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Michael Bauman's "Verbal Plunder"

Lydia McGrew's recent post on gender-neutral language reminded me of Michael Bauman's essay that appears as a chapter in his book, Pilgrim Theology. As most of you know, Mike is a frequent commentator on this blog, often playing the part of Socratic tormentor of bleeding-heart papists. In any event, in "Verbal Plunder: Combating the Feminist Encroachment on the Language of Theology and Ethics," Mike takes no prisoners. Here is an excerpt:

The more valuable something is to me, the more I hate to lose it. As a historian of theology and a literary critic, I value words and their meaning, and I value tradition. I won't give them up without a fight. If someone wants to steal something from me and I can stop them, I will. This essay is my way of saying that I've had enough, and I'm not going to take it anymore.

Not long ago, a small and vocal band of feminist thugs tried to pull off one of the greatest acts of verbal plunder in the history of the Western world. By means of a linguistic subterfuge that prohibited any term that happened to strike them as sexist, they tried to abscond not only with one- third of all our generic personal and possessive pronouns (no more he and his, for example), they also tried to swipe any and every descriptive term beginning with the letters m-a-n. And because crime breeds crime, they fell quickly from larceny into slander by identifying as sexual bigots and chauvinists anyone, past or present, who failed to pay homage to their idiosyncratic rules of usage. As much as I hate to endorse anything to do with Freudianism, it seems to me that some feminists suffer from acute pronoun envy....

Have the feminist word bandits never learned that grammatical gender is not the same as sex? One does not make a sex statement when one calls the race man any more than when one calls a ship or a nation or liberty she. Genitalia are not in question. Sex and grammatical gender must not be equated. If you insist on equating them when the author you read or the speaker you hear has not, you will misread or mishear. In that sense, some feminists can misunderstand in seven languages. Their verbal fetishes make it inevitable. In their monomaniacal quest to expose the verbal genitals of every great writer, they miss the beauty, truth, and power of the world's finest works of verbal art and, in the process, make themselves beggars and complainers at the great feast of language and literature. Their ill-conceived sexist jingoism does little else than make them whistlers, hecklers, and foot stompers in the rhapsody of words played out for us by the finest verbal performers of all time. I am scandalized by their audacious efforts to teach the old Muses new words and by the manner in which they pretend to stand in ideological and artistic judgment over them. Great words and great works judge us, not vice versa.

As a grammatical category, the concept of gender first reached maturity in Ancient Greece, where it seems not to have developed as a reference to sex, but rather as a classification of kind. Must I remind feminists that while there are only two sexes, Greek has three genders (a distinction of which the Greeks were well aware and heartily endorsed)?

Furthermore, the same nonsexual character of grammatical gender is repeated in modern language. In German, for example, the word for girl is grammatically neuter while the word for turnip is feminine. This does not mean that the Germans confuse their women with their vegetables. Such ideas are laughable to us because when feminist propaganda is not blaring in our ears we easily understand that grammatical gender is a semantic classification and that a semantic classification is not the same as biological sex. You must not impose a sexual orientation upon words where one does not exist.

If the words man and mankind were really male words, then it should be the men, not the women, who ought to be offended by the use of allegedly male terms to refer to the race indiscriminately. By employing a masculine word for a generic meaning, our culture would be demonstrating that it thinks nothing at all of defacing or erasing maleness. If generic words really were male words, then masculinity is being defaced every day by everybody-and no one seems to object, least of all the feminists. The feminist word fetish sometimes reaches ridiculous extremes, as even the feminists themselves have had occasion to acknowledge. The Nonsexist Wordfinder actually feels compelled to stop and remind its feminist readers that the words "amen," "boycott," "Manhattan," and "menopause" are not sexist words! I never thought they were; but apparently enough feminists did to require such a warning....

The feminists' linguistic lobby, however, has exercised some discretion. Although they have stormed the Bastille Of Language and literature, and although they have laid siege to the gates of heaven and kidnapped its Chief Occupant, they have not yet had the nerve to bombard the walls of hell in order to claim its king as their own. It's funny how calling the Devil "he" doesn't bother the feminists. it doesn't strike them as chauvinistic or sexually bigoted to personify evil in precisely the same language they elsewhere label sexist when used to personify goodness. Nor do they complain on behalf of all little boys everywhere about how psychologically devastating it must be for males to think of evil itself as one of their own kind. Apparently, pronouns are sexist only if they can be construed as anti-feminist.

But make no mistake about it, the feminist encroachment on the language of religion and morality is no mere tempest in an academic teacup. It is far more than the harmless verbal jousting between grammarians and theologians on the one side and women's libbers on the other. It is, and I do mean this literally, a matter of life and death.

You can read the whole thing here.

Comments (20)

Furthermore, the same nonsexual character of grammatical gender is repeated in modern language. In German, for example, the word for girl is grammatically neuter while the word for turnip is feminine.

That always drove home the point about not confusing sex with gender. I have often wondered if feminists in other countries with a multiple gender language seek to reform their language in a like manner.

It's funny how calling the Devil "he" doesn't bother the feminists.

Yeah, I've been chuckling about that one for many years.

It's harder in a language with grammatical gender but it doesn't stop them from trying. Zum Beispiel auf Deutsch:

In the third person plural, the masculine plural form is assumed if the group is mixed sex, the feminine form is only used if the group is all female. Thus,

Male Lawyer --> Male Lawyers
Der Rechtsanwalt --> Die Rechtsanwälte

Female Lawyer --> Female Lawyers
Die Rechtsanwältin --> Die Rechtsanwältinnen

Mixed group of lawyers
Die Rechtsanwälte

New PC version of the third person plural, to be used in any circumstance:
Die RechtsanwältInnen (that's a capital I in the middle of the word)

It looks bizarre, but spoken is indistinguishable from the plural of females. It's not in common use, it's been a long time since I was in a German academic setting but I don't see it in newspapers or books.

