29 Jul 2008
Sometimes I have this dream where there are no signs whatsoever. The entire landscape is completely free of any kind of sign. The dream soon develops into a nightmare because without signs I do not know where I am or where I am going or what I should do or what I should not do. Although a world without signs seems to be the perfect world and yet how can we live without signs?
I admit I need a sign or two to help me navigate this very complex world of ours.
Of course, there is the fact that we live in a world where signs are completely out of control. I could stand for fewer signs. As long as I number among those who are married, I will never be at a loss for somebody telling me where I should be going and what I should be doing.
Signs do carry useful information at times. "No Left Turn," is obvious in its meaning. "No Trespassing," is easy to understand. And I could go on and on with this point.
I never thought too much about the wording of signs until some women complained about a sign that said "Men at Work." Whenever I have seen a sign like that, I have always had my doubts. A similar sign that says, "Men Working," has always bordered along the line of oxymoron. But, I never caught the sexist angle on these signs.
These women objected to the sexist angle of the signs and went on the warpath to correct what they thought was a grievous wrong. They insisted that the wording be changed to carry with it a nonsexist meaning.
I was not able to understand all of this so I turn to an expert, the Gracious Mistress of the Parsonage to try to get the right angle on this problem.
"I think these ladies are right," she said rather thoughtfully. "The sign should really reflect the situation at hand. Many women have entered the workplace and the signs should reflex that fact."
I concurred with her but I did not know how to correct some of these signs and make them more gender-neutral.
"Well," she said, "they could change the signs from ‘Men Working’ to ‘Persons Working.’ That would be more gender-neutral."
There are not many times I differ with my wife and even when I do differ with her, I try to keep it a secret. However, I saw a basic flaw in her argument here.
"The phrase ‘Persons Working’ is not gender-neutral."
She gave me one of those looks that I know so well and demanded from me an explanation. Therefore, I explained to her that the word "Person," is not gender-neutral. It ends with the word "son," and son, as everyone knows is masculine. Therefore, the word “person” does not qualify as gender-neutral.
"All right," she said thoughtfully, "let's change the sign to ‘Humans at Work.’ Certainly the word ‘human’ qualifies as gender-neutral."
At first, I thought she had me on that one. Then a crazy smile slapped my face.
I then informed her that the word "Human," ends with the word "man," and everybody knows that that is not a gender-neutral word. I then did something I now regret; I smiled one of my famous sarcastic smiles.
She thought for a moment and then she smiled.
"All right smarty-pants, how about this as a gender-neutral phrase. ‘Individuals at Work.’ There is just no way you can twist that word into a male gender phrase."
She was quite sure she had me on that one, and for a while, I thought she had backed me into a corner I would not be able to escape. I must say I gave it a good thought and then the light bulb over my head turned on.
The word, “individual,” is not gender-neutral, I explained. She scowled at me in a very defiant manner as though I did not know what I was talking about. She was quite sure that she was right and I was wrong.
I then explained to her that the word "individual," ends with "Al," and everybody knows Al is short for Albert, which is a man's name.
By this time, she threw up her hands and said, "I give up. You tell me what you think would be a good gender-neutral phrase to use."
Well, I have given this quite a bit of thought and I have come up with the perfect gender-neutral phrase. "Somebody Working."
This is the perfect gender-neutral phrase to be use. Not only that, but it is a more accurate phrase. Wherever you see a group of men or women, you can be pretty sure that somebody is working.
Signs can be important or they can be rather confusing. Jesus understood this when he was talking to the Pharisees of his day and accuse them of not being able to understand the signs of the times.
"He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?" (Matthew 16:2-3 KJV).
The sign is only effective when it reflects the truth. Make sure you are looking at the right sign.
Rev. James L. Snyder