I no longer cringe when I read a headline such as “Bridgeport Man Rescues Kitten” and discover that the “man” is a kid of 15. But the student who referred to the “four-year-old young man” pushed that same button, and then some.
Not even watching the commercial’s “talking baby” who gives investment advice can prepare me for young men of the age of four.
I think I know what was at work here. Watching one’s word choices is a commendable thing generally, but it has to include thinking about one’s word choices as well.
I once had a colleague of a very strong feminist orientation who looked at a photo of my then-ten-year-old niece and said “what a sweet young woman!” My colleague felt that the word “girl” was demeaning.
Similarly, the civil rights movement made a lot of people aware of the pejorative possibilities in the word “boy.”
Executives who refer to their secretaries and administrative assistants as “girls” are expressing an attitude that is condescending at best; employers or passers-by who refer to grown men as “boys,” ditto…or worse. They should stop.
I admit I sometimes say to my classes, “Now, now, boys and girls”; I refer to my weekly get-togethers with former colleagues who (with me) lost their jobs and careers in the strike against the University of Bridgeport administration a couple of decades ago as “Lunch with the Boys” (of whom at least half are women). But personal relationships and situations of trust are subject to different language assumptions and permissions.
Anyway, some of these verbal realities have become taboos. I believe my students’ inability to write the word “mother” is somehow related to a taboo—possibly a fear of “mother-f***er,” or maybe the understanding that their own parent does not want to be viewed as anything less chummy than “Mom.” This must be why I had a student refer to “Hamlet’s mom.”
My former colleague did not use the word “girl” at all, at least as far as I ever noticed. I think my writer here was similarly squeamish about the word “boy.”
So, lest she offend, my student equipped this little feller with, what, a sports coat, tie, and attaché case, I suppose. Maybe his first beard—a nice little soul-patch, a thin line along the jaw, a goatee? Is he sipping a latté as he reads the news on his phone? Or is he pounding the pavement in search of a decent entry-level job? Perhaps he is asking some young woman at his pre-school if she’d like to go for a drink later.
I adore my niece, who is currently a young woman. I adored her at age ten also, but she wasn’t then what she is now: then, she was a fascinating person and a great girl.
As pure sounds go, I find the word “boy” one of the most tender nouns we have—it begins with a kiss and ends with a smile. I’d hate to lose it as a word we can apply to male humans under the age of twelve. And “girl,” like chuckling water, should still be available for the female counterpart.
Life ages us fast enough; I don’t want to accelerate the process by abusing the lexicon.