Sexist language is language that expresses bias in favor of one sex and thus treats the
other sex in a discriminatory manner. In most cases, the bias is in favor of men and
against women. This paper firstly discusses sexist language from two typical aspects:
sexism in words and sexism in proverbs. Then it emphasizes that owing to Womenâs
Liberation Movement in Western Countries, womenâs social status has been bettered, and such
supermasculine phenomenon in English is being alleviated accordingly. In order to illustrate the
two issues clearly, many interesting examples are given.
Sexist language is language that expresses bias in favor of one sex and thus treats the
other sex in a discriminatory manner. In most cases the bias is in favor of men and
against women. The existence of sexist language is due to sexism in society. As a
social phenomenon, language is closely related to social attitudes. In the past, women
are supposed to stay at home, remaining powerless and generally subordinate to man,
whereas men are considered as the center both in the family and society. In a word,
for a long time women have been looked on as âthe weaker sexâ in society. Even in
English-speaking countries, which hold the claim that âevery one is created equalâ,
discrimination against women exists. Language simply reflects this social fact.
However, because of their greater status-consciousness, the movement amongst
feminists to reduce sexual discrimination and sex-role stereotyping has led to a
number of conscious attempts to influence and change languages and linguistic
behavior. The problem is that the language which we have inherited were all
developed in the Bad Old Days, so the question is whether they force us all to think
along the old lines without realizing it. Does language discriminate against women?
More precisely, do the ways in which languages allow us to refer to males and
females discriminate against females? This paper will first explore the answer to this
question from such aspects as sexism in words, sexism in proverbs. Then it will show
us the non-discriminatory portrayal of the sexes.
II. Sexism in English
- Sexism in words
In society, men are considered the norm for the human species: their characteristics,
thoughts, beliefs and actions are viewed as fully representing those of all humans,
male and female. This practice can make women invisible in language or altogether
excludes them. It can also lead to their portrayal as deviations from this ‘male =
human’ norm. Women’s linguistic status is often dependent on or derives from that of
men, which is represented as autonomous. By relegating women to a dependent,
subordinate position, sexist language prevents the portrayal of women and men as
different but equal human beings.
1.1. Common forms of sexism in English include the use of ‘man’ and ‘he / him / his’
as genericsâthat is, nouns and pronouns referring to both men and womenâthe use
of suffixes -man, -ette, -ess, -trix in occupational nouns and job titles, asymmetrical
naming practices, and stereotyped images of women and men as well as descriptions
of (mainly) women which trivialise or denigrate them and their status.
1.1.1. English does not possess a third person singular pronoun which is genderneutral. Instead the ‘masculine’ pronouns ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’ are generally used to refer
to both men and women. This is confusing and inaccurate and, as well, makes women
invisible. Consider the following examples:
All men are mortal,
Julia is a man
Therefore, Julia is mortal.
Like other animals, man nourishes his baby with milk.
We want to hire the best men we can get for the job.
In example 1), the underlined sentence sounds absurd, since everybody knows Julia
is a girlâs name. In example 2), the underlined part sounds more ridiculous and itâs
obviously contradictory to the common sense. In example 3), the problem is that we
canât know the exact sex of the persons they want to hire. They may want only girls,
or both sexes, but they simply use âmanâ here.
1.1.2. In English language, there are many words, which are clearly male-orientated
in that they contain the element ââmanâ while they can in fact apply to both sexes,
chairman congressman councilman
newsman foreman freshman
Policeman salesman mailman
1.1.3. Sexism in language is also showed in that the noun of feminine gender can
only be obtained by adding a certain bound morpheme to the noun. For example:
MALE FEMALE MALE FEMALE
Man woman manager manageress
Prince princess god goddess
author authoress mayor mayoress
count countess shepherd shepherdess
host hostess steward stewardess
poet poetess usher usherette
heir heiress sailor sailorette
hero heroine conduct conductette
1.2. Some English words, especially the name of some professions, are basically of
common gender, namely, they can be applied to both sexes. However, people
usually will habitually associate them only with male. Consequently, we have to add
âwomanâ before those names if we want to refer to female of those professions. For
COMMON GENDER FEMALE
Doctor woman doctor
Professor woman professor
Engineer woman engineer
Lawyer lady lawyer
Reporter girl reporter
The above examples obviously reflect peopleâs deep-rooted discrimination against
women, that is, women have to be dependent on men and are even just some
appendages of man.
1.3. One tendency involves words that are clearly restricted in reference to one sex
or the other, with female words tending to have less favorable meanings. A classic
pair is master and mistress, where the male meaning is âgoodâ and the female is
âbadâ; specifically, a mistress but not a master is a partner for extra-marital sex.
Some other examples are as follows:
1). The word âmasterâ means âhostâ while the feminine word âmistressâ has the
surface meaning âhostessâ. But actually its connotative meaning is âloverâ, âwoman
who depends on manâ In the following sentence â He grew tired of his wife and
went out for a mistressâ Here we will sure know that âmistress â cannot be his wife.
