How many people must be appeased to warrant a change in language?

June 9, 2022 • 12:30 pm

I wonder whether people in the future will look back at this time of Newspeak as a great moral advance or as a time of semantic craziness. I tend to side with the latter in cases where only a few members of a group are offended by a usage. For example, I tend to use the slightly inaccurate “Hispanic” instead of “Latinx” since only 3% of Hispanics use the new and awkward term. (It has also transformed itself into “Latine”, which I suspect is used by even fewer.) If “Latinx” and “Latine” aren’t favored by Hispanics, who is pushing the adoption of this term? People who aren’t Hispanic, of course. It is performative semantics.

What about “woman”?  If you object to its use in nearly any general context, you tend to be called a “transphobe”, though I, for one, have no objection to calling transgender women “women” out of civility, though I also consider them biological men.

This new article in the NYT takes up the issue (an editorial is soon to follow). Click to read:

You surely know that because transgender men who retain the ability to give birth object to being called “women”, that term is gradually being phased out of many venues.  One of the biggest advocates of this change is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which no longer prioritizes the rights of people with whom they disagree. Like the Southern Poverty Leadership Conference, they are becoming thoroughly woke. Here are two of their tweets.

Where is the group most harmed by abortion bans? They’re not even mentioned, not even as “people born with vaginas.”

Here’s another one that I wrote about last September. In this case the ACLU deliberately omitted any of RBG’s words that referred to “women” (the originals are replace by words in brackets]. This verges on arrant dishonesty.  Ginsburg did NOT say the words in brackets.

The NYT gives a lot of other examples; here are a few:

Last year, the editor of The Lancet, a British medical journal, apologized for a cover that referred to “bodies with vaginas” rather than women.

Today, “pregnant people” and “birthing people” have elbowed aside “pregnant women.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a section on “Care for Breastfeeding People,” the governor of New York issued guidance on partners accompanying “birthing people” during Covid, and city and some state health departments offer “people who are pregnant” advice on “chestfeeding.”

The Cleveland Clinic, a well-known nonprofit hospital, posed a question on its website: “Who has a vagina?” Its answer begins, “People who are assigned female at birth (AFAB) have vaginas.” The American Cancer Society website recommends cancer screenings for “people with a cervix.”

This reflects a desire by medical professionals to find a language that does not exclude and gives comfort to those who give birth and identify as nonbinary or transgender.

And no matter how many posts I write, I just can’t bring myself to use the words “people with vaginas” or “people who are assigned female at birth” instead of “women”, though I’ll refer to transwomen as “transwomen” when that word is appropriate. And as a biologist I can’t pretend that sex (as opposed to gender) is a spectrum, or that it’s not even near being a binary.

The article above, which you can read for yourself, quotes people justifying this change not just on the grounds of equity, but because “language evolves.” But in this case language isn’t evolving naturally, it’s being forced to change at the point of a gun.

How many people who give birth are transgender men? The times reports 0.1 percent, or one birth in a thousand.

Is that sufficient to warrant such a substantial a language change? What if 0.1 % of all Jews objected to the term “Jew” because it sounds anti-Semitic? Would you start saying, “People of the Hebrew persuasion?” instead.

And the difference is not purely semantic: some women want to make a distinction between transgender women and biological women in athletics, in incarceration, and in rape counseling, and for reasons I consider reasonable.

Still, the ACLU and even the Biden administration want the legislation of complete moral and legal equivalence between transwomen and biological women (or transmen and biological men), even if there has been no surgical or medical intervention, and even if the change in gender involves nothing other than a verbal declaration.  Is that fair?

To be sure, even Joe Biden messes up sometimes:

Last year the Biden administration put out budget documents that reflected the gendered discourse of progressives and referred to “birthing people.” Conservatives pounced.

But this month, when word leaked of a potential Supreme Court turnabout, President Biden was unequivocal and practiced in his language choices. “I believe that a woman’s right to choose is fundamental,” he said. “Basic fairness and the stability of our law demand that it not be overturned.”

Is Biden a transphobe? I don’t think so. “Transphobia” literally means “fear of transsexual people”.  I am not afraid of transsexual people, and neither is Biden. But there are valid philosophical and moral questions that turn on what we define as “the sexes”. To favor discussion of these issues is not a “phobia” by any construal of the term.

So far, though, Congress hasn’t gone along with the language—even Bernie Sanders!

