Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A fellow feminist?!

Eagle-eyes will have spotted that I used the term ‘fellow’ inclusively in my last post. Surely that’s a huge no-no for a feminist linguist! I have to agree, it doesn’t seem like my finest moment… But there are two reasons for doing this:

Firstly, to be perfectly honest, initially I didn’t notice the (obvious) issue when writing of ‘fellow citizens’ – it illustrates how engrained male-as-norm is in everyone’s thinking, mine included. And secondly, once I realised the problem at hand, I couldn’t think of a suitable alternative. To communicate the ‘togetherness’ implied by ‘fellow citizen’ the term seemed the best way to put it.

Now, that feels like a sad excuse if I ever heard one. And if anyone else had used it, I might have countered that this ‘reason’ just won’t cut it – it’s our language, if a term doesn’t exist then create it! Okay, so here I go (and am also learning a massive lesson in empathy; it’s not so easy!)…

I don’t want a straightforward synonym because the most obvious one, ‘compatriot’, is similarly flawed. It’s linked to patriot: ‘from Greek patriōtēs, from patrios ‘of one’s fathers’, from patris ‘fatherland’ (OD).  And while etymology might in fact offer me a last-minute way out for ‘fellow’: ‘[u]sed familiarly since mid-15c. for “any man, male person,” but not etymologically masculine (etymonline), I’m not willing to take it. Considering its dominant understanding, both the noun and its associated adjective seem flawed.

I want to say something like the German ‘MitbürgerIn’, literally ‘with-citizen’, to communicate the joint endeavour that is the European Union. And while it does express what I want to say, and does so much more neutrally than ‘fellow citizen’, ‘with-citizen’ also feels a little alien to the English language. Perhaps this might simply be because it is a novel term, but I feel there could be improvement on this literal translation.

In fact, one already exists: as a brief online search showed, the term ‘co-citizen’ is a listed and used alternative to ‘fellow citizen’ (see That’s exciting! And much more pleasing than both my translation and the status quo version.

So, no excuses! I might feel stuck but that doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t thought about the problem, and found a solution. Lesson learned my dear co-feminists. Let’s keep questioning, inventing, trying. It might sometimes feel impossible, but it’s always worth the effort.

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