Doctors, Nurses And One Terrific Professor

Recently, I was taking a course on linguistics, and we were discussing syntax. My professor asked the class-- a room of roughly a hundred English students, mostly female-- what pronoun to use when replacing the noun ‘boss’. It wasn’t a very serious question, but the response made him stop in his tracks. Over half the class had casually, but eagerly, called out ‘he’. It wasn’t until my astonished professor eyed us that everyone realised what they had said: that they had confirmed something we all thought to have been a thing of the past. There were nervous giggles and some shocked faces, including my own, because what’s so horrific is that I hadn’t realized it either.

The incident reminded me of this riddle I encountered about a year ago. It went like this: ‘A father and a son get into a car crash. The father dies, but the son is rushed to hospital. On the operating table the doctor suddenly cries out “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son”.’ Possible or not? Well, yes of course it is, but I didn’t think properly then, and apparently I still don’t. My culture is one in which, traditionally, doctors are male, nurses are not. Pilots are men, kindergarten teachers are women, etc.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that language, because it is so intuitive, is a great mirror of society. However, if we don’t like the image that it reflects back at us, then it is our responsibility to try and change that. Also, since language is predominant in almost every aspect of our life, I think it will pay off to try and consciously manipulate it. Some people may give you the stink-eye if you correct their statements into more gender-neutral equivalents, but if you don’t then this passive aggression will surely come back and bite you in the ass.

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