Mind your language!

Last year I wrote a post on political correctness, and mentioned the occasional attempts to sanitise our language of all possible suspect associations. In fact, I should say that I am not against being sensitive with language and avoiding expressions that are clearly offensive, particularly terms that were once used to dismiss ethnic or racial groups. However, all this can be taken too far. At a recent meeting which was conducted in an atmosphere of considerable gloom because of current economic conditions one participant remarked that it was a ‘black day’. His neighbour suddenly perked up and delivered himself of a long speech about how it was ‘the very worst kind of racism’ to use such offensive language so carelessly. The offending original speaker was flustered and embarrassed but subdued. Certainly not a racist, he wasn’t sure how to respond without making matters worse. I came to his defence and suggested he had a track record of being opposed to racism, and after a little more shuffling around the meeting settled happily back into the appropriate gloom about matters economic.

As a recent report noted, this kind of over-the-top concern with identifying unacceptable expressions is not uncommon, and increasingly language commissars are active in stopping us from using terms that we should find offensive even when we don’t. This brings us to the sort of verbal gymnastics that results in renaming Manchester as Personchester.

I am absolutely of the view that the use of expressions that have a history of use in discrimination or oppression is unacceptable. But equally we should not drive this kind of thing too far, and above all should avoid contrived words that take us to almost comical lengths in order to avoid associations that nobody saw in the first place. In language as in much else, we should not let go entirely of common sense. So for me it is OK to talk about a ‘black day’ (though I wish we didn’t have any), as indeed I don’t see that an accusation of a ‘whitewash’ is reprehensible as anti-white racism. In other words, we should not amend our language on the basis of the assumption that good people ought to be offended, even when they manifestly are not. We should be sensitive with our language, but we should not allow the tyranny of a language police.

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6 Comments on “Mind your language!”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Well now, the word black was used originally to describe the Celtic peoples. In Scotland we have the Black Watch, who since their establishment were sited at Stirling where they could delay the Highlander from moving south. And when some SS-Dubliner speaks of beyond the Pale, is not on about the Fitz’s, the Butlers or the Burkes. Ah no, it’s the O’Tooles and the O’Byrnes that it was spitting vitriol about. And it must be said with a certain amount of reason.
    It the USA, the follow on from this is the attitude towards the peoples that live in Appalachia.

  2. Jilly Says:

    My own personal favourite (and I should declare that I speak as a feminist) is the replacement of ‘history’ with ‘herstory’. It’s a very 70s retro language-change, but you do still see it occasionally. Makes me collapse into giggles every time, though.

  3. Felix Says:

    Wow. This is weird. Although I can see racial undertones in some phrases I never considered “black day” to be one of them. I always thought it was a comparing some event or action to a dark, gloomy, winter’s day and how that makes you feel.

    Anyway I agree with what I believe is the essence of your post that we should not use language that causes offence, but we equally should not jump through hoops to address a possible offence that does not in truth exist.

    • Vincent Says:

      A Black day, was a day when the Scots or the Irish could get up right close to the Norman English. It meant that the day had closed in and visibility was down to a few feet. It also meant the Watch atop of a Keep needed to be a short lad, for on a black day a taller chap was very likely to end up with a quiver full of arrows in his eye socket. So, you could say it was racial.

  4. Hugh Says:

    Here’s a couple of posts that you might be interested in on the subject of taking and giving offence:

    http://dubito.org/blog/2009/07/society/taking-offence-part-i/

    http://dubito.org/blog/2009/07/society/taking-offence-part-ii/

  5. Big Bad John Says:

    Some time ago a colleague took issue with me because I referred to the woman with whom I live as “my wife”. This person felt that I ought to have called her “my partner”. Needless to say I am still living with my wife.


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