Monday, May 2, 2011

A lesson in gendered language from the Associated Press Stylebook

In her book, "When Everything Changed:  The amazing journey of American women from 1960 to the present," journalist Gail Collins says, "One of the most energetic reeducation efforts of the 1970s involved teaching men not to automatically refer to a group of two or more women as 'girls' ..."

It might not seem so very important, but this was huge, because words mattered then and they still matter today.  Language is made all the more powerful through subtle connotations of words that perpetuate negative perceptions and stereotypes.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "girl" as "a female child."  The word "child" carries the connotation of immaturity -- that a female child, a girl, needs to be carefully supervised, coddled and rescued if she finds herself in a difficult situation.  And, of course, nobody really takes her seriously.

So, using the word "girl" when referring to a mature woman, is inappropriate, no matter how innocent or petty it might seem.

This is the stuff postmodern feminists, who realize the impact of language, attempt to root out through analysis and deconstruction.

Of course, there are occasions when the word "girl" is appropriate. 

Journalists look to the Associated Press Stylebook for guidance in current language usage.  Here are some AP style rules for gendered language that make sense to use in everyday writing and speech:

Girl:  "Applicable until 18th birthday is reached.  Use woman or young woman afterward." (The same rule applies to "boy" with "young man" afterward.)

Lady:  "Do not use as a synonym for women.  Lady may be used as a courtesy title or when a specific reference to fine manners is appropriate without patronizing overtones." (The same rule applies to gentleman.)

Women:  "Women should receive the same treatment as men in all areas of coverage.  Physical descriptions, sexists references, demeaning stereotypes and condescending phrases should not be used ... copy should not assume maleness when both sexes are involved (emphasis mine) ... Use the same standards for men and women in deciding whether to include specific mention of personal appearance or marital situation ...treatment of the sexes should be evenhanded and free of assumptions and stereotypes."

However, the book adds, "This does not mean that valid and acceptable words such as mankind or humanity cannot be used.  They are proper." 

And yet,

Man, mankind :  "Either may be used when both men and women are involved ... Frequently, the best choice is a substitute such as humanity, a person or an individual." (Emphasis mine.)

Female:  This is the preferred adjective, not woman. (The book does not make a comparable entry for "male.")

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