2). The word âgovernorâ refers to âa person appointed to govern a province or state,
whereas the word âgovernessâ just means ânurse maidâ.
3). The word âprofessionalâ refers to a person qualified or employed in one of the
professions. When we say âhe is a professionalâ, he may be thought to be a boxer,
whereas when we say âshe is a professionalâ, she is likely a prostitute.
4). When âtrampâ refers to male, it means that the man is homeless, he goes from
place to place and does no regular work. While when it refers to a female, it also
indicates that she is a prostitute.5).The word shrew taken from the name of a small but
especially vicious animal is defined in Oxford Advanced Learnerâs Dictionary as an
âbad-tempered, scolding woman,â but the word shrewd taken from the same root is
defined as âhaving, showing, sound judgment and common sense.â and illustrated
with the phrase âa shrewd businessman.â
6). âThe man in the streetâ and â The woman in the streetâ is in the same situation,
yet the former one just shows that the man is an ordinary person, the latter one can
indicates that she is a prostitute.
Such sexual use of the female word is typical. North American English has no fewer
than 220 words for a sexually promiscuous woman, but only twenty for sexually
promiscuous men, and London school children had a rich vocabulary of insult terms
for girls, all related to sexual behavior, but very few specifically for boys.
1.4. Some English words show the lower social status of women. Some example are
quite clear, such as the English distinction between Mrs and Miss which is not
paralleled by a pair of male titles showing whether or not the bearer is married. This
implies (unfairly) that it is more important for a woman than for a man to show
whether they are married.
Stereotyped images of men and women are based on oversimplified generalizations of
what women and men should be and how they should behave. Such images are often
not only inaccurate but also severely hamper the representation of the changing roles
of the sexes in society.
Some examples of such language are given below: a man and his wife, man and wife,
John’s widow. In expressions such as these, women are described and defined in terms
of their relationship to men. Men, however, are hardly ever described in terms of their
relationship to women.
In the following sentences, women are primarily described in terms of their physical
appearance. This concentration on physical attributes to the exclusion of other
features seldom occurs in the description of men. Male and female stereotyping
occurs frequently in relation to occupations and gender roles. Women who are
employed outside the home are still described in terms of being the ‘wife of’, ‘mother
of’ or ‘daughter of’. Portrayals of men in their professional roles seldom describe them
as ‘father of’, ‘husband of’ and the like.
- Sexism in proverbs
Proverbs are certain condensation of one language. Therefore the sexism can be
reflected perfectly in proverbs. In an English proverb, âHe who follows his wife’s
advice will never see the face of god.â We can clearly feel the wicked underlines by
which men stretch their prejudice towards women. But this is not the end, we have
something even worse, like:
1). A neck without a head, buttocks without a hole and a girl without shame are not
worth admiring or marrying.
2). A woman has even cheated the devil.
3). A woman is like a lemon; you squeeze her and throw her away.
4). Seven women in their right senses are surpassed by a mad man..
5). Women have got long hair and short sense.
6). A womanâs tongue cracks bones.
Not only in English, but also in many other languages, women are the victims of evilintentioned jokes or proverbs. Afghan jokes and folklore are blatantly sexist, such as
this proverb: âIf you see an old man, sit down and take a lesson; if you see an old
woman, throw a stone.â
III. Non-discriminatory portrayal of the sexes
Owing to the Womenâs Liberation Movement in Western Countries, womenâs social
status has been bettered, and such supermasculine phenomenon in language is being
alleviated accordingly. Yet there are two key problems here: one is how to directly
eliminate the sexist words in language; the other is how to eliminate the sexism
resulted from the use of the use of ‘man’ and ‘he / him / his’ as generics.
- Titles and some naming practices
Naming practices for women and men are often asymmetrical. Inequality is implied,
for instance, in cases where a woman’s title is not mentioned but a man’s is; where a
woman is addressed simply by her first name but a man is addressed by his title, first
name and surname; and in some salutations, directed to a man and a woman, when the
woman is not addressed. Other practices also can create the impression that women
merit less respect or less serious consideration than men do, such as when
endearments are used to address women in situations that do not justify such words .
‘Mr’, ‘Ms’, ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’
Use of the title ‘Mr’ before a person’s name merely identifies that person as a male
adult. The titles ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, however, not only identify the person addressed as a
woman but also make known her marital status. The title ‘Ms’ was introduced so that a
woman is not required to reveal her marital status and so that people writing to or
addressing a woman are not required to guess it by using ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. ‘Ms’ should
be used for a woman whose title preference is unknown. It should be followed by the
woman’s own name, or if she prefers, her spouse’s name. Any given names or initials
used in connection with the title ‘Ms’ are invariably the woman’s and not those of her
spouse. ‘Ms’ is the same whether singular or plural. The pronunciation of ‘Ms’ varies
somewhat but The Macquarie Dictionary recommends ‘mz’.
