Sexism and language

A reader questions a caption that used “man” as a verb, wondering if the term excludes women. Here is the caption:

Technicians man the video control studio at the RBC Center during the NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New Jersey Devils on Monday. …

Various style guides to nonsexist language suggest that we use “operate,” “work” or “use” as alternatives to “man.” The guides also suggest “staff,” which some experts think makes a bad verb. I don’t think the caption excluded women, but I understand the reader’s point.

I am predisposed to be skeptical of bend-over-backward attempts to use gender-neutral terms. (Maybe it’s my age, although I am in the middle of the baby boomer generation and part of the second wave of feminism.) “Firefighter” and “police officer” are accurate and clear. “Spokesperson” is an ungainly coinage; you can say “representative” if you want a gender-neutral term. I think “actor” and “actress” are fine, but I can see a day when we won’t use the feminine term at all. We never needed “authoress” or “poetess,” and I am happy to see those terms fall into the waste bin of usage.

Aside: When I was a high school newspaper editor in 1971-72, I tried to get our school, where the sports teams were the Tigers, to stop calling our girls’ teams the Tigerettes. I wrote that Tigresses was the proper feminine version of Tigers and that Tigresses sounded much fiercer and stronger than Tigerettes. I edited sports stories to use Tigresses. I changed no one’s mind.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.