or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, April 14, 2006


If you poke around you can find lists and entire books of words in other languages that express concepts which have no real counterpart in English: one of the more famous, because of a really terrific movie, is Koyaanisqatsi.

When there isn't a word for something we want to express, we either make it up or snatch it from someone else, which I think is a lovely way to run a language, though it does make consistent spelling an impossibility. But there's a real deficit in our language that we can't seem to address in any reasonable or systematic way (probably because we don't have a governing body, thank goodness), and that's in the area of social and sexual relations.

We still don't have a universally accepted word for "spouse to whom I am not, in fact, married"--or even "spouse of the same sex to whom I am, in fact, married". "Husband" and "wife" don't work, for a number of reasons: "partner" still has business overtones, while "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" are just insulting.

We also don't have a nonspecific, genderless pronoun for a person, and in a language with no grammatical gender, that seems like a real gap."He or she" is clumsy, and I would gladly argue, contrary to the spirit of English. "They" is making serious inroads, and I applaud it, but not without some mild queasiness (it's plural!).

And then we have unfortunate usages such as this one, from Salon's gossip column The Fix:

The trend of celebrities adopting babies from third-world countries -- if it's actually a trend -- continues now with Ewan McGregor: He and his wife, Eve Mavrakis, have apparently adopted a baby girl from Mongolia. A spokesperson told People: "I can confirm Ewan McGregor and his wife Eve Mavrakis have adopted the girl but cannot comment further." McGregor, 35, and Mavrakis, 39, have been married since 1995 and have two biological daughters.

They have two biological daughters...and one made of minerals?

There's no question as to what's meant, but it's still a fairly horrible term. The inescapable suggestion is that the "biological" daughters are the proper family members, and that any adoptees are not quite real. It's even worse than "birth mother", which has a similar ickiness about it. I think there's a certain neck-craning voyeurism going on: the piece, after all, is from a gossip column reporting information from a gossip magazine, and people want all the details.

I think that, eventually, the language will evolve to the point at which modifiers are no longer necessary or even tasteful: "...and this is Mike's son," we can say, and if they don't look at all alike and adoption or surrogacy is involved, well, what's it to you?


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