I learned the value of choosing the right word when 16-year-old me (who by today’s standards should have known better sooner) encouraged my 18-year-old boyfriend to share a shady joke with Mother and me ... one he’d heard on Stillwater’s then Oklahoma A&M campus where he was a freshman. “Go on, Bill, tell the joke,” I insisted. “Mom and I aren’t exactly virgins.”
There followed a stunned silence on their part and puzzlement on mine before Mom picked up her sewing and fled into the bedroom and Bill (who later became my husband almost 40 years) scurried out the front door.
In my defense, it wasn’t unusual in the early ’50s for a rural Oklahoma girl of my age to equate the word “virgin” with the faultless demeanor of the Virgin Mary we Baptist teens admired when we attended mass with a classmate — the only Catholic any of us knew at the time.
To Mom’s credit, she came out of the bedroom fairly quickly wearing “that” smile she didn’t wear often. “I hope at least one of us is,” she said slyly. “I’ll put the coffee on. We need to talk.”
I pretty much followed Mom’s example several years later when a second-grade teacher called to say she’d had to punish my son for saying a naughty word. The word was “bottom,” and I was so relieved that I forced a second helping of cherry pie à la mode upon him at dinner that evening.
Slips of the tongue have left all of us with blushing cheeks, but not until now have they had the capacity to brand us Politically Incorrect. Last week the Associated Press decreed that “Islamist” is out and “fighters” and/or “militants” is in. Also that “illegal immigrant” is out and “temporary resident status” is in, though I’d be hard pressed to turn that phrase into a functioning noun.
Scripture says the tongue is as sharp as a two-edged sword, and I’m sorry the word “man” has become that sword. There was a time when “mankind” was all of us and women didn’t consider themselves slashed bloody to be included. I’m as eager as anyone to see qualified women break through the glass ceiling, but due to the growing confusion, you never know which words are apt to offend.
A Washington, D.C., survey indicated that six out of 10 of the district’s Realtors referred to the “master bedroom” as “owner’s suite” rather than risk offending a female client. Now nearing the end of a six-year Washington state project, the word “"firefighter” has replaced “fireman”; “police officer” has replaced “policeman,” and “fisher” has replaced “fisherman.” “Penmanship” is now “handwriting,” and “freshman” is “first-year student.”
I think it’s all much ado about nothing, though I would have enjoyed changing “freshman” into the more apt “freshperson” and, just for laughs, I’d have altered the word “manhole” the same way.
MARJORIE ANDERSON is an Edmond resident.