Veteran sailors are in despair over a government proposal to give their profession a new name. For centuries, a sailor has been called a “sjømann” in Norwegian, regardless of his or her sex. But in an effort to modernize, bureaucrats now want to introduce the neutral term skipsarbeidstaker (ship employee).
Kai Lunde doesn’t like it. He’s chairman of Sjømannsforeningenes Landsforbund, an umbrella organization for various labour organizations in the shipping industry.
“Sjømann is a term of honor, carrying with it long and rich traditions,” Lunde told newspaper Porsgrunns Dagblad. “It would be meaningless to remove it from the language.”
“Gender neutrality is fine,” he added, “but there are a lot of women in our trade, and none of them have complained about being referred to as sjømenn (seamen).”
Could be confusing.
Lunde worries that the new term could confuse the seafaring profession with other workers who deal with ships, like shipyard workers.
The matter caused an uproar during his association’s national convention in Brevik, Porsgrunns Dagblad reported, with members angrily demanding that bureaucrats bury the proposal for all time.
It may be too late, however, to kill the bureaucracy’s new baby. The skipsarbeidstaker is already making its debut in new legal language for fresh regulations known as Skipsarbeidsloven prepared by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and also in documents circulating in parliament (Stortinget). The delicate choice of words is discussed in detail in government documents, (external link, in Norwegian), pointing out that the Maritime Labour Convention from 2006 uses the term “seafarer,” which makes sense in English but is hard to translate to Norwegian.
A timely topic.
According to Else-May Botten, a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party, all the individual sailor unions have considered the proposal, and none of them protested.
“This is not a construction by some desk bureaucrat,” she said in a debate with Lunde on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Thursday.
“Gender neutrality is a hot topic, not least when formulating professional titles. We believe skipsarbeidstaker is more neutral and future-oriented than sjømann,” Botten said.
“We would like everyone to feel included. For example, a term like pregnant seaman would sound strange to me.”
She got an angry response from Lars Vidar Moen, a tanker captain. In a Facebook comment, Moen said that if the term “seafarer” had been used, it would cover both male and female sailors.
Time for a u-turn
“To me, this is no joke. Here in Arendal, we’ve had seamen for 400 years, and a few bureaucrats are not going to change that,” Moen wrote, demanding that the government make a u-turn.
“If you don’t turn around, you’ll be remembered forever as the idiots who removed the term sjømann.”
The controversy comes amid a growing trend in Norway’s powerful bureaucracy to modernize terminology in many areas. But those progressive efforts, however well-intended, are often seen as uncalled-for solutions to non-existing problems, producing Orwellian, consultant-style language that is disliked by the general public, little used and sometimes even scorned. A typical response to such newspeak innovations would be, “why on Earth should we call it that?”
The current record-holder in this tricky field is a team of technocrats who ordered that Oslo’s public transport operator, known for 82 years as Oslo Sporveier, be renamed Kollektivtransportproduksjon AS. That name made the company a laughing-stock for six years until it was quietly replaced recently with the more familiar-sounding Sporveien.
If the skipsarbeidstaker gets to man Norwegian ships, veteran sailor Lunde said he’ll be curious to see what might happen to common titles in local government like rådmann and namsmann, and the mother part of the Norwegian term for midwife, jordmor.
Newspaper Morgenbladet has already asked what the future may hold for traditional sailor songs like En sjømann elsker havets våg. Not to mention the snowmen of this world.
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