Messing with the Lyrics

It’s safe to say Stephen Harper and his team didn’t quite anticipate the brouhaha that greeted their recent speech from the throne promising to “examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem.’’

It’s no secret that the majority of Canadians were adamantly opposed to messing with lyrics such as “all thy sons command”. And, while I know I’m rowing upstream on this one and it makes me nervous to put it in writing, I have to admit I’m siding with Harper in thinking it might have been a good idea. After all, there is tremendous power in language.

I was taught about the importance of words by our youngest son when he was a nine year old. Up until then I was one of many who really didn’t think using gender-neutral descriptions was all that important. After all, words are words. What did it matter that a chairman was sometimes a female or that some policemen were women?

However at that point in time we were in the middle of municipal elections and my young son made the assumption that because elected officials were known then as aldermen that women were not eligible for the position and only men could run for election. While it was logical reasoning for a nine year old, he was simply interpreting the word aldermen. At one point in history, he would have been correct but of course that, thank goodness, is no longer the case. It showed me the importance of gender neutrality, clarity, and using words that don’t have the potential for being misunderstood. 

Gender neutrality is important because it is more respectful but also because it is simply more accurate. It is more accurate to refer to police officers rather than policemen just as it is no longer accurate to say “all thy sons command”.

Apparently this is a hot button for a lot of people. Others, like my husband, feel it’s a non issue. He argues that in his head he knows that even if he says policemen he recognizes that some of them are women. He also knows that Canadians aren’t just sons. But my point is that we shouldn’t have to translate or interpret the meaning of words in something as important as our national anthem. Wouldn’t it be much simpler to use words that are accurate? 

Sure the changes would be a bit tough. I stumbled the first few times I used the term councillors instead of aldermen and chair instead of chairman but it doesn’t take long to make the transition. I also do understand that people want to hang on to what they see as sacred and meaningful. But perhaps what is even more essential is that we have an inclusive and accurate national anthem that every Canadian can sing with pride. If changing a few lyrics contributes to that pride, it’s a small price to pay. I’m thinking we might be able to get over it.

Posted on 03-14-10

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