I had heard vaguely about attempts to reform Spanish along those lines, too. Heh. I'll bet they haven't met with much success.

That's some good stuff from Bauman.

Italian 101 and the Feminist

Professor: Ma, non mangi degli manicotti questa mattina...
Feminist: Sexist pig!
Professor: Che?
Feminist: MANgi... MANicotti... the patriarchy is everywhere!
Professor: Ch'idiota!...

I pity feminists and often wander how they manage to stay sooo angry for so long :), also considering they've had 80yrs or so to work on their slogans one has to wonder why they seem to have problems coming up with innotative slogans:)

Y'all may recall a previous discussion on PC Speak involving the comments of John C. Wright. He wrote:

If you successfully substitute the word 'Inuit' for 'Eskimo' on the grounds that 'Eskimo' is an insult, you will have successfully convinced the next generation that all their forefathers who used the word 'Eskimo' deliberately meant and fully intended an insult, or were foolish or negligent enough to utter an insult by accident. That conviction will be false, a lie, and you (in a small way, one more straw on the camel's back) will have helped to perpetrate it.

While it's hardly obvious that traditional manner of speaking intended to sideline women, it's clear that the changes in proposed "neutral" language come out of an ideology that depicts the past as nigh-irredeemably patriarchal and oppressive. If a reader is continually moved to rewrite old works in academically acceptable language, the feminist fog machine has fulfilled its purpose.

"I have often wondered if feminists in other countries with a multiple gender language seek to reform their language in a like manner."

A female French graduate student told me that in France, feminist-minded women actually want to retain the linguistic difference between "docteur" and "doctoresse" and "acteur" and "actrice" etc. -- where the trend in America has been of course to refer to female "doctors" etc., to the point in the last few years of referring to actresses as "actors" (which might be apt, say, in the case of a Glenn Close, but otherwise is a rather clunky bit of linguistic engineering).

Apparently, French feminists feel "empowered" by the linguistic distinction, whereas American feminists feel threatened by it.

"If someone wants to steal something from me and I can stop them, I will."

While also being an unfortunate example of irony, the above statement must be false.

Hey, I'm reading that book!

I'm missing your point. How exactly is my comment that, if possible, I'd stop someone from stealing from me, either ironic or false?


Especially considering the topic of the essay, it should read:

"If someone wants to steal something from me and I can stop him, I will."

Ironic because an effect of the feminists' attempt to replace singular masculine pronouns with the gender-neutral "them" has seemingly occured in an essay condemning that very movement. False because you could have stopped them (in that sentence) from taking away your use of that more traditionally used singular masculine pronoun. I wasn't trying to mock you, if that's how it came across -- though I confess to uncharitably overstating its "necessary" falsity for effect. It jumped out at me when I read it, so I pointed it out. I doubt it was any more than an uncaught error, since I don't get the impression you're plotting to covertly advance the feminist agenda.

I thought the essay was very good except for that one word!

Very good point, Ryan. You are quite right. Thanks for clarifying.

I got Ryan's point at once. But then, it's one I've long been aware of when I write (though, I tend to go with the flow when speaking).

Right, Ilion. And now that it's been pointed out to me, I can see nothing else!

I was taught from a child that the use of "them" and cognates as if they were singular was allowable in speaking (because the usage is informal and speaking is informal) but verboten in writing. This of course was in the days before the Internet or the blogosphere, so nearly all writing was at least semi-formal. In a way I regret the overwhelming proliferation of writing that is neither clearly formal nor clearly informal.

In conversation, we can use all kinds of cues, and the listener can ask for clarification if needed, so that the plural "they" used to refer to a singular antecedent needn't be particularly confusing. But in writing it can create a great deal of confusion, as I am continually reminded when reading the essays of my students . . . .

Well, Mr Bauman, we're all affected by the various shibboleths of contemporary "liberalism" (for one example, nearly everyone uses the word ‘gender,’ when they mean ‘sex’). That’s why it’s so important to talk about these things and ... “raise our awareness.” ;)

Dr. Bauman, thanks for a great read. I particularly loved this line:

It's funny how calling the Devil "he" doesn't bother the feminists. it doesn't strike them as chauvinistic or sexually bigoted to personify evil in precisely the same language they elsewhere label sexist when used to personify goodness.

Someone wrote a comment in an earlier thread along the same lines:

Have you ever noticed that those foolish persons who use the word 'she' when English grammar calls for 'he,' for instance, when speaking of a hypothetical generic philosopher, never seem to use ‘she’ when speaking of a hypothetical generic mass-murderer?

These observations make me think of the familiar Catholic church song "Be Not Afraid" (to which my poor ears have been subjected far too many times in a lifetime growing up in the post-Vatican II liturgy). When I was a kid in the 80s, we sang "Be Not Afraid" during Friday morning masses at our Catholic school, and there was a line in the first verse: "You shall speak your words to foreign men, and they will understand..." Years later, while in college, I noticed the text printed differently in a hymnal - it now reads: "You shall speak your words in foreign lands, and all will understand..." A typical, sneaky sort of move in the gender-inclusive revisionism of the 90s.

But the funny thing was, I couldn't help but notice that a later line in the song remained unchanged. This was, of course, the line in the last verse which goes: "And if wicked men insult and hate you, all because of me..." Apparently whoever spearheaded the textual revision, moved by a sense of outrage and horror at her perceived lack of inclusion from among "the foreign," had no such qualms whatsoever about remaining firmly excluded from the wicked.

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