Jeremy Clarkson on car journalists and “generic he”

Jeremy Clarkson, Source:

Jeremy Clarkson (Source:

Jeremy Clarkson, whom many of us might know from the British television show TopGear, in his column of October 2013 worries about things other than cars.

Right. What could that be? you might think.

Well, from the outside, most of his text indeed seems to be about “the Maserati Quattroporte” (which is the title of his column) and objects from similar categories (he also refers to Audi Q5s, Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupés, and to “Elton John’s piano” to modify his comment on the Rolls-Royce).

But in addition Clarkson interestingly also briefly refers to the topic of sexist language as he discusses the role of the car journalist back in 1932:

“So the job of the car journalist was valuable. He – I was going to say “or she” at this point, but I don’t think it’s necessary – would puff on his pipe, listen to the engineer explaining why he’d mounted the propshaft to the steering column, and then write a long review of whether or not the solution had worked. These were the days before oversteer became the be-all and end-all of motoring journalism.” (Topgear Magazine, October 2013)


Mercedes racecars from the 1930s (Source:

Nowadays people think it is essential “to use language which implicitly or explicitly includes both men and women and makes no distinction between them” (Butterfield 2007: 67) when they refer to for instance a student, a client, a person; or, in the case of Clarkson, to a journalist. Saying “Each student should keep his fingers crossed” is currently regarded sexist language by many people.

Clarkson, in his column, jokingly tries to provide the reader with a sketch of a stereotypical car journalist from the 1930s, but as the dashes show he interrupted the process of writing. The TopGear presenter admits that he had to consider using the gender-neutral pronoun “he or she” rather than “generic he”. By explicitly writing down his hesitation, Clarkson shows that he is aware of the usage problem of sexist language. Still, he decides to go with “he” because using “he or she” would be problematical for the image he intends to create of this stereotypical 1932 car journalist.

After having read Clarkson’s column, I realise that I still know absolutely nothing about cars, but for some reason I would love to know more about car journalists that worked in the 1930s. Would you know whether there existed any female car journalists back in those days?

Butterfield, Jeremy (ed.) (2007), Oxford A-Z of English Usage. Oxford: Oxford UP.

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