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The Bias-Free Word Finder: A Dictionary of Nondiscriminatory Language.

Okay, so I've committed a few false generics in my time. I'll even admit to linguistic perjoration. And, yes, I've dabbled in sexual asymmetry, though I never developed a taste for exonyming. Still, I always thought I could get along quite well without a dictionary of nondiscriminatory language. But Rosalie Maggio, author of The Bias-Free Word Finder, has shown me the prejudice of my ways (not to mention expanded my use of academic jargon). Having now carefully examined some 5,000 words, phrases, or expressions that reportedly oppress, exclude, or offend, as well as 15,000 alternatives, I've never felt more semantically challenged. Apparently I've been committing a whole host of socially unattractive sins, including adultism and--this one really hurts--orgasm-as-norm thinking.

Maggio considers words like nubile, petite, brazen, curmudgeon, and bruiser as "sexist." Bombshell has to go because it's also "militaristic and violent," as do Renaissance man, dirty old man ("conveys very little real information"), Big Brother, Caesar's wife, and deus ex machina (deus is in the masculine gender). Instead of milquetoast, Maggio suggests "someone with cold feet." She would replace raise Cain with "lecture," "make mischief," or simply "carry on." Chuck Achilles' heel for "where the shoe pinches." "Made of money" is deemed a perfect substitute for rich as Croesus. Hunk for men is verboten; use "centerfold" instead.

Can you imagine having dinner with this woman?

Like many p.c. reformers, Maggio has erred on the side of self-parody. Certainly it's hard to argue with her basic contention that language influences culture as much as culture influences language. And some of what she proposes is perfectly reasonable: parallel treatment for the sexes (husband and wife, for example, not man and wife); people first (a person with a disability, not a disabled person); and an "insider/outsider" rule (derogatory words should be used only by groups to describe themselves).

But the problem is that Maggio goes well beyond banishing words that offend or exclude people. She believes we must rid the language of all words and phrases that are gender- or race-specific, no matter how inoffensive and regardless of the spirit in which they are uttered. Maggio would like to castrate (sorry: "draw the teeth of," "spike the guns of") the language, to make it into a prosaic eunuch "pushover," "doormat"). She sees this as not only making the world a better place, but as making writers better at their craft. "By replacing fuzzy, overgeneralized, cliche-ridden words with explicit, active words and by giving concrete examples and anecdotes instead of one-word-fits-all descriptions you can express yourself more dynamically, convincingly, and memorably."

But many of Maggio's linguistic tinkerings seem random. For instance, we are allowed to retain sexist names for nonhumans, such as alewife, timothy grass, daddy longlegs, sweet william, and myrtle. The alternatives for a word like ditz don't seem all that friendly: "missing some marbles," "mind like a sieve," "not all there." Beach bunny and bosom buddy are not heavily discouraged. For all of you who've taken to replacing -man with -person, be advised that this "weak, awkward, and annoying suffix ... is not generally recommended."

And then there's the condescending tone that turns up throughout the book: "Readers may choose words at their own levels of understanding and commitment"; writers using biased words like right-hand man "leave their readers as uninspired as they are." Under "Amazon/amazon": "Use the term only if you understand its history and multiple connotations." And my favorite: "If you must think in halves. . . ."

Although the book is intended as a dictionary, you have to read it through first to get your money's worth. Otherwise, you're bound to miss the numerous mini-essays that appear throughout, offering insights on such issues as body image, aggression, and homophobia. You also miss lots of factoids of questionable significance. For instance: 36 percent of embezzlers and less than 1 percent of U.S. auto mechanics are women.

Defending herself against presumably numerous critics who have mocked her zealotry, Maggio writes: "But then ridicule, it is said, is the first and last argument of fools." Well, call me a fool, I guess, because I found this word finder a lot more silly than useful. You don't need a lexicologist to tell you that the attitude behind the usage of many words is more important than the words themselves. But a dictionary of this type makes no such distinctions, in the same way that books decrying women's use of make-up or plastic surgery condemn the product or service rather than the questionable motivating factors. Continuing to expand a list of un-p.c. no-nos will do little to create a more egalitarian society or raise anyone's self-esteem--though it's a perfect way to avoid focusing on underlying causes and serious solutions.
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Author:Lehrman, Karen
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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