Vital Signs

Faith of Our Forepeople

So, at this big funeral the other day for a local real-estate executive, the congregation is preparing to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”  Great old hymn, yes?  Glad expectations arise.  That is, until the second verse: “Christians, we are treading where the saints have trod.”  Wait now—didn’t it used to be “Brothers”?  Sure did.

A lot of used to be’s mark English usage in an age grown too comfortable with the presumed need to conform language to the ideology of feminism, with its cultivated disdain for words that savor of male dominance or whatever.

The New York Times’ recent obituary for Kate Swift explained how this lady, coauthor of The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, helped American society entangle its collective tongue in crude and adversarial exercises on the order of “Christians, we are treading . . . ”

What’s wrong with that, you ask?  Aren’t the folk who sing it Christians?  Generally.  There’s this, additionally, though: Putting the whammy on male nouns and pronouns—as Kate Swift enjoined and feminists came to expect—doesn’t even make political, far less literary, sense.

All this business dates, naturally, from the 1970’s, when Swift and her, er, partner (the Times’ word) Casey Miller came to contemplate the sad state of public...

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