09:09 PM EDT May 18



By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online

Like buoys marking treacherous water, complaints bob up from time to time over language used in CBC stories.

During the past year, concern has been raised about fisher. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage dismissed the term as "archaic" more than half a century ago, but the word has been revived by some journalists trying to avoid a sexist suffix.

Here is a typical objection:

April 25, 2000

Please, oh please, stop using the word "fishers" when you mean "fishermen" on your newscasts. It drives me wild.
I know I am not alone.

Dave Brown
Burlington, Ontario

Repent seems a bit strong, especially since Christ is quoted by Matthew as saying "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." On the other hand, a review of CBC policy may be called for in order to clear up some confusion about the two words.


In the fall of 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling on native fishing rights (The Queen v. Donald Marshall, Jr.).

As word spread across the country, debate over a word raged inside the CBC. To avoid the sexist noun fishermen, should we call people with boats and nets fishers?

Messages appeared on an internal e-mail system used by the corporation's news and current affairs staff. Some people simply passed on complaints from the public — pointing out that men and women had phoned newsrooms from sea to sea demanding the CBC stop using the word fisher.

A few employees shared first-hand accounts of outraged fishermen skewering them as spineless meddlers. One producer said her newsroom had banned fisher because women in the industry "are proud to be called fishermen, a la chairmen." Another producer scoffed at this position, sarcastically suggesting we start referring to police officers as policemen again.

Several journalists challenged the very idea of adopting a term that members of a group refuse to use themselves. Here are two of the notes that were sent:

As a person who grew up in Nova Scotia, and wouldn't know a "fisher" if one bit him on the ankle, it's nice to see a small debate developing about the overuse of an ugly word. Because it bugs me.

A couple of years ago, when the use of "fisher" was still relatively new, a woman in Newfoundland's fishing industry reacted with disdain when she heard it applied to her . . . . I think we make almost every person who works in that industry, on both coasts, cringe every time we use that word.

If we can't even call them what they call themselves, how do we expect to have credibility when we report stories involving them?

Brian Currie
Senior Writer
Newsworld Reports, Toronto

Every time I hear the word "fisher" I cringe. Even worse, the term "non-native fisher" has crept in and it sounds truly, truly bizarre.

These people (men and women) were fishermen for all those years, generation after generation, and now that the CBC has got hold of them they are suddenly "non-native fishers".

The terms are urban, technocratic, precious, racist, and above all imprecise. Why don't we call them all what they call themselves? Micmacs call each other Indians. Fishermen call each other, well, "fishermen". Let's do the same.

Dan Leger
Executive Producer
Newsworld, Halifax


As the tide rose against fisher, senior journalists waded in. The executive producer of The National at the time, Kelly Crichton, advised people to consult their Journalistic Standards and Practices book — which tells staff to "use generic terms for both men and women." Here's an excerpt from her memo:

These are the standards we are required to adhere to as journalists employed by the CBC. They were not arrived at lightly but after much debate . . . . They are founded on principles of fairness and equality, and a journalism free of bias.

The term "fisher" has been used by The National desk for more than two years. Yes, we get some complaints. Yes, some of them are from people who are employed in the fishing industry. Yes, some of them are from women. But the number of complaints and their origin is entirely in keeping with complaints at other times when, now routine, gender neutral words were first used.

Kelly Crichton
Executive Producer
The National


It wasn't long before the discussion moved outside the corporation. The National Post ran a story quoting the head of the Maritime Fishermen's Union, who said the organization had no intention of changing its name but didn't mind the CBC trying to be "more inclusive" by using the word fisher.

Soon the Washington Post and some other U.S. newspapers were running articles about language imposed by a "government-owned" broadcaster, with headlines such as "Canadians value free speech, but only so far". The Seattle Times, for example, noted that "amid last month's violent protests in New Brunswick over Indian fishing rights, CBC reporters on orders from network officials began referring to participants as 'native fishers' and 'non-native fishers'."

