Monday, September 21, 2009

Joe Bennett and a preposterous neologism

Catching up on the papers after a couple of hectic weeks, I finally got around to reading Joe Bennett’s latest column.

I love Joe’s writing and regard him as a columnist of world class. He’s funny, eloquent and perceptive even on his off-days, which are rare.

Of course it helps that I almost invariably agree with him, particularly on matters related to the use of language – which made this particular column a little different from the norm.

After wittily skewering the pretentiousness that frequently characterises restaurant reviews in newspapers and magazines (and of which I’ve probably been guilty myself), Joe confronts the terms “waiter” and “waitress”.

He notes that the “ess” suffix has fallen out of favour, supposedly because it’s demeaning. Disappointingly, he seems to capitulate on this issue when I would have expected him to put up a fight.

Although acknowledging that he has never met a waitress who said she found the word demeaning, he nonetheless turns his attention to the quest for an acceptable, gender-neutral alternative and comes up with “waiters”.

This term, Joe writes, describes their job precisely and is by definition sexually non-specific. But alas, “it has been deemed unsatisfactory by the people who resolve such matters. It seems that usage has smeared the word permanently with testosterone.”

He then pounces with glee on the preposterous neologism coined to get around this non-problem – namely, “waitron”.

I’ve seen this term used occasionally and assumed the usage was tongue-in-cheek; a satirical poke at the political correctness that now contaminates the English language. How could it be otherwise?

But no; it appears the word is making a serious bid for acceptance. It’s not in my 2005 edition of the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary (though the hideous “waitperson”, a word that almost justifies the reintroduction of capital punishment, is). However we have seen silly, gender-neutral words infiltrate the language before, and a googling of "waitron" indicates it might be gaining ground.

I’m with Joe when he laughs this ridiculous word off the page. He says there are only four words he can think of that end with -ron: cyclotron, electron, neutron and moron. “One is a machine for boffins, two are sub-atomic particles, and one describes the character who invented the word waitron,” he writes. Classic Bennett.

Joe then, almost as an afterthought, puts up a rather half-hearted defence of “waitress”. But it was disappointing that he earlier appeared to accept “waiter” as a legitimate alternative.

While sharing his contempt for anyone using “waitron”, I would argue that waitress is a perfectly respectable word – along with actress – and that we should vigorously resist the attempts of the language Nazis to expunge it from the vocabulary.

I agree with Joe that there’s nothing degrading about being described as a waitress – or an actress, for that matter. The words waitress and actress simply acknowledge the reality that these people are intrinsically different from their male counterparts.

Does anyone think less of Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep or Julia Roberts for being called actresses? Any discriminatory connotation exists only in the minds of crazed ideologues.

But there’s more to it than that. The English language is a wondrous tool that enables us to narrow down meanings and nuances very precisely.

One of the purposes of words is to create mental pictures and impressions. A writer or journalist using the gender-neutral terms waiter or actor leaves the reader in doubt as to whether the person in question is a he or a she.

This can be a crucial distinction. If I were to write that I had chatted up a cute waiter in a Courtenay Place bar it would create a very different impression than if I had used the “ess” suffix.

Either scenario is highly unlikely – but it illustrates why people who use words for a living should fight like fury to prevent the English language from being de-sexed.

Footnote: Elsewhere in his column Joe noted, “A perfect dinner is one where you don’t notice what you eat.” Spoken like a true Englishman, Joe.

2 comments:

Vaughan said...

I like aviatrix, too.

Hand said...

Nah, waitron is squarely up there with marketroid. In both cases, it's a perjorative. Hail colloquia!