A few left-leaning congressional representatives have adopted movement language. Representative Cori Bush, Democrat of Missouri, testified last year about “birthing people.” But it is far more common to hear senators and congressional representatives, female and male alike, refer to women. “We cannot go back to the days when women had to risk their lives to end an unwanted pregnancy,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist who represents Vermont.

Is Bernie really a “transphobe”? He would be if the “progressive” Left was consistent in its slurs.

. . .“Activists are adopting symbols and language that are off-putting not just to the right but to people in the center and even liberals,” [Professor Steven Greene] noted.

For this reason he was not surprised when most Democratic politicians declined to echo the language of progressive organizations. “You don’t become a candidate for the presidency or speaker of the House by being dumb about what works in politics,” he said. “Democrats were not going to be afraid to use the word ‘women.’”

Here’s one solution:

Professor Greene questioned the wisdom of activists in insisting that a mass-based movement discard its base and core sexual identity. Why not, for instance, insist that women and transgender men are each embattled when it comes to abortion?

Doesn’t that type of usage solve the problem? For some reason I don’t think it will.

h/t: Paul

42 thoughts on “How many people must be appeased to warrant a change in language?

  1. And all those examples are about avoiding the word “woman” in the interests of “inclusivity”. There just doesn’t seem to be the same issue about avoiding the word “man” at all (any examples anyone?). Why not?

    I guess it that’s transmen (i.e. biological women) don’t pose an issue for men if they are included. Transmen will never out-compete men in sport, or be a threat in prisons or bathrooms or similar.

    Which shows that the elimination of the word “woman” is not about politeness, it’s really about forcing the inclusion of transwomen (i.e. biological men) even where that is to the detriment of women.

  2. One, of course, desires not to be unjust to others or to be unknowingly rude. It’s not clear, though, that a person, for example, with male-reproductive organs (and is even saying that offensive?), who wishes to be considered a woman, has any special call on others to treat him as such. Nor is it clear, if others decline to do so, what the actual injury is. Only time will tell whether there is such a thing as a trans-woman, as opposed to a man who wishes to abjure his maleness, and whether we are bound to respect that. Certainly, though, it doesn’t help anyone for people to be shamed and cancelled for not automatically accepting what others say they should do. For myself, I have found myself less tolerant on this question due to the antics of trans activists (by which I mean people who are activists on behalf of trans people, and not a non-activist who seeks to identify as an activist).

  3. Why am I not surprised to find Michael Powell’s byline on this piece? He’s the only writer at the NYT that is willing/given license to write stories (vs editorials) about woke excesses.

  4. It dismays me how woke left ideologues have handed this bludgeon to the right wing. Talk about self inflicted injury.

  5. Emboldening the right is not, of course, how the wokesters and the wokerati perceive themselves. They are convinced of their own moral rectitude and their obvious moral superiority to others because they are, quite clearly, on the right side of history. Any rational person ought always to be very wary indeed of fanaticism and zealotry, no matter the cause.

  6. “Thoughts are things.” That’s what one mystical guru used to say a few decades ago. He also said “Thought is creative.” He believed that the actual creation of ‘things’ was accomplished by the thought of humans.

    Translation for this decade: “Reality is socially constructed.” … with the implication that constructs include actual tangible existents in existence.

    Sex is objective. It does not require thought to create it. In the words of Objectivism, Sex is “metaphysically given.” This aligns with Aristotle saying (paraphrase) “reality consists of this world of particulars. Only.” Also known as “primacy of existence.”

    Gender is a thought of the broad Woke community. They construct a concept that has no corresponding referent in objective reality. That’s okay, as long as you know it is poetry. However, they are fierce that their thought creates reality. This is Primacy of Consciousness. That their (selected or invented) gender is a thing. That it be acknowledged as objective by law and regulation.

    That is why they fight to have gender colonize sex and swallow it whole.

  7. I’m particularly puzzled by the “chestfeeding” nonsense (chrome underlines it in red, so IT doesn’t recognize the word). If you have tissue that can lactate and feed an infant, that’s breast tissue, whether you identify as a man or a woman. Biological males can have breast tissue, and a prolactinoma can even make them lactate. Biological males can even get breast cancer, though it’s comparatively rare. I don’t understand who had a problem with the term “breastfeeding”.

    1. ‘Chestfeeding’ instead of breastfeeding? I can fully agree, Robert, it is positive nonsense, many mammals have feeding breasts well ‘below’ the chest (or in ‘horizontal’ animals behind the chest) , our cows being a prime example. What is an udder other than a breast to feed the sucklings?
      Even the word ‘mammals’ is derived from ‘mamma’ aka breast.

