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Isaac AsimovThis is the second blog entry I've introduced with a picture of Isaac Asimov, the first one being my introductory entry, "How I write". Sometime in the 60s, I heard Isaac Asimov lecture at MIT. The 60s was a time in which many young men were beginning, for the very first time, to wear long hair (the musical "Hair" opened on Broadway in 1968). Asimov noted that many older traditionalists found it upsetting, when passing a stranger walking in the opposite direction, that they often couldn't tell whether the person approaching them was male or female. Asimov had an interesting take on this complaint. "Why do you care?", he asked. "Are you going to do anything differently? For that matter, what business is it of yours?". Note 1

I found Asimov's insight fascinating at the time. Many years later, I found myself involved in a long e−mail correspondence with someone I had "met" in some USENET discussion group. After quite a few messages exchanged in both directions, it occurred to me one day that I had no idea whether the person I was corresponding with was a man or a woman. My initial reaction was that I ought to ask. But then I remembered Asimov's talk, and I thought to myself, why do I care? What would I do differently?

In fact, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that any desire I had to know the sex of my correspondent had to betray a sexist attitude on my part. For example, suppose my correspondent said something that made me think, "It must be a woman saying that." That would expose some sexist assumption I must have been making.

I decided that I would learn more about myself by not knowing the sex of the person I was corresponding with, and so I never asked. Nothing ever came up in the conversation that inadvertently revealed it, and eventually our correspondence faded, without my ever finding out.

There was an androgynous character, "Pat", portrayed by Julia Sweeney on the television comedy show "Saturday Night Live". The joke was that everyone tried, in various ways (but without asking directly), to determine his or her sex, without success. More recently, the press has given some attention to a couple who have decided to not reveal the sex of their most recently born child, named "Storm". Click the next link to read an article on the subject on the website "thestar.comNote 2  Even now, the parents' decision is causing quite a fuss. But I thought back again to Isaac Asimov saying, "What business is it of yours?".

It's traditional to assign a masculine gender to God. If you think of the word "gender" as equivalent to "sex", this is a little odd, because sex is assigned only to creatures of which there are two types, and which reproduce sexually. We can't use the pronouns "he" and "she" to apply, for example, to a worker ant, or to an amoeba, which are sexless. So unless there is a "Mrs. God", it doesn't seem reasonable to apply the pronoun "He" to God. On the other hand, it's grating to apply the genderless pronoun "it" to an intelligent being. Perhaps, having used the pronoun "He" for God for a long time, we ought to switch to "She" for a few centuries to even things out. A Google search on the search terms [calling god she] produces 150 million hits.

But linguists usually make a distinction between "gender" and "sex". A web page on medical writing quotes from the AMA Manual of Style (not available on-line), which states, "Gender vs sex: gender refers to the psychological/societal aspects of being male or female, sex specifically to the physical aspects. Do not interchange."

Michelangelo's 'Creation of Adam'So attributing a gender to God is not the same as assigning a sex to God. People think in terms of gender characteristics other than just one's sex organs. I don't think many picture God as having a celestial penis, although one wonders what Michelangelo pictures as being under God's flowing robes in his famous painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (I hope he imagined the scene as more metaphorical than literal).

God seen from behindOr not. It's recently been pointed out to me that a couple of panels away on the same ceiling, God is shown flying away from us, with his robes flapping open, causing him to "moon" the audience. It rather surprised me that I'd never heard of this before, and I wonder if it disturbed the Catholic church. One web site I found notes that it was "scandalous" not only "for showing God's derriere" , but also for showing the dirty soles of his feet. Note 3

But terminology applied to God such as "our heavenly father" implies that people do assign what they think of as masculine characteristics to God. And the view of a God who will punish us if we're bad, and reward us if we're good little boys and girls, is certainly the role assigned to the father in a traditional family.

Bringing up the linguistic difference between "gender" and "sex" reminds us that the word "gender" isn't only applied to people or other living creatures. It's also a term in linguistics, and many parts of speech have a "gender" assigned. The word "gender" is derived from a Latin word that simply means "type". Note 4  In most languages, all nouns are assigned a gender, generally labeled "masculine", "feminine", or "neuter".

In English, almost all nouns are neuter, except those that explicitly refer to things that have a sex, such as people and animals. Thus if you replace an English noun with a pronoun, you replace "man" with "he", "woman" with "she", and "table" with "it". One could argue that the English noun "ship" is a feminine noun, because it's replaced with the pronoun "she". However, some people don't consider this to be an instance of a feminine grammatical gender, but rather of personification.

Languages other than English, however, make much greater use of grammatical gender. English is a Germanic language that has lost most of its gender distinctions, but in German, every single noun is classified as either masculine, feminine, or neuter. In the Latin-based "Romance" languages, all nouns are either masculine or feminine. Thus in French, "table" is replaced by the pronoun "she". Note that this is just a grammatical formality. It's the word, not the thing, that carries the gender. French has several examples of objects for which there are two words, one of which is masculine and the other feminine. A bicycle, for example, can be called in French either "un velo" (masculine), or "une bicyclette" (feminine).