The debate now included words such as "censorship", and not just south of the border. In a biting commentary called "That's 'fisherman' to you, son", newspaper columnist and CBC broadcaster Rex Murphy referred to "language police," as well as "gutless" and "sly political correctness."


Before looking more closely at the CBC's position on fishermen, it might be helpful to cast a glance backwards for context. More than a millennium ago, the word man meant human being. A male was referred to as wer in Old English, while a female was known as wyf.

Although wyf stayed with us, forming words such as wife and women, wer did not. It has survived in a few terms, such as werewolf, and its original Latin root (vir) lives on in words such as virile. For the most part, however, wer has disappeared from our language. The result: unease over the unoriginal noun that took its place — man.

The problem is highlighted in the following sentence: "Don't write about Man, write about a man." E.B. White's advice to other authors may be sound, but it's also considered sexist by many people today.

The word man, despite its origins, no longer implies all the wers and wyfs all the time. It can be as exclusive as a men's washroom, and leave some people feeling more than a little pissed off.


Slowly, many writers have begun chipping away at the mountain of sexist terms in the English language, from "mother nature" causing earthquakes to "gentlemen's agreements" solving problems. One of the first targets to crumble was the verb man, as in "volunteers will man the pumps if there's a flood."

Substitutes were found for many nouns and adjectives too, especially those describing professions — police officer for policeman, firefighter for fireman, and letter carrier for mailman.

A few academics cautioned zealots not to go too far, pointing out that the presence of the letters m-a-n don't necessarily constitute sexism. For instance, the words manual, manipulate, manufacture, and mandate all come from the Latin term manus, which means "hand". But elastic language is a cherished hallmark of every democracy, and it wasn't long before some groups were lobbying to change the spelling of women to womyn, and turn history into herstory.


Sexism in language can be very subtle. More than 100 years ago, for example, some writers and editors were arguing that we needed a neutral, singular, third-person indefinite pronoun to replace words such as his and hers. Numerous proposals were made, including thon (1884), hes (1935), hse (1945), tey (1972), hir (1975), E (1977), and hiser (1984), but they never caught on. So, today, sentences such as "a doctor should respect his patients" are often recast with plural nouns and pronouns ("doctors should respect their patients") to avoid a sexist slant.

Few people have objected to the trend. And many writers now make an effort to avoid terms that are chauvinistic — for example, replacing forefather with ancestor, foreman with supervisor, or freshman with first-year student.

But some words have caused writers and editors grief, including baseman and ombudsman. Proposed alternatives, such as second baseperson seem too forced for comfort.

According to many Canadian media outlets, fisherman falls into this category. "There is not an entirely satisfactory substitute for 'fisherman'," observes The 1999 Canadian Press Stylebook, "although 'fisher', 'fish harvester', 'fish industry worker', 'fishing licensees' or the phrase 'fishermen and women' are all possibilities."

Angler is not an option because the word (which originally meant "hook") applies to people who use rods for fun not nets for a living. While CP doesn't rule out fishermen, it does point out that the term might not be "accurate" in some contexts — citing the caption under a photograph of Inuit women trying to catch salmon as an example.

The Globe & Mail's 1998 Style Book is much more blunt: "Avoid fisher, except in direct quotes. We encourage inclusive terms, but women in the fishing industry on both coasts have made it clear they call themselves fishermen, and take strong exception to what they regard as a bureaucratic, politically correct term."

There has been no guidance from Ottawa, where ministers of the Crown have been doing both the back stroke and the front crawl in a pool of political correctness. In the past two years, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has issued news releases that mention fishermen, fishers, and fish harvesters.

Fisherman and fisher are both listed in most major dictionaries, and have been around for centuries. Indeed, fisher was the preferred term years ago, and is found throughout the King James Version of the Bible. But that doesn't make it any more palatable to people who choke on it today. Archaic terms such as worder (which in the 1600s meant someone who chattered) still surface in some reference books, yet few people use them.

