I try to be good. But it's hard.
Recently I used the word seamstress in a column. Then I stepped back and waited for the sky to fall. It didn't. The letters and emails and telephone calls of protest didn't come flooding in. Either no one read the column, or those who did didn't mind. Should they have done?
The word seamstress denotes sex. And even though I used it accurately - the woman I was referring to was, as it happens, a woman - it is now unfashionable to distinguish between a male and a female practitioner of an activity that either could practise.
It wasn't always so. Time was when people spoke of, for example, lady novelists, authoresses and poetesses. The implication was that women wrote of whimsy and trivia, domestic matters and affairs of the heart. And that these were less significant that the things men write of, such as hunting, fighting and God.
Of course it was never mentioned that social strictures prevented women from hunting, fighting and preaching - oh, what deprivation - about God. Nor was it acknowledged that for most of us, men or women, domestic matters and affairs of the heart are the stuff of life itself and that there is more steely truth in an ounce of Jane Austen than in a hundredweight of Robert Louis Stevenson.
But anyway, we're past all that now, and good on us. Writers these days are just writers, regardless of sex. Authors are authors, novelists novelists, and poets, with a few memorable exceptions, dreadful.
But the battle for sexual equality - or at least justice - hasn't been won yet. Men are still paid more than women. They're still more likely to be promoted, elected and listened to in meetings than women. They still run most things and their sexist attitudes linger in the language.
Consider the words actor and actress. They denote the same profession but connote different qualities. Actress has a hint of naughty that actor lacks. And actress suggests a younger person than an actor. Why? Because men lust after young actresses.
Referring to both men and women as actors, therefore, is a good thing. At the least it doesn't promote prejudice, and at best, in the long run, it may reduce it. And after initial resistance people get used to changes in the language. These days I can hear the word spokesperson without snorting and I no longer turn off the television if a cricket commentator speaks of a batter (though I haven't yet gone so far as to take an interest in women's cricket. It's just, no, stop.)
Local body elections - long live people power
So generally, as I say, I am all for the de-sexing of language. But then I bought trousers that were too long, and I looked for someone to shorten them and I ran slap bang into the word seamstress. It felt archaic. It felt wrong. It felt prejudiced. So I rummaged for an alternative.
My first thought was to call her a seamster. This had the advantage of neutrality, but the disadvantage of incomprehensibility. Language needs to mean.
Needlewoman is an honourable word that's as old as our species. Could I desex it and call her a needleperson? I could, but every reader would know I was avoiding saying needlewoman. And that would be worse than saying needlewoman.
I tried going back to basics. A seamstress is a person who sews. So how about I referred to her as - but no, the word sewer was already and unattractively taken.
So what title, I wondered, would a man who shortened my trousers refer to himself by? The trouble with that question was that there were no men offering to shorten my trousers.
I suppose I could have gone to a tailor, but for one thing he would have charged me five times as much, and for another I would have no doubt that he would have handed the trousers to a seamstress to do the actual work. Which rather proves the point: a tailor isn't a seamstress.
The word tailor derives from the French and means not one who sews cloth but one who cuts it, usually, as the OED puts it, for men's outer garments. Furthermore the word tailor is sexually neutral. There are female tailors, these days, who make suits for both men and women. But there don't seem to be any male seamstresses. Sewing, like childbirth, seems exclusively female. So I used the word seamstress. And if I did wrong, well, I'm not entirely convinced that I care.