Monthly Archives: February 2016

Have You Checked Your Sexist Dictionary Lately?

Recently, the New York Times ran an article about the role of dictionaries: should the definitions be descriptive (conforming to the way in which words are currently used) or proscriptive (in essence, showing how words should be used, according to current standards)?

The esteemed Oxford Dictionaries, including the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes with every Apple device in North America, was outed as being surprisingly sexist in many of its definitions. Here are a few examples:

shrill |SHril|
noun [ in sing. ]
a shrill sound or cry: the rising shrill of women’s voices.

Why were “women’s voices” used as an example? Does nothing else make high-pitched and piercing sounds? Bird calls? Machinery? Brakes? Avoid stereotypes.

rabid |ˈrabəd, ˈrā-|
adjective
1 having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: a rabid feminist.

In fact, more sports fans than feminists have been defined as rabid, according to linguistic studies. Have I cautioned you to avoid stereotypes?

psyche 1 |ˈsīkē|
noun
the human soul, mind, or spirit: I will never really fathom the female psyche.

Do you see the smoke coming out of my ears? Observe: more smoke coming:

hysterical
adjective
1 Janet became hysterical: overwrought, overemotional, out of control, frenzied, frantic, wild, feverish, crazed;

It’s always Janet, poor, crazy, unhinged Janet. Have you watched a political debate recently? Did you notice any males who could easily fit this description?

bossy 1 |ˈbôsē, ˈbäs-|
adjective (bossier, bossiest) informal
fond of giving people orders; domineering: she was headlong, bossy, scared of nobody, and full of vinegar.

Note the use of the feminine pronoun.

bossy
adjective informal
we’re hiding from his bossy sister: domineering, pushy, overbearing, imperious, officious, high-handed, authoritarian, dictatorial, controlling; informal high and mighty. ANTONYMS submissive.

The brother couldn’t possibly be bossy; but that sister! She is tyrannical.

And finally:

nag 1 |nag|
verb (nags, nagging, nagged) [ with obj. ]
annoy or irritate (a person) with persistent fault-finding or continuous urging: she constantly nags her daughter about getting married | [ with infinitive ] : she nagged him to do the housework

People, this is 2016. Who is editing the dictionary? And why am I haranguing you with this subject? I urge you to be diligent about checking your writing for inadvertent, stereotypical sexism.

If you wouldn’t mention that you saw a man lawyer last week, there is no reason to point out that you happened to see a woman lawyer (and NOT a “lady” lawyer—gentility is irrelevant). Both males and females graduate from law school and pass the bar. The same advice holds for all professions that used to be almost exclusively male but have not been for a very long time: medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, fire fighters, police officers, soldiers, etc. And the reverse holds true: men today commonly are nurses, secretaries and flight attendants.

If you wouldn’t mention your male co-worker’s hair color or his clothes, don’t point out your female co-worker by her red hair—or her blue sweater.

Check your pronouns to make sure they’re inclusive. One easy trick to help you avoid the awkward “his or her” or “he or she” is to make your subject plural and use a plural pronoun to refer to that subject, such as “they” or “their,” for example.

Dentists today do much more than fill their patients’ cavities

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More Spoonerisms

Is this a pird of brey?

Is this a pird of grey?           ©Judi Birnberg

 

A Spoonerism is born when, most commonly, the initial consonants of two words are transposed.

The Reverend William Spooner, for whom this verbal glitch is named, was renowned for many of these slips, several of which I listed in my previous post. In chapel at Oxford, Spooner once called for the singing of the hymn, “Kinkering Congs Their Titles Take.” Got that? Other clerics praised God as a “shoving leopard” and spoken of John the Baptist’s “tearful chidings.”

Chances are we’ve all fallen prey to these slips. I clearly remember speaking of a “grebt of datitude” once at a job interview. The interviewer and I both laughed and, somehow, I did get the job. It’s nice when people are understanding.

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Spoonerisms

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I recently bought a book titled Um. It deals with verbal blunders people make, particularly in their speech. According to the author, Michael Erard, we commit a verbal blunder about once in every 10 words. Who knew?

No doubt you’ve heard of Spoonerisms, named (in 1885) for the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, of Oxford University. This man had an alarming propensity for mixing up the initial sounds of words. Until I read this book, I always thought that was the extent of a Spoonerism, but in addition the blooper has to result in a phrase that is inappropriate for the situation.

For example, Spooner was toasting Queen Victoria at a dinner and told the guests, “Give three cheers for our queer old dean!” He also admonished a student: “You have hissed all my mystery lectures. In fact, you have tasted two whole worms, and you must leave Oxford this afternoon by the next town drain.”

Spooner was aware of his tendency to tangle his words. He referred to his “transpositions of thought,” and at the conclusion of a talk he gave to alumni, he said, “And now I suppose I’d better sit down, or I might be saying—er—one of those things.”

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If you were to write the following poem and run it through your spellchecking software, not one word would be highlighted. Every word is legitimate—no spelling errors. Yet you would end up looking either stupid, sloppy, or both. Even if no words are marked by your spellchecker, don’t assume everything is OK. It’s so easy to type “and” when you meant to write “any” or “the” when you meant “them,” these,” or any other common “th” word.

My best advice, which you’ve probably heard from me a zillion times before, is to read what you’ve written out loud (quietly is fine) and slowwwwly: one. word. at. a. time. If you read silently at your usual speed, you’ll end up writing what you think you wrote, not what you actually wrote.

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Commas Used With Direct Address

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Direct address is when you use a person’s name or another word to indicate that person (lady, man, dude, jerk, Mom, Dad, pal, dear, darling, etc.). That direct address should be set off with commas:

Hello, Robert.
Sweetheart, I miss you so much.
I’m telling you, Dad, you need to stop working so hard.
Welcome, friend.
Cut it out, idiot!
Yes, Virgina, there is a Santa Claus.

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Which President Is It?

I go through this every year in mid-February: looking through the ads for refrigerators, mattresses and windows, I see three different ways to show why Washington and Lincoln were born to sell these items. Which one is correct?

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That’s a shadow,. This banner has no apostrophe.

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Here we have both presidents trying to sell you appliances.

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And here is only one president—but is it Washington or Lincoln selling you windows?

Obviously, the correct punctuation is seen in the second example. The rule for using apostrophes is very simple: take the owner word and add ‘S. If the owner word happens to end in an S, just add an apostrophe (boss=boss’).

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Two Common Mispronunciations

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MISCHIEVOUS is pronounced MIS CHIV ISS, not MIS CHEEVE E US.

GRIEVOUS is often misspelled and pronounced GREEVE E US. It’s GREEVE ISS.

Incidentally, looking at the subject line of this post reminds me that some people say and write PRONOUNCIATION and MISPRONOUNCIATION. True, the verb is PRONOUNCE, but for the noun forms, the O before the U is dropped.

Remember, I just teach the rules. I think they’re as crazy as you do.

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