Recently in the Gender Category

More on gender-neutral pronouns

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I've written about gender-neutral pronouns before. Here's an article from a couple months ago about the origin of gender-neutral "he" along with a discussion of singular "they."

Ship gender

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It's traditional in English to refer to ships using female pronouns.

I've known that all my life, but I think this is the first time I've consciously noticed a case of a ship bearing a male name being referred to as female: I listed carefully to the lyrics of the song "The Leaving of Liverpool" this evening, and noticed this line:

Davy Crockett is her name

This phenomenon is common enough that Wikipedia even mentions it. But I was nonetheless amused.

First occurrence of "Ms."

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Ben Zimmer may have tracked down the first use of the word "Ms."

Believe it or not, the word was suggested in 1901 in the Springfield, Massachusetts Sunday Republican. The previous earliest known print citation was 1949, so this is a pretty cool discovery.



Two lesbian friends of mine alerted me tonight to a new word: "gayelle."

It's a fascinating attempt to coin a new word. The people over at (a.k.a. are claiming, apparently seriously, that because the word "lesbian" is now old-fashioned and has negative connotations, it's time to replace that word with a new, hip, sophisticated, 21st-century word. And the one they came up with is "gayelle"--"the feminine form of gay meaning homosexual."

Also, the word "bisexual" contains the word "sex" and used to be sometimes used to mean "hermaphrodite," so the gayelles have decided (with the help of a little intersex-phobic phrasing like "freak of nature") that bisexual women should have a new term as well. They somehow came up with "sapphysapphia" (although their explanation fails to explain why they think that term should have anything to do with being interested in men too), which word they note is composed of only six different letters; if you put those letters in alphabetical order, you get "ahipsy," which they've altered to "hipshe." So, all you bi-dykes, better get used to calling yourselves hipshes from now on. (And presumably non-bi women aren't hip.)

On the one hand, I'm tempted to mock them. To me (and to the lesbian friends who mentioned "gayelle" to me), the terms sound silly and goofy and not even remotely hip. (One of my friends suggested that "Gay-El" sounded like a resident of Krypton; the other noted that "gayelle" is only one letter off from "gazelle.") Also, the gayelle folks say that "The word lesbian is antiquated" as evidence that we should stop using it, while they say (in a positive tone) that "Sappho" is "A well known name from antiquity" as a reason to use that; really, none of their arguments in favor of their new coinages make much sense to me.

On the other hand, language does change, and new coinages and new uses sometimes do catch on. After all, it wasn't all that long ago that people were still lamenting the loss of the perfectly good word "gay" to those awful homosexuals who'd appropriated it.

One thing that kinda bugs me politically about the "gayelle" thing is that it's kind of the opposite of reclaiming a word. The queer community has, to some degree and in some contexts, reclaimed a variety of words (including "queer") that used to be fairly universally derogatory; I'm a little sad to see people saying "that word is sometimes used derogatorily, so let's stop using it." (Interesting that the word "dyke" doesn't appear anywhere on their site.) Then again, this kind of language change happens all the time too, when once-polite words become derogatory. And for that matter, I myself have spent time agitating (mildly) for a new coinage; I invested a fair bit of energy into the gender-neutral pronoun "ta" in the '90s, before switching to gender-neutral "they."

I'm also mildly politically bothered by the gender politics I see in "gayelle." By creating a feminine form of "gay" (and why not "gayette," anyway?), they implicitly suggest that the word "gay" is exclusively male (which is, to be fair, how many people use it)--but they also suggest that the word for a homosexual woman should be a derivative of the word for a homosexual man. Wouldn't it be better to come up with a word that's not derived from an exclusively male label?

One more issue with "gayelle" is that the word's already in use. Googling for it, or looking in Urban Dictionary, reveals that the current most popular uses (at the time of my writing this entry) are:

  • A community TV station in Trinidad & Tobago. (Which at first I thought was a queer station, given the slogan "At Last We Own Television" and the current top-of-page ads for "The Freedom Walk" and (in pink) "Gayelle The Channel presents ... Phagwa 2008.") (I'm thinkin' if women are going to start using "gayelle," then men should switch to "phagwa.") (Yes, I know that Phagwa is an ancient Hindu festival. I'm being culturally insensitive for the sake of a joke; sorry.)
  • A Caribbean term for a cockfighting arena (I kid you not). Okay, cockfighting or stickfighting, but "cockfighting" is funnier in this context.

I'm left still uncertain whether this whole "gayelle" thing is in fact a joke, in which case my hat's off to the people who put it together. But the site is very straight-faced (as it were), and they're apparently even running radio ads on queer radio, which suggests to me that if it is a joke, it's a very elaborate one.

(Note: I'm pretty sure that some people who don't know me are going to encounter this entry, so I should note that (a) I'm a bi man, so I don't get to tell lesbians what they should call themselves, and (b) I use terms like "queer" and "dyke" casually and positively; no derogatory connotations should be inferred.)



Before I start in on today's entry, I have a little snippet of story for you to read:

I walked down the hospital corridor away from my room. One of the doctors I didn't know well--Dr. Karlson, I think--called out, "Jason, wait!"

I turned around, glaring.

The doctor took out a stethoscope. "Before you leave, I have to check your heart one more time."

I sighed. "Can't I just get out of here?"

"No, Jason. I'm sorry, but there are certain rules we have to follow."

Now: what gender is Dr. Karlson?

It should be obvious that the doctor's gender is unspecified in this little snippet. But something weird often happens when I read the word "doctor":

Not only do I assume that the doctor is male (which a lot of people, at least in the US, do), but I often think that the doctor was explicitly identified as male.

And then a paragraph or a page later, the author drops a pronoun and we discover that the doctor is female. And I say to myself, wait, the author explicitly said the doctor was male, this is not just me being sexist, it was right there in the story. And then I go back and look, and in fact it wasn't right there in the story; it was just me being sexist. Or gender-normative or something.

It's not that I don't believe in female doctors. I probably know more female medical doctors than male medical doctors; I've certainly gone to as many female doctors as male ones; it doesn't bother or upset or surprise me to encounter a woman who's a doctor. And if a story I'm reading clearly identifies a doctor as female upfront, that seems perfectly normal.

It's just that when I see the word "doctor" without any other markers, somehow my brain develops the idea that I've been explicitly told that the doctor is male. It's kind of bewildering, and remarkably (and unfortunately) consistent.

There are other professions that I have a strong gender assumptions for, of course. But I don't generally go so far in fabricating evidence about those.

Delany once referred to the assumptions we make about generic and otherwise undescribed people as the "unmarked state": in the absence of any markers giving us information to the contrary, we tend to assume certain things about people when they're mentioned to us. The unmarked state for a story's narrator (for a lot of us white American readers) tends to be white, heterosexual, upper-middle-class, etc. Probably male, too, although sometimes the unmarked gender for the narrator is the same as the gender of the author, or the assumed gender of the author if you can't tell from the author's name.

For me, the unmarked "nurse" is female; the unmarked "guard" is male. Certainly the unmarked "programmer" or "software engineer" or "computer scientist" is male. And there are plenty of others.

But I don't think my assumption is ever quite so strong with other words as with the word "doctor."

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Gender category.

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