Firefighter, mail carrier, police officer. Across professions, people have yoinked the word “man” from the names of jobs and replaced it with gender-neutral substitutes. (At the same time, duh, we’ve stopped doing what’s essentially the reverse—putting a sex-specific moniker in front of job titles when they’re held by the non-traditional sort of person: We don’t say “lady doctor” or “male nurse,” or “She-Hulk,” or at least we catch ourselves when we do it.)

Week before last, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus asked Marine Commandant General Robert Neller to do the same thing. “Please review the position titles throughout the Marine Corps,” he wrote in a January 1 memo, “and ensure that they are gender-integrated.” Specifically, he wanted them scrubbed of the word “man.” (It’s part of the broader move opening all combat roles to women, announced late last year.)

Not everyone likes the idea.

“Our social media feeds went crazy when this first came out,” says a Marine official. “Our friends on Facebook were saying, “You can’t just do that.” The Navy Secretary can’t just take away the term ‘infantryman.’”

Actually, what they said was “SecNav is conducting a foolish social experiment IMHO. What Marine Chick cares about the words Infantryman…etc…jeesh” and “Screw the female equality crap! Screw taking ‘man’ out of the titles. Don’t like the USMC as is, DON’T JOIN!” Many of the comments didn’t exactly stick to linguistics: “The standards were lowered for the females just to have them pass… While the male marines had to carry their packs on hikes.”

Since then, says the official, the request has been somewhat clarified. Titles where the word “man” is integrated into the word will remain unchanged. (So, infantryman, rifleman, crewman, mortarman.) Titles in which “man” is a stand-alone word get changed to something less dude-ish like “Fire Support Marine” instead of “Fire Support Man.”

It’s the linguistics of the politics that are the most interesting here, if you see what we mean. Like, is there any real evidence that non-gendered job titles promote some kind of gender-blind utopia? Not particularly, says Delys Snyder, a professor of English at Brigham Young University who studies sexism in job titles. “Renaming a job doesn’t change the way people think about it,” she says. “It doesn’t automatically make people non-sexist. But it might help a little bit.”

It does seem to be the case that sexist job titles convey the notion that a job is only for one sort of person: For example, an eye tracking study found that when participants read the title of a job that had the suffix “-man” in it, if the next pronoun was a “he”, people carried on reading. If the next pronoun was a “she”, people backtracked to the title again—their subconsciouses went “whaaaa?” One interpretation: If a woman’s job title is Fireman or Reconnaissance Man, people are more likely to think she’s inappropriate to the role and start making jokes about sense of direction. If her title is Reconnaissance Marine, you’re going to think “Yup, that’s badass.”

But there’s nothing empirical showing the reverse—that switching to non-gendered titles puts people in a less sexist frame of mind. And, indeed, it can possibly backfire: “When people try to push linguistic changes before society changes, you get resistance,” Snyder says. (Indeed, if posts like “this is complete and utter bullshit … Do not piss on tradition to please the idiots that need ‘safe words’ and ‘safe places’” count as resistance, there is plenty of it to go around.)

I asked Snyder what she thought of the hair-splitting between titles that have “-man” as a suffix instead of a stand-alone word, a distinction that seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me. In response, she made an interesting point about pronunciation and the evolution of language. In some cases, we don’t pronounce A in “man” as clearly as we might have once, saying something more like “mun” instead. These words, she says, have become a separate entity, not the sum of their parts. “Airman is like that,” she says. (Say it in your head—you kind of say “airmUn,” whereas Superman, who is a man-man and also super, gets the full MAN treatment.)

That is to say, perhaps the second syllable in airman and other such words can morph a tiny bit to lose its gender component. Such a shift in meaning has precedent. The “-or” suffix used to mean you were talking about a man (as in “aviator”; the feminine version used to be “aviatrix”). Now it has no such connotation.

Another linguistic bone to pick here isn’t related to the armed forces or to job titles, but it does involve the language we use when we talk about people. Remember the comment above about the standards being lowered for females? And how the male marines had to carry their packs? The commenter there is using female as a noun and male as an adjective. It’s a linguistic tic that others have noticed, and it’s especially telling in this context. It says that women are there to be something (breeders, cooks) and men are there to do something (hunt, fight, carry packs).

This isn’t the kind of language you can change bureaucratically, but it strikes me as far more insidious to unit cohesion than the retention of airman or rifleman in Marine parlance. Yes, there’s a certain historical sexism tucked in there, but it’s also kind of cool. The way calling female superior officers “Sir” in Star Trek is kind of cool, even though that coolness factor has some sexist underpinnings. (Voyager commander Kathryn Janeway famously prefers to be called, simply and badass-ly, “Captain.”) Referring to a human woman as a female like she’s part of a marmoset breeding pair, well, it makes the speaker sound more like Worf.

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What Happens When You Take ‘Man’ Out of Marines