If you’ve ever felt a twinge of anxiety at hearing someone use “humankind” as a substitute for mankind, or if you’ve winced at the proliferation of the politically correct suffix “person” — as in “chairperson,” or “policeperson” — when the more traditional “man” would be perfectly suitable, chances are you’ve suffered from the corrupting linguistic legacy of feminist writer Kate Swift. Swift, who died last week at 87, was one of a squadron of feminist language police whose crusade to remake language to suit their political agendas has wreaked havoc on everyday English.
Feminists had tried to reform language long before Swift and her fellow word scolds arrived on the scene. In 1949, feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir charged that language was “inherited from a masculine society and contains many male prejudices.” She advised that “women have to steal the instrument” and “use it for their own good.”
Swift and her co-author, Casey Miller, attempted precisely such a heist in their influential 1981 book, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. The book had two main premises, both of them dubious. The first was that sexism and sexual discrimination were embedded in the English language. The second was that the language needed to be radically revised in order to change society’s attitudes and make it more inclusive.
Informed more by feminist ideology than linguistic scholarship, the book’s suggested recommendations ranged from the awkward to the downright absurd. For instance, judging the word “mankind” sexist, the authors recommended that it be replaced with “genkind.” Not content simply to ruin existing language, the authors also proposed feminist-friendly neologisms. Thus, “tey,” “ter” and “tem” were to become the sex-neutral surrogates for “he/she,” “his/her” and “him/her.”
Swift and Casey’s more eccentric suggestions failed to catch on, but their book proved a giant leap for genkind, unleashing a wave of feminist assaults on the English language. Picking up where The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing left off, a “feminist dictionary” soon announced in all seriousness that the word “brotherhood” could no longer be used to describe non-fraternal kinship because “it ignores generations of sisters.” Emboldened, feminists insisted that women must now be referred to as “wimmin,” and that history had to become “herstory.”
Had such linguistic absurdities remained confined to the pages of obscure feminist tracts, they would have been a merely an illiterate footnote to the history of modern English. But they became part of the cultural mainstream when the professional arbiters of language embraced the feminist reformation. And so the American Library Association adopted a resolution pledging to avoid supposedly sexist terminology, while the Linguistic Society of America established a Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics for the same purpose. Universities turned feminist recommendations into campus policies, and the worlds of publishing and journalism followed suit, ruining language use for new generations of speakers and writers.