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How to handle cultural issues in creative writing

By October 5, 2020No Comments

by Bobbie Christmas

Q: In light of racial and LGBTQ issues, various terminology is changing to more sensitive language, avoiding words and phrases such as master, grandfathered in, slave, etc. In camera units, for example, “master and slave” are replaced with “sender and receiver.” Real estate boards are dropping master bedrooms and instead using owner’s room, owner’s suite, primary bedroom, or main bedroom. I understand that recently Merriam-Webster even changed gender use in narrative from “he/she” to “they.”

I introduce my female protagonist as a wine master. The title originated in the UK at The Institute of Masters of Wine. As of 2019, 394 men and women worldwide have achieved the prestigious title of wine master. While not an academic degree, it equals in years to that of a PhD, and the tuition is the same as a private university. Accomplished individuals may use the initials MW after their name.

A fellow writer pointed out that the professional title of wine master has gender issues and may also be insensitive to African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves. The protagonist is asked about her profession and qualifications for judging wine, to which she replies, “I’m a wine master.” This is the term used in publications.

Granted mystery readers may be unaware that the person serving wine in an upscale restaurant is an expert. Perhaps many readers have never heard of a master sommelier or wine master. I don’t want to offend anyone in this day and age of sensitivity. If this is the title earned and bestowed upon a female from a highly regarded institute, how can I possibly change the recognition? In wine classes I attend, male and female teachers introduce themselves as wine masters.

I researched and could not find anywhere that the institute had any inclination to change the term “master” to anything else. Would it be better to eliminate “wine master” and say, “I teach viticulture” or “I sell wine?”

I never considered myself prejudiced, but in recent years I’ve discovered my cluelessness when it comes to insensitive word choices, and I don’t want to offend anyone.

A: First let me say that sometimes no other word works, as in the case of terms such as “man-made.” “Person-made” won’t cut it. What would a decent substitute possibly be, without being awkward?

Next I’ll say that Merriam-Webster’s decision to accept “their” as a singular pronoun to avoid awkwardness or insensitivity doesn’t mean the pronoun should always be used. The dictionary folks didn’t strongly advocate its use, simply accepted it. Its use can often be avoided by using plurals instead. The seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style addresses the issue as well. It acknowledges that normally a singular antecedent requires a singular pronoun, as in the following: The child was happy he received a gift. Because he/his is no longer universally accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of unspecified gender, though, the reference book acknowledges that some people substitute “they” or “their” for the pronoun in speech and informal writing. Yes, the resource specifies only dialogue and informal writing. The Chicago Manual of Style goes on to say, “While this usage is accepted in those spheres, it is only lately showing signs of gaining acceptance in formal writing, where Chicago recommends avoiding its use.” An easy way to avoid the use of the singular they or their is to change the noun to a plural when feasible. The children were happy they received a gift. The children left with their gifts.

Last I’ll say that the term “master” has many definitions. Until we get a substitute for “master” in titles that refer to those who have mastered a subject, I can’t imagine what could replace it. The very definition of “master” is “an artist, performer, or player of consummate skill.” The definition does not specify the gender of the artist, performer, or player. Although the word can be defined as one who in charge of slaves, it is not always used with that connotation. I could be wrong, of course, because many of us are unaware of our prejudices.

My best friend is a cross-cultural trainer who teaches intercultural teams how to work together. She sometimes gives team members a test that reveals people’s hidden prejudices, most of which they are unaware. In that vein and as a disclaimer I admit I was born cis gender and grew up in a white, middle-class world, so I can’t know what people of other cultures or orientations feel, think, and experience.

I am impressed that you want to be sensitive in your word choice, and I hope all of us become aware of the words we choose to speak and write. For now I can confidently say that if men or women go through years of training and become one of the world’s few wine masters, they should be allowed to use the term “master” that has historically been used to honor a person who has gained a high degree of skill. I am, however, open to what others think and welcome suggestions.


Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.

Bobbie Christmas

Bobbie Christmas

Editor Bobbie Christmas is your book doctor. She can also be your mentor, ghostwriter, copywriter, and writing and publishing consultant. After spending decades writing and editing for a living, Bobbie became a much-sought-after seminar and workshop leader. She began Zebra Communications in 1992 in Atlanta, Georgia, to provide professional editing services to publishers and to writers like you.

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