I’ve always admired the Canadians. They seem like fairly easy-going, civilised people; sort of like nice Americans, but without the automatic weapons. And let’s face it, living next door to a self-obsessed megalomaniac can’t be easy. It’d be like when you go to a party or out to dinner and you’re stuck next to someone who spends the entire evening talking about themselves – oh God, just shoot me! Except that they’re heavily armed, have no sense of irony and they might just do that. Don’t get me wrong – I like the Americans. I’m just glad I don’t live next door to them. So I think the Canadians are great for being to be able to put up with all that. And I love the fact that they have a tourist attraction called The Inside Passage. Seriously, if that doesn’t attract tourists, nothing will. They also have a great flag:
See? Isn’t it a beauty? I’m obsessed with the Canadian flag, because I think it serves as a model for what ours should be, but I won’t go into that now – that’s a diatribe for another day. The Canadians also have a great national anthem – ‘O Canada’. It’s spine-tinglingly beautiful. Whenever I hear it, it makes me want to become a Canadian – except, not really. Here is a link if you want to have a listen.
Now, the thing is, the Canadians are debating whether or not to make a small but significant change to the lyrics of ‘O Canada’. They want to change from, “all thy sons command” to “all of us command.” Elizabeth Renzetti, in The Globe and Mail, June 3rd, puts the case in favour. I think she pretty well nails it. She notes that a previous attempt to change the language failed and suspects that the phrase ‘gender neutral’ caused conservative heartburn. She says: “It is an infelicitous phrase…No one would name a boat or a horse Gender Neutral. If it were me, I wouldn’t say the changes make the anthem gender-neutral, I’d say they make it fair…”
It’s made me think about something that’s exercised my mind for a while and that’s the question of gender and language – specifically the word ‘man’ and its use in the English language. ‘Man’ refers both to the species and the gender. We, men that is, have appropriated the word, and use it as we please. The word ‘woman’ derives from, and is subordinate to the word ‘man’, just as Eve was derived from Adam’s rib and is therefore subordinate to him. The notion is anachronistic and it seems to me that a change in the language is overdue.
In an attempt to be gender neutral, or as Ms Renzetti might say, fair, we have amended the word ‘chairman’ to ‘chairperson’. It might be fair, but it’s inelegant. And what of words like ‘manpower’, ‘manslaughter’, ‘man-made’, ‘man-hour’? In a world where women drive trains and trams, fly aircraft and sail ships, should ‘railwaymen’, ‘tramwaymen’, ‘airmen’ and ‘seamen’ be applied to women? I think not. And in the case of the latter, never, ever without her consent.
So what does that leave us with? We could go with ‘railwayperson/s’ which sounds ridiculous or ‘railway–men and –women’ which is a bit of a mouthful. Applying the same logic, we end up with ‘seaperson/s’ or ‘sea people’ which sounds like something out of Phoenician history, or ‘sea–men and –women’ which, if you say it quickly, sounds interesting, but kind of rude.
I think the solution is, and I hope you’re sitting down, because this is going to sound ridiculous, but I think we should change the word for ‘man’, where it denotes gender. To put it simply: if we took the words ‘man’ and ‘human’ and switched their meanings, so that ‘man’ is only ever used to denote the species, and ‘human’, the adult male thereof, life would be simpler. After, of course, it had gone through a really difficult and protracted period of confusion, hysteria, outrage and abuse. Blood would flow in the streets and I fear that some of it might be mine, but let’s face it, you’ve got to die of something and I’ve lived a life, if you can call it that. But I digress.
Of course, it’s a ridiculous idea, I get that. And it’s not going to happen. But imagine if it already had. Imagine if we had been born into an English-speaking world where there was no gender-bias in our language and the male and female of the species both derived from the same root. I’ve just made a truly hilarious pun that only my fellow Australians and my New Zealand neighbours will appreciate. So I’ve provided a link. New Zealanders, for the benefit of overseas readers, play Canada to our US. They are sensible, funny and they keep beating us at rugby, which is really annoying, or would be, if I cared about rugby. It’s true, their flag is nowhere near as good as Canada’s. It looks like ours and both are in serious need of a makeover, but that is a rant for another time. Like the Canadians, they have an absolute cracker of a national anthem. If you don’t believe me, have a listen. But I digress. And I need to move on, because if your attention span is anything like mine, I probably lost you at ‘I like the Americans’.
Returning to my ridiculous idea that will never get up: obviously there would need to be some sort of transition period, like when the UK adopted decimal currency and transitioned from ‘pence’ to ‘new pence’ and then back to ‘pence’ again.
I’m not sure exactly how it would be handled. Maybe it is as simple as ‘man’ and ‘men’ become ‘human’ and ‘humen’. Maybe, acknowledging, our chromosomal differences we could become xmen and ymen. Just so you know, I’m not really that keen on the idea of not being a man anymore, even if it does mean I get to be more human. I don’t like change any more than the next man, woman or human. I don’t always feel like going to work either. But sometimes you’ve just got to human up. As for being a yman? Well better than being an xman with those great steel claws extruding from my arms. And if those sideburns looked ridiculous on Hugh Jackman, what hope would I have! Anyway, I’m not really a details human. I’ll leave that to somebody else to figure out. I’ve put enough effort into this already and my work here is almost done.
I’ll conclude by saying I’m not going to weigh in on the right to life/pro-choice debate by suggesting that we are literally human before we are male or female. But in a figurative sense, of course we are. We are all human first, before we are black or white, male or female, straight or gay or anything in between. And if we could frame a nomenclature that acknowledged our common humanity and asserted its primacy, then I think that would be fair.