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Watch Your Language: City Seeks Neuter Form for ‘Manhole’

May 8, 1990

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) _ A manhole by any other name could be a ″person entry,″ ″exit port″ or ″personhole,″ contestants say in a tongue-in-cheek, city-sponsored bid to find the neuter form for the scruffy iron fixture.

Prompted by the sensitivity of the city council’s female majority to feminist issues, the Public Works Department called for suggestions to replace the familiar appellation. Responses - much to the astonishment of city officials - have come in from all over the world.

The winning synonym for Sacramento’s 26,379 circular lids is expected to be announced Wednesday night at a council meeting.

″The calls came in from everywhere,″ said Christine Olsen, a city spokeswoman. ″But it’s not really a formal contest. It’s just that some of our Public Works people had ideas for a change and it got blown out of proportion.″ She said she had no estimate of the number of entries.

Many people are calling with ″lewd and offensive suggestions,″ and others angrily want to know about ″the women who are taking over the city council,″ said a city receptionist. An employee at the city sewer department, listed in the telephone directory under ″manhole covers,″ said the controversy ″has really had no effect here. It’s all over at the council.″

Interest in the issue rose after city civil engineer Randy Witt suggested at a council meeting last month that the city hold a for-fun Manhole Terminology Change Contest to spur interest on the engineering staff.

One newspaper headline said the city was ″Blowing the lid off sexist ‘manholes,‴ while another proclaimed that a ‴Tempest in a Manhole’ sweeps city.″

A radio station in Hamilton, New Zealand - Sacramento’s sister city - held a renaming contest in which ″sewer viewer″ captured the top prize. Other New Zealand nomenclature included ″peoplehole,″ ″peephole″ and ″underground service access (USA) hole.″

The nine-member city council has had a five-member female majority since last fall’s elections, including Mayor Anne Rudin, who lauded the Public Works Department for ″keeping up with contemporary standards.″

But Olsen said the panel did not order any changes in the terminology used by the department.

″We’re all just kind of amazed,″ Olsen said. ″We’ve really been getting a lot of calls, and they seem to think that the female majority on the city council ordered the change to non-sexist language. That’s not true. Actually, somebody saw the term ‘manhole covers’ in an internal report and said, ‘Hey, maybe it’s time we made this change,’ just for fun, and ask around and see if anybody has any ideas on on what to call them,″ Olsen said.

For years, Olsen added, many city workers have referred to the 2-foot- diamete r lids as ″utility covers.″

″For decades, the Public Works Department employees were largely male, so the department has been making a concerted effort to have women participate in some of the non-traditional jobs,″ she said.

″It’s not insignificant,″ said Deborah Franklin, a fund-raising coordinator for the California chapter of the National Organization for Women. ″We feel language is of importance. They are not holes for men, they are holes for sewers.

″But if you suggest a change, immediately there is this uproar, people saying, ‘Oh, those women. There they go again.’ Some people are threatened in something as simple as changing the names of manhole covers.″

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