Sunday, February 11, 2007


Smith, the most common surname in the English language, was originally a job title. A smith was a metal worker--hence, blacksmith (for a worker of black iron). The modern meaning of the noun from which I have derived the verb of my title, wordsmith, is simply "a prolific writer", but I'm implying something a bit different here, rather the molding of words to suit the user's purpose. One of the most blatant examples of this is the way--through very careful and cynical manipulation--the word gender has supplanted the word sex in contemporary speech.

This sort of thing happens naturally in language, but it tends to take quite a long time, and it happens organically. For instance, the word gentleman at one time in England specifically spoke of a man's social ranking as defined by the amount of property he owned. Over an indeterminate amount of time, the meaning changed such that it now holds no connotation whatever to property ownership, but rather denotes a fellow of gallant and polite character. But what has happened with gender, is something quite different. We have seen this change in just a few short years, and for very political reasons.

I first encountered this misusage of the word back in the 80's at a writer's workshop conducted in the house of writer and editor Damon Knight. A young woman, an extreme feminist (as were Damon and his wife, Kate Wilhelm, who co-hosted the workshop, by the way) used gender in lieu of sex in reference to someone, and Damon immediately corrected her. "Words have gender, people have sex," he said. Whatever Damon's politics, he had too much respect for language to indulge its misuse. And of course he was right. Gender is an attribute of words, most commonly in Latin-derived languages. So, in Spanish, words ending in "o"--hermano, mucho, luego,--are of masculine gender, and words ending in "a"--hermana, puerta, hasta--are of feminine gender. Arnold Schwarzenneger's famous line in Terminator II, "No problemo," was incorrect, because the word is actually feminine. He should have said, "No problema." People, however, are of the male or female sex. Sex denotes biology. And here lies the crux of why this change in usage has been engineered.

Proponents of identity politics--most specifically BGLT activists (BGLT, in case you're wondering, stands for Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transsexual)--want to remove the connection between biology and sexual identity. In universities all across the country the long-standing American custom of bathrooms designated by sex is being challenged. The underlying goal is to allow an individual's "feelings" about his or her sexual identity to determine social conventions rather than his or her biology. According to this way of thinking, if an individual endowed with male sexual organs nevertheless "feels" he is instead a woman, he should be allowed, not only to identify himself as such by wearing woman's clothing and adopting a female name, but also to relieve himself in the presence of biological women in bathrooms marked "women".

I'm not sure to what degree the bathroom controversy has been successful for the self-proclaimed "progressives" in our cultural milieu, but in the area of replacing sex with gender, they have definitely won the day. It's depressing to me to hear normally carefully spoken conservatives such as Michael Medved regularly indulge in this misusage. Let me here plead with my fellow conservatives: the next time you are tempted to use gender instead of sex with reference to human beings, please stop and consider that in doing so you will be participating in the destruction of the meaning of what it is to be a man or woman in our culture.

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