“The most important thing for a human being to know, from infancy onward, is whether he is welcome or unwelcome, whether he is being loved and cherished and protected or hated and feared; and the give-and-take of speech, with all its modulation of color and tone, provides these essential clues.”
Lewis Mumford, The Miracle of Language
I could pepper this essay with many “words” in quotation marks, but—how tedious for us both. And then if I read aloud my arms would get very tired from making scare quotes. So no quote marks today. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt; let’s imagine for any given word the quotes are there, as needed.
Words, Guys and Unisex
In the beginning was the word. I will never forget reading about a very young girl trying to figure out a little box she was holding. It had a drawer she could open, if only she knew how. She thought by first sliding her jaw open and shut, and then she opened the drawer. I read this in The Developing Child by Helen Bee. I knew at the time that we adults, privileged to think more abstractly than children, thought by sliding words around. Words enabled thought and words were thought. This was around 1980, when we were saying women deserved equal rights, yet women were subtly seen as unequal and undeserving. I kept blinking in surprise as I read the textbook, because Ms. Bee subtly used she as a generic term for child, instead of he. I looked and saw our words could be better. I figured my blinking was my problem, not Ms. Bee’s: She had the right to use words this way.
Besides, best not to complain: Being the only male in my child psychology class, and being fresh from the army base across the airstrip, I figured I had a lot to learn. One of my classmates told me about her little boy looking at the textbook cover, which showed children on a fancy playground, complete with slide. Her child looked up at her and said: “What if there was a button on the corner of the cover that you could press, and then—all the children would start moving, and going down the slide.” Such imagination! Yes, and as students and parents, what new world for our dear children were we imagining?
We knew darn well we had the right to imagine: Having survived the 1960’s, and the kitchen “consciousness raising groups” of the 1970’s, we knew society was not glued in place, but ever changing itself, like partly dismantling plastic red (Or lego) blocks and then happily rearranging.
Words are blocks. Some words are more concrete: mother, father. Other blocks are more abstract: person, parent. We wanted gateway words; we wanted our little girls to pass through to be letter carriers, firefighters and police constables without feeling like de-sexed monsters who had turned into mailmen, firemen and policemen. And as we were naming our hopes for our children, the debates around imagining equality were heated and crazy, just like how today our US cousins are imagining that allowing homosexuals to join the army will mean brawny men wearing dresses on parade, and soldiers digging their trenches with limp wrists. Crazy.
For both individuals and groups, if a goal is true and good and beautiful, and if it is not already accomplished, then there are obstacles. Sometimes the people who oppose noble goals, besides having crazy imaginations, will obstruct by appealing to laziness or saying, “don’t go so fast!” Martin Luther King answered these people when he said, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy…” (Letter from Birmingham jail)
As it happens, the cart of progress can slow, stop or even reverse. A handy thought-word is pendulum; my despair is mollified when I remember such inevitable word-blocks as reactionary, counterrevolution, and the comforting phrase “one step back for two steps forward.”
It was exactly one year after my child psychology class that my college teacher Chuck Killingsworth, a Vietnam veteran, standing before my recreation class, was fishing for the word sexism, and none of us could supply it for him. (OK, I could, but I was keeping a low profile just then) He couldn’t remember it himself, either. How queer. There I was, a shorthaired veteran among longhaired students who couldn’t come up with the word sexism. They did not require that word-tool for their lives; they were not working through the issues. How sad: There had been a time when our side of the generation gap was going to be liberated from the old, un-new, un-improved generation. Not now. I looked at the students, and I knew: Their long hair was not political but cosmetic, less for building a brave new world than for a fashion statement. Short hair started coming back, with gay men being first. As the pendulum swung.
Before 1990 I remember a university classmate, Pauline, making a face as I was talking to her. She said, “Don’t use that word.” Lesbian. She preferred a nice new word, free of stigma: gay. She had been in the gay students society. Because the initials embarrassed the graduate students society, the name had just been changed. Now she was in GLASS, for gay and lesbian academics, students and staff. But make no mistake: gay was still a gender-neutral term. Gays had fought against the police, and won their legal freedom of assembly in 1969. After that, after being allowed to meet each other in broad daylight, they could see for themselves society was mistaken, that they could in fact have strong wrists and strong self-esteem.
Later came an organization where straight parents could meet and work through their issues and hear for themselves, from each other, that no, they didn’t cause it, they couldn’t cure it, and their gay children could be strong, noble, good church-going citizens. But that was later, after the 1969 struggle.
