Monday, May 28, 2012

On Ignorance

There are times, I find, when people try so desperately to be politically correct as to actually become offensive to the individuals who they are trying to support.

This is one of those times. [Note: The blog "The Queer Dance Party" no longer seems to exist. How curious.]

Perhaps I should start with saying that as an etymology buff, this post insults me for completely different reasons than it might most others. I consider the derivation and use of words to be very serious business indeed, and when someone misuses a word with no regard for its roots or societal context, I become uncontrollably agitated. Can I forgive someone for this? Of course. Ignorance is curable. But this takes things a step or two farther than usual, as I will get to in a moment, so I feel no qualms in being a bit retentive here.

First, to the words.

"Person" is derived from the Latin word persona, literally meaning "mask" and figuratively, "visage" or "theatrical role." The earliest uses of the former word reflect these sense, being, respectively, a role that one takes and an individual in that role, both dated to the early 1200s. There are no indications of gender in the English term, though the original word (and its use in English as "persona") are both distinctly feminine.

It is with "woman" that things become more complicated. The original use of "man" in English describes, simply, a human being; gender specifiers for male and female could be found in wer and wif respectively, each of which was used as their own word. While the latter word survived well into the modern period as "wife" and the prefix to "woman," the former all but completely vanished (save for in the word "werewolf"), with man living on to serve as both the general gender-neutral expresser of humanity and as the word for the male individual. Why? Basically, sexism: Most of the people assumed to be important in the mediaeval world were men, meaning that the default assumption was that the "man" you referred to was, well, a wer. Bad? Yes. But that has no bearing on the word "man" itself. Nonetheless, this is one of the reasons why we like to use "person" in most formal contexts. So it goes.

Now, by all accounts, the issues inherent in intentionally misspelling "person" are far greater than in doing so with "woman." The historical context behind the latter, while perhaps not justifying the change, at least makes it understandable; the former does not have this problem, and so one can only attribute such justifications to pure ignorance.

Which is where the ableism thing comes in.

This is where my consternation goes from "nitpicky" to "genuinely offended."

Beyond the obvious fact that such a statement basically gives an out to any person with consistently poor spelling and grammar with no interest in improving themselves by allowing them to call their critics "ableist," it is also deeply insulting to those that actually have dyslexia not only by patronising them, but by actually making it harder for them to read your article in the first place. By replacing the letters in a common word in order to "rail against patriarchy"—and friend, there are better ways to use language in this fight—you have taken away yet another landmark that would allow a severely dyslexic individual to (with a certain degree of effort) read what you were trying to say. Not only have you insulted the intelligence and will of the people you intend to empower, but have, in your own way, hindered them just that little bit more.

Perhaps I should chalk this up to not thinking through the implications of what you were doing, dear article writer, but does that really assuage of guilt?

P.S. I am aware that Tumblr is considered a bastion of this kind of wildly misguided social justice tomfoolery, but this struck me as both typical and unusually clueless, so I felt the need to comment. Note that I take no issue with social justice initiatives; to the contrary, some would consider me radically left-wing. Rather, I take issue with the implicit accusatory tone taken with so many given the Internet Soapbox and the ignorance with which they wield that power. So I write.


  1. *looks at link*
    Oh, man, that was just terrible. There are some people who I will never begin to understand. Nice post, and informative too; I didn't know about the origin of the word 'man'.

    1. Thank you! I live to entertain and inform.

  2. I can't get the link to work -- but given the distaste between you and Helen, maybe I'm better off.

    So as I understand it, the writer of that post rearranged the letters to mimic dyslexia? Do I have that right? I sure hope I don't, because if it is, then it's as baffling as it is misguided (and that's the most polite way I can put it).

    That aside, this was a good read. While it's a shame that there are some short-sighted people out there (again, putting it politely), at least there are sharp-witted writers like you that can match them point for point.

    1. They wrote "person" as "persyn" in a previous post (à la some radical feminists' use of "womyn"); they were explaining their rationale to a reader. It was amazingly misguided.