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The councilors are coming!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lewisburg's City Council has apparently reached consensus on how to refer to themselves and it's an area of language that's been the subject of newsroom debate almost everywhere for decades.

Now, at City Hall they're councilors. No more painstaking differentiation between councilman or councilwoman, or settling for the even more awkward "council person."

Until May last year, no woman had been elected to serve on the City Council here, although we're told there was a widow who served the unexpired portion of her husband's term. As a result, references to members of the Council were succinct; Councilmen did this and/or that.

However, since Quinn Brandon was elected last year, Mayor Bob Phillips has spoken of feeling awkward when he might misspeak and refer to Brandon as councilman as the word rolled off his tongue while rolling through routine business, acknowledging her motion or second to a councilman's motion, or other mayoral management over parliamentary procedures.

Councilwoman has been a conventional reconfiguration for the title, but apparently the City Charter makes no mention of Council members other than councilman or councilmen.

The same is true in Congress. Legally, Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood is a congressman and she uses that title. It's constitutional.

Brandon has been noncommittal about her title, explaining that it doesn't matter that much to her.

Now that Betsy Carothers Shelton has been sworn in, there are two women on the Council and she's entered with a suggestion that Phillips has embraced.

The gender-neutral title for members of Council is councilors and it can be spelled with two L's, according to Phillips' introduction of the title on June 10.

Phillips even referred to a definition of the title. Councilors are those who provide worthy advice.

That sounds like the term counselor, a reference to lawyers, as in those who provide legal advice and representation.

We plead guilty of wordplay when greeting Brandon at the Council chamber, addressing her as counselor, knowing she's an attorney who practices at the bar in a couple of courtrooms uphill from City Hall.

Clearly, a councilor is an elected representative, but we are unsettled on the title, having received newsroom counsel on the title councilor. For now, we're continuing to write about councilmen and councilwomen. No offense.

At one time, newspapers used courtesy titles: Miss and Mrs. They were convenient to make a distinction between a husband and wife in a second reference when a story included recurring mentions on what they could had done together. Some consider the tiles sexist. Still, sentences did seem to flow more smoothly in stories about, for example, a family camping trip when the daughter impressed her mother after she shot a bear invading the campsite. Now, first names are included to make such distinctions.

Another change in references arose in apparent response to the 1960s and/or the civil rights movement. It's now settled in news writing stylebooks that an African American is a black person, assuming race must be mentioned to make clear some aspect of a story. Both sound better than the term Negro, which carries negative connotations for some. In the 1950s, a Washington, D.C., newspaper serving black residents of the nation's capitol objected to other papers' references to race, frequently in crime stories. So, the paper started running stories about "President Eisenhower, a white man, who" did thus and such.

Now, we're considering the title councilors with two closing points:

* A relative who's a mother of and an aunt to youngsters of both sexes was at my niece's high school graduation party. The boys looked like idiots. Perhaps, the aunt replied, they're trying to be something they're not. The girls seemed mature, we agreed. Younger boys and girls are very different, she said.

Adults are different, too, so the use of the neutral term, councilors, might be over-reaching even though the difference between men and women is usually irrelevant at a Council meeting. Left-brain and right-brain thinking on city policy and operations is valuable, but let's turn to the closing point.

* What do our readers think about the title councilors? This may be a minor issue to most people, but it's come up and it's not being ignored. Let us know through our usual forum for comment. Letters to the editor are welcome.

If news writing style is to change, we may paraphrase an old movie title ("The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!") before next May's city election: The councilors are coming! The councilors are coming!