That's not to say that English is immune to problems with gender. Although English has masculine, feminine, and neuter pronouns (he, she, and it), we don't use "it" for people. Thus you can't refer to a person with a singular pronoun in English without specifying that person's gender - you have to use "he" or "she" (that's what produces the problem with God, discussed above).

On one occasion when I was working at Kronos, the Engineering Department had been searching for some time for a new secretary. I was about to begin a meeting with a group of people, when someone arriving for the meeting noted, "Our offer to a new secretary was just accepted." I replied, "When does he start?". Most of the listeners appeared startled, and someone said to me, "Is the new secretary a man?". I replied that I had no idea whether the new secretary was a man or a woman, and since I didn't know, the rules of standard English required me to refer to the secretary as "he". Had I said "she", that would be tantamount to making the (sexist) assumption that the secretary was a woman.

I recently had a dental implant done by a periodontist. I noticed that when referring to some work that needed to be done in a different office by my dental hygienist, the periodontist referred to the hygienist as "she". Now, the periodontist did not know my hygienist at all, yet his use of the word "she" implied that the hygienist had to be a woman. He was just playing the odds, of course, as I had refused to do with our engineering secretary. A web search shows that approximately 98% of all dental hygienists in the United States are women.

It would be fascinating to know a real-life "Pat" of unknown sex, although hopefully not as whiny and annoying as the Pat portrayed on SNL by Julia Sweeney. Isaac Asimov would be pleased. Hey, what business is it of mine?

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© 2011 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted August 18, 2011, and slightly modified November 8, 2012

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   In the same period, some men started sporting earrings, which had previously been worn only by women. So as an old guy, to this day, when I see a man with an earring, I picture him as a pirate, and think that he also ought to have a peg leg and a parrot on his shoulder.

The marvelous comedienne Rita Rudner once said, "Men who have a pierced ear are better prepared for marriage - they've experienced pain and bought jewelry." She also said, "I love being married. It's so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life."   [return to text]

Note 2:   At least as it stood in August, 2011, you could search the web site thestar.com for quite a while before discovering that it's associated with a Toronto (Canada) newspaper called "The Star". The problem with the Toronto Star's web page is the most common problem people have producing written communications: a tacit assumption by authors that readers share their frame of reference. I suspect it never occurred to anyone involved in producing the Toronto Star's web page that any reader of the page could possibly not be aware that it belonged to The Toronto Star newspaper.

But of course, the Internet is global, and many people who arrive at their pages (probably the majority, in fact) come in via a search, and are nowhere near Toronto. Many of them have never even heard of Toronto. Unambiguous written communication is hard. But the Toronto Star is a newspaper, and ought to know better.

It's particularly important for road signs to be clear and unambiguous, since they are often read quickly, from a car that might be moving at a high rate of speed. At toll plazas, the Massachusetts Turnpike devotes certain lanes to collecting tolls from cars possessing an electronic transponder. When this service was first started, it was called the "Fast Lane" system. In most other states, the same system went under the name "E-ZPass", and in 2012, Massachusetts renamed its own system "E-ZPass" to reduce confusion.

Massachusetts 'Fast Lane' logoA common sign at the entrance to exit ramps used to show the Fast Lane logo, seen to the right, over the words "FAST LANE ONLY". To some (perhaps from another state), this sign must have been completely mysterious. But to someone familiar with the Fast Lane transponder, the sign was clear: only drivers with a transponder can use this exit. What else could it mean?

Of course, it didn't mean that at all. What was intended was, "A lane with this sign over it is only for drivers with transponders." The people who designed this sign clearly couldn't imagine that there were drivers who had never heard of the Fast Lane system, or drivers who might not have immediately understood what the sign was trying to say.

The sign was even less clear because there in fact was an exit on the Turnpike which could only be used by drivers with transponders (not just a single lane, but the entire exit - it's a turnaround ramp at the Allston-Cambridge interchange).  [return to text]

Note 3:   People often speak figuratively of parts of God's body. Even the Bible speaks of "the hand of God". In a wonderful episode of The Bob Newhart Show (in which Bob played a psychologist), the pastor of Bob's church came to him asking for some treatment sessions to work out a particular life issue. Bob was initially reluctant to treat a minister, saying, "I'd feel like I was stepping on toes. Big toes!"

Hereís a wonderful web site that lets you explore the Sistine Chapel as if you were standing in it all alone. I think itís better than actually being there packed in the middle of a mob of tourists  [return to text]

Note 4:   "Gender" comes to us via French (genre, gendre) from the Latin "genus" (genitive generis), meaning kind, sort, gender.   [return to text]

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