This may explain why the 1998 Canadian Oxford and the 2000 Canadian Gage dictionaries define fisher as a type of weasel or a valuable pelt first, before they get around to mentioning people who catch cod, lobster, and the like. Both publications point out that definitions are listed in the order of "comparative familiarity." The CBC, in fact, has broadcast stories recently about Nova Scotia's fisher population, and they all referred to four-legged creatures with fur, not men and women with boats.

It's interesting to note that Webster's puts humans before martens and weasels in its description of fisher, suggesting perhaps a regional difference. The order of definitions, of course doesn't mean that fisher is a good label for arboreal carnivores in Canada and a bad one for people. But it does underscore the challenge of trying to resurrect an old term.


Despite the Supreme Court's decision in the Marshall case, the fight over native fishing rights drags on. So, too, does the debate over fishers and fishermen within the CBC.

Contrary to claims in memos sent to some staff, the CBC does not insist on using fishers. In fact one could argue that the corporation's policy states the exact opposite.

The 1993 CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices book lists about two dozen terms that should be avoided (for instance, it says anchorman should be shortened to anchor, cleaning lady should be cleaner, salesman should be sales clerk, and lady doctor should simply be doctor.)

While fisherman is not included, that in itself does not necessarily mean the CBC endorses the term. The examples are intended to show editorial staff how to avoid "sexual bias" in stories, and do not constitute an exhaustive list.

On page 160, however, the policy does clearly state that journalists should make exceptions to "bias free language" under one key circumstance — namely, if people want to be referred to in a certain way.

"Courtesy dictates that individuals be addressed or designated according to their wishes," the manual says. "Accordingly, if a woman prefers to be known not as the chairperson of the board, but as the chairman, her preference should prevail."

Given the torrent of complaints by men and women in the fishing industry, one could tenably conclude that fishermen is not merely acceptable on the air and on the Web, but that the "preference should prevail."


A few weeks after the foofaraw over the word fisherman in 1999, The National ran several stories about West Coast longshoremen being locked out, even though the synonym dock workers was available. Since then the program has broadcast a few reports referring to fishermen, including a documentary about dwindling snow crab stock that aired on the National Magazine in April, 2000.

Some journalists with CBC Radio continue to use the word fishermen. CBC News Online also prefers the term. One producer with CBC Newsworld won't approve scripts that mention fishers unless the reporters are talking about weasels. Paradoxically, anyone who wanted to complain about these stories would be directed to the corporation's ombudsman — a Swedish word that entered the English language very recently (in 1959), when we should have known better.

It is foolish to claim that fisherman is acceptable based solely on etymology. As mentioned, the word fisher has old roots of its own. Also man simply doesn't mean what it used to (human being) a millennium ago.

To argue we have an obligation to hang on to a suffix to preserve the purity of English is both spurious and sexist. The Feminist Critique of Language (2nd Edition, 1998) puts it this way: "The suggestion here is that the language 'itself' should be respected and protected, often, it appears, at the expense of respect for half of its speakers — i.e., women."

It is this last point, however, that cuts two ways. We must not cling to old words and expressions if they insult half of the language's speakers, readers, and writers. At the same time, we should not foist words on women who consider the terms both unnecessary and disrespectful.

Based on the nature of angry phone calls and e-mail, fisher appears to rile some West Coast and Atlantic Canadians in a unique way. It goes well beyond the initial lukewarm greeting given to terms such as firefighter and letter carrier. It is perceived as an attack against a proud tradition by outsiders who don't know or respect the culture.

The Globe & Mail's position is clear. The CBC's own official policy is open to interpretation. But one logical conclusion is that fishermen is the right choice until women in the industry start calling themselves fisher. If recent wrath over the word is any indication, we shouldn't wait with bated breath.

(August 24, 2000)

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