Sunday, March 18, 2007

Safire watch: Some promising data

In a recent post, I reported an email from a reader who suggests that Safire might be reacting to criticism by quoting lexicographers and linguists regularly. His new On Language column, on woman versus female as an adjective (or 'apposite noun'), looks like striking support for that hypothesis: He quotes both Deborah Tannen and Robin Lakoff, and the words 'linguist', 'linguistic' and 'linguistics' are sprinkled in pretty heavily.*

All seem to agree that forms like woman speaker are popping up more often. He even quotes Robin Lakoff on the notion of markedness, with the illustration of the increasing rarity of female professor as the demographics of the academy have changed.

Kudos, anonymous reader; even if he backslides in the future, I think you've nailed a trend here! On a cold sunny morning, I'm looking forward to the trees turning green and seeing Safire talk to Elly van Gelderen and Jan Terje Faarlund for insights into historical Germanic syntax, Eric Baković and Adam Ussishkin on OT phonology and morphology, Dennis Preston and Kirk Hazen for the latest on American dialects. Yeah, right.

*Obligatory note on errors:
  • When gender was on the rise in phrases like 'gender gap', "I stood up for the plain old Anglo-Saxon word sex." Even many not familiar with the history of English will suspect that this is wrong. It's from Latin sexus, and appears first in the Middle English period, upwards of a millennium after the Angles and Saxons arrived (for those of us who still tend to accept that story over a newer one). Gender came into English at about the same time, it looks like.
  • Robin Lakoff's The Language War was surely a notable scholarly contribution, but her true classic was Language and Woman's Place.
  • He really blows the punch line at the end: "feminists everywhere have begun to turn on the word female. What's next? Womanism." Perhaps those committed to femalism will make that switch. (Google it — it's a small world, it looks like.) Feminism is pretty distant from female.
I guess quoting linguists doesn't instantly improve the overall quality!


The Ridger, FCD said...

You know - when I was growing up you never applied the word "female" to people. I've grown used to 'female professor', but the use of female as a noun - as in "we have three females in my office now" - still startles the heck out of me. That was ALWAYS for animals when I was young (far too many years ago now). Feminism had nothing to do with it - my grandmother, born in the 19th century, would have never called a woman a female, even if she despised her.

Mr. Verb said...

You make a good point (as always, it seems). That use of 'female' is foreign to me too, and I wonder if there's an old regional difference or some class pattern to usage before about the 1970s.

And it underscores a point about Safire's rhetorical strategy: In his frequent way of skating over close to the edge, he managed to wedge in a reference to his 'bitch', who would object to being called a 'woman dog'. For the record, he makes very clear that it's a female dog, not David Brooks.