It is important that, where a woman’s preferred title is known (whether Ms, Mrs or
Miss), her right to be known by that title be respected. Other titles
Many women have gained professional and academic titles previously associated
mainly with men. It is therefore important not to assume that all holders of titles such
as Dr, Professor and Captain are men and therefore address them as ‘Sir’ or refer to
them as ‘he’ or ‘him’. Salutations in correspondence
Letters, notes, reports and the like are frequently addressed to a person or persons
about whose title, surname, first name or sex the writer knows very little. It is no
longer acceptable to use the salutation ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Sirs’ in such cases. Here are
Dear Sir Dear Sir / Madam; Dear Sir or Madam Dear Madam / Sir; Dear Madam or
Dear Principal Dear Householder
Dear Officer Dear Customer
Dear Colleague Dear Subscriber
Dear Sirs Dear Gentlemen and Ladies Dear Ladies and Gentlemen
Dear Mackenzie Pty Ltd (in case of a company) Dear People (informal)
Dear Mr Benetti Dear R. Benetti (sex unknown) Dear Mr / Ms Benetti
Dear Mrs Braun Dear Ms Braun (if title preference unknown)
It is also acceptable to address reports and references to ‘To whom it may concern’ if
the recipient is unknown to the writer. The use of the person’s first name and surname
only in salutations, e.g. ‘Dear Pat Koutsoukis’, has become acceptable in cases where
the person’s title (and / or sex) is unknown.
When one is replying to correspondence signed jointly by a man and a woman, both
persons should be acknowledged in the salutation in the order and form in which their
names appear in the correspondence.
- Alternatives for âmanâ
2.1 It is recommended that women are made more visible in language by avoiding the
use of ‘male-specific’ and ‘male-identified’ words in the generic sense. namely,
man (generic sense) humans, human race, human beings, human species, humanity,
humankind o r women and men, person(s), man and woman, individual(s), people(s),
2.2. The use of ‘man’ should also be avoided in idioms and phrases when the author or
speaker clearly intends the expression to include both women and men. Expressions
such as ‘the best man for the job’ or ‘the man on the land’ not only make women’s
presence and achievements in the workforce invisible but can also lead to
discrimination. Alternatives for some common expressions are suggested below:
âthe man in the streetâ.—- the average citizen, the average person, an ordinary person,
âthe best man for the jobâ—- the best candidate or applicant, person for the job, the
best man or woman for the job;
âman to manâ_—– person to person.
âman of the yearâ—- ‘citizen of the year’ or ’employee of the year’.
In gender-specific contexts expressions such as ‘man to man’, ‘woman to woman’,’onewoman show’ ,’one-man show’ are appropriate.
2.3. Occupational nouns and job titles
Occupational nouns and job titles ending in -man obscure the presence of women in
such professions and positions. There are various strategies for replacing âman
compounds. For example, the use of an existing gender-neutral term (police officer
instead of policeman), or of the -person alternative (layperson instead of layman) or
the explicit naming of both sexes (sportsmen and women instead of sportsmen) are
some of the possibilities. It is, of course, acceptable to use the -man compound to
refer to a man occupying the position if a woman in such a position is referred to by a
-woman compound (spokeswoman for a woman and spokesman for a man). However,
the practice of referring to a man by means of the âman compound and to a woman by
means of the -person compound is discriminatory.
Here is a list of the most frequently used alternatives:
businessman —business executive, business manager, business owner, business
person, entrepreneur, financier, investor, proprietor
cattleman— cattle breeder, cattle owner, cattle producer, cattle raiser, cattle worker,
chairman— the chair, chairperson, convener, coordinator, discussion leader, head (of)
â¦ , leader, moderator, person chairing a meeting, person in the chair, president,
clergyman— member of the clergy Depending on the denomination, other terms may
include ‘priest’, ‘pastor’, ‘ecclesiastic’ etc.
craftsman —artisan (artist), craftworker, technician
draftsman— artist, designer, drafter, drafting technician, drawer
fireman — firefighter boiler attendant, fire tender, stoker (railways, marine etc.)
fisherman— fisher, fishing licensee (e.g. for legal purposes), angler
foreman — supervisor, work supervisor, leading hand
groundsman— groundsperson (if specific duties, e.g. gardener, landscaper)
handyman— handyperson, do-it-yourselfer, maintenance worker, repairer
kinsman— kin, relation, relative
layman— layperson, non-expert (amateur), non-specialist,
laymen— laypeople, laypersons, lay community, laity
milkman— milkdeliverer, milk supplier, ‘milko’ (informal)
policeman— member of the police, police officer (term indicating rank)
postman— letter carrier, mail carrier, mail deliverer, postal delivery officer, postal
worker, ‘postie’ (informal)
salesman— sales agent, sales associate, sales attendant, salesperson, sales
representative, salesworker, shop assistant, shop attendant
spokesman — advocate, offical, representative, (person) speaking on behalf of â¦ ,
sportsman— athlete, player, sports competitor, sportsperson
statesman— leader, state leader
stockman— stockrider, stockworker, station hand, farm hand
storeman— storeperson, stores officer, storeworker
tradesman— tradesperson (trader)
weatherman— meteorologist, weather presenter, weather reporter (weather forecaster,
weather bureau)(Do not use weathergirl if the forecaster is a woman.)
Workman— worker, employee, working person
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