23 May 2007



My partner is away for a week. I heard myself asking her if she would like me to tape a particular television programme for her: "Would you like me to tape it for you?"

We have not had a videotape recorder for some time; why do I offer to tape something? I tried saying to myself out loud (when alone, obviously!) "Would you like me to disc it for you" but that doesn't work: why not? And why don't I just use the perfectly good form "would you like me to record it for you" which is both factually and grammatically correct?

And why do I say "TV" when speaking, but "television" when writing?

More words...

Here's an old puzzler which depends on a particular habit of thought.

A young man is in hospital after a serious road smash. But a surgeon says to the boy's father: "I'm sorry, I can't operate on this boy because he is my son".

How is this possible? Because the surgeon is a woman - it only puzzles because most listeners subconsciously assume that a surgeon, if no gender is specified, must be a man. The same thing would happen if the scenario involved a soldier, but would be reversed for a nurse.

A group of friends recently discussed the word "actress" (as opposed to actor). My own position is that this is one of those examples where a masculine gender assumption is made unless feminine is specified and, thereby, the feminine is often implicitly relegated to second rank. Unlike "doctor", however, the assumptions are being reinforced by a linguistic device.

The "ess" ending is a relatively recent import to English. Old enough to have become firmly established as normal, but an import nonetheless. Being of a particular age, with sensibilities shaped by the peak of the second feminist wave, I would personally like to see it wither and disappear. At the same time, I realise than for some other people it is a courtesy - an acknowledgement of difference, not a dismissal because of it. So, while I won't use it myself I am not militant in hunting it down and eradicating it.

It's interesting to note that not all occupational nouns are artificially gendered in this way. We hear of actors and actresses, of managers and manageresses, but not of doctors and doctoresses or soldiers and soldieresses. Why is this? I suspect (though I haven't stirred myself to check any facts) that occupations which have been "given the ess treatment" are those which moved within the from male only to generic during times when such diversification was radical. In Shakespeare's day, for example, women were forbidden by law to act on stage - it was seen as immodest and unseemly. When they later began to do so, the word "actress" became almost a synonym for "woman of loose morals". Managerial power and responsibility was another exclusively male preserve in which the arrival of manageresses was evidence of seismic social change. Women doctors were bitterly resisted for years but, by the time they were eventually accepted, it was because society itself had changed in fundamental ways. The same mechanisms persisted in superficially different wordform for the police and military: in Britain (I'm ashamed to say) we had, until quite recently, "Police Constables" and a separate race of "Woman Police Constables".

There's only words...

Words, as Jim Putnam points out from time to time, are exasperatingly slippery, imprecise, illogical, shape shifting things, always on the move between multiple meanings and none. All of which is a large part of their power, their glory, and my love for them.

Its only words,
and words are all I have,
to take your heart away.[1]

New words ...

Talking of Jim Putnam: the new name of his blog, Thinking through my fingers, is a form of words which I dearly wish that I could claim to have used myself.

As I finish typing this, I watch with half an eye some family video being copied. A small boy is learning the meaning of the words "up" and "down". His face is totally concentrated on learning what are for him new words for new concepts. "That's ... that's ... that's ... UP" says his earnestly squeaky little voice, one pudgy forefinger raised to the ceiling; then, looking at the carpet, "... and ... THAT'S ... down."

1: The Bee Gees. Words. 1968, Polygram.

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