100 years ago today: What\'s in a name?

We can tell much about a society by examining the words that they use (and don\’t use) and how they use them. For example, consider, this short headline on the front page of the November 24 1911 evening edition of The World (New York): THREE YEARS FOR AUTOIST GUILTY OF MANSLAUGHTER.

First, the word \”driver\” usually means \”the person who drives that means of transport most common in society.\” Thus in this article WOMAN FOUGHT MOB OF 2,000 TO ARREST DRIVER on page 12 of the same edition of The World the driver the woman fought to arrest a man who was kicking the horse drawing his cart. Today the word \”driver\” will generally be understood to mean \”person who drives a car.\” If the vehicle in question is not an automobile then that fact will be clearly indicated in the text. (\”The driver of the tractor was not injured in the crash.\”)

In the America of 1911 automobiles were by no means rare but were still not the most common means of transportation for most people. If the headline had read THREE YEARS FOR DRIVER GUILTY OF MANSLAUGHTER it would not be clear to the reader of the time what type of vehicle had been involved in the accident. Because the word \”driver\” left ambiguity as to the type of vehicle involved writers used a number of words, such as autoist and automobilist.

Reading the newspapers of 1911 one soon realizes not only that automobiles were comparatively new and uncommon things but also they were viewed with alarm and concern by much of the population. Often the wording of the article implied/suggested either intentionalilty on the part of the automobile or that these machines were inherently difficult to control and therefore always dangerous. Often people are identified as being in the vehicle or riding it but there is no indication as to who (if anyone) was actually driving it.

  • FIRE CHIEF HURLED FROM HIS SPEEDING AUTO BY COLLISION / On Way to Blaze Langdon of Brooklyn and Chauffeur Are Tossed Over Fence (The Evening World November 24 1911 p. 3)
  • \”While returning from visiting a patient the automobile in which Dr. Claggett and Lew Ferguson were riding became unmanageable and the two were violently thrown out when the machine turned turtle\” AUTO TURNS, TWO ARE HURT (The Norfolk Weekly News Journal July 28 1911, page 1)
  • \”According to bystanders the automobile, coming along Third street and trying to turn north into Broadway, did not turn sharply enough and ran into the car, which was going along Broadway.\” WOMEN INJURED IN AUTOMOBILE CRASH / Mother and Daughter Thrown From Machine That Collides With Streetcar (The San Francisco Call April 7 1911, p. 11)

Second, let\’s think about the word \”manslaughter.\” As I wrote in my post yesterday (Questions of Personhood) even after gaining the vote, women still were not able to exercise the same rights and privileges of citizenship as did enfranchised men. Language was used in ingenious and slippery ways by those trying to find reasons why not to allow women to do (or not do) various things.

It had long been accepted that the \”people\” whose rights were protected in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution were both men and women. Legal figures did not argue that the 4th amendment\’s protection of \”The right of the people to be secure in their persons\” did not extend to women. When the law said that \”no man shall kill\” or \”no man should steal\” or \”no man should speed\” or \”no person shall kill\” or \”no persons shall steal\” or \”no person shall speed\” then it was understood that those restrictions extended to women.

However, when the law said \”all persons may\” or \”all men may\” then prevailing social/legal opinion as to whether women had the same rights as men depended on whether that action was one traditionally accepted as appropriate for women. A good example of this was the shocked responses to Mrs. Craig Biddle\’s decision to smoke in public. The problem wasn\’t that a person was smoking in public since men were allowed to do so. The problem was that a woman was exercising a privilege that had traditionally been enjoyed only by men. As I wrote in an earlier post, When Smoking is a Civil Right, attempts were made to restrict only the rights of women to smoke in public while continuing to allow men to do so.

In 1911 the exact meaning of the word \”man\” in legal documents seemed to vary on the basis of whether the right, privilege or protection undermined or supported the status quo. There were still many who wished to accord some of the rights and privileges accorded to \”men\” only to male human beings. And if you read the news in 2011 you will find that there are still many people attempting to do the same.


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