I read a very interesting article by Corine Lesnes, 1in her blog, about the attempt by American feminists to suppress the suffixe –« man ». In 12 US states, a chairman can be a woman or a man and therefore becomes a chair person. But this adjustement is creating new gramatical problems when using possessive pronouns, « her » or « his » ? For instance, when using general phrases as « a good judge takes her/his job seriously ». A booklet for sudents in Law degree cautiously advises to use gerond form « a good judge takes judging seriously ».
Some gay and lesbian organisations went further, advocating for the creation of a neutral pronoun like « ze» which could be used by both gender and « hir » to replace her and him. In Colorado, a commission for civil rights even decided that refusing to use « ze » was considered as sexual harassement.
As you can imagine with MR Strauss Kahn adventures in IMF and in hotel rooms, in France these claims are not yet on the cultural agenda. I suppose that now French men are just about to get used to the US practice of letting the door open when having a professional meeting with a woman not to be charged with sexual harassement. Baby steps…
Law of the genre
The French seem to have a fancy for ambiguity. This inclination for transgression you can perceive in the language itself. For the French « sex » and « gender » are the same word. We use the term « genre », only to qualify the article masculine or feminine.
If you know some French you probably experienced the gender of names is a tricky topic. Many rules and many more exceptions. A nightmare for foreigners but let me reassure you, I still have doubts about some words. For instance, « pétale », « tentacule », « haltère », are masculine and because I usually use them in the plural form, I’m not so sure about their gender.
Pride and prejudice
The gender of nouns is not erotic but erratic, and one of the few things not related to sex in France. Up to a point : ie among the capital sins, only one is masculine : l’orgueil (pride)… One wonders why…
In 2005, I spent some time In Fort Lauderdale with my children, exactly when « Hurricane Katrina » started devastating Louisiana. My daughter, Alice, who was 6 at the time, genuinely asked me why all huricanes were named after women’s names. I was happy she did not ask why this one wore the same first name as me. A fair question ! I was wondering what to answer to this innocent brain… Luckily her twin brother, Benjamin aged 6 too, replied immediately with a definite opinion : because men have been so bad with women and they are coming back for revenge… I was just divorced and of course I laughed but realised some time
s later that there were now catastrophes named after men too.
The weaker sex
In French language, Women belong to the « sexe faible », one notion you also find in English as the weaker sex or the fairer sex. I wonder if this has to do with justice or pubic hair colour ? Apart from this chauvinist detail, the English language is far less ambiguous than the French about sex.
The fact that « le sexe » means gender and sex at the same time certainly tells a lot about our ambiguous thoughts or simply about the acknowledgement of a reality ?
To call a spade a spade
It is quite logical after all, to consider that the existence of different genders implies a potential sexuality. You will find the same in French with the word « baiser » , a kiss which at the same time in its verbal form means « to fuck » and sounds far less romantic.
While writing this article, I suddenly become conscious of the fact that it took me a long time to write « baiser » meaning « a kiss » in a letter or a message and unless I was writing to a lover and relished the ambiguity, I use a plural to clarify my intention « baisers » not to be confused with « fuck ».
And certainly I am not the only one uneasy with these words. How come that alot of French people use a nickname to call a kiss a kiss : « bisou » « bise » or « grosses bises » which is very childish or use the English to say « kiss », or use the Italian « baci » which in my mind is not ambiguous. I tend to write « je t'embrasse », which is stronger than « bisou » or « bise », stating a close relationship with a dear friends whatever their gender.
To conclude this article, I would say that though the quest of American feminist is worth listening to –sub-language is to be taken seriously and it may not be so futile to get rid of the suffixe « man ». But in my opinion, this vocabulary revolution really lacks ambition. You never eradicate a problem just by refusing to say its name. Just kidding. Ou bien ? (Or ?)