“Through a Glass Darkly”: Adapting to Evolving Language

Language changes. This fact is rather frustrating for us editors.

And the irony is that, while online resources can most capably respond to changes in usage, they can also appear the most behind the curve. When many of the nation’s newspapers, for example, decided to capitalize the word “Black” in reference to African Americans, they could go forward doing exactly that and not worry about having to change material already published. However, if you produce an online resource with thousands of entries uploaded over more than a decade and a half, entries that you work hard to keep up to date, you have to work to revise all those previous works, because any entry could be someone’s first encounter with the site. But with a limited staff and more than 6,600 entries, it is difficult, if not impossible, to arrange for the time to do this adequately, and so certain entries will inevitably appear outdated at any given time.

Of course, it is also difficult to determine when exactly the tipping point from one usage to another actually occurs, when one term becomes the norm and the previous cast out, because the realm of language remains contested and certain norms will prevail only within specific cultural groups, especially those invested in the nuances, which most people are not. Ask the average person to differentiate between transsexual, transgendered, and the current preferred term transgender, and you will likely be met with a blank stare, but people who live and work within that community or with those issues have passionate views on the matter. The term Latinx has been employed within academic settings as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino but encounters stiff resistance within Hispanic communities themselves, who rightly point out that Spanish is a gendered language and so erasing the gender of such terminology can be regarded as an attack upon the language that is central to the culture.

Mary Victor (M. V.) Mayfield, working as a physician presumed to be a man in Mena (Polk County).
A 1986 ad from the Mena Star promoting a story about Dr. Mayfield.

While trying to keep terminology up to date, there is also the challenge of avoiding an ahistorical reading of the past that imposes present frameworks upon people who may well not have understood themselves in such a manner. This issue came to light most recently when we posted on our Facebook page a reference to our entry on Mary Victor (M. V.) Mayfield, a doctor in Mena who lived as a man but was later discovered to be of the female sex. Our original entry, uploaded more than a decade ago, spoke of Mayfield having perpetrated this “gender deception” from a young age, being dressed in boy’s clothing because the family needed a male heir to protect certain property rights. Some of our commenters on Facebook noted astutely that Mayfield seemed to be a transgender person who chose a male identity, especially in light of the fact that Mayfield requested to be buried in men’s clothing. However, as the article conveys, Mayfield died without ever revealing much in the way of a life story. Therefore, it is only speculation as to what extent Mayfield may have identified as male.

All of this is compounded by what the philosopher Miranda Fricker, in her book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, dubs hermeneutical injustice, or the “gap in collective interpretive resources [that] puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.” That is, people subject to hermeneutical injustice can be excluded from knowledge about themselves and their own social situation, for our shared social understandings typically reflect “the perspectives of different social groups” so that “the powerful tend to have appropriate understandings of their experiences ready to draw on as they make sense of their social experiences, whereas the powerless are more likely to find themselves having some social experiences through a glass darkly, with at best ill-fitting meanings to draw on in the effort to render them intelligible.” This means that, for the person in question, there exist “blanks where there should be a name for an experience which it is in the interests of the subject to be able to render communicatively intelligible.”

Thus, Mayfield may have personally regarded actions taken as a form of “gender deception” of some kind, but only because Mayfield lacked access to more modern concepts that we today take for granted, concepts such as gender identity. We simply cannot know. And, barring the discovery of some unexpected source materials, we will never know.

We did update the Mayfield to try to be more cognizant of the complexities that underlie this history, no longer speaking of “gender deception” and actually removing gendered pronouns for Mayfield entirely. And we will attempt to maintain this same type of sensitivity going forward, knowing that this is nowhere near the end of the debate regarding this or other matters of terminology. Language is always changing, no matter how much frustration this causes for editors.

By Guy Lancaster, editor of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas




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