7. Please Can we Have our Language Back?
Written May 2012
( This essay is an oddity, as it has absolutely nothing to do with science. It does, however, fit in with the general theme of commenting on stupidity! )
Elsewhere in these pages, I mentioned that my girlfriend, of many years, lives in Kenya. Just to clarify, she isn’t a British ex-pat; she is Kenyan by nationality, and East African by race. The only reason that I need to state that fact here is to establish context for the following anecdote.
Some years ago, when we were having breakfast in a hotel in Nairobi, my girlfriend, Irine, asked for a “black coffee”. I involuntarily sniggered; when she asked what was funny, I told her that in the UK, we are no longer allowed to say “black coffee”! Irine looked at me as if I was mad; she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. I explained that in my country, it’s now regarded as taboo to use various words and phrases containing the word “black” – such as “black coffee”, and “black spot” – which are supposedly offensive to people of ethnic minorities.
Irine listened to this in literally jaw-dropping amazement; her reaction indicated that she had seldom, if ever, heard anything so ridiculous. Out of curiosity, I asked her, “When you were at school, what did you call the thing the teacher wrote on with chalk?” She predictably replied, “A blackboard!” Well, it’s a board, and it’s black; what else would you call it??? Yet this innocent word is now completely outlawed in my country; the “approved” replacement is “chalkboard”. ( Strangely enough, the word “whiteboard” is still perfectly acceptable! )
So if terms like “black coffee” and “blackboard” are so offensive to black people, then how come English-speaking Africans still use them without a second thought? And if “accident black spot” is similarly offensive, then why is it still used on road signs in Kenya? DUH!!!! Perhaps it’s because English-speaking Africans still do speak English, and not the mutilated, over-sanitised gibberish which has all but replaced that language in the country of its origin!
I hope the reader will by now have realised what my point is. I shall emphasise here that I am not, in any way, racist! Nor do I have the time of day for people who are. As well as Irine, who has been my girlfriend for over two decades, I have had, over the years, many, many friends within the UK of “ethnic minorities”, and also made many friends in diverse parts of the world. Today, one of my closest friends in my own country is black, another Chinese, and I have several friends of Indian and Pakistani ethnicity.
But at the same time, I have no time at all for the proponents of so-called “political correctness”, who insist on finding racism where none exists! And I especially hate the way in which our language has been consequently mangled beyond recognition, by the real life equivalent of George Orwell’s “Thought Police”. As a writer – albeit an amateur one – I’ve always prided myself on my command of the English language; it pains me to have to witness the gradual, but seemingly inexorable, transformation of my mother tongue into an Orwellian Newspeak.
[ Update, December 2017: As of 2017, I am in fact a published author. As well as self-publishing my own science fiction novel, I’m now contracted to write an annual feature for the highly respected Yearbook of Astronomy. ]
What I’m describing here is, of course, what most people understand by the term “political correctness”. The principle of not using language which genuinely is racist, sexist or otherwise offensive is simply common sense and common decency, and doesn’t need to be given a name!
All this linguistic insanity was begun in the 1980’s, by the left wing councils of certain London boroughs, which were soon dubbed the “Loony Left” by the media. Within the limits of their own jurisdiction, these wannabe dictators not only encouraged the aforementioned rewriting of the dictionary, but enforced it; they actually made it a sackable offence for council employees to use any of those arbitrarily “unacceptable” words!
In one even more ludicrous case, one of those councils even tried to ban Irish jokes, which it claimed were “racist”!!!! Er – what???? I guess it didn’t occur to these cretins, that the best Irish jokes are invariably originated by Irish comedians; while the people of most countries pick on another nationality or ethnic group to ridicule, the Irish could teach them all a thing or two, about the ability to laugh at themselves. In this respect, they are equalled only by Australians.
