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Published: Friday, April 26, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
In Our View / Gender-neutral language effort

Tell it to the state ombuds

Whew. We can all rest (gender neutrally) easy, since the state is in the final stages of scouring our laws and statutes of language that can be construed as discriminatory.
On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the last installment of a six-year effort to make language in the state's copious laws gender neutral, the Associated Press reported. In 2007, Sen. Jeannie Kohl-Welles introduced her first bill to replace terms such as "firemen" and "policemen" and directed the state code reviser's office to fully update the rest of the code.
Earlier changes, which are easy to understand, include such gender neutral descriptors as "firefighters," "clergy" and "police officers."
Monday's bill, however, brings us a changes like "ombuds" and "security guards" to replace "ombudsman" and "watchmen," AP reported.
"It brings us to modern times, to contemporary times," Kohl-Welles said.
Yes, if by modern times she means all words must be truncated enough to text or Tweet. (Or sound like an acronym or personalized license plate -- OMBUDS.)
Ombuds? That sounds like a fine mantra for meditation. Or perhaps the title of the state's new marijuana bureaucrat. But it is not acceptable substitute for "ombudsman," which most people understand to mean a representative -- whether of the government, a newspaper, or other institution -- to handle citizen complaints or questions.
By the way, how many ombudspeople does the state employ anyway? Can we ask one to investigate why we are changing words that are no longer in use?
For example, "security guards" now replaces "watchmen." When was the last time anyone, the state or private business, actually advertised to hire a "watchman"? How many of our laws mention "watchmen" anyway? How much does it cost to rewrite old laws?
Also, the thing about declaring words discriminatory simply because of a prefix of suffix, is how do you know where to stop?
For example, laws citing "man's past" will change to "humankind's past." "Mankind" and "humankind" were originally known as all-inclusive phrases meaning all people on Earth. But if "mankind" is wrong because of that "man," doesn't the word "human" have the same problem? (And "woman" for that matter.)
As we all know, language does matter. Words can hurt and harm. Or they can lift up. They can confer respect or invite derision. "Gender neutral" makes sense in the obvious cases. But now that we are past the obvious cases, let's stop paying people to come up with stuff like "ombuds."
Actions, of course, speak louder than words, and as long as the government doesn't discriminate when advertising jobs or writing or interpreting law, must of us trust our state language is "gender neutral" enough.

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Herald Editorial Board

Jon Bauer, Opinion Editor:

Carol MacPherson, Editorial Writer:

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