Year of Questions: How much does gender matter in language?

It’s impossible to count the number of times I’ve heard someone say “that’s so gay.”

That, along with always using “he” as a universal personal pronoun (it’s ok, I had to look up what that was called too) is something I’ve always noticed but had mixed feelings about. Not in the sense that I think either are ok to rely on, but realistically it’s hard to avoid them.

I stopped using “gay” in any slang context somewhere around the beginning of college. I’m not proud of the fact that I used it before then, but I will say that it was more a result of cultural conditioning than anything else (see also: Louis CK stand-up bit on the word “faggot”).

Regardless of the usage/intention, I’ve understood for a long time that the effect is often to make gays/lesbians feel marginalized and alienated. This list of tongue-in-cheek questions is a good example of how it would feel for those of us who are heterosexual to be constantly questioned/alienated.

It gets a little more grey when you consider personal pronouns like “he/she” and “him/her.”

“Don’t be a language Nazi” etc… is a pretty standard response when people bring up the discrepancy. When I make universal statements (which I try not not to) I usually alternate he/she, guy/gal, men/women but even I am not quite sure what to do when it gets more complicated, with bi/trans and just generally trying to keep things gender neutral. Not because I don’t understand, but because it’s hard to get meaning across when you’re constantly explaining yourself, at least in American culture. Still, there’s something to be said for advocating gender-neutral pronouns (see: Wikipedia entry) and some languages don’t even have personal pronouns for “he/she” etc…

Even though I make a personal effort not to “gender-type” language I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to calling it out. If I know someone a bit I may say something, but typically people I’m less familiar with don’t receive the reminder nicely….no matter how gently it’s put. But lately I’ve been thinking it’s a responsibility I’ll have to embrace more. Treating everyone equally isn’t  always going to be easy…

How does gendered language affect your life?


6 thoughts on “Year of Questions: How much does gender matter in language?”

  1. Probably won’t surprise you that I’m not afraid to be fussy, so I usually say “one” or “the person” or something else neutral. You know what the best response is when people tell you to stop being a language or grammar nazi? “Too late.”

    1. I’m shocked;)

      I use those regularly too…although I’m cautious because they sometimes add a passive tone to my writing.

      Another strategy is to just use someone’s name. Since you can only do it so many times without sounding repetitive it’s also a good way to avoid getting wordy.

  2. I come from a male dominated society, ok an even more male dominated (Spanish speaking) society, and there it seems to be a lost cause, only feminists seem to try to make a difference..

    We use expressions like that’s so gay, much less than here, but we do use “you are such a girl” all the time, even amongst girls. It is strange but if a guy says it feels wrong, but if a girl says it, it can be progressive or even flattering.. (?)

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