Talky Tuesday: Navigating Language in a leaky boat, part 2

How certain terms that leaked out of academia have been misinterpreted by laypeople, making a giant mess of it.

Last week was the first installment of this article on words that have slipped out of academia when they shouldn’t have, with the end result being that people think they know what they mean, but they don’t. Last time, I looked at triggered, safe space, gender neutral, and latinx. Here are the rest.

Non-binary

Academically (and medically) this refers to someone who does not identify as either gender and, often, either sex as well. This is regardless of what bits they may have been born with — one, the other, or both. And their brains themselves may not click firmly into the male or female category.

As noted above, “non-binary” just means not limited to only two options.

And that’s totally normal and okay. If bisexual (which, yes, is absolutely a real thing) is the orientation version, then non-binary is the gender version. Sometimes, a non-binary person may feel like a boy. Sometimes like a girl. Sometimes like both at once, and sometimes neither.

And that’s pretty much it. It’s just one more option on the vast and varied menu of sex, gender, and sexual orientation,

Once upon a time, there were only two items on the menu — beef or fish — but they were served up by the biological sex of the patrons at the waiter’s discretion. Beef is for girls and fish is for boys.

Luckily, that menu has turned into a smorgasbord or an all-you-can-eat buffet, with a continuum of foodstuffs available to everyone — Beef, fish, chicken, tofu, pork, sashimi, salad… knock yourselves out. It’s all good, and none of it is tied down to rather useless definitions like biological sex.

Because there are more than two of those, after all. Surprise!

Pronouns

Although this is probably one of the more innocuous bits to slip out of academia to the point that someone listing their pronouns after their name in a Zoom chat window, the list of possible pronouns has gotten a bit out of hand, and this is what non-academic critics have latched onto.

Don’t get me started on all of the transphobia I’ve seen in the wild — even in the LGB community — especially the G part of it. I don’t know why it is, but I find the really queeny gay men of a certain age to be the most transphobic — which is very ironic, because this is the same group that seems to be the most into campy drag.

I think that, deep down, they have the same issues that insecure straight boys do when it comes to transgender people — that they’re going to meet them, fall for them, go home and find the wrong genitalia in the panties.

But that’s not how it works. The Crying Game was a fantasy, and no transgender person is ever going to take home a stranger without first thoroughly explaining to them what’s up — in a public place with a lot of people around.

This is doubly true if that transgender person hasn’t yet had bottom surgery, so that their genitalia and gender don’t currently match, because they know that one of the best ways to get killed is to spring surprise bits on a man in the heat of passion, whether that man is gay or straight.

Getting back to pronouns, though, to be honest, I’ve run across very few people who insist on the exotics, like zie/zim/zir, and mostly see the usual he, she, or they — but all of those odd spellings (some sources claim there are 78 neopronouns) came right out of academia, where they should have stayed.

Why? Because there’s really no logical connection between the words outside of the he/she/they and the genders or non-binary status they represent. But I have yet to run across anything explaining that certain pronouns are for transgender women and others are for transgender men, and another set are for non-binary people.

All of the transgender people I know use either the pronoun of their true gender or “they.”

Critical race theory

Whoever chose these words to describe this thing made one of the biggest fuck-ups in academic history, because what it really represents is a very good thing. But putting those three words together turned it into a lightning rod for criticism from conservatives and misunderstanding from moderates.

Progressives know what it really means, but their opinion on it never gets a lot of media attention.

The way that the right seems to read “critical race theory” is this: “Teach kids that everything white people have ever done is wrong,” but there could be nothing farther from the truth. Still, I can see how the combination of words could make people who don’t understand academia nervous.

One excellent description I’ve seen of what “critical race theory” is: “Teaching history as it really happened.”

This means teaching both the good and bad of what Europeans in general and white people specifically did — the Renaissance and Enlightenment generally managed to advance science, health, and education, and despite all of its flaws and faults as it was established and grew, America did turn into a place for immigrants to begin new lives to the point that we are probably one of the most culturally and racially mixed countries in the world — or at least we’re running neck-and-neck with Brazil.

But, while it’s okay to mention these things, here’s the other big important part of teaching history as it really happened. We have to include all of the people who were not white, Christian, land-owning males over the age of 21 — because that latter group is pretty much the one that is centered in most of those “Western History after 1500” courses that college freshmen have to take.

And… there’s another term that needs to have a gender-neutral version. How about just “frosh?” Or “paroled high schoolers who still don’t know quite how to act around adults.”

All along the way, as Europe moved into the Americas and all those new countries formed and developed, there were indigenous peoples, women, non-Christians, and yes, even LGBTQ+ people involved in that process.

