People have sex

Much has been said about how rapidly language has changed since the advent of social media, especially texting and tweeting. Some celebrate the change as a natural evolutionary process, while others deplore the bad grammar and spelling that has become rampant. While I lean toward the latter view, I have some sympathy for the former. I see it as a bigger issue than what’s right or wrong. At least it’s a different issue. As a writer I see language as a powerful tool, a tool to entertain or persuade, to instruct others or to express oneself. The texting-tweeting revolution has probably allowed many people who would otherwise never express themselves in writing to come out of their shells and write, freed from the scrutiny of the schoolmarm looming with her red pencil and grade book. So far so good. But by using bad grammar and spelling, even poor style, people limit themselves so much, often without being aware of it. I’ll be discussing this issue further in coming posts, but I don’t intend this blog to be a scolding lecture. Rather it is intended to be a celebration of language and, I hope (not “hopefully”), occasionally informative, but, most especially, fun.

So what does this have to do with the title of this post? Is that just a gratuitous usage of the word “sex” to get you to read this? Yes. It worked, didn’t it? Except it’s also relevant. It has become customary in recent years to talk about people’s gender. Male or female. The only problem is people don’t have gender. They have sex. Male and female are sexes, not genders. Masculine, feminine, and neuter are the three genders in English. Gender is a term of grammar referring to words: he, she, it = masculine, feminine and neuter. People, animals, and plants have sex – usually not together, but, well, let’s not go there. The point is that living things have sex, while words have gender.

This was standard for hundreds of years. When I was a teenager job applications always had a blank that said Sex __. Now they say Gender __. How and why did this change happen? It’s probably in part because of the erosion of decency and respect and in part political correctness. People, especially younger ones, began to fill in that Sex blank with “Yes, please” or “As often as I can” or other, lewder, witticisms. This became either offensive or obstructive to the staff who had to handle these non-responsive jottings so the forms slowly got changed. Others, like newscasters, also got on board, eschewing the word “sex” to avoid offending those who took it in its other meaning as a behavior instead of a state. Viewers got upset when little Sally asked mommy what the word sex meant when she heard it on TV.

Yes, yes, I know that the dictionary lists sex as one definition of the word “gender”. Of course we can all tell what the speaker means. It has come to mean sex in modern usage, and I’m not upset about it. I am upset that so often political correctness has come to dictate what we may or may not say (or write). We are losing perfectly good words, or replacing them with clumsy, imprecise, or flat-out wrong ones that are deemed less offensive to some group. Just think of all the words relating to race, sexual orientation (not gender orientation), disabilities, and so on that we can no longer use, even those that were originally coined or brought into common usage with the best of intentions to avoid a previously common word that became considered offensive.

I always laugh when I hear people rant about the need for gender equality, e.g. in employment. You want gender equality? Okay, that would be one-third masculine, one-third feminine, one-third neuter. All of you who want to volunteer to be neutered to qualify for all those unfilled neuter slots, raise your hand.

No, I can’t prove scientifically why this happened. That part is informed speculation at best. But I am not making this stuff up. You can see by this graph how the word “sex” was almost 50 times more common than the word “gender” in literature in 1950. By 1998 it was only slightly more common (23% to be exact). Click on the image to see the full-size graph.


Thanks for reading my blog. Have fun and get lucky. Take that however you want.



One thought on “People have sex

  1. Pingback: Ellen Pao Verdict | OnWords

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