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The M Word

APRIL 24, 2013
Last Monday, Washington state's governor signed legislation that will rewrite the state's laws, replacing "sexist" words such as fisherman, freshman and penmanship with "gender-neutral" words. You can read all about it at Reuters News Service. I predicted something like this in 1998 in an article that I subsequently posted on theispot. Here it is again, a blast from the past.
In 1976, Ellen Cooperman struck a blow for feminism when she petitioned the New York State courts to change her name to Ellen Cooperperson. The world laughed, but 20 years later, the joke's on the rest of us.
Recently I wrote an article about craftsmanship for a trade publication only to discover that during editing, someone had changed the word to craftspersonship. No doubt some activist proofreader thought this was a politically righteous move, but I'm too much a craftsperson not to feel that my text had been personhandled. So I changed it back.
I've never thought of myself as sexist. I've learned to live with salespersons, spokespersons, congresspersons, and businesspersons.
I never did like the generic man, as in Family of Man; it sounds pompous. And mankind sounds bland. But personkind sounds prissy and Family of Persons sounds like a house full of Swedes.
If our society were to embark on a path of verbal cleansing, certain compound words would still be recognizeable, even without the offensive M word. Take personmade, personhunt, persontrap, and persondate. They may all sound like German –  make that Gerperson – constructions, but they wouldn't baffle the ordinary reader as more complex words would. 
Try to imagine your first encounter with personuscript, personufacture, personicure, and my favorite: personipulative.
Would fashion models become personikins? It sounds like baby talk for "little people."
We'd have to rewrite history: "General Grant out-personeuvered General Lee." 
"Yes, but that was after President Lincoln issued The Epersoncipation Proclamation."
Freed slaves were granted their Personumission papers.
And James Knox Polk pursued a policy of Personifest Destiny.
Conspiracy nuts would debate whether Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone marksperson.
And Karl Marx could be said to have written The Communist Personifesto (which sounds about right).
Verbal cleansors would no doubt ignore etymology and ferret the M word out of proper names.
But when they do, Persondrake the Magician wouldn't sound magical and Ethel Merperson would sound like a singer who was half fish.
Remember the famous baseball player Mickey Persontle?
Or the author of Citizen Kane, Herperson Personkiewicz?
What about the Gerperson novelist, Herperson Hesse?
If my name were Robert Zimmerperson, I too would change it to Bob Dylan. Mister Tambourine Person, anyone? 
The Cherokee Indian chief Wilma Mankiller sounds like a formidable individual. But change it to Wilma Personkiller and she'd sound like a mass murderer.
A person-eating shark would sound like a wimp.
And a Portuguese Person O'War would make you wonder if a politically correct jellyfish isn't redundant.
Freshperson sounds sophomoric.
And would you want a middleperson to broker your multi-million dollar business deal?
We'd have to re-learn our geography. Can you say: 
Personsfield, Ohio; 
Personitoba, Canada; 
Personchester, New Hampshire.  
Or my hometown: Personhattan.
Mailman may be sexist. But mailwoman is less perversely attractive than mailfemale, and a mailperson only makes me glad we don't have any milkpersons left to skulk around in the morning leaving bottles of cream outside the door.
The Iceperson Cometh and Death of a Salesperson might open up juicy new roles for wymmin actors. 
But I'm sure the Person of La Mancha – or rather Person of La Personcha – would always want to “Dream The Possible Dream.

Drawing and text © 1998 Brad Holland