Monday, June 20, 2016

Mysteries of American English, "woman politician" version

This paragraph from Wendy Kaminer has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it back in 2001 (Let's Talk about Gender, Baby The American Prospect 12/19/2001):

... I grew up in a predigital age, when concern about grammar and usage was not dismissed as pedantry. So in my view, while feminist language police are sometimes hypervigilant, sometimes they're not vigilant enough. Why do they tolerate, and even promote, use of the word woman (or the plural women) as an adjective? It's a noun. We have "women doctors" and "women senators" but no "men doctors" or "men senators." We do, however, have "manservants." It's not hard to figure out why. Servants are presumptively female, just as senators are presumptively male. When we incorrectly describe a female politician as a "woman politician," we confirm that, like a "manchild," she's an oddity, an oxymoron.
There's a lot about language that seems counter-intuitive. Freud was taken with the observations he made on how opposites come to stand for each other in symbolism and in language.

My personal favorite example is that when I was a kid, if you wanted to say you didn't care at all about something, you might express it by saying, "I couldn't care less."

The phrase has survived but with a modification. I can't remember the last time I heard someone say, "I couldn't care less." In American English at least, that sentence has become "I could care less." But the meaning is unchanged. Everyone knows that phrase means "I could not care less." What the earlier version said directly, the current version conveys the same meaning and attitude by technically saying the exact opposite, "I could care less," which of course in the literal sense means that I care something about it.

I'm sure some linguist somewhere has traced and analyzed the evolution of that phrase. I should try to dig up some of it one of these days.

The American phrase "politically correct," which has also seeped into other languages, is another example. If Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump says something is "politically correct," everyone understands them to mean that from the speaker's point of view they consider that thing politically incorrect, i.e., something that they disagree with politically.

I've been thinking about the Kaminer column again this year with Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign, in which I never hear or see her referred to in the press as the "female candidate" or the possible first "female President." It's always woman candidate, woman President, woman politician.

I suppose one way to think about it is that as the feminist movement grew in power and influence to the point where a female President/woman President is as likely as it is now, that "woman" was somehow the preferred adjective in this context to "female." But I've never seen that particular question explored further. That 2001 column is the only place I've seen it addressed.

But chances are that some scholars have traced it in some detail. Another linguistic unknown for me that I probably should research a bit more.

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