16 March 2013

How We Came to Have “Gender Discrimination”

Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in The New Yorker includes this choice example of the value of choosing the right words for one’s readership:

“I was doing all these sex-discrimination cases, and my secretary said, ‘I look at these pages and all I see is sex, sex, sex. The judges are men, and when they read that they’re not going to be thinking about what you want them to think about,’ ” Ginsburg recalled. Henceforth, she changed her claim to “gender discrimination.”
English speakers get to refer to most objects as neuter, and don’t need to adjust adjectival forms to fit accordingly. As a result, we had little need for the concept of “gender” outside of people’s (or animals’) biological sexes.

At the same time, we’d replaced a perfectly understandable Anglo-Saxon monosyllable with the Latinate “have sexual intercourse,” and then boiled that back down to a monosyllable, “sex.” That meant Ginsburg as an attorney had one fine word, “gender,” hardly being used, and another fine word, “sex,” pulling double duty.

What’s more, she was arguing before a court that included Justice Potter Stewart, whose most famous formulation for the law books was a remark about pornography. His quick judgment about what he saw had legal weight, and, as Ginsburg and her team suspected, that might have applied to the word “sex” as well.

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