Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Dreaded 'Coed'

When coeducational colleges were still a novelty, female students at such colleges were often referred to as "coeds." As the '60s became the '70s, and the '70s became the '80s, the word did not age well. The term became virtually meaningless as same-sex schools became increasingly rare. Its use was ironic at best, sexist at worst, and the seemingly obvious original meaning got lost as people referred to women at non-coeducational schools as "Wellesley coeds" and "Barnard coeds."

I've used the word as a throwaway inclusion in copy-editing tests, including my contribution to this year's test for Washington Post copy-editing internships. This time it wasn't such a throwaway, as almost all the applicants let it stand. Only one flagged it with the red-pencil equivalent of the gasp it deserved. When I saw these results, a day after hearing a television reference to "coeds" that further eroded the original meaning by referring to students of both sexes, I started to think the word might be making a comeback.

The legitimate meaning of the word makes it difficult to use databases to gauge whether such a comeback is under way, but I implore you help me to nip this, if there is a "this," in the bud.


Frank said...

Maybe it's washing over from the porn world. It's used all the time in pornography.

or didn't you know that?

I think there may something nostalgic in the way pornographers use "coed".

Bill said...

The leering sexism that makes the word inappropriate elsewhere makes it perfect for porn.

David Moseder said...

According to Webster, the noun coed, coined circa 1893, means "a student and esp. a female student in a coeducational institution." So it can refer to students of both sexes.
I bet a lot of those copy editor hopefuls stuck a hyphen in there (co-ed).

Bill said...

Webster's New World, the official dictionary of practically all U.S. newspapers, says:

a young woman attending a coeducational college or university

David Moseder said...

I should have said, "According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary," etc. I doubt that whoever is still using this archaic term has consulted either dictionary.

Jacki said...

In an episode of The West Wing, someone accuses a guy of being too old to leer at college coeds. The guy reponds by saying he doesn't leer, and then adds, "Also, there’ll be plenty of grad students there." If we agree that coeds are female college students, wouldn't grad students also be coeds? Or do we now have to say that coeds are female undergrads?

Nick said...

Knowing "The West WIng," that was almost certainly a joke.