Back in our schooldays, how many of us didn't learn to tell left from right by saying our right hand was right to write with, and the other was what was left?
The notion that right is right seems to have been deeply rooted in western culture for a very long time. But not only there—throughout Africa and South Asia the right hand is used to handle food, while the left hand reserved for "other" activities.
Already at the time of the Roman empire, the Latin word for right or right hand, dexter, also meant handy or skillful. This positive connotation eventually found its way into English in the form of the noun dexterity and the adjective dexterous.
According to Norman Lewis in his now classic vocabulary builder Word Power Made Easy:
"The right hand is traditionally the more skillful one; it is only within recent decades that we have come to accept that 'lefties' or 'southpaws' are just as normal as anyone else—and the term left-handed is still used as a synonym of awkward.
"The Latin word for the left hand is sinister. This same word, in English, means threatening, evil, or dangerous, a further commentary on our early suspiciousness of left-handed persons..."
"The French word for the left hand is gauche, and, as you would suspect, when we took this word over into English we invested it with an uncomplimentary meaning. Call someone gauche and you imply clumsiness, generally social rather than physical. (We're right back to our age-old misconception that left-handed people are less skillful than right-handed ones.)
"A gauche remark is tactless; a gauche offer of sympathy is so bumbling as to be embarrassing; gaucherie is an awkward, clumsy, tactless, embarrassing way of saying things or of handling situations. The gauche person is totally without finesse.
"And the French word for the right hand is droit, which we have used in building our English word adroit. Needless to say, adroit, like dexterous, means skillful, but especially in the exercise of the mental facilities. Like gauche, adroit, or its noun adroitness, usually is used figuratively. The adroit person is quick-witted, can get out of difficult spots cleverly, can handle situations ingeniously. Adroitness is, then, quite the opposite of gaucherie."
Notice here how adroitly Mr. Lewis steers us clear of leftist politics, ha ha!
I'm sure you'll find his bestselling 500-page digest a timeless treasure-trove of etymological information, and outstanding value at a list price of just $7.99.
You may have noticed that virtually all EFL textbook authors are going to considerable lengths to promote so called gender-neutral vocabulary among foreign students of English. They would also have overseas learners believe that most of the newly contrived, gender-inclusive job titles have won widespread public acceptance beyond the shores of lobbyist-ruled Britain and America, which is often not the case.
Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of English job titles have always been—and always will be—gender-neutral. You have your cleaner, clerk, engineer, florist, hairdresser, pilot or doctor, to name but a few. What varies is whether or not either of the sexes is prevalent in any given profession in any given location, and how this influences our own expectations.
If a particular job is unevenly distributed among men and women, we instinctively feel the urge to add either male or female to the job title when clarification is deemed important. Because this can be awkward, yes—even in this day and age—it is hard to resist the temptation to make use of a gender-specific form when such a variant exists and is universally understood.
Not an inconsiderable number of us still wonder what is actually wrong with referring to a female flight attendant as a stewardess, a female waiter as a waitress, or for that matter a male nurse as a male nurse—given that men remain very much underrepresented in the nursing profession. The fact that surviving gender-specific names for a few professions are more word-economical and have greater informational value is indisputable.
If you then attempt an honest assessment of which job titles actually sound more appealing, perhaps "flight attendant" and "server" just aren't that cool after all. Furthermore, if we must insist on calling our chairman a "chairperson," then why not a horseman a "horseperson?" Should we even go so far as to tackle openly "sexist" nationality nouns and replace an Englishman with the gender-inclusive "Englishperson?" The sky is the limit if you choose to go looking.
But wait. Even if we did all consent to having our English doctored in the prescribed manner, what in the world are proponents of all-inclusive job titles hoping to do about the likes of French or German? The logical consequence of their seemingly misguided argumentation would be to have entire European languages branded as "sexist" on account of their grammatical genders. Across much of Europe there are feminine forms of the definite and indefinite articles, and people's titles and professions are regularly feminized with a suffix equivalent to the -ess that guardians of political correctness in the English-speaking world take such exception to. No one could assert, however, that this allegedly sexist language has prevented either France or Germany from making greater strides toward sexual equality than many an English-speaking country. Interestingly, occidental francophone territories appear to be heading in the exact opposite direction to us, with Quebec taking the lead in promoting feminine job titles that previously didn't exist for certain professions traditionally dominated by men.
So perhaps it is time to view things in perspective and stop taking ourselves quite so deadly seriously. If your mail is brought to you by a male man then it is still fine by me (and I guess a good many others) to refer to him as a mailman (or postman) rather than a "mail carrier." If your next drink is served up by a barmaid, the chances are she'll be even more tender than a bartender. And if the star of that next box-office success happens to be female, there is no commonsense reason to postpone appreciation of this propitious circumstance by vaguely referring to her as an actor instead of an actress. That is unless you yourself want to!
The bottom line has to be our right of free expression.
© David V. Appleyard 2014 All rights reserved