Power to the People

Opinions - March 13th, 1987

by Jack Stamm

In New York City I came across the latest in street signs. PERSONS WORKING, it said. It used to be MEN WORK­ING. “PERSONS WORKING” has 14 letters and a space. In terms of budget, this adds up. They could have stayed with 11 letters by settling for UNDER REPAIR; saved on four letters by using REPAIRS. Or they could have splurged with UNDER CONSTRUC­TION.

It’s easy to imagine that “PERSONS WORKING” was born of a committee of minor bureaucrats afraid of looking like cop-outs on the vital issue of sexism in street signs.

In a San Francisco restau­rant I was informed that my waitperson would be with me shortly. Presumably directed to my table by the hostperson.

I do not care whether my waiter’s name is Steve or Stephanie. “Waiters” have class. Waiters reflect their establishments: slam down your hush and fries with a Magnum-like report, or magnanimously bone your truite amandine for you.

A “waitperson” trips over its own feet and spills vichysoisse in your lap.

“Person” comes to us by way of the Latin persona, a mask. As a qualifier, person is un­couth and klutzy. By itself it is de-personalizing and deroga­tory —

“He’s actually a wonderful person.” (Don’t be put off by a superficial resemblance to an adenoid.)

“She’s a fine person.” (Un-huh. Bow-wow.)

“I like you as a person.” (Get lost, creep.)

Persons without identifica­tion will be shot on sight. (Persons are more easily snuffed than  people.)

Militant aggression on lan­guage is self-defeating. Thomas Bowdler’s name echoes down the ages not as the champion of morality he saw himself, but as the ass who wanted to clean up Shakespeare, to bowlderize the bard. When a language has, so to speak, words crammed into its mouth, it spits them back as burlesque — a process that has likely been going on since personkind first learned to speak.

You cannot unsex English by fiat. Language adjusts itself without outside help. Sex will rear its funny little head in our speech as long as there is a need for it. English grounded the last aviatrix years ago — probably on suspicion that she was going to pull something cute up there. (I look forward to flying United’s friendly skies with a matronly pilot, gentle-voiced, steely-eyed and unflappable.)

The last poetess is 83 and lives in Leeds. As long as they wear mini-skirts, drum-majorettes will twirl their batons. Masseuses (rhymes with flooz­ies) will go on with moofky-foofky in massage parlors. Dominatrices will reign in the Personal columns of some magazines — “lady dominator” is ambiguous; give up on “dominate-person.” Mid wives are midwives regardless of sex: “male midwife” is no less absurd than “mid-husband.”

Consider “chairperson.” I can no more believe in a chair­person’s permanence than I can imagine a toastmistress or prime ministress. I doubt that a lady who insists on being chairperson qualifies for the job. The “man” in chairman ought to be allowed the same neutral status it enjoys in company with trencher- or cracks-. Were Annie Oakley alive today, I wonder what she would do to the first idiot called her a marksperson.

In sports, where male/female divisions are fairly rigid, common sense prevails. Slopes are clear of skipersons; swim-persons are barred from com­petition. (Swimmerettes were pre-empted by crustaceans millennia ago.)

I think languages behave like living organisms. Japanese was grafting excrescences onto itself long before English existed. And, judging by recent trends, rejecting them when they threatened to become can­cerous. I encountered anshinkaburu karasu (unthinkable colors) on a billboard once, years ago: I have not seen it since.

Sometimes the Japanese lan­guage births words worth ex­porting. Ereki — what better word for an electric guitar? English still uses the word for the original instrument which was an acoustic guitar ampli­fied by a built-in or fitted pickup. Pasacon is neater, snappier than personal com­puter.

On the other hand monstrosi­ties squeezed out of copywrit­ers, e.g. “humanification” tend to go away, like unthinkable colors. Or to get thrown out, impersonally.