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At Large
Words and meanings

By Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 23:46:00 08/12/2010

Filed Under: Language, Education, Gender Issues

?LANGUAGE SHAPES the way we think,? asserted Mike Tan, dean of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy and a fellow columnist in this paper, at the launching of the third edition of the ?Gender and Development Glossary,? described as a tool for journalists and writers, published by the Inter Press Service and edited by Johanna Son.

A total of 141 terms are included in the glossary, most dealing with sex and gender particularly the confusing and confounding field of sexual and reproductive health and rights. There is also a list of ?problematic? terms that should be avoided (so as not to offend the individuals they refer to, for one) and suggestions for possible alternatives, some of which even those who attended the launching found ?problematic? as well.

Tan, donning his ?academic? hat, suggested popularizing the glossary in schools and colleges, not only to provide students with ?politically correct? terms, but also, he said, to instill in young people a more inclusive and tolerant attitude towards sexuality, sexual orientation and individuals caught in the maelstrom of changing sexual mores long before they become journalists or communicators themselves.

Indeed, as Tan pointed out, the way we use language indicates attitudes and values, even when we use words subconsciously, or with very little forethought.

One example he brought up was the term ?kulang sa dilig? or lacking in irrigation (or watering), a phrase often used to ?explain? the crankiness of a senior single woman. The phrase, said Tan, carried with it a world of attitudes and presumptions: that women need sex to be put in a good mood, that women can find fulfillment only in relations with the opposite sex, and that only men can keep women sufficiently moist and happy.

* * *

ANOTHER term he had long been advocating among health professionals to be avoided, Tan said, was ?gamit,? which in English can mean both ?a thing? or ?to use.? Most commonly, though, among Tagalog colloquial speakers, ?gamit? refers to sex, or to having sex, or by implication to ?be used as a sex object.?

Technically the correct term to use is ?pakikipagtalik,? but doctors and other health personnel say that their patients do not understand the term or are confused by it. Many also do not seem to take offense when asked ?Kailan kayo huling ginamit ng inyong asawa? (When did your spouse last use you?)? In fact, some years back, actress Rosanna Roces even featured in a series of commercials disputing the concept of one?s spouse or partner as a ?thing,? in an effort to promote the concept of respect and equality in relationships.

Another tricky term, pointed out Tan, was ?MSM,? a term popularized by WHO to refer to ?men having sex with other men.? The term was coined because many ?MSMs? take offense at being labeled ?gay? or ?homosexual,? since some men may engage in homosexual relations but do not think of themselves as gay or effeminate.

Transsexuals, added Tan, likewise reject the term ?MSM,? since they view themselves (or else have actually undergone sex re-assignment surgery) as women, insisting that they are ?women? and not ?men.?

* * *

INDEED, negotiating the nuances and hidden meanings behind words can be akin to walking across a minefield. A journalist can never tell if he or she has accidentally offended anyone with the thoughtless use of a term or politically incorrect phrase. Especially because words take on a life of their own and meanings may mutate with the times and with usage.

For example, I once wrote a column on a Catholic French layman who devoted his life to living with people with disabilities and had written about them in an autobiography. But because the book was written in the 1960s, he used the term ?handicapped? to refer to them, and in my desire to keep the man?s voice authentic, I chose to quote him in his original text. When the column appeared, I received several irate letters from people with disabilities, complaining about the term ?handicapped? even if I had only been quoting from the book.

Useful, then is this list of questions (suggested by Son) that journalists and editors may ask when developing a story and seeking to write it through a ?gender lens?:

How varied are the voices in this story? Where are the women in it?

How are the women portrayed? (Is it in a manner that reinforces stereotypes, unduly shows them as victims?)

What is the sex of the person(s) in the story?

What roles do these men and women have (thinking also about age, class, race and ethnicity) and how do these factors shape the issues and the story?

What are the power relationships between men and women and how do these roles and power relationships further explain the issue being addressed?

How are the impacts of events and processes different for women and men?

* * *

?POLITICAL correctness? these days is often disdained in the newsroom, with desk editors offended by the demand to use only the ?right? words to refer to certain groups of people or sectors of society, terms many have created for themselves, without the imprimatur of linguists or international authorities.

But if journalists wish to reflect reality, then part of that obligation is to refer to people in the way in which they prefer to be called, since part of the ?label? is a person?s or group?s concept of identity.

The only problem is that as people who work with words, we are obligated to keep in touch with the ever-changing landscape of words, lest we offend or short-change.

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