Tag Archives: sexist language

Personal Attention

Are you a “people person”? That’s slang for an extrovert, someone who delights in the company of others. (Which brings up this question: If you like one-on-one interactions, does that make you a “person person”?)  The noun “person,” used this way, refers to someone who is extremely interested in whatever descriptive word is attached to it. In this sign, though, “phone person” probably doesn’t refer to someone whose views on the latest iPhone resemble the way the rest of us feel about air. Instead, it’s the easiest way to avoid gender-specific terms. Take a look:









Write “phone man” or “phone woman” and you’re implying the gender of the preferred job- applicant. Top marks to this signmaker for non-sexist language! Not so top marks for communication. What does a “phone person” do? Call or answer or both? People doing those tasks used to be called “operators” or “secretaries.” But back to “person”:









Note: On some devices the image appears small, so I’ll reproduce its message here:

Help wanted


  • Deli Man
  • Delivery Person

According to this sign, anyone can deliver, but only men can work in the deli. Really? I doubt that’s the meaning, if only because the ratio of men to women zooming around with bags of dinner is approximately a zillion to one, judging from my experience dodging delivery bicyclists on the sidewalks of New York. I checked “deli man” in various dictionaries, to find out whether this was a traditional term, like “businessman.” Nope. I’m still scratching my head over the mixed usage — gender nonspecific “person” v. masculine “deli man.” I can imagine a few scenarios: (1) two people worked on the sign or (2) someone cut-and-pasted part of an old sign into a new one or (3) the signwriter was on automatic pilot for the first half of the sign and then remembered that these days, discriminatory hiring is illegal. Other theories welcome.

To be fair, it’s not always easy to come up with an inclusive term. Here’s one effort:









Yes, “fishermen” would be sexist, and “fishermen/women” is way too long. But “fishers” sounds strange, at least to my ears.  And so does, I’m sad to admit, “fisherperson.”  I can’t think of another term that works, though. “Marine-life procurement specialist”? “Seafood harvester”? Nope and nope.

I’ll let you, the “blog person,” figure it out. I’m off to see the deli man for some tuna, caught by fishers.

Oops, I actually meant that!

In the pre-Internet era, a student-researcher asked me whether New York City maintained “a government suppository of documents.” Yes, I thought, but not in the way you imagine. It’s easy to make fun of misused words, though I believe that kids’ errors should be out of bounds. So with a reasonably straight face, I explained to the young man that “depository” or “repository” would have been a better choice for that sentence.

Politicians and other public figures, however, are fair game when it comes to mockery. I’ve come to believe that when they stray from their speechwriters’ polished prose and venture to express themselves, they sometimes (gasp) reveal what they really think. Call it a Freudian slip, or, in print, a Freudian typo. To be clear, this phenomenon is nonpartisan. The more you talk, the more you slip, regardless of political affiliation.

First up is Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump, as reported by my local paper, The New York Times. Referring to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she declared that Americans are “paying for some of their squirmishes that have been going on for centuries.” Squirmishes is a nice blend of two other words. “Skirmish” refers to fights or battles, usually on a small scale and at irregular intervals. “Squirm,” on the other hand, is what you do when you wiggle or twist your body, often because you’re nervous. Was Palin nervous about the endorsement, conflicts in the Arab world, or something else?

Turning again to The New York Times, I found an odd statement from Abraham Foxman, former director of the Anti-Defamation League.  In a lengthy article describing the often tense relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foxman was quoted as saying that Obama “bore his soul about how much he cares about Israel.” Three verbs are entwined: bare, bear, and bore. “Bare” is “disclose or uncover”; the past tense is “bared.” “Bear” is “endure, carry a burden.” The past-tense form is “bore.” And of course, “bore” also refers to what politicians do best: make their audiences desperate to change the subject. Now, my question:. Does Foxman think that Obama feels burdened by the US-Israeli relationship or tired of the whole issue?

I know what I think, but I’ll withhold the information to avoid getting into a squirmish.

Pregnant Persons

On the subway this morning I heard a recorded announcement begging riders to give up their seats to “elderly, disabled, and pregnant persons.” In my experience – and contrary to New Yorkers’ reputation for callous disregard of others – all sorts of people leap up to offer seats to those with gray hair (me, for example) and to others with obvious physical needs. Still, I was pleased to hear the reminder.

