Language, for me, was a hard-won thing to acquire. English seemed to have so many words it was impossible to get hold of: though I could memorize spellings, someone had to tell me what the word was through third grade before I knew how to say the word. Since then, I have learned that long words have an understandable, and very regular, phonology, and short words are all over the map. There is a tendency of people to change the meanings of words, either through a process internal to the language (extension through metaphor, for example), or through a violent twisting at the hands of some theory they want particular words to fit. The first I can accept, and enjoy, and forms much of my interest in poetry. The second I resent, particularly where wrenching it into place steps over barriers put in place.
An example of the second? The popular word, “Gender” — popular with those who have been under the tutelage of “gender studies” professors, and who believe they are learning.
In the second edition of The Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler, improved by Ernest Gowers in 1965 we find:
gender, n., is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons or creatures of the masculine or feminine g., meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of 1911 says:
gender, n. Grammatical classification (or one of the two, or three, classes) of objects roughly corresponding the the two sexes and sexlessness (masculine, feminine, & neuter) (of nouns & pronouns) property of belonging to such class (of adjj.) appropriate form for accompanying a noun of any such class; (joc.) sex.
This was the state of things for most of my life, and the kind of definition offered by the American College Dictionary, Webster’s Seventh Collegiate Dictionary, Webster’s New World Dictionary, and by the huge 2002 Mirriam-Webster Third New Unabridged Dictionary.
When we get to the 2011 Concise Oxford English Dictionary, something has happened:
gender n. 1. The state of being male or female (chiefly in cultural or social contexts) •the members of one or other sex: differences between the genders. 2. Grammar. a class (usually masculine, feminine, common, or neuter) into which nouns and pronouns are placed in some languages, distinguished by a particular class of inflection. •the property of belonging to such a class.
The revolution continues with a helpful “usage note”
USAGE Although the words gender and sex both have the sense ‘the state of being male or female’, they are typically used in different ways: sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender tends to refer to cultural or social ones.
This is followed by helpful definitions of gender bender and gender dysphoria. You can look them up.
The first dictionary heading toward the leap in my collection is the 1992 Third Edition American Heritage Dictionary, followed by the 1993 American Heritage Dictionary: the definition is unchanged, but the usage note brings in the social category explanation, attributing it to anthropologists. There is, nonetheless, a leap over the traces.
And we are on our way to Facebook, with its dizzying variety of possible “genders” you can opt for. Note that in the “modern” definitions, they include more and more examples of types appropriate to different languages as a way to legitimate this complexity. As Jordan Peterson notes, this is an invitation to take something public and create a purely personal description, a surrogate name, your own personal pronoun (which destroys the point of a pronoun). In the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has already decreed that employers in the United States must use these pronouns or face sanctions and liability. What’s worse is that transsexuals, in my experience, don’t want any of these other pronouns: they just want the one belonging to the opposite of their biological sex.
Having words ripped away in this manner isn’t friendly. If they really wanted to, they could have used some variation on social correlates of sex, though even there, the fact that 98% of the time these social correlates track biological sex might restrict the boundaries of the discussion. And the ones pushing this change don’t want that. They want to be free of any reality-based constraint (which includes social constraints, such as raising children or marrying — so they have to redefine those, too). The question they most seek to avoid is what would be healthiest for society.
I think it was a mistake. The Woodpile Report, #474, agrees, though I’m sure someone is thinking of trying to sue them. But note the perspective of the Woodpile Report: people are going to take advantage of you by attacking the language you use, and then abuse you. Watch the gender benders on campus: that is the pattern they are familiar with, though many of their attacks were described as “grooming”. Marxists of all stripes are familiar with this tactic, and use it. And then there are the people who want to dictate what I am allowed to say, like the EEOC, mentioned above, or the well meaning authors of Infogalactic. They’re after you, too, ladies and gentlemen, they’re after you, too. Fortunately, Altadena is a nice community, and hasn’t yet been taken over.