Go to contents

[Opinion] Expressions Discriminating Women

Posted May. 03, 2008 08:50,   


There is a 1947 American movie entitled “Gentleman’s Agreement.” It features a writer who is offered by a magazine to contribute an article about anti-Jewish sentiment in American society at the time. For the sake of the article, the writer, who is not Jewish, passes himself off as a Jew. Shortly, he is haunted by discriminations he has never faced before. His son is vilified as a “dirty Jew,” and he finds himself turned away at a hotel in front of a woman whom he falls in love with. In the end, the article turns American society upside down.

In the movie, “gentleman’s agreement” refers to the anti-Jewish sentiment that nobody at the time challenged. On the surface of it, this term highlights the importance of being truthful. But it also means a secret agreement that no one wants to reveal as manifested in the movie. So if a man is mentioned with the term, he feels dishonored. Recently, the National Institute of the Korean Language under the Culture and Tourism Ministry has pointed to the term as an example of representing male superiority on the ground that there is no such term as “lady’s agreement,” and has presented the “agreement on honor” as an alternative. Along with this, the institute took issue with 5,087 expressions that are in common use.

Some make sense but others don’t. For example, the institute picked some adjectives, including “baby-faced,” “unyielding,” “feel soft,” and “effeminate” as terms that evoke gender discrimination. But it fails to present a convincing case to support its argument. In the example of “one son and two daughters,” and “father-in-law and mother-in-law,” they are parallel expressions rather than indicating gender superiority. There is no change in meaning when the order of the words is reversed. It deserves attention that most people call their parents “mom and dad,” rather than “dad and mom,” in this regard. Why not suggest change “Bu-Mo” meaning father and mother to “Mo-Bu”? “Donggeonyeo,” meaning a woman living together without marriage and “neyeonnyeo,” referring to a lover, are used along with “donggeonam,” and “neyeonnam.” But the institute said the former two words are discriminatory. If there is a problem with “jipsaram” meaning a wife, “baggatsaram,” meaning a husband is also wrong in the same manner.

Words are cultural products that reflect the times. If we try to judge them with today’s perspective and standards, we cannot grasp the real meaning. This attitude is likely to result in the lack of expressions. Correcting wrong expressions is something to be recommended but driving this effort into gender confrontation should be avoided. If they raise the issue with “cheonyeojak” and “cheonyeobihaeng,” whose English equivalents are a “maiden work” and “maiden flight,” they might also have to fix the English. It seems that the institute’s well-intentioned moves will end up depriving our language of plenty of expressions that are beautiful and full.

Editorial Writer Yook Jeong-soo (sooya@donga.com)