School Blog

Madame le chairperson

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, insists upon being referred to as Madame la maire, instead of the grammatically correct Madame le maire. The debate rages between the modernisers who want to abolish gender identification in the way that job titles are written, and the purists, who favour the elegance of the language over political correctness.

In English we have neither of these problems. We have never seen the need to separate our nouns into masculine and feminine, and we have no equivalent of the Academie Française , the quasi-fascist institution that makes it illegal to use words like le computer, (you must now say ordinateur) le disk jockey (animateur) and le brainstorming (remue - meninges).

The Oxford English Dictionary is seen as the highest authority on the English language, but it reflects rather than directs the language. And no one actually speaks the Queen’s English.

The Germans, it seems, also have a lot less controversy in this respect. The addition of the feminine -in ending to nouns is not considered ungainly or overly fussy, and is widely used, without debate, in order to show gender inclusion. 

Interestingly, in the English-speaking world, the same sentiments have produced the opposite result: Those who feel strongly about the inclusiveness of language assert that the feminine forms of words, where they ever existed, should be abolished. Nicole Kidman refers to herself as an actor, not an actress as she might have twenty years ago. Air hostess? Policewoman? Headmistress? Even now, these sound terribly out of date, having been replaced by the gender-neutral cabin crew, police officer, headteacher.

All very well, all very easy, but what about “chairman”? If the chairman of the company retires and a replacement must be found, is it acceptable to advertise for a new chairman ?

Some say “Of course!”

Others say “Oh please!”

What are our alternatives?

“Chairman/woman”? Clumsy.

“Chair”? That’s something you sit on.

“Chairperson”? This seems to be the most popular solution to the problem, but there are plenty of people who scoff at such an inelegant word.

No doubt the debate will continue. How is it in your language? As students of language, as well as languages, it is interesting to observe from a distance and offer an opinion when asked.

What do you think?

1. If you (as a woman) worked for the police in England, would you rather be referred to as a policewoman or a police officer?

2. If you (as a woman) were in charge of a school would you call yourself the headmistress, head teacher, or just the head?

3. Or if you (as a woman) were the mayor of Paris, would you insist on being called Madame la maire ?

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