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Quest for a Noun

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Don Quijote and Sancho Panza.
Don Quijote and Sancho Panza.
(Image by Wikipedia (commons.wikimedia.org), Author: Gustave Doré  (1832–1883)    )
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I give up! I gave it my all, but my romantic pursuit crashed and burned. Should've gone searching for surviving Dodo birds on some isolated tropical isle--might've at least found mummified remains.

As an aspiring writer, all I sought was a simple noun--one that was grammatically correct, and satisfactory from a literary standpoint, as well.

I searched in vain for a simple word, that succinctly summed up the very best qualities of the human race. For most of our history, that word was Man.

Man was created in the image of God. Erring sons were long admonished to "man up" to their transgressions, to "take your punishment like a man". "Are you a man or a mouse!" Women were exhorted to "think like a man". Barbara Streisand's stirring hit during the Women's Lib era pled for stout-hearted men, who could accomplish anything, sticking together man to man.

My quest began with high hopes after emerging from the literary bog of the Great American System of Justice, in which ponderous Legalese lags contemporary literature by generations; splitting infinitives still raises eye-brows and [sic]s abound with maddening frequency. I knew the noun I sought existed--or at least had been updated. Like Rip Van Winkle waking from his 20-year sleep, I'd be dazed by intervening changes but would eventually adapt.

Political correctness wasn't my goal. If so, I could substitute a genderless "human", "person", or "individual" to personify human-kind. Such nouns are factual, but not particularly inspirational, or even descriptive. Besides, what is acceptable today will likely soon be damned by zealous advocates of various communities. As the need for inoffensiveness increases, so do the necessary qualifiers and syllables. It's complicated.

My quest was further challenging because it's now accepted that gender itself is a spectrum, not an absolute (apparently foreseen by Mencken almost 100 years ago, who described "a person of the female persuasion"). Personally, I'm adamantly hetero-sexual; but I identify with my nurturing Mom, not my authoritarian preacher-father. That probably makes me a "Q" in LGBTQ--I'm still Questioning what the hell I am!

How do I know what pronoun to use, besides "his" or "hers"? His/hers, or alternating hers/his in an attempt to be even-handed, is clumsy. "It" or "its" is concisely gender-neutral, but maddeningly vague. "It" could mean anything, from an amoeba to God. Guess I could adapt Mencken's approach, and reference persons of either the male or female persuasion, but that's awkward.

I didn't feel apologetic about my confusion. State legislatures are wrestling with re-designing legally valid marriage certificates. Is "Bride" and "Groom" too gender-specific and antiquated? Who's designated as the "Mr." and "Mrs." or "Ms."? Which name's listed first? Current thinking favors a politically-correct document liberally sprinkled with check-off boxes that can be custom-engineered. One wonders how romantic a marriage certificate will be, if an attorney has to be consulted for its completion and interpretation.

Sexual equality, long over-due, has contributed to the extermination of Man's gender-specific idealization. We've certainly advanced beyond the French, who fiercely debate whether or not centuries-old masculine nouns should ever be feminized; e.g., address a female Cabinet member as la ministre, or the traditional masculine noun, le ministre.

Perhaps the lack of modern-day synonyms that update the power of Man can also be blamed on a general degradation of our language. "Awesome" isn't awesome any more. Once, it was rarely invoked, except to describe the awesome Majesty of God, or the awesome grandeur and beauty of the Grand Canyon. Now awesome means--whatever. Maybe we need an Academie Francaise to police the language and prevent such atrocities. (Damning the younger generation for society's ills is a hallowed tradition, dating back to Socrates.) I'm definitely not wasting my time on another solo crusade, searching for a suitable replacement for awesome as I remember it.

Of course, it's barely possible that the "manly" virtues themselves--courage, resourcefulness, honesty, and righteousness--are quaint anachronisms and the true power of Man, like that of "awesome", reposes in the literary dust-bin.

I did find a lone Man survivor 10 years ago. Unsurprisingly, it was in archaic Legalese.

An exasperated Federal Judge issued an Order chastising all the attorneys in a lawsuit. She first opined that if she were an elementary school teacher, she'd require each one to write on the blackboard 500 times the dense boilerplate outlawing their pathetic games. After several pages of turgidity, she admonished that "You are better men and better lawyers" than their conduct demonstrated. Judge Peggy Keen was female, so she used the noun in its most noble sense, not a sexist one. Also note: she said men first. Not lawyers .

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Richard Green is a former IRS agent who lives in Henderson, Nevada.

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