    2. Apparently there are trans-identified females who are insulted, if not traumatized, when words are used which remind them that they have female anatomy. Experiencing pregnancy, giving birth, and nursing an infant, however, does NOT remind them that they have female anatomy.

      1. Uh Oh…the word “udder” will be next on the cancellation list, followed by “mammal”. On the other hand, maybe the latter will be replaced by
        “mammalx”. For a moment, I feared that “other” might be endangered
        too, because it sounds like “udder”. But then I remember that it must
        be retained, because “othering” is a big thing in wokespeak.

    1. I agree Maya, this whole ‘trans’ thing has deteriorated into prime misogyny. Call me transphobic, I’ll carry that as a badge of honour. The aggressive ‘trans’ activists have (IMMO) not done a service to actual ‘trans’ people.

      1. Debbie Hayton, a British transwoman, would agree with you about how the debate is damaging people like her, Nicolaas. She’s one of the few to speak out against trans rights activists and their extremism, so of course she’s branded as “the wrong kind of trans” and a “transphobe”.

  8. Do you remember the shift to ‘womyn’ in the 1990s, when people want to use words for women that did not remind them of men (woMAN, feMALE; perSON, huMAN, etc.), despite the lack of etymologic legitimacy in some cases? How long did that last? Ten or fifteen years? Do you think this trend will last any longer? I’ll just wait for the dust to settle.

    I just hope that people do not settle on ‘woman’ as a default term, when ‘female’ is much more appropriate, and takes people of all ages into account; I hope that people won’t rely on definitions that only apply to some females (such as menstruation or pregnancy), to the exclusion of post-menopausal women and pre-pubescent girls.

    1. Not just Lennon, much of classic pop.

      Too bad for James Brown and “This is an XY’s world, but it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a mature XX or immature XX.”

      Then there are the potential pronoun problems in the second verse of Percy Sledge’s “When an XY loves an XX.”

      If they is bad, they can’t see it
      They can do no wrong
      And turn their back on their best friend
      If they puts them down.

      Stan Freberg foresaw some of the consequences of language policing 65 years ago when he sang “Elderly Man River”..

  9. One a side note, ‘The Lancet’ is not just ‘a British medical journal’, it is considered, together with the ‘New England Journal of Medicine’, as the most prestigious, top Medical Journal in the world.
    They did apologise for ‘persons with vaginas’ instead of ‘women’, but I’m not sure what that apology means.

  10. “who is pushing the adoption of this term? People who aren’t Hispanic, of course. It is performative semantics.”

    Much too facile. Google “latinx student groups” and you’ll find lots of examples of people of Hispanic heritage using the term. Here’s one at a university you might have heard of.

    1. Google “survey about latinx” instead. You’ll find only 4% of Hispanics prefer it. 40% of Hispanic voters are offended by it.

      1. That is not what I was addressing. I was addressing the specific claim that the term is being driven by “people who aren’t Hispanic”. Please do a better job of reading.

  11. But in this case language isn’t evolving naturally, it’s being forced to change at the point of a gun.

    Or, as someone put it, “It’s not a ‘natural evolution of language’ if you can be fired for not using it.”

  12. I’ve no idea where the NYT got its 0.1% figure for transmen giving birth -one per thousand births sounds very high to me.

    The removal of women (but rarely men, for some strange reason that seems a lot like misogyny) is a live issue in the UK, but Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in England, seems to be pushing back. (Health is a devolved matter, so Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland set their own policies.)

    1. At most, 0.1% of people are claimed to be transsexual. Most of these are XYs posing as women for whom self-pregnancy is not an issue….although some do seem bent on impregnating lesbian women. So the proportion of XXs who pose as men is clearly less than 0.1%, maybe a 10th of that, so let’s say 1 in 10,000. Of those, how many want to become pregnant and be reminded of their sexual femaleness which they have gone to such lengths to suppress, even to the point of having hysterectomies? Particularly remembering that they must stop testosterone before conceiving to prevent birth defects in their offspring. So let’s imagine very generously that 5% of them ever actually get pregnant. That would mean that only 1 in 200,000 births will be to a “transman”.

      1. Whilst we are at it, may we do away with the concept of ‘assigned sex at birth’? There is no ‘assigned’ about it at all, unless you refer to the tiny percentage of intersex babies that present a real puzzle – usually solved quickly these days by a chromosomal analysis. ‘Assigned gender’ would make some sense, if babies had sex lives, and pacé Freud, they do not and ought not. And if all this is the logical outcome of believing that biological sex does not exist, well, I have a non-binary bridge to sell to such believers!