We make the teaching of history stronger when we include everyone who took part in it, but more importantly — we engage the kids we’re teaching it to.

For example, what positive impact would it have on a girl in middle school to learn how many women were actually very influential soldiers and spies during the American Revolution, one of them being snipped out of history only because some man years later wrote a poem about Paul Revere instead of her — while Revere mostly got drunk in a pub and didn’t really do what he was alleged to have done, while Sybil Ludington did.

Or what about Alexander Hamilton? Casting him as a POC in the hit musical Hamilton! was not just a stunt so that Lin Manuel Miranda could play the part. Nope. Hamilton really was mixed-race, and all of his portraits through the years have probably been heavily whitewashed. Imagine a young Black boy learning that in middle school. Hell, he might even grow up to be president.

There are also indications that Hamilton may or may not have been gay, but this is entirely based on correspondence between him and John Laurens at the time, when men were much more likely to use flowery language and declare love for each other without it ever going past the platonic.

On the other hand, Baron Friedrich von Steuben probably was as gay as Christmas on Fire Island, and teaching that story likewise would inspire some young and closeted student to accept themselves.

And so on. So, rather than being a case of “teach kids that everything white people have ever done is wrong,” it’s more like “teach kids that white people did a lot of it but didn’t and couldn’t have done it alone.”

Then teach about the people who helped.

Yes, America became a world powerhouse and media titan mostly under the leadership of rich white men — but those men built their fortunes on subjugating everyone else — initially slaves, without whom the South would never have had an economy — and then immigrants, who were underpaid and exploited.

As for that “media titan” part, well, a huge part of our music was ultimately stolen from Black and Irish Americans, with jazz, rock, rap, and hip-hop being stolen from the former, and bluegrass and country being co-opted from the latter.

Ironically, punk and pop were probably the only two styles that did come from white people — the former from kids who couldn’t be arsed to really learn to play their instruments and sing and the latter from kids who really liked showtunes and the easy-listening, “safe” non-rock their parents listened to in the 1950’s.

So there are just a few of the terms that have leaked out of academia without their original context, only to be terribly misinterpreted by the media and regular people. Unfortunately, academics are constantly creating these terms and concepts, but they really need to stop — or at least stop up the leaks that let them ever escape from academic-only conferences and seminars, where they know what they’re talking about.

And, FFS, they need to translate the terms back into clear and simple English before they unleash them on rank-and-file professors, TAs, adjuncts, and students. .

Talky Tuesday: Navigating Language in a leaky boat, part 1

How certain terms that leaked out of academia have been misinterpreted by laypeople, making a giant mess of it.

There’s kind of an interesting problem going on in language nowadays, particularly in English speaking countries. But before I get into it specifically, I want you to try to think of any highly-jargoned language that has also managed to sneak out into common usage.

Probably the only common ones are those that people interact with regularly. For example, if you’ve ever gotten a loan or started a bank account, then you probably know APR. And if you got that loan to buy a car, then you probably paid very close attention to the EPA estimates for MPG on the make and model you chose.

If you’ve ever seriously tried to lose weight or bulk up at the gym, then you know BMI and what it stands for, as well as terms like keto, intermittent fasting, and leg day. And if you follow the news, then you probably know the meaning of terms like WaPo, the Squad, lame duck, recall, primary, and so on.

But, again, these are jargon terms that leak out because they affect a lot of people not in a particular profession, or at least become common in consumer-facing areas.

Let’s try some expressions from more specialized fields. Do ROI, CPM, ROS, total spend, sunk cost, Q score, persona, platforming, and soft launch mean anything to you?

What about POS display, header, end-cap, margin, up-sell, logistics chain, loss leader, and loss prevention team?

Table read, standards and practices, above the line, net points (aka “nyet points”), forced call, closed set, clearances, yellow draft, location, UPM, double up pay, show-runner.

Or these: Part A, Part B, supplemental plan, effective date, qualifying event, open enrollment, Part D penalty.

Unless you’ve worked in marketing, retail, TV production, or Medicare insurance, you probably won’t recognize many or any of these.

Okay, one more quiz. How many of these terms do you know the meaning of?

Triggered, gender neutral, non-binary, pronouns, safe space, critical race theory.

If you said you know the meaning of each of them but you haven’t been working in academia for at least a decade, then congratulations. Your understanding of each of these words is probably completely wrong.

That’s because none of them were created for muggles but, rather, were meant as terms to be kept within the field in order to teach the teachers how to be more aware and sensitive toward their students. Each one is very specifically defined and far too complicated and nuanced for the general public.

