August 26, 2022

NY Governor Kathy Hochul last week signed into law legislation that replaces the term “salesman” with “salesperson.” The bill was sponsored by (surprise!) two Democrats, and its intent is to remove “gendered,” “antiquated” language, to promote “inclusivity” and “diversity,” and to “recognize the contributions of women and non-binary persons.” The bill also mandates “him” and “her” being replaced by “their” in statutes that relate to the real estate industry.

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Well, speaking as person who for years made his living as a salesman, and for even longer as a Boardwalk Pitchman — which is a subset of salesmanship, in the way that being a marksman is a subset of being a rifleman (and I can only hope that neither of those terms will be legislated into taking the “-person” suffix!) — and as a writer with a keen sense of semantics, I’m here to tell you that there is a clear semantic distinction between “salesman” and “salesperson,” and the latter is in no way a replacement for the former.

It’s a matter of replacing the right word with an almost right word, allegedly for the sake of not offending someone’s delicate feelings. It really serves no one, and serves the English language (which is capable, perhaps more than any other, of expressing precise concepts) least of all.

Mark Twain touched on the value of precise language when, alluding to a similar remark made by his fellow humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw (who wrote as “Josh Billings”), he said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter –’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”

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It makes perfect sense, for example, to replace “fireman” with “firefighter” because, in the proper context, “firefighter” is a more precise description of what the job entails; “fireman” remains the right word for someone who stokes a furnace.

But Arthur Miller didn’t write “Death of a Salesperson.” And the real estate agents depicted in David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry, Glen Ross (although they were hardly role models for the profession) weren’t salespersons, either; they were salesmen.

Just because a word ends in “-man” doesn’t necessarily make it gender-specific. The “-man” suffix is just a convention of language that has served us well for centuries. We speak of “man” or “mankind” (as in “One giant leap for mankind”) and no sane person thinks those terms are limited to describing only those with XY chromosomes (even though, according to current language revisionists, the very terms “man” and “woman” and even “male” and “female” are no longer clearly defined by whether one has XY or XX chromosomes). I submit that “salesman” is not a “sexist” term.

I’ve known plenty of women who were salesmen, and they were proud to identify themselves thusly, and it never compromised their femaleness nor their femininity. And saleswoman is semantically more akin to salesperson than to salesman; no one studies or writes books about the art and science and psychology of Saleswomanship.

A salesperson is essentially a clerk, an order-taker. With all due respect to folks who are employed in such manner, any zhlub working behind a retail counter or holding a clipboard and an order form can be called a salesperson. A salesman, on the other hand, employs a skillset that frequently involves prospecting and qualifying and, most importantly, closingwhich involves the techniques of overcoming objections.

But perhaps even more important is that the salesman, rather than just “winging it,” controls the interaction and makes sure that every word and gesture is deliberate, and calculated to move the interaction in the direction of the sale. We could say that the difference between a salesperson and a salesman is the difference between being reactive and being proactive.