Fresh spin on an old system
The Honors College is getting fresh with first-year students – at least when it comes to calling them something, that is.
Since Stuart Silverman took charge of the College – formerly known as the Honors Program – in 1987, the terms freshperson and freshpeople have been used instead of freshman to refer to first-year college students.
Though many colleges and universities across the nation still use the word freshman, the switch to freshperson at USF’s Honors College underscores a greater debate affecting virtually every user of the English language: does the man in words like freshman and chairman bring women down?
Silverman seems to think it does, so he advocates using un-manly language. According to Silverman, treating man as a general term for person excludes women because the word literally leaves women out.
“There is a difference between saying he and he or she,” he said. “I think that using the he, the sort of generic he might not be bad – whatever that means – but using the he or she makes you stop and think.”
Freshperson, then, became a natural extension of these views.
After moving to Florida in the 1970s, Silverman’s wife – a longtime feminist – gave birth to a daughter, cluing him in to the sexism in English, he said.
“I’ve always sort of been sensitive to females and the problems they have,” he said.
Silverman remembers wanting to send out a note to the first freshman class under his tutelage, but that something – the word freshman – was a bit off.
“It didn’t sound right,” he said of the note, pointing out that in 1987, 50 percent of freshmen in the College were women. Now, when Silverman writes, gender-neutral language is the norm.
“It’s almost never that I’ll use the all-inclusive his or him.”
Douglas Hofstadter, a distinguished professor at Indiana University who works intimately with language and cognitive science, agrees with Silverman’s assessment.
Man and he are not gender-neutral terms, but rather foster exclusion and the idea that women are accessories to men, he said.
“My feeling is that these kinds of supposedly generic words reinforce a bias that’s in our culture – that men are the sort of standard human beings and that women are a sort of variation.”
Hofstadter thinks that a truly gender-neutral term would have “no connotation whatsoever of either sex.”
Richard Manning, who teaches philosophy of language at USF, said he didn’t see the practical side of using gender-specific terms, considering the alleged sexism inherent in terms like man.
“Person is a wonderfully neutral word,” he said. “What would be the point of being a linguistic conservative in this context? I mean, are you trying to save ink?”
English professor Gary Lemon, who teaches in the women’s studies department, said the general use of man and he conveys exclusion and reflects society’s view of women in general.
“When you live in a male-supremacist society, it, well, places men at the center linguistically.”
Even when discussing homosexuality, Lemon said, latent sexism peeks through in the sense that people say gay and lesbian rather than lesbian and gay.
The popular call to overhaul English, however, has not been reflected in an expansion of the language to include the terms freshperson and freshpeople, according to officials at Springfield, Mass.-based Merriam-Webster.
The company updates the dictionary yearly to account for new words and changes in use.
According to Thomas Pitoniak, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, a word’s candidacy for entry into the dictionary is strongly influenced by how frequently it’s recorded in the company’s database.
Currently, freshpeople only appears once in the database, freshperson a mere seven times, though Pitoniak said he “has heard that issue coming up with (freshman).”
So far, it doesn’t look like freshpeople or freshperson are going to make the cut.
“You’d need much more evidence than just a handful of examples to indicate a word is common enough to go into the dictionary,” he said.
Pitoniak also said that there’s no “hard and fast number” a word has to be in the database, but that an unused word is unlikely to garner Merriam-Webster’s attention.
“If there’s not even an indication it’s being used, then there’s not a very compelling argument,” he said.
It remains unclear whether students are enthusiastic enough about freshpeople to pick up the term in their day-to-day speech. This makes freshperson’s move onto Merriam-Webster’s radar even more unlikely.
Veronica Galloway, a senior majoring in biology, said she doesn’t think freshman excludes women.
“It doesn’t emphasize the word man in there, it emphasizes the whole word,
Third-year computer science major and member of the Honors College Robert Long was cool to freshpeople too.
“It’s kind of pointless,” he said.
“Everyone knows that freshman doesn’t necessarily
mean male. freshman is