And yet… they leaked out, most likely via sloppy use of them in university settings, to be later parroted back to parents or blabbed to the media by students disgruntled over that “C” they got because they only showed up for four classes during the entire term.

Side note: So… if one can be disgruntled, can one ever be gruntled? I have the same question about the opposite of nonplused, actually.

But back to the subject… these academic terms leaked out into the wild, were plastered all over the media and completely misinterpreted. Let’s look at how they have been.

Triggered

Nowadays, people on both sides of the political spectrum misuse this word, whether it’s coming from the left to call out a Karen who has a meltdown at the slightest pushback on her white privilege or coming from the right when someone on the left has anything bad to say about any prominent Republican. Well, okay, one of them in particular.

However, this was not the intended use of the word. It very specifically refers to victims of PTSD, and the kind of language, event, or stimulus that will trigger a flashback to that traumatic episode.

For example, a veteran who was traumatized when they saw their best friends and squad members blown apart by an IED that they survived might be triggered to relive that event by loud noises, like a car backfiring, thunder, or fireworks, the smell of burnt gunpowder, or the sight of blood or the butcher counter in a grocery store.

A child who was sexually molested by a trusted family member might be triggered by smelling someone wearing the same cologne, or a certain sequence of words, or by being touched (even innocently) in a certain place, like someone taking their elbow to guide them.

A woman who was raped by some random stranger might be triggered by suddenly realizing that a man is walking behind her in the same direction on the sidewalk, or by any of a number of sounds and smells, or by other random jackasses on the street telling her to smile or commenting on how pretty she is.

And so on.

The point is that trauma imprints people — severely — and this damage hadn’t really been addressed until recently.

PTSD.

Post-traumatic shock syndrome. That’s the modern term, which also came out of academia, and while most people seem to associate it with veterans, it’s not limited to them. Survivors of rapes, sexual assault, assault in general, natural disasters, and so on, can all suffer from it.

Over its history, PTSD was called other things: shell shock, soldier’s heart, combat fatigue or war neurosis. Yeah, kind of obvious that none of those really apply to people who were traumatized outside of war zones.

Eventually, the definition was expanded by the American Psychiatric Association in the 1980s, at which point all the other sufferers were recognized, and the idea of a triggering event was defined.

But… a trigger does not refer to something trivial like a Karen melting down over her favorite Starbucks not having Pumpkin Spice everything ready to go at opening on October 1, nor does it apply to Young Debbie Democrat freaking out over the latest trolling tweet from the two stupidest Republican members of Congress — and you know who I mean.

Neither of those events is going to send Karen or Debbie into a panic attack that sends them fleeing the room. Neither one is going to make it difficult for them to breathe, or to trust anyone around them. In short, neither one is going to bring back a trauma that their privileged asses never experienced.

Which is why the term “triggered” should have been left in academia, where people know how to use it.

Safe space

Another term that has been misused and abused, the idea behind safe spaces originally referred to children on the spectrum, and how to teach them. In universities, it eventually expanded to on-campus rooms and professors’ offices where BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people were welcome to come and be free of abuse and bigotry — but the real function of those spaces was ideally to teach those students to go out into the world with no need for safe spaces.

Irony alert: This term is often bandied about by conservatives to imply that leftists are little weaklings, but I don’t recall the existence of safe spaces IRL among my leftist friends. Well, not officially mandated ones, anyway. We tend to create our own safe spaces, and then the Trumpeteers are too afraid to even approach, because there are so many more of us than them.

“Safe space” indicates a person or place with no value judgments of an individual, as well as respect for their needs — for example, special showings of movies for children on the spectrum with lowered volume and reduced stimulation are safe spaces.

So are straight LGBTQ+ allies who welcome people from those groups into their homes and lives without judgement, treating them just like everyone else.

Gender neutral

Academically, this is strictly aimed at removing gendered language in general, but without really drawing attention to it. It involves things like replacing terms like “waiter” and “waitress” with “server,” and so on, and writing textbooks using non-gendered pronouns, like they and them.

And yes, those pronouns have been singular since the 14th century, so fake language purists who don’t know what they’re talking about can just STFU.

However, in muggle minds, this gets conflated with gender neutral as a term for restrooms, and the less enlightened somehow twist this into “OMG — men in dresses going into the girls’ room to rape our daughters!”

I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling.

This, of course, couldn’t be farther from the truth.

But settle your jets, transphobes. Gender neutral only refers to language, not restrooms, because humans are definitely not gender neutral. That’s part of the whole reason for people defining their pronouns in the first place — because we need to.

