Answer this question for yourself: when you hear the word ‘freshman,’ do you think of a male student? Or do you think of a general first-year, without applying any gender identity? This question was posed last week in my class on modern English grammar, and the more we discussed it, the more fascinated I became with it. My initial answer was that I did not imagine a male student. I didn’t think the word freshman implied a specific gender. I would think my gender probably has something to do with this being my immediate thought, but generally, ‘freshman’ is often used around the university to refer to any first-year student without much thought.
But why is it often accepted as a gender-neutral term? Why is it that referring to a student of any gender as a freshman is deemed acceptable, while calling, for example, a female police officer a policeman, a female firefighter a fireman or the chair of a department who is female a chairman obviously inappropriate? By the same logic we use to say that these are masculine terms — half of the compound word is ‘man’ — ‘freshman’ should be the exact same way.
Why is it that referring to a student of any gender as a freshman is deemed acceptable…?”
What I think to be the logically reasonable explanation involves looking at the distant and recent historical development of these terms — policeman, fireman, chairman, freshman — and the positions they refer to. Though it was only relatively recent that males and females began to attend school in nearly equal numbers, it was even more recent that we began to challenge masculine terms and others like them being used as the default. Meaning that ‘freshman’ has been a gender-neutral title for a while. Meanwhile, police officers, firefighters and (perhaps less so) department chairs are positions still held by majority males, and have been for most of history. Therefore, ‘policeman,’ ‘fireman,’ and ‘chairman’ still assume a gender, and it’s unacceptable to use them to refer to a person of any other gender than male.
I will say, this consideration of whether ‘freshman’ similarly holds a gender bias is not meant to be a basis upon which to decide whether or not it should still be used to refer to male students and students of other genders alike. While I can logically see the reason why it’s often perceived appropriate as a gender-neutral term, it becomes wholly irrelevant if you think about the term for more than a couple seconds. Logically, it’s simply odd to use freshman and freshmen to refer to students of all genders. An argument can be made for ‘man’ and ‘men’ as suffixes meaning ‘human.’ But, just as when using the word ‘man’ alone to refer to a human, or ‘mankind’ to refer to us as a species, once you’ve thought about it once, it’s impossible to ignore the subconscious recognition of those terms as male-centric and to not immediately picture a man.
The conscious effort should instead be put toward the much simpler action of altering the terms to make them gender inclusive, and using them. An argument is sometimes made that this is awkward and imposing. I simply disagree. Just as we use ‘police officer,’ ‘firefighter’ and ‘chairperson’ or simply ‘chair’ (i.e. they’re the department chair), the simple solution for ‘freshman’ is to use ‘first-year’ instead. If you don’t think first-year, sophomore, junior and senior sounds natural, first, second, third and fourth year is simple enough. These changes aren’t made as much through institutional guidelines as they are through the conscious effort to adopt them and eventually unconsciously use them.
There’s no need for cost-benefit analysis when the solution is so simple. Language is constantly changing because of natural social influence, so why don’t we just get on with it?