  13. Like some people, institutions can change over time. They can go downhill: some airlines (all), magazines (Time, Scientific American), and institutions (ACLU). With luck new institutions come in to fill the sad void (say, FIRE).

  14. Language changes under its own steam, and is pretty resistant to pushing by elites (hence the French have “Le Weekend” despite official loathing of the term). Most woke terminology doesn’t seem to have moved into everyday speech beyond the groups who spend their time devising the terminology and people who make weird public notices that engender mockery. I predict this round of attempted changes won’t last, although I also expect that some unforeseen components might have use and so stick around. I still use “circumferentially enhanced” and “vertically challenged” for their amusement value, tems that as I recall came from a failed 1980s attempt to stop offending people.

  15. First comment makes the point that there is virtually no pushback against transmen being considered men. No problem with them accessing men’s sports, bathrooms, prisons, etc.

    I’ve used this position to demonstrate how questioning the inclusion of transwomen in women’s spaces doesn’t have transphobia at its root. If it did, surely the pushback would be against both?

  16. Another crazy change of language is replacing “he/she” with “they” when the gender of the said singular person is not clear. This has been spread to tech writing community.

    1. I have no problem with this. Using he/she all the time is cumbersome to write and to read.

      1. “They/them/their” for the indefinite singular personal pronoun has gone in and out of fashion for centuries in the way the French say on. No problem there. It does add some grace to the language and is a step forward for women instead of always using “he” when the antecedent is not known to be female.

        What’s happening now is more sinister. What we are being chivvied into today is to use “they/them/their” to refer to a specific known individual person, if that’s what they demand, and we are accused of hateful misgendering if we get it wrong. You now see entire biographical sketches written with “they…” “Rainbow graduated from Yale and they were the only gender-non-conforming activist to be arrested. They stuck their tongue out at the Dean when she asked them to put their mask back on. Once when they booked Uber to pick them up at the airport, dispatch asked whether to send a Smart Car or a 15-passenger bus-van. Rainbow said it would depend on their mood that day. Uber said the same thing in reply and hung up.”

        That is just silly. Where it gets darker is an exchange like this.
        Professor, to rude fool who has interrupted student Sarah who was speaking in class: “Thomas, I have to ask you sit down. Sarah had the floor. You will get your turn to speak after she has finished.”

    2. I’ve seen several cases where ‘Xe’ replaces ‘Their’, it’s clear from context what is meant, but it’s annoying. Perhaps more of interest is ‘Assigned Female At Birth’, do they really believe that humans (out of the entire animal kingdom) are born hermaphoditic and require surgical intervention to become single sexed?

      1. I look forward to when no one is assigned anything at birth. Still, that does not undermine physical realities. I’ve seen commercials for medications that are deemed less effective for people assigned female at birth – and my first question is how that applies to free humans who are born without an assignment! The ads clearly want to say something, but physical reality overrides the politics of the doctor ‘assigning’ a sex.

        1. “I look forward to when no one is assigned anything at birth.”

          Yeah. People shouldn’t have names until they are old enough to tell us what they prefer to be called.

    3. As a former tech writer (and an early second-wave feminist) I studied the issues around gender-agnostic pronoun usage and decided on singular they / them.

      It’s a fairly common modern usage, with a good historical pedigree (such as Shakespeare and the OED), not clunky and male-priority like “he/she” and “him/her”, and not a cutesy neologism like “(s)he” and “hir”.

      You actually might enjoy reading a non-polemical article or book on the subject.

      BTW, gender-inflected languages lack such simple solutions as they / them, so be thankful you’re an anglophone.

      1. Agree completely, Barb. But you would use she / her when referring to a specific person known to be a girl or woman, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t say, “Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. They were best known for the Falklands War, the coal strike, and their handbag. The Tory Party eventually got tired of them.” (Huh? Tired of whom/what? The war, the strike, and the handbag? Or Mrs Thatcher?)

        The trans activists want us to talk this way, to erase women, not to highlight them.

        1. Exactly. Singular they/them is indeed useless when the referent has a known gender (absent some rhetorical reason for de-emphasising it). And your Thatcher example elegantly shows how mixing singular and plural is even worse.

          And, my distaste for trendy gender pronoun policing may someday get me labeled a TERF, despite being neither radical or exclusive. C’est la vie.

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