Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

Last week, more than one-third of House Democrats boycotted the inauguration of Donald Trump as our 45th president. Such a collective action raises (not begs!) the question what is the origin of the word boycott? Turns out that it’s an eponym (Greek “upon a name”), a lower-cased word that started life as a person’s name.

Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832-1897), an Irish land agent, so enraged his tenants with his rent-collection policies that they threatened his life and property and burnt his figure in effigy. When Boycott attempted to evict all tenants who could not pay in full, they shunned and isolated him. His laborers stopped work in the fields and stables, as well as in his home. Local businessmen ceased trading with him, and the postman refused to deliver his mail. Hence, from Ireland comes the verb boycott, which means “to coerce an opponent through ostracism.”

Before the word boycott even existed, three American presidents boycotted the inaugurations of their successors. Thomas Jefferson, the vice president of John Adams, turned around and defeated his own president to become president himself. No surprise that Adams skipped town, refusing to attend Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration.

After a particularly vituperative presidential contest, John Quincy Adams (like father, like son) stayed away from Andrew Jackson’s 1829 inauguration. And, in 1869, Andrew Johnson spurned Ulysses S. Grant’s inauguration because Grant had refused to ceremonially ride with him on that day.

Last Saturday, millions of women epically “girlcotted” the inauguration by massively marching. This is a good time, then, to consider sexism and the English language.

We live in a house of language, and our words are the windows through which we look at the world. Could it be that our window on reality is paned with glass that distorts our view. Could it be that the window through which we see life is marred by cracks, smudges, blind spots and filters?

Women make up the majority of the population in the United States and almost every other nation in the world. Yet concern has been growing that the English language depicts women and girls as an inferior group of human beings.

What do you picture when you hear or read “The Ascent of Man” (Jacob Bronowski), “All men are created equal” (Thomas Jefferson), “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp” (Robert Browning) and “A teacher affects eternity. No one knows where his influence stops” (Henry Adams)?

When you hear or read the words mankind, man and he used to mean all people, they are being used in a generic, or general, sense. Do words like man, mankind and he include women and children? This question was tested by sociologists who asked 300 students to respond to chapters in a textbook. One group of students was presented titles such as “Social Man,” “Industrial Man” and “Political Man,” the other titles such as “Society,” “Industrial Life” and “Politics.” Results indicated that the word man evoked pictures of males participating in that activity far more than women or children.

Another survey revealed that children from kindergarten through 7th grade interpreted the sentences “Man must work in order to eat” and “Around the world man is happy” to mean male adults, not females and children. A nonsexist approach is to use humans or human beings, instead of the generic man, and humanity or humankind for the generic mankind. 

Of our six basic pronouns, only one, the third-person singular (he and she), specifies gender. Many languages avoid gender designation in their pronouns, as in the Turkish o, which can mean either he or she. A nonsexist strategy is to include both genders in your sentence: “Each student should bring his or her books,” or to make the entire statement plural, as in “All students should bring their books.” I also support “Each student should bring their books.”

Read and hear this: “Whan that April with his showres soote/The droughte of March hath perced to the roote.” These are the opening lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century poem “The Canterbury Tales,” in Middle English. It’s obvious that our language has traveled light years since Chaucer’s creation. The history of English, like that of all living languages and living things, is the history of constant change. We limit the potential of males and females alike when we use sexist language. Because we human beings are language inventors, we are endowed with the capacity to create genuinely inclusive nouns and pronouns that refer to all of us.