The year 2,000 A.D. was to be the year the future arrived. I remember, in that year, Professor Susan Cran teaching our business-and-rehabilitation class where I was probably the only male. One day she was fishing for a reply from any student, anyone, and when we couldn’t reply said to us in exasperation, “Guys! ... Come on, guys…” And later that day, in the student union building, I was exiting the Women’s Collective and Resource Centre as one woman asked two other women, “Are you guys going to the concert tonight?” Her word choice was quite unremarkable to us: As gays was unisex, so was guys.
Meanwhile, well before the new millennium, David Gerrold was writing his masterpiece about an ecological infestation, The Chtorr War series. The young viewpoint hero took things like space habitats and a moon base for granted. What fascinated me was when he would mention two soldiers in the background and, just two paragraphs later, mention one of them again, this time saying she. He hadn’t thought to mention the two soldiers were women because his generation took it for granted that soldiering had been decoupled from gender. How… how science fiction-y.
As we time travel into the future, at a breathless velocity of one second per second, new words are appearing and old ones are being lost. A few months ago I was waiting at a store counter beside two high school girls. Presumably these girls knew the words Miss, Mrs. and Mr. I heard them asking each other how to pronounce Ms. and asking what the word meant. I did not enlighten them. Next day I told this to a university graduate friend. She said she didn’t know either, adding, “I think it means a woman is divorced.” Well.
I can remember when we joked that co-eds—meaning co-educational, meaning female students—were on campus to proudly “get their Mrs. Degree”—meaning: get a husband. At the same time, other women, equally happy to get married, thought it was not society’s business to know whether they were married or not. Hence Ms. And from their efforts in the 1970’s, today at hiring interviews employers are no longer legally allowed to ask whether you are married or a tiny bit pregnant. (Not until after you are hired) Back in 1980, while co-ed was being printed in Reader’s Digest, and few in Canada were saying co-ed, back then no one—including me—ever asked, “Why aren’t men proud to have initials before their name to say whether they are married?” I guess with our plastic word-blocks we had built a world we took for granted.
It’s like how during my boyhood we saw nothing wrong with stage plays like Guys and Dolls (1950) or with saying “guys and gals.” Few dreamed that we would move closer to an equal future, closer to words like Ms. and to having guys as a unisex term. As a boy, between drawing spaceships with little retro rockets by the nose cone, I would do the arithmetic to figure out how old I would be in the year two thousand. Old! It was around that time we had to retro built a word: acoustic guitar. At first there was no such term: The wooden ones were re-named after the electric ones came out. Words can also be retro vanished: Our US Negro cousins are now our Black cousins, while Negro, with a capital N, has retro vanished as a proper noun. (Presumably from being too close to the slang term nigger) And so I can write with a straight face, “In 1950 Buddy Holly carried his acoustic guitar past a Black priest.” (Just don’t use such anachronistic dialogue for time traveling secret agents, not if they are trying to pass for locals) As the pendulum swings.
Of course I respect biology: I have enjoyed referring to a respected woman over age thirty as a girl, when she was my potential girl friend; my child psychology peers in 1980 had enjoyed referring to boys they knew and gorgeous guys in a student club. Of course it’s nice to titillate ourselves. But still, sometimes, female adults are women and groups of adults are guys.
The last time I flew across the Rockies I declined taking a jet liner in favor of a smaller turbo-prop: It flew lower with better scenery. I sat at the very front, for the best view, and next to me on a little fold down seat was a nice good-looking flight attendant. I quite enjoyed our conversation. I did not call the man a flight steward, nor did I call his colleague a flight stewardess. Instead I went in for the unisex term. If I’d had a not-yet-published edition of O Magazine, then I could have asked the flight attendant what he thought of a letter somebody mailed in. I’m not saying the writer wanted to return to the days of Guys and Dolls, but she had managed to retro vanish the unisex term guys. Writing to Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, she said firmly she didn’t appreciate a waiter addressing her table with, “What are you guys having?” because, she explained, she’s not a guy.
I do not believe she wanted female soldiers to have color coded uniforms and dig trenches with limp wrists, but I neither do I believe she was thinking through exactly what brave new world, and what brave army, she wanted her nieces to serve in. If my own niece, Darelynne, wearing her tattoo of a Guardian Angel with an M-16, is going to fight for my freedom, then I won’t put obstacles in Darelynne's way. No separate-but-equal uniforms. Meanwhile, as America is engaged in the war on terror, let’s try to set, for the terror-exporting states, a good example of human equality.
