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February 13th, 2008

Democrat or Democratic Party? / more on gender-neutral pronouns / tarmac

by Barbara Wallraff


Alan Gray, of Charleston, Maine, writes: “The word ‘Democratic’ is much used these days to describe candidates for the Democrat party. Should not the term be ‘Democrat’ candidate? I think that Republican candidates are every bit as democratic as the Democrats.”


Dear Alan: But the name of the party is the Democratic Party. It has been since the early 1800s, when it changed its name from the Democratic-Republican Party. The word “democracy,” of course, means “government by the people,” generally by way of voting. And a “republic” has a government chosen by the people, as opposed to a monarch. So etymologically, “democratic” and “republican” are almost synonyms. Calling Democratic candidates “Democrat candidates” is vaguely insulting -- like calling conservatives “right-wingers.” Don’t go there.





David Kratz, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “In a recent column you discussed 
gender-neutral pronouns. Isn’t there some language with a workable solution? If anyone has such a word that doesn’t sound like our ‘it,’ maybe we could adopt it.”


Dear David: A bunch of languages have words that are equivalent to “he or she” (or “he or she or it”). These include Filipino, Finnish, Hungarian, Persian, Turkish and spoken Chinese. How do you feel about adopting “siya,” “han,” “u,” “o” or “ta”? Me neither. Then again, Italian, Spanish and probably other Romance languages I know less well have special verb forms for the third-person singular, so it’s often unnecessary to use any pronoun at all. For instance, in Italian “Scrive una lettera” means “He or she is writing a letter.” We could try that: “Writes a letter” could be the way we say it in English. Conveniently enough, the third-person singular has a special form in English too, at least in the present tense: It’s the only one to which we add a final “s” (as in “writes”) -- so we’re already partway there.

But as you can probably guess from the list of languages with gender-neutral forms or options, using them doesn’t seem to immunize people against sexism. And eliminating sexism is the point. Otherwise, we could just go back to using “he” generically. As I said in my earlier column, the problem isn’t a lack of possibilities but a lack of consensus about what to do.




Sam Seabright, of Rochester Hills, Mich., writes: “My pet peeve is the common usage of ‘tarmac.’ I have seen British workers spread tarmac to repair a road; this tarmac is a mixture of coal tar and macadam (crushed stone). I don’t know the last time tarmac was used in airports here, but it certainly isn't used now!”


Dear Sam: You’re putting me to shame. What I call “tinfoil” is made of aluminum. I’ve been known to ask my husband what’s on the “tube,” even though of course there are no vacuum tubes in our TV. I usually call pantyhose “stockings.” Sometimes I even “dial” numbers on my cell phone.

You are right about the origin of the word “tarmac” and right about what tarmac is made of. You’re right, too, that today’s airport runways are made of something else -- usually concrete. Aesthetically speaking, though, “The plane sat on the concrete” strikes me as less pleasing than “... on the tarmac,” much the way “That dress looks great with those pantyhose” is worse than “... with those stockings.”




© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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