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Seaborn: Old Lady River

Posted: September 5, 2017 - 11:49pm

"You don't question language; you accept it."

- My college language professor

Some things do change, you know. Remember when hurricanes all had feminine names, unlike Harvey, the first major storm of the current season, or when anyone named "Marion" was a girl and only boys were named "Michael"? Also, when all plumbers were men and women were the only ones who stayed home with the kids? Remember, too, when something called "Women's Lib" questioned the gender establishment and demanded the lines of demarcation be changed?

Though I've never been called a feminist or, more recently, a crusader for the removal of gender distinction, I am curious about why some non-human words and subjects are classified as female or male, especially today when there seems to be an effort to remove gender categories for humans. "There she is," sounds fine for the crowning of a Miss America, but for the christening of a ship? I find no hard and fast rules, although acts of nature and large possessions are often designated female - would you say of your new car, "my, isn't he a beauty?" - while words with a strong or powerful human connotation - man-hours, manpower, mankind, etc. - are considered male. We do have a third, neutral pronoun, you know.

It's only a coincidence my gender curiosity is aroused just as another hurricane season begins. What first triggered this subject for me was an old radio program called My Word, broadcast by the BBC and carried locally on NPR, where contestants matched wits defining rare or unusual words. On one particular day, the word was "girlcott," which one panelist suggested was a backlash against male designated words like "boycott."

"You know what I mean," he said, "like Old Lady River."

So I got to thinking. When I look at the Savannah River, or consider composer Jerome Kern's musical, Showboat, set on the Mississippi River, I don't see anything genderish about those bodies of water. Still, I'd much rather hear William Warfield's stirring bass voice resounding with Old Man River than even remotely consider a Tiny Tim tenor tip-toeing through the Mississippi-bank tulips singing: "That Old Lady River, she keeps on rollin', she just keeps rollin' along."

We've taken the man out of the chair, the waitress off the menu and the stewardess from sole responsibility for explaining how to use our oxygen masks in flight. We are now chairperson-ed, server-ed and flight-attendant-ed, as our needs require. However, before the politically correct gender sleuths get carried away completely, may I suggest a few words and phrases I hope they will leave as they are:

I'm sure there are male ladybugs for procreation of the species, but let's not alter the spotted beetles' delicate image by calling them man, boy, or even "gentlemen crawler" bugs.

In time of war on those newly christened lady subs and ships, let's hope the guys - and gals - can still say, "Man the torpedoes!" The alternative doesn't even compute.

Though I've never understood why women go to the beauty shop for a manicure, manikins in a clothing store do display garments of both genders, and ladykin just doesn't cut it.

I'd rather keep thinking most violent crime is committed by men, than hear of someone being arrested for ladyslaughter.

And when I make a trip to New York, though folks of both genders inhabit the city's inner borough, it would be hard for "Ladyhattan" to roll off my tongue in a true, New York brogue.

I'm all for change, variety, and even now and then to give in to someone else's point of view. Yes, I know we women have won a few updates along the co-ed, male-hurricaned way, but let's not go too far. Old Lady River? I doubt even Lady Gaga is ready for that.

Barbara Seaborn is a local, freelance writer and author of the book, As Long As the Rivers Run: Highlights from Columbia County's Past. E-mail comments to seabara@aol.com.

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