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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: March 2013

7 - Where common sense comes from and where it hides


In the early 1970s some feminists told a story that went something like this:

A man and his young son were driving on a steep mountain road during a torrential rainstorm. Coming around a particularly sharp curve, the man lost control of the car and he and his son plunged over the guardrail. Sadly, the driver was dead but his young son, though clearly seriously injured, was still breathing. The boy was rushed to a nearby hospital, where the head surgeon had been alerted for emergency surgery. When the boy was wheeled in, the surgeon exclaimed, “it's my son – someone else had better operate.”

Lots of those who heard this were perplexed. The story didn't seem to make sense. The boy's father had been killed, after all. The point, as many readers undoubtedly already realize, was to highlight the assumption that the surgeon was a man and thus the failure to realize that a mother might be a surgeon.

The word surgeon does not require maleness to correctly apply to someone. Because there is no contradiction in saying “she is a surgeon,” maleness would not be considered part of the meaning of surgeon on most linguistic theories of semantics. Nonetheless the word does, even four decades later, evoke a male stereotype. Such “meaningful” but non-semantic associations with a word are called “conceptual baggage” in McConnell-Ginet (2008). Covert gender and sexual ideologies of various kinds are loaded into conceptual baggage. They lurk in the back rooms of language use and shape how we make sense of the world, often without our explicitly examining them.