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October 5, 2011

On Radio 2’s Drivetime show today, a guest was introduced as ‘Gemma Smith, spokesperson for…’ I can’t remember what for, but the point that struck me was, why call her a spokesperson? Why not spokeswoman? If for some reason they were trying to conceal the fact that she was a woman, her name and the fact that she spoke with a woman’s voice gave the game right away.

I think what happened was that the presenter had some idea she ought to use a non-sexist term, without reflecting on the purpose of non-sexist language. A non-sexist term like ‘spokesperson’ is desirable when referring the office (Who’s going to be spokesperson’?), because it is neutral as to who is actually going to occupy that office. All well and good. But when the office is already occupied, why conceal the sex of the person holding it? The point of non-sexist language is not to deny the existence of separate sexes, but to avoid preconceptions about what roles or jobs they should perform. Unnecessary usages of the -person form are just annoying, and give non-sexist language a bad name.

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  1. C. Robshaw permalink

    I can’t say I agree; it seems to me inherently sexist that a spokesman & a spokeswoman are different words to begin with, as though they’re not performing the same role. Also, I think if specific spokesmen continue to be referred to as such, people will tend to call the (unfilled) position “spokesman” anyway, because by then it’ll be the word they’re used to hearing (assuming there are more spokesmen than spokeswomen) (which is a fair assumption): see how often people refer to a policeman or fireman when they’re talking about a hypothetical, not-necessarily-male police officer or firefighter.

    • Hmm. I suppose there’s something in that. Still, I don’t like that ‘person’ usage when one knows who one is talking about. But you could be right. But I don’t like it. But maybe you’re right. But I still don’t like it. But you’re probably right.

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