Changing Words

Congressperson, instead of congressman. There are a great many people who want to change the common vernacular to less-gender weighted terms. While an extremely admirable pursuit, that I personally agree with, a lot of the time I see well-intentioned people propose words that are easy to see will never be picked up. Case-and-point: congressperson.

To figure out why words like this will never work and never be commonly accepted, we need to examine English speakers. Primarily native English speakers. In phonology there are two terms called reduction and elision. These refer to how English speakers slur, shorten, and outright remove sounds from words and sentences. Given that this exists, one can conclude that English speakers don't like pronouncing words fully, and would much rather say something quickly than accurately. [1]

Now that we know that, it's fairly simple to figure out what replacement words will work and what ones will not. For example, congressman. We don't say congrassman, we say congressmn. That's three syllables, whereas congressperson is four syllables, and therefore longer of a word and takes longer to say. Since English speakers are lazy, it's obvious why a word that is harder to say wouldn't gain much momentum.

On the other hand, there have been words that have been successfully changed, like firefighter. The word used to be fireman (i.e. firemn.) The question now is, why would firefighter catch on over fireman, given that it's longer, and more syllables. I have no scientific data to back my claim up, but I believe it is because firefighter is an alliteration stuck together into one word, and alliterations are fun to say. Therefore, firefighter is more enjoyable to say than fireman, and was accepted into the common vernacular on sheer enjoyment factor.

Next time you see a word that you might think is better off changed to a gender-neutral word, think about what you could replace it with that is either shorter, easier to say, or more fun to say. Otherwise your attempt is doomed to fail before it begins.


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