Prescriptivist’s Corner: Gender-Neutral Personal Pronouns

English is replete with sexually general words, such as anyone, everyone, person, and oneself. But it has no sexually general personal pronouns. There is it, but that pronoun is generally considered unacceptable to use with people.

The traditional answer to this situation was to use the masculine he, him, his in situations calling for sexual ambiguity. Many see this as sexist—and in some cases as silly, as a famous 1984 example from the New York State Assembly: “everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion.”

So what to do about this conundrum?

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Words and Politics: Homicide Bomber

On 12 April, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer used the term homicide bomber to describe what had previously been called suicide bombers. “The president condemns this morning’s homicide bombing. […] These are not suicide bombings. These are not people who kill just themselves,” Fleischer said. “These are people who deliberately go to murder others, with no regard to the values of their own life. These are murderers.”
Fleischer is not the first to use the term. Various conservative political groups have been using it since at least March.

Political opinions aside, the linguistic question is how successful the White House will be in redefining the lingo of terrorism, and whether or not their choice is a sensible one.

Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson coined the term suicide bomber in October 1983 in reference to the bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. The term is apt because it describes the salient difference between a traditional and a suicide bombing. Terrorists traditionally favor bombs because they can be planted and the bomber can be long gone when the bomb explodes. With suicide bombings, this is not the case. The bomber has no intention of escaping.

Further, the choice of homicide is not one that suits the White House’s political purpose. Homicide is a morally neutral term. It simply describes an act that results in the death of another person. Homicides can be justifiable, and a state commits homicide when it executes a criminal. The words that express moral outrage at homicide are murder and manslaughter. The term that Fleischer was looking for is murderous bomber.

But the larger question is whether Fleischer, or anyone else, should attempt to deliberately alter the linguistic landscape. For the most part, such attempts are doomed to failure. Neologisms are successfully coined when the term fills a linguistic void. Suicide bomber was one such term. There was a need to distinguish a bomber who deliberately takes his or her own life from the traditional, anonymous kind.

There isn’t any such need for homicide bomber. While it’s not strictly redundant, bombings are all too often homicidal in nature. And the term bomber on its own carries opprobrium. Bucking the linguistic trend of the English language is rather futile.

It is highly unlikely that the term homicide bomber will enter the general vocabulary and have life beyond last month’s Sunday morning talk shows.

Book Review: The Etymological Bookshelf: Starter Set

This month we’re doing something a little different with the book review. Instead of reviewing a single book, we’re going to cover the basic books that should be on the serious amateur English-language etymologist’s shelf. These are the fundamental research tools.

There are many great etymological books out there that are not listed here. Simply because a book is not covered here doesn’t mean it’s not a good source or that it isn’t useful. The books covered this month are the basic ones—the “go to” books that are the first off the shelf when an etymological question arises.

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Word of the Month: Intifada

The word of the month is: Intifada, n.; uprising, revolt, specifically the Palestinian uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza from 1987-93 and again from 2001-present; from the Arabic meaning jumping up, to be shaken, to shake off (1985).

The original intifada began on 9 December 1987 and lasted until late 1993. The proximate cause of the revolt was an 8 December incident where an Israeli Army truck ran into a group of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, killing four and injuring seven. Many Palestinians believed that it was deliberate, done in retaliation for the death of a Jewish salesman in Gaza two days earlier. The revolt ended with the signing of the Oslo accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993.

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Prescriptivist’s Corner: Foreign Plurals

English borrows words like no other language. All languages borrow words from others, but English is as close to a polyglot as any major language can be. While this borrowing adds to the richness and power of the language, it does present certain grammatical problems.

One of these problems is how to form plurals of borrowed words. Do you use the standard English plural of -s/-es? Or do you use the foreign plural?

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Words On The Web:

Crash Davis: “It’s time to work on your interviews.”
Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh: “My interviews? What do I gotta do?”
Davis: “You’re gonna have to learn your clichés. You’re gonna have to study them, you’re gonna have to know them. They’re your friends. Write this down: ‘We gotta play it one day at a time.’”
LaLoosh: “Got to play… it’s pretty boring.”
Davis: “’Course it’s boring, that’s the point. Write it down.”
—Bull Durham, 1988

The sports cliché has been around as long as there have been sportswriters. Ever since Wee Willie Keeler told a reporter that the secret to batting success was to hit ‘em where they ain’t, the cliché has been unbreakably linked to sports. From poetry in motion to he tattooed that one, sports clichés abound in American discourse. records and archives these clichés. The site defines a sports cliché as “an expression that has been used in and around sports with sufficient frequency over a protracted period such that it is ‘tired’ at best and meaningless at worst.” The site also concludes “that nothing of any importance has ever been said in a halftime analysis.”

The site is basically a series of lists, categorized by sport (baseball, football), location (winner’s locker room, loser’s locker room), and special categories (clichés devoted to John Elway). There’s even a page on the music that is played too often in stadiums and ballparks. Features include search function and quiz.

The site is pretty Spartan though. It could use some sprucing up, like making the quiz interactive. But it serves the basic function of identifying these phrases for what they are.

Book Review: Dickson’s New Baseball Dictionary

Few pastimes have contributed as much to the language as baseball. All sports have their own jargon and occasionally some of those jargon words make their way into general speech. But baseball is different in the sheer number or words and phrases that it has contributed to the language.

Dickson’s revised version of his baseball dictionary contains over 7,000 entries, from A (as in Class A ball) to zurdo (Spanish for lefty). Most jargon dictionaries simply record the definitions of terms. Dickson goes well beyond this. He identifies archaic and obsolete terms, cross-references related terms, includes etymologies, and for many terms gives the first known use, notes on usage, and quotations of actual use.

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Word Of The Month: Baseball

In honor of the return of the boys of summer, the word of the month for April is:

Baseball n.; a game between two teams of nine players each, under the direction of a manager, played on an enclosed field in accordance with the Official Baseball Rules, under jurisdiction of one or more umpires. Originally a name for the British game of rounders, the term dates to at least 1744 when John Newberry included a poem about the game in a children’s book. The name was applied to the modern game in 1845, when Alexander Cartwright first codified the rules of the game and formed the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club. (Contrary to myth, Abner Doubleday had nothing to do with the game.)

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Great Vowel Shift

Perhaps the biggest single change in English pronunciation happened during the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift. The shift began c. 1300 and continued through c. 1700, with the majority of the change occurring in the 15th and 16th centuries. So the language of Chaucer is largely pre-shift and the language of Shakespeare is largely post-shift, although the changes were underway before Chaucer was born and continued on after Shakespeare had died.

During the Great Vowel Shift, English speakers changed the way they pronounced long vowels. Before the shift, English vowels were pronounced in much the same way that they are spoken in modern continental European languages. After the shift, they had achieved their modern phonological values.

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Words On The Web:

What better site to start a feature on language sites on the web than with The Oxford English Dictionary is, without question, the greatest English language resource either online or off.

The OED provides definitions for over half a million words. It includes 2.5 million quotations demonstrating word usage and historical examples of changes in spelling and form. The OED is the fundamental resource for anyone serious about words and language.

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