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The city council in Berkeley, California, recently voted to banish some gender-specific words from its municipal code and replace them with gender-neutral options.
Included among the changes are manhole to maintenance hole, manpower to workforce, policeman and policewoman to police officer, craftsmen to artisan and sorority and fraternity to “collegiate Greek system residence.”
Also, gendered pronouns like he and she would be replaced with phrases like “the attorney” or “the candidate.”
That’s Berkeley, folks, and they’re not kidding!
My only regret is George Carlin, who died in 2008 at age 71, is not around today as he would have had a field day with this story.
Carlin was one of America’s funniest comedians along with being a social critic and an author noted for his thoughts on politics, the English language and many other subjects, some considered taboo.
Among topics Carlin frequently covered was euphemisms, which leads us to Berkeley.
A euphemism is defined as “a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing.”
Carlin had his own thoughts and opinions on euphemisms, as found in his 1997 book “Brain Droppings.”
Though the book’s more than 20 years old, Carlin’s insights still ring true today.
“American English is packed with euphemisms that shade the truth because Americans have trouble dealing with reality and it’s gotten worse with each generation as they have crept into all areas of our society,” Carlin wrote. “Everything has become completely sterilized and politically correct. People are afraid to utter an actual word without first cleaning it up.”
Toilet paper offers a perfect example.
“I don’t know when it started, but at some point in my life, toilet paper became bathroom tissue,” Carlin wrote.
The observation continues: “Some euphemized words weren’t even negative, they were just considered too ordinary.”
Examples include classing up “free” as “complimentary.” Sneakers became running shoes, libraries turned into learning resource centers, reruns were rebranded as encore presentations, cartoons became animation, junk mail became direct marketing and the swamp turned into wetlands.
The new language exchanged trailers for mobile homes, glasses for prescription eyewear, hospitals for medical centers, deodorant for antiperspirant, theaters for performing arts centers and soap operas for daytime dramas.
Carlin noted softer language used to describe diseases and maladies: Skin blemishes (pimples), substance use disorder (drug addiction), occasional irregularity (constipation) and post-traumatic stress disorder (shell shock).
Proponents of these euphemisms cloak them in sensitivity for the afflicted, but Carlin noted that changing a condition’s name does nothing to alleviate its symptoms.
Deaf became hearing-impaired; blind became visually impaired, old people were replaced with senior citizens and seasickness became motion discomfort.
In one particularly tortured example, Carlin wrote that ugly people were said to have a “severe appearance deficit.” Doesn’t that somehow sound harsher?
“A plain bar of soap is now either a bath bar, a cleansing bar or a clarifying bar,” Carlin said. “Can you imagine a mother saying, ‘Young man, if I hear that word out of you one more time, I’m going to wash your mouth out with a clarifying bar’? Doesn’t sound right, does it?”
While gender-neutral options may work fine for Berkeley, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to refer to New York Yankee Hall-of-Famer Lou Gehrig as “the greatest first baseperson of all time,” the episode recognized as the most popular on “The Andy Griffith Show” as “Person in a Hurry” or former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson’s wife as “Person Bird.”
Keith Barnes is a reporter for the Johnstonian News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.