M for MTA

A kinder, gentler MTA









I must confess, though, that I spent the whole ride thinking about the phrase “pregnant persons.” The writer wanted three adjectives (elderly, disabled, and pregnant) to modify the noun persons. But because only females can give birth, the gender-neutral term, pregnant persons, sounded odd.

I considered alternatives. Substituting pregnant women doesn’t work, because then you’re being polite only to females, as the other two adjectives attach to women. With that wording, a fragile 90-year-old guy is out of luck, as are men of any age who have broken legs or other conditions that make standing on a moving train a bad idea.

Nor can you simply turn those adjectives into nouns, ceding the seat to the elderly, disabled, or pregnant. This wording reduces complex human identity to one characteristic. I’m old, but age is just one part of me. I imagine that wheelchair users and others with physical issues feel the same way.  (For a longer discussion of age-related terms, check out “Euph and Old Age” in this blog. Here’s the URL:  http://www.grammarianinthecity.com/?p=479.)

One solution is to rearrange the sequence, so that you’re talking about pregnant women, and elderly and disabled persons. That works, but it’s awkward and may too easily be misread as excluding women from the more general category, persons.

So what’s a train-riding grammarian to do? I’m voting for something like this: “Please give up your seat to anyone who has difficulty standing.” But I’m open to suggestions from every person, including pregnant ones.

Of Mice and Man

Okay, I lied. This post is about man as a singular form. No mice appear. To be clear, mice appear regularly in New York City, but this post is mice-free. Instead, this post is about man-ly signs:

One guy does everything.

One guy does everything.









The construction manager must be on a tight budget if only one man is on the job. No wonder there’s danger! I’d cause all sorts of danger too if I had to do all the work myself. (Oh wait – I do have to do all the work myself, but no one ever got a concussion from a dangling modifier.)

Here’s another:

Man and Ladies.

Man and Ladies.

To be fair, this sign should read (1) Gentleman and Lady or (2) Gentlemen and Ladies or (3) Men and Women. Or, judging from the fact that nearly every garment on display in the shop is a business suit typically worn by a man, the sign could also change to Men and Woman.

One more, from an earlier post:

This store sells clothes for one kid. Just one kid.

This store sells clothes for one kid. Just one kid.









The placement of the apostrophe signals a singular noun, so the store sells to one kid (no word on the gender). With such a limited market, I’m not surprised that the store is now out of business.






Some years ago, while I was teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” a student stumbled over the proper term for the person who caught the animal. He started out with “fisherm…” and then stopped himself and went with “fisherperson.” Fisherperson? Really? I consider myself a feminist, but even I was taken aback by this word. It was fair, of course, because both men and women go fishing. But it sounded like something a late-night television host would mock. Yet what is the alternative? Fisher? Trout-worker? Marine life catcher? Perhaps letter carrier and firefighter also sounded strange when they first entered the language in place of postman and fireman.

I thought about this issue when I saw this sign on a construction project:

A single-sex project.

A single-sex project.


Only men work there? Or are only the male workers dangerous? Neither meaning is likely, so the sign is incorrect. The habit of assuming that a male term is understood to include both men and women – the “masculine universal” – has been out of favor, and for very good reason, for many years. Yet “MEN AND WOMEN WORKING ABOVE” seems artificial. How about “DANGER: CONSTRUCTION ABOVE”? Or, “WATCH OUT! WE’RE WORKING UP HERE!”

Here’s another sign:

No more "busboys"?

No more “busboys”?









Okay, busboy doesn’t work, not least because some of those doing this job are a couple of decades past boyhood (or girlhood). I can’t really support busser, as buss is a slang word for “kiss.” Table cleaner isn’t accurate, nor is plate remover. So, I’m stumped. Any suggestions?

The larger point is that language changes slowly, especially when it’s tied to a social movement, in this case feminism. And yes, gendered language matters. Children asked to draw a scene with cavemen hardly ever include women, while those asked to draw cave people more or less balance the sexes. So we do need these changes if we’re to see possibilities and eventual equality. Along the way, though, we may have to deal with some fisherpeople.