Vocabulary: Staff, Team, Crew, and Gender

A couple of months ago (or longer…I didn’t write down the date)  I saw a discussion on Twitter of the need for gender-free terms to use in space-related activities.   Most of us (and certainly at least half of us) are aware that the old agreement that “man” and “men” included “woman” and “women” was, basically a lie.    That usage included women only when men found it convenient not to have to add “and women” to something, and the rest of the time it did indeed mean the male of the species, exclusive of the female.   (Which is why we needed a separate Constitutional Amendment to allow women to vote.   It was a bad compromise to start with–it lent itself to the fourth-term fallacy in logic, for instance, when the same word can mean two different things and thus cause confusion and even invalidate a logical argument. “Man” did have the advantage of its traditional use as a verb as well as a noun, and replacements for it should (ideally) share that ability.

Women started pushing back on that, and gradually publishers and editors began devising, or picking up, gender-free terms for published work.  But they did so reluctantly and without really considering the audiences involved.   For instance, since publishing houses and magazines have “staffs,” they quickly moved to using “staff” in many cases were “man” or “men” had previously been used.   Years back, I had an enthusiastic editor make that change in one of my military SF books, so that  “Man the guns” (a traditional military usage)  became “Staff the guns,” a usage that would’ve made any military reader throw the book at the wall.  I argued hard, and won, keeping the usage.   (Far enough in the future, it could be that isolated mil-specific usages like that could survive and not be considered sexist.  Maybe.)

The more recent discussion, including astronauts and journalists covering space and astronomy,  led me to think more about this issue, about the vocabulary we already have to distinguish those whose occupations are very different.  Who has a staff?  Who has a crew?  Who has a team?  Who has a group?   Who has a gang?  Some terms are used in more than one setting, but there’s always a term that’s not OK, and a term that’s always OK in that context.   When there are multiple possible terms, the usual cause is a recent incursion by biz-speak to make “teams” out of something, because the sports metaphor is supposed to engender “spirit.”  (Suzette Haden Elgin wrote decades ago that the dominant energizing metaphors in the US were the wagon train and football.  Any wagon train or football reference would “work” for most Americans.  Not sure about the wagon train one now, but the football one is still live.  Idiot talking heads on TV refer to “Hail Mary pass” and “fumbled the ball” in discussions of politics.)

Here are some basics on vocabulary of “groups working together” that should be considered for non-gendered terms in specific occupations, with their most common current usages.

Staff: hospitals, hotels, restaurants, large stores, bureaucracies.   Staff can also be a verb–to supply staff for such an enterprise.  Staff (military and political) are support positions for “line”…non-combat in the military, non-authority in politics.   Within the staff of one institution, there may be teams (surgical team, in  a hospital, event planning team in hotel)  that do one kind of thing.

Crew:  transportation carrying groups of people, weapons, cargo.  Thus trains, ships, aircraft, spaceships, the International Space Station.  Also used in construction of those working on one project together.   All these have one person in command, and a crew with specific duties.  In military trains/ships/aircraft, everyone aboard is part of the crew.  In civilian usage, passenger vessels have passengers (not in the crew, no defined duties) and crew.

Team: sports,  business in its rah-rah team-building mood,  sometimes in R&D (design team) especially in STEM fields.   A team has a defined and often simple* goal (win the game, build that playground, design that new aircraft).  Teams within staff are limited to the team’s assignment.   * Does not imply easy or trivial, so put your hackles back down.

Group: alliance of previously independent entities, common in business.  Informal “groups” nearly always organize into something more resembling a team or crew when they want to get something done.

Gang: in mining, a group of miners working in the same part of the mine, on the same shift.   Any group of workers (blue-collar) led by a foreman.   A group of criminals working together.  A group of children/juveniles in a neighborhood.

So for writing about space, spacecraft, and missions in space (including the first-contact phase of settlement) “crew” is the best choice.   The ISS isn’t “staffed” but “crewed.”   Some have objected that it sounds like “crude”  and thus can be mistaken when spoken, but we have a plethora of words that sound alike and people know which one is which by context.  “John and Mary will marry on Saturday.”   (In some dialects, yes, Mary, marry, and merry do not sound alike.   Where I grew up, they all do.)  There are others.   Their sounds are just alike.  They’re confusing only when you’re a child and learning to write the right one in the blank in your workbook.   “The next launch will carry a crew of four, but the one after that won’t be crewed” should be clear by context.   Or we could use “crewless.”    “We don’t have enough environmental techs to crew that new space station.”

