Back in another lifetime, when I first got a “wicked big job” in a Dublin newspaper, there was already a hot debate about use of language which was insulting and often inaccurate.
The common news term at that time “housewife”, or “housewives”, was a case in point. Women working in the home were often depicted as “clamouring for bargains” or “up in arms” about some product or other which did not live up to advertised claims.
Well, the reality even then was that the term was demeaning and insulting to women, but it was also wildly inaccurate. Even back then I used to occasionally make my way from pubs or off-licences to buy some solids in a supermarket, or even more occasionally some textiles and/or footwear.
Not only that, but I often heard men a good deal older than me discuss supermarket prices in some detail. The media remedy was simple then: try “shoppers” instead – a short one-word term which did the job much better and avoided patronising and insult.
That was an easy one in the language wars which have continued and intensified as an important subset of the many justifiable battles for a fairer way of ordering human affairs and combatting unfair discrimination.
The reality is that simple words can become dangerous when they label some people in a way that insults or even excludes them from mainstream society.
But over-zealous and poorly thought-out efforts to pursue inclusiveness and equality via language and terminology are also a danger in themselves. Try this example.
The respected US global news agency, Associated Press (AP), recently tweeted its good editorial intentions for its writers as part of a revision of its style guide.
“We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanising ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated,” the AP tweet admonished.
Since when did being French, or college educated, become a slur?
As a lover of most things French, and one who does just about qualify to be described as “college educated” (but we won’t do too long a college story here – it’s for another day) I am among the legions of people puzzled on both scores.
French diplomats sagely chose to respond with humour, proposing they change the title of their Washington legation to the “Embassy of Frenchness”. AP deleted their tweet and conceded there was “an inappropriate reference to Frenchness”.
But “college educated” still appears to be on the AP warning list and this writer is left scratching his head about this and other taboo phrases. Now before the “political correctness gone mad” brigade mount the highest available dudgeon, let’s please give the venerable US news agency some credit here.
AP gets points for reflecting on language use and its impact. Let’s also remember that one person’s plain speaking can be another’s slur.
A few days after that AP style-guide incident, our colleagues in The Telegraph had American author Anna Taylor under the spotlight for highlighting phrases she deemed too harsh – and arguing such phrases promoted violent tendencies.
Taylor was urging people to avoid using phrases like “blown away,” or “deadline,” or “jump the gun,” or “roll with the punches,” or “straight shooter,” or even “not a bad idea.”
In journalism, they tell you early to avoid double negatives as they can puzzle the speedy half-engaged reader.
Ms Taylor’s insistence that “good idea” is preferable to “not a bad idea” risks stymieing a more detailed dialogue on whether something is worth pursuing – or requires more detailed assessment.
Overall, Ms Taylor’s efforts to link these phrases with the promotion of violence does seem more than a bit of a stretch. How can saying “not a bad idea” be linked to violence?
Since I have paid the bills for most of my adult life through the use of language, mainly English, but also Gaeilge and French, these questions are actually the stuff of life for me. I am not trying to trivialise, and certainly not trying to marginalise new and contentious arguments about the impact of the words we use.
One of my boyhood heroes, Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, very forcefully argued that much societal rot can begin with lack of care with, or abuse of, language.
Writing and speaking in the public domain is often a quest to find accuracy tempered by kindness and consideration. But undue efforts to sugar-coat reality can do more harm than good.
AP must get points for reflecting on how they use language – and how it has an impact upon the public at large.
Remember, these agency journalists’ output feeds into a host of national and international media outlets, and their presentation has meaning, which is both considered by other journalists and, very probably, also subliminally influential.
Let’s also remember that language use can often be judged very personally. So allow us to reiterate – one person’s plain speaking can be another’s slur.
Reality tells us there are three real problems with drifting towards undue use of euphemisms in discussing the problems which we face. First is that changing our language can slide into avoiding the urgency of finding remedies.
In the USA there is a move to call homeless people “houseless”.
However, calling “homeless” people “houseless” is no substitute for
giving them a home with a hall door which they can lock making a real home.
Second is that using plain – never crude – language helps identify the basics of the problems and the quest for remedies. Officialese has not often done this.
Third is that using language which is intended to be inclusive can actually alienate large numbers of well-disposed and well-intentioned mainstream citizens.
In summary, we generally need less – and very rarely more – jargon in our efforts to do a better job at ordering our affairs and solving economic and social problems.