True confessions of a sexist

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Everyone (well, almost everyone) knows that context is important when we try to understand meaning. Linguists deal with context in phonology, grammar, and discourse, as well as at the social and psychological levels and probably a few other levels that I can't think of at the moment. And when you look at language in the context of time (when something was said in the past), it's relatively easy to find fault with silly people like us who change our minds about some wacky position we once held. Years, months, weeks, or even minutes ago most of us said, sometimes even believed, something that we wouldn't want to support any longer. But there are bullies out there who ignore such time contexts so if you said it once, you're stuck with it forever.

This is obvious, and I'm a bit embarrassed to even mention it, but I feel I really have to, because it's so common in our gotcha-ridden times. So I've decided to come clean and wrench from temporal context one of my own serious character flaws…before someone else has the chance to zap me first. So, if you're still with me, here it is.

I hereby do solemnly admit that several decades ago I was a member of the elite Cosmos Club in Washington D.C. If you know anything about the Cosmos Club, you probably know that until a few years ago it was a male-only, gentlemen's club. When I was invited to apply for membership back in the 1960s, its elite members were prize-winning journalists, scientists, and academics.

At that time there were only two linguists who were members, Albert H. Marckwardt and Hood Roberts. They thought the club should expand the presence and influence of linguistics there, so they sponsored me, tempting me with the fact that former members included John Wesley Powell (the founder), three former U.S. presidents, various U.S. Supreme Court justices, some important statesmen, several Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, and scientists like Carl Sagan. If you look very closely, you can recognize them all as, well, male.

To become a member, I had to submit all of my published writings to the Cosmos Club Admissions Committee, a somewhat frightening experience. But joining seemed like a good idea at the time and I didn't have a clue that doing so would eventually brand me as a blatant sexist.

I'm coming clean at this late date because political events have made these wrenched-from-context-gotchas the game du jour. For example, we all know that Senator Barack Obama's membership in the Chicago church where Reverend Jeremiah Wright once preached marks him negatively in the minds of a huge number of U.S. voters. No matter that he hasn't regularly attended that church for decades. He used to attend, so he's guilty, even if he didn't hear the allegedly offending sermons, and even though he has since renounced Reverend Wright's offensive positions. Forget the context of time. It happened. So off with his head.

So I guess I'm must be guilty for similar reasons and I've decided to reveal all before you Language Log readers find out about my sordid past and accuse me of keeping it hidden all these years. I suppose it makes no difference that during the three years I remained a member of the Cosmos Club, I worked hard to eliminate its all-male admissions policy. Nor does it really matter that I resigned when the membership stupidly voted to continue to exclude women. And I suppose it makes no difference that a couple decades later the club finally reversed its policy and now accepts female members.

Such is the mind-set of a society that enjoys wrenching language and behavior from their temporal contexts in order to celebrate the gotchas that sully the character and reputations of their targets. I'm coming clean about this before they get a chance. So there!

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