The journalists joining in the discussion earlier this year pointed out that they could not use a word like “crewless” because it’s not in the dictionary their editors use, and their editors would change it.  But new words enter the language all the time.   And it occurred to me that one way they enter the language is via science fiction.  Because science fiction and fantasy writers are allowed to create and use neologisms and some of them become popular enough to be used by anyone.  (Consider how fast the fossils of small hominids became “hobbits” in the scientific discussions.  And how ubiquitous the word “robot” is.)   So I had the idea of using the ungendered terms in my science fiction, as a way of making them accessible to journalists who are too bound by editorial conservatism to allow use of a word not in their dictionary.   And wrote to my editor, who agreed that I could use the “crewed/crewless” pair in the next book out, instead of “staffed/unstaffed”.

Both the context of the book itself (is it military-themed?  Industry?  Transportation?  Bureaucratic?) and the likely audience for it should be considered when choosing terms.   The most-used terms for the context should be used if not inventing wholly new ones.   (In other words, don’t “staff” the weapons or “crew” the hotel.)

I  welcome additional input from astronauts and others actually involved in space exploration.  I expect to be writing more books, and I know other writers who might also be co-opted into helping the language you want get into dictionaries where journalists can use it.


7 thoughts on “Vocabulary: Staff, Team, Crew, and Gender

    1. Andrew: Crew-served weapons do of course have crews, but I don’t think “Crew the guns” will work. I think “To your guns/weapons” or “Crews to your weapons (since, actually, spaceships are more likely to have torpedo-equivalents and non-mass-weapons than actual guns) are more likely substitutes. There are others that I think will roll off the tongue more easily than “Crew the weapons. That’s because crews are already assigned–it’s the actual stage of readiness that’s wanted. “Ready weapons” is a substitute I may use.

  1. I thought that “uncrewed” was already in common usage: uncrewed vessel, uncrewed flight, etc. At least NASA seems to have been making the effort to replace “unmanned” with “uncrewed.”

    On the general topic — I’ve always enjoyed the way some of your fiction assumes development of gender-free usage for e.g. “sir.” For that matter, I recently referred to Dorrin’s position in a discussion on liturgical language. (All of the participants are subversively feminist enough to publicly support Roman Catholic Women Priests, but we differ on how much rewording we think is necessary for inclusiveness. I’m a bit of a fossil, since I prefer not to delete all hymns with “Lord,” and am uncomfortable with what “My kindom is not of this world,” as a replacement for the sexist “kingdom” version, might imply for other aspects of inclusive theology.)

    1. Kathy_S: Uncrewed is now in use by NASA, but what I was told concerned journalists whose editors insisted it couldn’t be used because it wasn’t in the dictionary. SF words DO get in the dictionaries, at least some of them, so using it in books is a way to get it into dictionaries. And I remain an old fossil on changing every single bit of fossil language. A lot of the new stuff is awkward and ugly (not talking about the gender neutral so much as some other…um…unfortunate phrasings.) If the meaning is not obscure, leave it alone. (Manger, for instance, is still a word in use in agricultural settings–horses have mangers–so “feed box” is an urban person’s guess at simplicity when simply telling children “Manger is the right word for something horses and cows eat out of” would fix the non-problem.) I think “kindom” is stupid and looks like a typo. Kingdom isn’t sexist: it’s the right word for an entity rules by a monarch (it’s a kingdom even when presided over by a queen because it’s a political term.) It’s like the ignorant throwing a fit about history thinking the “his” comes from gender, when the Greek alphabet didn’t have an H and used a breath mark to indicate the sound we use H for.

  2. Not “Man (or crew) the guns!” but “Action stations!”. (“General quarters!” maybe wouldn’t work for all readers.)

    More group vocabulary – shift (“watch” at sea), squad, cast, party (boarding party, for example). Which latter reminds me that whereas the sales team may be all rah-rah, project teams are made up of specialists seconded for the occasion from different departments, with day-to-day command/reporting lines cutting across the organisation chart.

  3. Not answering your specific writing question, but I’ve been interested to see that on black Twitter, “posse” is used for a group of friends and peers who help each other. I first saw it in reminiscing about blogging days, and the posse members helping each other into the work world, with advice on problems and leads to better jobs. Seems to be gender neutral, too. Sometimes, it’s just a group of good friends who hang out, but usually, there seems to be more purpose.

    1. People use a wide variety of terms for informal groups of friends/peers. But in fiction, words are perceived differently. “Posse” to many readers will mean a group gotten together to chase down one or more bad guys. In our area, law enforcement (rural mostly) still uses the term.

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