And in not choosing between either, “non-binary” is still a gender choice, so calling a non-binary person “gender neutral” is still showing them a lot of disrespect. “Non-binary” just means “not limited to two options.” It most certainly does not mean, “No options chosen.”

Latinx

Here’s a case where academia came up with a term that actually pissed off the community it was aimed at. Why? Simply because Latin (or Romance) languages — Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian — are gendered. All of them have two linguistic genders except Romanian, which has three.

And then along comes “latinx,” which, unfortunately, comes from mostly privileged white academics, and Latinos have a problem with that. For one thing, it erases the genders in the Spanish and Portuguese languages, but really does it as a callback to colonialization.

Translation: White, western Europeans telling all the brown people in the Americas what they should call themselves.

And there are better ways to do this without angloparlantes creating an unpronounceable term into Spanish — latin-eks? Latinequis? Nah…

Latin@ is a kind of typographic possibility because it puts to “o” and “a” endings into one character but, again, how do you pronounce it? Latinao? Latinhão in Portuguese?

Hopefully never “Latinat.” And remember that “at” in Spanish is “a,” so we wind up back at the female term trying to encompass everyone, which is exactly the opposite of how grammatical genders in these languages work.

The most organic terms possible? Latine and latinos.

The former is a generally accepted gender-neutral ending for Spanish nouns. The latter is the plural and gender-neutral term that indicates there are a shitload of girls but at least one boy. Sexist as fuck? Oh, sure. But at least more respectful of the colonial overtones of all that other shit.

Although go for the gender-neutral Latista if you really have las pelotas for it. Él es un latista; ella es una latista.  

Pelotas — balls. And yes, those kinds of balls, and yet their gender is feminine. Go figure.

Not that “latinx” isn’t used by a number of Latinos in the U.S., but a lot of them are several generations removed from being immigrants, so the term doesn’t strike them the same way that it would someone who is first generation or an immigrant, or who lives in a Spanish-speaking country in the Americas.

But, again, as with pronouns — it’s up to the individual to decide what term they want to apply to themselves, and no one’s place to tell them what they can or can’t call themselves — and especially not the place of someone who does not belong to the group.

The closest my tall, white ass gets is the dash of Basque that slipped into my DNA at some point, but they’re no relation to any Latinos, and the “close” part is literally because the Basque homeland is jammed in between France and Spain.

Again, this got a bit long for one piece, so come back next week for the rest of these misunderstood words.

Talky Tuesday: Assuming gender

Since English has no grammatical genders, learning a language with them can be daunting, but fear not. Here are some quick tips on the concept.

One concept in other languages that just boggles the mind of native English speakers is the idea of grammatical gender. It has nothing to do with the actual gender or sex of the person being spoken about and, naturally, inanimate objects tender to be neuter, or have no gender.

Well, at least in English.

Most commonly, languages will either have no gender distinctions, two distinctions (masculine and feminine), or three (masculine, feminine, and neuter.)

Some languages go a little nuts with it, though. Polish technically has five genders — three variations on masculine, plus feminine and neuter. The masculine genders indicate whether something is a human being, a living creature but not human, or an inanimate object, although those last two are not really used anymore.

Bantu languages tend to go the most extreme, with Ganda having ten classes and Shona having twenty — singular and plural are considered distinct genders. Meanwhile, Ganda genders follow characteristics of objects, so pertain to things like people, long objects, animals, large objects, small objects, liquids, and so on.

So if you’re trying to learn a romance language with only two grammatical genders, consider yourself lucky.

Oh — also, do not confuse a language without grammatical genders and gender-neutral language. The latter tries to eliminate sexist terminology.

English still has some gendered nouns that are slowly being eliminated, like the pair waiter and waitress, which are being replaced by server. But note that the two nouns are otherwise not distinguished by articles or adjectives, although they may take different pronouns.

So, for example, “the happy waiter” and “the happy waitress” are both grammatically correct. So are the phrases “He is a server” and “she is a server,” with the pronoun being the only gender distinction.

English used to have a lot more gender-specific work roles and job titles, but these are going away as well. For example, any terms that used to end in -man, like Chairman of the Board, Fireman, Alderman, etc., is being replaced with terms like Chair or Chairperson, and Fire Fighter.

For some reason, probably having to do with Chicago politics, “alderman” is proving to be a holdout, despite efforts to change it.

There are also other gender terms like actor and actress that are changing so that “actor” is now used as the gender-neutral term for either, and a number of gendered terms fell out of use years ago, like baker and baxter, aviator and aviatrix, and seamster and seamstress — although the last one is a little odd, because seamstress stayed, while the former was replaced by tailor.

