Sunday, November 16, 2008

Language change: Ur doin it ... uh, however

This just in from the cousins at Fox. Before you read any further: What's your instant reaction? If it's the same as mine was, you're right -- but maybe not as right as you (or I) thought.

Here's the lede, appearing on Fox more or less as it appeared on the AP wire:

NAPA, Calif. — The California Highway Patrol says four college students are dead after their car skidded into oncoming traffic on a two-lane Napa Valley highway.

Still fits with the hed, right? Good old Fox, easing into the 1970s on the inclusive language front!

The CHP has not identified the four men, whose ages ranged from 19 to 22, but said all four attended Pacific Union College in Angwin.

Well, that'll make you slam on the brakes. When did men become "coeds" -- especially at one of the few US outlets that still regularly use the word in its original (now strongly disfavored) meaning? Is this usage a one-off or part of a trend? Let's start in the references.

We get "coed" from "co-education," which enters the fray in the mid-19th century for the practice of letting girls study along with boys. A co-educational school became a co-ed* (no weirder than your car or your favorite handgun being an "automatic"), and then the noun came to mean a girl or woman studying at such an institution.** The hyphen persists in AP texts into 1977,*** though it seems to be gone a year later.

The adjective "coed" is still in fairly active, unremarkable use, even though it seems to be most often used in nonacademic contexts like athletics (or, in 1978, the White House honor guard). The noun has gone on the bad list -- the MWCDEU says that movement was in play by 1980, though news texts at that point are still rife with "coeds" in news and feature stories alike. The timing makes sense; that's about when the Miller and Swift "Handbook of nonsexist writing" came out. And if you compare recent AP texts with a stack from 1980, you'll note that "coed" for "female student" has just about vanished. Getting there from here requires a little detour into how news language looks at the inclusive language ("political correctness," if you absolutely must) movement.

The problem with "coed" isn't that it distinguishes female from male (often a useful thing to do), but that it distinguishes female students from students. In the same way that "lady doctor" and "male nurse" create a normal condition and a marked condition for those professions, "coed" suggests that there are real students and girl students -- not a very welcoming observation at the start, and these days an out-and-out stupid one. So it seems like the sort of thing you want to shy away from if you're trying to publish for a general audience, particularly if you're the Liberal Media, right?

Not so fast. News language has actually been pretty conservative when it comes to social inclusion, for a variety of interrelated reasons:
* The appeal to tradition: We've always done it that way, that's what readers expect, nobody will know what it means if we start calling Those People something else (far as I know, 2004 is the first edition of the AP Stylebook that doesn't mention "the Negro race").
* The "clear pane of glass" fallacy: The words we use now are the original, unweighted words, and any deviation from that standard puts a thumb on the journalistic scales. Thus, "African American" is a "euphemism" for "black," rather than another in a long string of attempts to find a socially appropriate term.
* Loony literalism, the insistence that a correct or technical reading renders a term nonsensical or logically impossible and thus out of bounds. The 1984 AP Stylebook proclaims that Indians can't be called Native Americans because "their ancestors came over on a land bridge from Asia."
* Wariness of giving in -- at least, of being seen as capitulating to any request, whether reasonable or not (hence the inmates-running-the-asylum tales, usually apocryphal, about bans on "black coffee" and the like).

That's where Fox in particular comes in (though it's far from alone in that camp). Fox World is a scary place, especially if you're a missing pregnant mom, but it's also a very comfortable one, because things are the way they Ought To Be. Fox spends the time turning AP's "Quran" and "Muhammad" back into "Koran" and "Mohammed" (which AP dropped nearly a decade ago) because -- well, give those people an inch and next thing, your kids will be studying Farsi, right?

Thus, "coed" for "female student" has persisted at Fox long after most outlets wrote it out, particularly in heds on agency stories:

California Coed Reportedly Bailed out of Iran Jail
Judge Keeps American Student, Co-Defendant Jailed in Slain British Coed Case
Kansas Jury Recommends Death in Coed's 1996 Slaying

... but also in news copy that Fox produces itself:
Detectives in three states on Thursday were hunting for clues in the mysterious shooting murders — a day apart — of two college coeds from Georgia, and sources have told FOX News that an arrest may be imminent in one of the killings.

All of which makes sense, until you come to "coeds" meaning "four male students." Is that a first? As it turns out, no -- the AP's already gone there, and in a national trender, no less. The topic is the looming end of the tray in college cafeterias:

Advocates of the trayless cafeterias say if students can't pile on the food as Bluto did, they might consume fewer calories and keep off those unhealthy pounds often gained in college.

Try telling that to hungry coeds who simply make more trips to the counter.

"I'll just keep coming back for seconds," said Jeff Lyke, a freshman at Glenville State, which started going trayless in April to coincide with Earth Day.

So has "coed" actually slipped the surly bonds of its original meaning and become just another unmarked word for "undergraduate"? Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence -- anybody got a third case?

[UPDATE: Jan Freeman's thorough and delightful exploration of this matter, from 2005, can be found here, and The Word is at last available in the blogroll.]

* Per the OED, it was a noncount noun a few decades before this usage came along.
** And probably to mean any female student, even one at an all-female school; that might be worth a look sometime.
*** 1977 is the first year the AP Stylebook appeared as a full-size reference book, rather than the slender typography-oriented thing that had been around since the 1950s. I don't have a '77 and have no idea whether the hyphen variance is accidental or deliberate.

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Blogger Jan said...

I was alerted to this sex-change operation by a reader in 2005, and wrote about it in The Word (Boston Globe). Interestingly, the cite was from the Boston Herald, the more Foxlike of the city's daily papers.

9:50 PM, November 16, 2008  
Blogger Jan said...

Sorry, the URL got truncated.Or something.

9:52 PM, November 16, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Coed is shorter than student, which makes it useful for headline writers, if nothing else.

10:58 AM, November 17, 2008  

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