Bias in the English Language

Its easy to go through life, taking so much for granted, including our language. The language we us affects the way we think, so if there are biases in our language, it will tend to bias the way we think. I don't want to continually concede to this bias.

Everybody is now aware of gender bias in English. Is it ok to use gender biased words such as "chairman" and "dinner lady"? If you favour using "chairwoman" half of the time, would you also alter "manhole"? "Woman" itself is biased, it means "wife of a man". Historically "man" didn't imply male (as in mankind and human), so I don't have a problem with words such as "chairman". However, when you combine it with bias in the other direction, such as "tea lady", high status roles are male, and low status roles female, I do have a problem.

Gender biases are obvious to us now, but there are others you may not be aware of.

Dirk Benedict.jpg

Dirk Benedict an actor
(named after eggs benedict)

Josef Ratzinger.jpg

Josef Ratzinger - a pope
(named after his dad, twice)

I started an e-mail discussion about The Pope and as I don't have much respect for him, using capitals felt wrong. My friend, a grammar whiz, pointed out that "The Pope" is a title, just as "Chief Executive Officer" is a title. But who decides when to use titles? When was the last time you used the title "Tea Lady"? I don't want to give additional status to a Pope or a CEO by using a title if people don't also use the title of "Tea Lady". Consider the following :

Head Teacher, Mr Smith, died.
A teacher, Mr Jones, died.

I think the above is typical, i.e. the title of "Teacher" would be ignored, and instead the common noun of "teacher" is used. "Teacher" and "Tea Lady" are both perfectly acceptable titles, but they tend not to be used, whereas the title "Head Teacher" does tend to be used.

I want equality, I don't want to confer additional status upon particular sets of people - a good teacher of science and a good leader of teachers should be treated equally. I have have few choices :

  • Suck it up, and ignore the bias.
  • Use titles for everybody - that would be just too weird (and difficult).
  • Continue to use titles, but break the rules of grammar, and don't use capitals for titles.
  • Don't use titles.

I can refer to popes in general without using titles, but if I want to refer to The Pope, I'm stuck. But hey, I don't write "CEO Bill Gates", I just write "Bill Gates", so I'll do the same for The Pope. Pope Benedict's name is Josef Ratzinger, not Benedict, that's handy though, because if I talked about the infamous Benedict, my generation will be swept up in nostalgia for The A-Team and Battlestar Galactica. The last option of shunning titles is looking ok.

Next up, bias in the choice of words, and their meanings. I am an atheist, a nasty word indeed. Its entomology is from the Greek a (without) and THeou (god) and is defined as "to deny the gods". I also deny ghosts, leprechauns, fairies, bogeymen and horoscopes. So why single out one particular belief to deny; there are a limitless number of supernatural creatures that humans can make up, and I deny them all. So I don't want to refer to myself as an atheist, what's the alternative? Nalin suggested "free thinker". Here's why: Atheism implies the existence of a god, and then denies it. "free thinker" opens up the infinite set of possibilities and offers people the chance to prove, or accept by faith alone, anything they choose, and to label themselves as "leprechaunists" or "ghostists" if they choose.

This bias isn't only one way, for example, scientists in the USA are labeling many christians as unscientific. They are framing their model of the world using science, and then saying that the christian belief doesn't fit (a mirror image of the word atheism).

The observant amongst you may have noticed a grammatical error, my spell checker is telling me to capitalise "christian". Now that's just plain unfair. One side of the argument (the christians) get a capital, and the other (the scientists) don't. If you find a way to refer to both sets of people equally, I'd like to hear it. It looks like I'm forced to ignore my spellchecker.