You also now know where the surname Baxter came from — the same place that Baker did. And yes, there’s a reason that occupational last names are so common in all languages. That’s because a town might have only one baker or miller or blacksmith, so someone would become known as John Baker or Tom Miller or Joe Smith.

This is really amusing when you realize that Giuseppe Ferrari and Joe Smith are exactly the same name.

But back to the gender thing and why it can be so daunting to native English speakers. In some languages, like Spanish, it’s well marked, so that masculine and feminine nouns will generally end in -o for the former and -a for the latter… but not always, and more on that in a moment.

In others, like German, there are broad rule for what words are masculine and feminine, but a lot of the time it’s a total crapshoot, and you can’t get any clues from the spelling. Neuter complicates it further and, on top of that, things don’t always line up, especially when it comes to animate objects and people.

In German, horses and girls are both neuter, for example.

But getting back to Spanish, genders are generally a lot clearer because of the o/a endings, and nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles all match:

La mesera alta.

El mesero alto.

These refer, in order, to the tall waitress and the tall waiter, although use camarera and camarero outside of Latin America.

This all makes sense for student learners until the day that the teacher writes, “El agua está fria” on the board, and people freak out.

They will either focus on the “el” and ask why agua is masculine, or they will insist that agua is feminine and ask why the article is wrong.

Welcome to your first grammatical exception — although this one isn’t quite what it seems. If you were talking about “the waters,” “las aguas” would be perfectly fine because the word is feminine. So what’s going on?

This one exists strictly for ease of pronunciation, and it’s the same thing that we do in English when we replace “a” with “an” before certain vowels, like “an elephant,” or “an opera,” but “a universe” or “a unicorn.”

The emphasis in “agua” is on the first a, so it’s very hard to say “la agua” with those two stressed a’s banging into each other. On the other hand, the “l” en el bleeds in very nicely to that stressed a, so that’s why it’s done.

This is true for any word in Spanish that starts with a stressed a, including el águila (but las Águilas), and so on.

This eventually starts to make sense, and then we get the next gender-bomb with something like “el problema.”

Again, the words ends in -a, so it should be feminine, right? Except that this word comes from Greek, where it is masculine, so the gender came over directly into Spanish, and now we have a whole class of words from Greek, generally ending in -ma or -ta and sometimes -pa, that are masculine: el problema, el programma, el planeta, el cometa, el mapa, etc.

Unfortunately, you really just have to memorize them, because a word like etapa (meaning a period of time or a stage in some process) is feminine — la tercera etapa del cohete, the rocket’s third stage.

Once you’ve had fun with those, we get to the word for the hand: la mano. And yes, mano is feminine, for the same reason those Greek words are masculine, except that in this case, “mano” came from Latin, and the form of the word that got adapted into Spanish was feminine.

“Necesitará una mano lista para enfrentar un problema duro.” You will need a ready hand in order to tackle a hard problem. Note how the articles and adjectives appear to not match their nouns at all. Get used to it.

Don’t worry. It gets worse!

Further into occupations, you might learn the word dentista — ella es una dentista. Now, you could assume that the corresponding sentence would be “él es un dentisto,” but you’d be wrong. The correct phrase is also “él es un dentista.”

This is another class of words, generally ending in -ista, that are invariant, and frequently refer to occupations or ideologies. “Socialista” is another one that does not change, regardless of the actual gender of the socialist.

The same applies to nacionalista, capitalista, comunista, marxista, machista, and so on.

Finally, there are words that take on a particular gender because of what is missing. For example, “radio” can be either masculine or feminine, but there’s a good reason for that. When you’re referring to an actual physical device designed to receive and play radio broadcasts, then it’s masculine: el radio. However, when you refer to the broadcast that’s played en el radio, then that is la radio.

The reason for this is that when referring to a medium the word radio is short for “radio difusión,” or transmission by radio, and since difusión is feminine, so is the shortened form.

You can see this in words like la foto and la moto, which are short for fotographía and motocicleta. This is also why days of the week are all masculine — the word for day, el día, is masculine — and why the hours of the day are feminine — because they pick up the gender of the word for hour, la hora.

Month is masculine, so I’ll let you figure out which gender applies to the names of the months.

So it’s not a system that is as hard as it seems, and while there are some exceptions, those exceptions actually follow their own rules. You can’t always assume the gender of a noun, but once you know what it is, remembering it will gradually become second nature.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! — because, in Spanish, luck be a lady.