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Is sex necessary?*

An editor at another publication has asked whether The Sun objects to the words freshman and upperclassman, having been advised by a reader that the terms are both obsolete and offensive, and should be replaced by first-year student and upper-level student.

The short answer is that no, even this bastion of Eastern liberal media elite political correctitude has not prohibited freshman and freshmen, nor is it likely to until the right-thinkers show up on Calvert Street with their pitchforks and torches. Neither do we plan to ban human or hominid, despite their etymological roots in the unabashedly sexist Latin homo, or man.

We do, like other mainstream publications, take care not to make a lot of automatic gender assignments and assumptions. We use unobtrusively gender-neutral language as a matter of course.

But we are not going to render woman and women as womon, womyn or womin. Accumulating a collection of peculiar neologisms would not serve the reader well; that can be left to academic writers who have the leisure, and audience, for that sort of thing. And while there is nothing wrong with writing first-year student, using it exclusively would make the text look clumsy and wordy.

They call us the mainstream media for a reason. We take a middle course. We shun derogatory and insulting terms; we resist new words and new usages until we see them begin to establish themselves in the language; we accept inoffensive words like freshman and midwife and others that have gender identification but are largely innocuous.


* The title of this post is taken from the 1929 book by James Thurber and E.B. White. For readers under 50 who do not recognize the names, I should explain that Thurber and White are deceased American humorists.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:52 PM | | Comments (18)


hey, I just turned 40 & I have more than a passing familiarity with both Thurber & White. Give your blog (i.e., yourself) some credit for attracting an informed, educated audience. I'm sure this page is trolled predominantly by English majors and their ilk. Or am I wrong? Do you think most of your readers are Baltimore Sun junkies or copy editing/language junkies?

Way to get people's attention, John. It has been many years since I saw anyone use "womyn." I think that particular argument is over.

Having recently graduated from college, and being female, I would say that I don't find "freshman" to be offensive, though it's not the term I prefer. I also find nothing clumsy about the phrase "first-year student". But this is more a question of habit, since where I went to school, we generally referred to members of the freshman class as first-year students, or "first-years". The gendered aspect of "freshmen" becomes quite pronounced when you are referring to a group composed solely of women.

How about those presiding females who are resolute that they are "chair."

Unfortunately, they all too often resemble more closely other pieces of furniture.

How about those presiding females who are resolute that they are "chair."

Unfortunately, they all too often resemble more closely other pieces of furniture.

This, on the other hand, is offensive. And in this day and age, I would think twice about joining a company that referred to its leaders as "chairmen" under the assumption that it is reflective of deeper issues regarding women and leadership.

Abigail Carlson raises a good point about how to describe a group of female first-year students. Which makes me wonder if women's colleges have traditionally used a different term for the first-year class. When I was a student at Hopkins in the late '70s, Goucher College was still women-only, though Hopkins students of both sexes attended Russian (and other) classes there. I don't recall there being any questions raised at the time about the word "freshman."

For what it's worth, a quick look at Web sites indicates that Bryn Mawr, the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Mount Holyoke and Smith all freely use the term "freshman."

For what it's worth, a quick look at Web sites indicates that Bryn Mawr, the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Mount Holyoke and Smith all freely use the term "freshman."

Fair point, sir, fair point. And I will admit that searching "freshman" at my own alma mater also yields results. I certainly didn't mean to imply that we never use the term, just that "first-year" is much more common at that particular institution. For the other schools, I cannot say which is more prevalent.

I came over here thinking this post would be about sex... only to be disappointed to find out it's about gender.

But on the chair issue, that comment was offensive. Boberl go back to your cave and die in it.

I've seen many committees, etc. now where the male or female head is called the Chair. I have no problem with it.

Hi Dahlink.

Ok - wandered in also thinking this would be about sex (darn) but I have to say that movement to raise consciousness about women's place in out society is long overdue. All of the advancements that Women have fought for and won in the past have recently been all slipping back into a domicile Father Knows Best society. I have no problem with "Chair" or with "first year students". And, hi Dahlink and Bourbon Girl!

Over here in Albion we call them 'freshers', albeit informally.

Bourbon Girl, the discussion isn't about gender. Gender is for nouns and adjectives. You wandered in because, as Mr. McIntyre and most journalists know, sex sells.

Anyway, "frosh" works for first-year students.

Latin "homo," although masculine in grammatical gender, can refer to individuals of either sex. The word for a male human is "uir."

"Myn and Wymyn" by Uncle Bonsai
(warning: it's an mp3 file, so big)

Joyce, girl, you are so right. Many men in my profession treat women with advanced degrees like they are stupid little honeys. And often, their language is the first thing that gives away what they really think.

This takes me back to when the argument against calling Negroes "African-Americans" was how silly, awkward and cumbersome it was.

Thanks for the historical perspective, Elizabeth. Shines a bright light on the current debate.

Late comment here, but.

The gendered word that annoys me most is "coed," when used as a noun to refer to a female student.

The days when education was assumed to be male-only are long gone, but this word apparently just won't die.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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