The bizarre controversy over "birth giver"
This is just the latest episode in the right's continuing attempt to win arguments by changing the rules of English grammar.
I usually don’t weigh in on gender issues since this just isn’t my field, but the right has become so singularly fixated on them over the past couple of years that if you spend any amount of time in the discourse, you’re going to encounter them. And one thing I keep noticing, in controversy after controversy, is that a lot of the right’s grievances about gender are really just grievances about semantics.
Just look at the recent controversy over the term “birth-giver.” The right has been up in arms over it for the last few days after Rage Against the Machine used it during their comeback tour in Wisconsin. Breitbart’s coverage was typical:
The next caption bizarrely referred to mother as “birth-givers,” kowtowing to the woke transgender mob that seeks to erase the word “women,” replacing it with new terms such as “menstruators” and “birthing people.”
The left is going to have a lot of predictable objections to this, but what strikes me is that this complaint doesn’t make even sense if you’re on the right. If you’re on the right, the logical thing would be to insist that terms like “birth giver” are fine — but only to refer to certain people. This is just an application of a basic rule of English which says that you can add the suffix -er, -ist, or -or to a verb to refer to that verb’s grammatical subject.
Thus a person who farms is a farmer; a person who games is a gamer; and a person who gives birth is a birth-giver. There is not, in any of these constructions, an implicit claim about who can farm, or who can game, or who can give-birth; all an agent noun does is identify an entity by an action it performs. Everyone understands this, and if we were speaking normally, the right would only dispute the term “birth giver” when applied to certain people.
But that’s not what’s happening! Instead, the right is insisting that the phrase “birth givers” is illegitimate in general. And crazier still, they are doing this by making all kinds of arguments that implicitly delegitimize all agent nouns. For example, no one would argue that the term “baker” is problematic because it fails to specify who can bake; no one would complain that the term “preacher” is a sinister expression of neoliberal commodification since it fails to convey the fullness of a given person’s humanity and exclusively identifies them by the fact that they preach.1 But these are the exact arguments we are hearing with “birth giver”.
Moreover, contrary to what the right will tell you, the term itself isn’t even remotely new. Nor is it remotely woke; in fact, one of the most common uses of “birth giver” is found in Eastern Catholicism as a title for Mary, the Birth Giver of God. This is a direct translation of the third century term theotokos, and it is in fact an important point of Eastern Catholic doctrine to distinguish between the concept of motherhood and the concept of birth-giving. The term is also occasionally used in reference to God, for instance in this 1870 missionary tract:
Neither the phrase itself nor the rule of grammar that creates it are even remotely new; what’s new is the right’s insistance that we can no longer say this.
It seems pretty obvious to me why they’ve invented this odd new rule. If people get to think for themselves about who the term “birth giver” correctly refers to, the public might not give the answer that the right wants. So to pre-empt that, the right has just decided to declare a new exception to the way that English normally handles agent nouns.
This is, in other words, yet another instance of the right trying to win disputes, not through rational argumentation, but by changing English grammar. Linguistically, it bears a striking resemblance to another rhetorical move I wrote about last year: the right’s ban on referring to people who have not received a vaccine as “the unvaccinated.” In both cases the right has declared an exception to the English’s ordinary procedure for referring to people with nominalized descriptions. And in both cases, this is not because the descriptions are necessarily inaccurate — there can be people who have not been vaccinated, just as there are people who can give birth — but rather because of odd objections that these terms are somehow demeaning or narrow. Objections that, if taken seriously, would logically delegitimize entire categories of the English language (agent nouns and nominalized adjectives).
I doubt that reactionaries will concede the political points I’ve made here, but the linguistic point is undeniable. “Birth-giver” is not a new term, the rule of English grammar that creates it is not new, and to concede that any group of people can give birth is to concede that the term can be used correctly. However one comes down on these issues about gender, an in general objection to these terms, and the meltdown over Rage using them, just doesn’t make any sense.
This is a particularly odd argument since Germanic languages have a long history of using this grammatical construction ([object] + [agent noun]) as an honorific: think dragon-slayer, oath-keeper, ring-giver, legend-killer and so on.