What’s in a name? Some reflections on diversity and inclusivity in language

Dr Andrea Hajek

Although we are by now well into the twenty-first century, when it comes to gender diversity we often seem to be lingering in the past. Multiple attempts to oppose an Italian law against homophobia and transphobia are only the most recent expressions of this reluctance to acknowledge nonbinary gender identities. 

Something is changing though. Gender inclusivity is increasingly making its way into the language we use. One way to promote gender inclusivity is to avoid making references to a person’s gender, unless it is pertinent to the discussion. Here’s what the Inclusive language guidelines of the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII) say on the matter:

Generally, descriptors that refer to personal attributes such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age, for example, tend to over-emphasize the distinguishing attribute. We recommend avoiding the use of such descriptors unless they are relevant and valid.

In other words, we must try to maintain gender neutrality, for example, by using gender-nonbinary pronouns (they, their, them, themselves). Grammatically, this is not entirely correct, but English teachers and style manuals nowadays accept it. Further still, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) recently introduced a new rule that accepts ‘themself’ in reference to a singular antecedent, mainly to avoid ambiguity when using ‘themselves’ for singular subjects.

Things get more complicated when we come across nouns with masculine and feminine endings. I once took an English grammar course where one of the exercises contained a sentence with the word ‘actress’ in it, referring to a subject with a feminine name. The model answer corrected it to ‘actor’. I suppose here ‘actress’ is considered a word with an ‘irrelevant gender description’ (as per the CII’s Inclusive Language Guidelines), since the sentence contains the subject’s feminine name. But is that necessarily so? What if the subject is a person who – male or female – identifies as a woman and wants to be identified as such on a linguistic level? And isn’t ‘actor’ more commonly used in reference to male actors anyway?

While terms like ‘male nurse’ evidently reproduce gender stereotypes, I think it’s harder to make this claim with words like ‘actress’, which is a generally accepted term now, even if Collins Online Dictionary tells me that ‘[s]ome women who act prefer to be called “actors” rather than “actresses”.’ True, not all women prefer feminine word endings. This became strikingly clear during the 2021 edition of the popular Sanremo music festival in Italy. One of the guests was the successful orchestra conductor, Beatrice Venezi, one of very few women in the field who explicitly asked to be addressed as ‘direttore’ and not ‘direttrice’, the feminine form of ‘orchestra conductor’: ‘What counts for me is the talent and the preparation with which one performs a specific profession.’

Obviously, everyone is free to make their own decisions, but Venezi’s position seems to imply that the female suffix somehow downgrades women working in her profession. Replacing ‘actress’ with ‘actor’ or – in this case – ‘direttrice’ with ‘direttore’ could therefore potentially cancel out one’s gender identity. In other words, the attempt to maintain gender neutrality could actually lead to gender exclusivity.

This is a major issue in a country like Italy where there is an ongoing debate about using feminine forms of words that traditionally only have masculine endings. The fact is that many of these words refer to positions that have historically been reserved for men (judges, doctors, mayors). However, women’s presence in similar positions has grown, and if women can nowadays be successful orchestra directors, that’s because society evolves.

I therefore believe it’s our responsibility – as academics, writers, media professionals, and so on – to reflect this change in the language we use. As politician Laura Boldrini observed in the wake of the Sanremo incident: to hide the feminine form where it is nowadays accepted means ‘to hide the many sacrifices and efforts’ women have made in recent decades. Then again, the eventual victory (both in Sanremo and at the Eurovision Song Contest 2021) of the highly nonbinary band Måneskin tells us that Italian society can’t go on ignoring diversity forever.

About the author:

Andrea is an academic proofreader and translator at Your Editing Alternative. She works in the fields of Humanities and Social Sciences, specialising in gender studies, women’s history, Italian studies and memory studies. She set up her business after working in academia for 10 years. She is also the Managing Editor of the SAGE journal of Memory Studies.

1 thought on “What’s in a name? Some reflections on diversity and inclusivity in language”

  1. Reblogged this on Your Editing Alternative and commented:
    While it is true that English is less heavily gendered than, say, Romance languages, I believe that some nouns aren’t as gender-neutral as people like to believe.
    In fact, is there even such a thing as gender neutrality? In this article, hosted by the Coffee & Cocktails Podcast, I explain why I think we can’t always rely on gender-neutral terms, and why I don’t believe holding space for all possibilities necessarily makes everyone happy.


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