunchy things. (In particular, the permissions have expanded for women, and both my feminist side and my horny single guy side rejoice at that.) Despite all the occasional excesses of political correctness, we've got a better deal now.


Max Goss said...

I don't think housecleaning is any more woman's work than shining shoes is men's work, even though I also use the expression "shoe shine boy." But I have never heard of a man who cleans houses for a living and I have only rarely seen a woman who shines shoes. Why shouldn't my usage reflect empirical reality?

As for my supposed preference for "Christian name" over "given name," shouldn't it depend on the context? I might not call "Neil" your Christian name, but I would certainly call the names of some of my Christian friends their Christian names. No matter. Random House thinks we should get rid of that expression,, replacing it in every context with substitutes that have no history, charm, or nuance, all because it might possibly offend somebody, somewhere. (And if I did say that "Neil" was your Christian name, would you take offense? I doubt it, unless you are as incapable of living with my differences as Random House thinks I am of living with yours.)

My point, which you do not address, is that it is not the place of a dictionary maker to tell me whether my uses of various expressions lack sensitivity or should be replaced by "better" ones. A secondary, implied, point is that the publisher's presumption becomes all the more ridiculous when he cannot distinguish perfectly appropriate uses of terms like "Canuck" from inappropriate ones, and when he displays real Philistinism about good prose.

Max Goss said...

Oh, as for your saying that you see no reason to prefer "man-made" to "synthetic," I point out, first, Orwell's dictum that one shouldn't, on pain of sounding pretensious, use a Latinate expression when an Anglo-Saxon will do just as well, second, that "synthetic" and "mad-made" actually have different meanings, insofar as the former often suggests the bringing together of multiple elements whereas the latter does not, and third, that, apart from their differences in meaning, the two terms also differ in connotation and customary usage, which I leave it to you to work out. Language is an enormously complex thing, which responds far better to incremental organic changes rather than programmatic reforms.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Well, I don't know many people who clean houses for a living, so I don't know how this breaks down. Let's be good analytic philosophers here -- if the transworld set of people covered by the concept is mixed in gender, we'll say "housecleaners." If it's all female, "cleaning ladies." I think housecleaners works.

I wouldn't take offense if you said that about "Neil." If I hadn't heard the term, though, it would take me a while to figure out what you meant. This wouldn't happen with "given name."

It's perfectly fine for a dictionary to do this thing. People (especially foreign speakers coming here on business) need to know what connotations their words will have, and the dictionary is simply reporting which terms might annoy the people being referred to and which won't.

I actually thought you might like "synthetic" more than "man-made" -- "synthetic" actually sounds kind of, well, synthetic. Besides, I'm a good Celt, and I have no love of your Saxon tongue. Póg mo thóin, Sassenach! (joking)

Rousseau said...

Shrug, complaints "political correctness" is one of the things that has bugged me more about the right, and also bugs me when I see my friends on the left say similar complaints.

Saying that things are taboo to say or discuss because they are beyond the pale or have bad indirect consequences, is one of the ways culture defines itself. And it's one of the ways culture changes itself too. Discussing what is offensive, inaccurate, or boorish is not new to post-60's liberalism.

The best (but not only) contra-example would be that conservative influences make taboo in our society just as much. Neil discussed sex. Not to mention questioning patriotism/nationalism is out of the realm of reasonable discourse these days, even more so than Christianity.

I was always wry at Bill Maher's show "politically incorrect" because i disliked that type of attitude of "being oppressed by PC-ness" embodied in that. But then one day he did cross the line, saying "we can call the 9/11 terrorists lots of things, but not cowards" and he found himself insulted by the Administration, and lost his network show.

(For my own side, I am rather annoyed at how my non-heterosexual friends can't understand why most of America doesn't like to talk about sex the way they do.)

More specifically, a) Random wasn't saying don't use them, but what to say when you want to be offensive and b) you're "sense" of the gender ratios in various professions is far far from convincing.

Anyway, any thorough linguistic understanding of culture makes someone who complained about PC-ness look like a partisan hack.

Dennis said...

For my two cents, let me claim that Random House is trying to take a descriptive, not a prescriptive, take on the culture of language. Take more prosaic grammar and usage as an example; split infinitives are often clearer than unsplit ones, many sentences naturally end in prepositions, and (many, many, god help me) people use "beg the question" as a synonym for "raise the question." Surely the dictionary shouldn't be faulted for pointing out that these are errors, and some people are liable to think you ignorant/stupid if you use them. That there are people in the world who chafe at "Christian name" is indisputable -- why shouldn't the dictionary be able to inform me of this? Particularly in a section labelled "how to avoid offensive language," as surely you can decide whether to do so or not, I think that the usage "avoid x, replace y" is perfectly apt. And why shouldn't you have this information at hand? If a word might be badly received, that's certainly a connotation you should be aware of. In short, it is so the place of a dictionary maker to tell you whether your uses of various expressions can be seen as offensive or not.

(Incidentally, "canuk" is under the "somtimes meant to offend" catagory, not the "stay the hell away" catagory -- is it somehow not the case that the word is sometimes meant offensively?)

And why, oh why, must we always assume that "x can be bad" is the same thing as "never ever have x?" This pisses me off enough when people do it with food (a la Atkins); I don't need it in politics too.