Taking the dick out of "dictionary" with 1988's The Nonsexist Word Finder
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The Nonsexist Wordfinder: A Dictionary of Gender-Free Usage
Author: Rosalie Maggio
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Publisher: Beacon Press, Boston
Discovered at: Helping Hand Thrift Shop, 1033 S. Fairfax
The Cover Promises: "Alternatives, explanations, or definitions for over 5,000 sexist words and phrases."
"Jimmies: The origins of this term are unclear, but because it sounds sexist you might prefer an alternative: candy sprinkles." (page 70)
"Manhattan: nonsexist; comes from an Indian word meaning 'island.'" (page 87)
Recently, a full twenty-two years after she let it be known that English speakers can say "Manhattan" without making Susan B. Anthony cry, author Rosalie Maggio took to the internet to reminisce about the importance of her daft masterpiece, The Nonsexist Word Finder.
Also discovered at Helping Hands: the painting that dares to make a penis out of Bob Hope's nose.
(Oh, wait. Her book flags "masterpiece" -- and all derivatives of master-- as inherently sexist. In its place she recommends "flower of the flock.")
Anyway, as she looked back on her flock's finest flower, Maggio spared a moment to consider the resistance she faced when proposing we replace snowman with snow creature, lazy Susan with revolving tray, and the phrase "borrow from Peter to pay Paul" with "indulge in creative accounting."
In that blogpost she perfectly encapsulated the debate over that misnomer "political correctness." She wrote:
"In an intellectually dishonest moment, William Safire said that next 'personpersons' would be delivering the mail."
Intellectually dishonest? Dude was joking. But I guess that it's no surprise that Maggio might be tin-eared. (After all, she proposes in all seriousness that we adopt the saying "All work and no play makes us pretty dull sorts.")
Forgive me a burst of sexually-loaded language of my own, but it's just this kind of prim, scolding schoolmarmishness that has powered the popular resentment against the idea that we might tone down everyday jerkassery.
It's given jerkasses like Dr. Laura or Don Imus a chance to pretend that they themselves are the victims; it's given Ann Coulter the chance to pretend that those who don't like her calling John Edwards a "faggot" are practicing "speech totalitarianism."
(But, boy, Edwards sure showed her, didn't he?)
In her book, Maggio identifies many quirks of a male-centric language: the difference between showman and showgirl or the way calling a woman a pickup implies her guilt and passivity. This is useful.
But then come her suggestions. She proposes we replace "say uncle" with cry barley, draw in one's horns, or throw in the sponge, two of which sound downright filthy. The same goes for her fix for the phrase "Man of affairs": someone with fingers in many pies.
She suggests we replace:
- "Irishman" with "inhabitant of Ireland"
- "Ladykiller" with "popular with the women"
- "fill 'er up" with "fill it up"
- "Maestro" with "expert"
- "maiden voyage" with "first trip"
- "Son of Man (referring to Christ)" with "the one who became human/flesh"
- "manhole" with "utility access hole"
- "Founding Fathers" with "Founding mothers and founding fathers"
- "manned space flight" with "staffed space flight"
"mannequin" with "window display figure"
Occasionally, Maggio accepts that some things quite likely can't be changed.
Santa Claus: 'Father Christmas,' 'Pere Noel,' 'Saint Nicholas,' and 'Santa Claus' are better left as they are, even with the acknowledgement that these (once again) male heroes reinforce the cultural male-as-norm system."
And here's some tricky words she still allows after some consideration:
- Stand pat ("the 'pat' is not a person")
- Daddy longlegs ("leave as is")
- Manacle ("comes from the Latin for 'hand'")
City of Brotherly Love ("Philadelphia continues to use this phrase to describe itself; certain people refer to 'the City of Human Love,' but until Philadelphia changes its motto, it should be left as is")
I include these to demonstrate that I am not merely cherrypicking the silliest examples. And I report with some sadness that "cherrypick" -- which must be rooted in the cultivation and harvesting of virgin flesh -- does not warrant an entry from Maggio.
How best to handle the English language's quite real men-first problem continues to preoccupy academics, feminists, and those who make a career out of denouncing academics and feminists. Meanwhile, the language itself has evolved to solve the most glaring of its problem areas: the lack of a non-gendered third-person singular pronoun.
For years, now, English-speakers have used they in cases of a singular antecedent of indeterminate sex. Many copy editors and English professorsstill fight it, but this shift is real, permanent, and almost invisible.
Consider Rush Limbaugh, a man whose tragic childhood is familiar to Studies in Crap regulars. Limbaugh wields a powerful understanding of the way language shapes thinking: note his curt abrreviation of Democratic when he says "Democrat Party," for example. Even in the cloddish world of A.M. radio, practical non-sexist language has already prevailed.
From Limbaugh's 2009 address to the Conservative Political Action Committee:
"We've got to stop treating voters as children. Somebody says they want something that's bad for them, do you give it to them just to be nice?"
Even Rush Limbaugh, huckster clod of the A.M. airways, upends his sentences to avoid the universal he. That's the victory your anniversary blogpost should have covered, Ms. Maggio!
Two more Maggio entries:
"Spend money like a drunken sailor: This phrase is to be avoided because of its masculine overtones and because it unnecessarily vilifies today's sailors who do not fit the old stereotype."
"Jack rabbit: leave as is if referring to several genuses of large hares. However, if the term is used to indicate a male rabbit, be sure it is male and that its sex is relevant."
Oh, and speaking of Dr. Laura:
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