My US readers, from their time in Iraq, may recall how the rest of the world felt disturbed to read about nation building there. In exasperation they asked Americans: “Why not do state building?” To English-speaking folks offshore, a nation is a group within a state, such as the nations of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds within Iraq. As a North American, I can understand why the Americans still misuse English this way. They don’t get it because from stirring their traditional melting pot, with hot pressure to blend in, they have prevented separate nations from congealing. In contrast, up in Canada, even as they want to separate from the rest of Canada, a group within the province of Quebec are calling themselves nationalists. In an essay, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said we have to guess which meaning is intended, state or sub-state, when we hear nation. He said we go by context.
Just as I expect people to use context, for continent or republic, when I say “Here in America…” Hint to US cousins: When driving across the international border to Canada, a crude Charles Bronson (Death Wish, the movie) would say “I’m American” while the polite secret agent Matt Helm (Death of a Citizen, the novel) would say, “US citizen,” reminding his partner, “It’s their continent too.”
For my part, for the past decade and three years, while engaged in conceiving essays about liberty, the context for writing has been during war time, and therefore I have always been ready to digress into facing the war that is now before us. It is fitting to act on words like war and citizen. And nation. My alternative? To mentally secede, saying, “This war belongs to our government, to Our Dear Leader, not to the rest of us.” Of course, if I say that, then government by the people has already perished from the earth.
In a New York City accent: “I’m just saying.”
My niece, now home on Christmas leave, is a fully-fledged soldier—Not like in my dad’s war: not merely part of the woman’s auxiliary army corps. You may call me a dreamer, but I think Darelynne will be the first soldier in our family to make Sargent-Major. And I’m not the only one. My sister, Captain Crawford, has dreams too.
Meanwhile I’m praying and hoping and wishing that in the context of gorgeous guys, guys is male, and in the context of most guys believe in peace, guys is unisex.
Civilian on the outside,
Citizen between the ears,
North of the 49th parallel
Lewis Mumford: “…So essential is language to man’s humanness, so deep a source is it of his own creativity, that it is by no means an accident in our time that those who have tried to degrade man and enslave him have first debased and misused language, arbitrarily turning meanings inside out. Civilization itself, from the most primitive stage onward, moves toward the continuous creation of a common social heritage, transcending all the peculiarities of race and environment and historic accident, shared over ever wider reaches of space and time…”
Excerpt from The Miracle of Language in The Conduct of Life, copyright1951, 1979, by Lewis Mumford, Harcourt Brace Janovich, Inc.
~As the pendulum swings, I suppose Ms. has faded partly because there is less stigma to being unmarried: Nurses find it practical to say partner instead of spouse, and nobody says living-in-sin. And nobody makes a noun by accenting the third syllable in divorce, either.
~A new term is we, as in “Guess what? Michael and I—we’re pregnant!”
~Bias in word or thought blinds us for seeing the future… Killingsworth told us how, back from Nam, he did a thesis paper at university about Vietnam, saying we could win. His academic advisor had to tell him that, according to Killingsworth's own research, the war was unwinnable. It was otherwise a well-done paper, right up until the conclusion.
~Much of what makes the Chtorr Wars future feel like science fiction is the incredible lack of hubris among most people in the chain of command. This healthy lack is partly because the Chtorran plagues removed so many people, (only 76 congressmen survived) and partly because the US had lost a conflict back when the hero was a boy, and then had to sign the Moscow treaty—signing it in Moscow, not at a halfway point. … Sic transit hubris. …Sometimes you can’t see hubris from the inside: If you are a US citizen reading this, and you can gain the confidence of a Canadian, try to get him to tell you what “Yankee B.S.” is.
~Speaking of ego and equal rights: In the Chtorr War series the viewpoint hero, a competent army officer, gets a girlfriend who is taller, older, more common-sense-functional, of higher rank, on track to making general, and more sexually experienced/assertive… Outside of science fiction, can you imagine that in any thrilling novel today?
I think the reason the hero is OK with his life partner being higher is not merely because this is in the future, but because he does not see life as a hierarchy; I think, rather, he semi-consciously has a binary view, collapsing hierarchy to a question of territory: some people, in the hero’s territory, are committed to goals, not excuses, and hence have become competent. Others, outside his territory, have failed to accept the challenge of becoming committed to getting results. Such a pity.
~For my next essay, I’ll go back to putting individual words in quotation marks. (You’re welcome)