Saturday, January 12, 2013

For her

When I was young, my mother would correct me when I referred to her as "her." She thought this was impolite. Let me rewrite the last sentence to illustrate the point: "When I was young, my mother would correct me when I referred to my mother as "her." I'll try to finish this paragraph with my mother's preferred terms: I was going to write, "I thought her silly." Instead, I shall write, "I found my mother's desire for more formal language to be silly."

Yesterday, I read that someone's grandmother would correct her when referred to as "you;" "Would you please pass the potatoes?" though sounding polite to our 21st century ears, was not to her early 20th century ones. I struggled to think of how this woman would have preferred to be addressed. The image of the Lady Dowager from Downton Abbey comes to mind, as would a retort, "Not at all. Thank you very much." Ladies and gentlemen do not pass their own food at the table.

Never mind that. If addressed, one should say, "I would like some potatoes, Mother. Please."

I had always thought these things absurd and was glad to be done with them. But recently I thought about this again, more specifically about pronouns, and do wonder if we've lost more than we've thought.

Some people have suggested we use the pronoun "ze" instead of s/he. I think it's a fine idea, though I doubt it will catch on. Then again, people said that about "Ms." and it did. But, that was only one word. I did wonder what other pronouns would become. Is there a zir or zer for the possessive?

Please do not mistake my questions for intolerance. I've always disliked gender specific pronouns and have substituted "they" most of my life for the s/he binary.

So, while I was pondering, I remembered my mother. She was not a "she." She was My Mother, or Selma. My mind wandered into hospital scenes (of course, as mother died as a result of a car accident). There, she was reduced to a she. She was in a coma. She was on a ventilator. She died. Then, she could have been an it. She was reduced to a pronoun, as most of us are when in hospital. We become instantly objectified; not only are we simply he or she, but single white adult females and juvenile black males.

Without names, we are easily mistreated.

In this age of increasing anonymity, maybe we should all reclaim our names instead of  inventing new pronouns. Maybe we should stop addressing our doctors as Dr. So & So while we submit to be childishly addressed by our first names. Maybe we should correct a nurse when we overhear someone calling us "she" or "that woman."

I am neither a writer nor a serious thinker, so this will end abruptly with a long quote from Bertrand Russell about the demise of the English language. I do believe he was correct:

"A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers." 

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