As if that isn’t mad enough, another council – and I kid you not – banned infant schools from teaching children the nursery rhyme Baa Baa, Black Sheep…
To make it all even more absurd, I’m not aware of any black person, ever, actually complaining about the use of any of those words. All this stupidity was begun by a handful of white people, who unilaterally decided that those words were offensive to black people – without having the common sense to ask any! And had they done so, they would have been told, “Don’t be so ridiculous!” I’m not speculating here; I know this for a fact. In the ‘80’s, when it all started, I was working in London, and had a good friend who happened to be black, and who worked for one of those very same “Loony Left” councils. She considered the whole thing utterly barmy, and confirmed that those responsible had not even thought to ask the opinion of their own ethnic colleagues!
Did it not occur to these idiots, that if people of any ethnic minority actually did consider any particular word or phrase offensive, then they might have said so? It was as if they thought that the poor sensitive black people couldn’t stand up for themselves, and had to be protected. My friend also confirmed that many black people considered this patronising stupidity far more offensive than the non-existent “racism” it was supposed to prevent. ( There is still, sadly, far too much real racism in the world, without having to invent it! )
Nor did the loonies stop at non-existent racism; they also launched similar assaults on non-existent sexism, resulting in similar mutilations of the language. Many “feminine forms” of nouns indicating professions, such as “actress” and “manageress” now seem to be outlawed ( though “waitress” and “stewardess” are apparently still acceptable ), while nouns ending with “man” have been replaced with ridiculously clumsy “gender-neutral” alternatives. For example, “fireman” has become “firefighter”, “spokesman” has become “spokesperson”, and “chairman” has become “chairperson”, or simply “chair” – the latter also being pretty silly, as the same word is used to mean the position occupied by a chairman! And some people even insist on replacing the word “mankind” with “humankind”!
( I guess it must be embarrassing to these people, that they can’t do anything about the great many English surnames which end with “man” or “son”! In recent years, one outspoken advocate of political correctness has been the Labour MP Harriet Harman – who was inevitably dubbed by the media, “Harriet Harperson”. )
This particular aspect of political correctness also stinks of hypocrisy. Think of a profession which has always been predominantly, but not exclusively, female. It’s somehow still perfectly OK for senior nurses to be called “Sister”…
And so it continued. After tackling non-existent racism and sexism, the Loony Left went on to try to ban anything and everything, which could conceivably be construed as offensive or insulting to any kind of minority, or to any definable group of people. This included banning innocent children’s stories and fairy tales - such as Snow White, because the word “dwarf” is offensive to short people, and Enid Blyton’s famous Noddy books, because they feature a character called “Big-Ears”! Again inevitably, several people have lampooned all this by writing entire books of “politically correct fairy tales”, including such gems as Snow White and the Seven Persons of Below Average Stature.
Despite being regularly and repeatedly ridiculed in the media, a lot of this insanity has somehow actually caught on, and continues to pollute the language to this day. Indeed, we now have an entire generation who have been indoctrinated with it all from childhood, and don’t know any different.
Nor is all this limited to my country. Much of the same sort of thing is happening throughout the English- ( or now pseudo-English- ) speaking world, and especially in the United States. The American PC brigade have apparently even outlawed the word “housewife”, replacing it with the ludicrously contrived “homemaker”!
There is one particularly annoying consequence of this madness, which now pervades almost every aspect of written English. One slight problem of the English language is how to refer to an unspecified person, whose gender is not known – such as when documents refer to “the customer”, or “the policyholder”, etc. We don’t have any “gender-neutral” pronoun, which can be used to refer to people in the singular; we only have masculine and feminine ones. Colloquially, it’s commonplace to use the normally plural word “they”, when referring to an unspecified person in the singular – but this is pretty clumsy. A fairly common practice in written documents is to write “he or she”, or “he/she” – which might be OK if it just appears once or twice, but if it’s used in every other sentence, it becomes ridiculous.
So until recently, it was a generally accepted practice, for the sake of brevity, to simply use masculine pronouns when referring to a person of unspecified gender. In legal documents, where everything has to be precisely defined, there was always a statement to the effect that “the use of masculine pronouns shall be taken to apply to both genders”; in any other kind of writing, it was simply taken for granted. But in recent years, someone, somewhere, decided that this simple practical necessity was offensive to women. Consequently, it has now become the norm to use “she” to refer to an unspecified person – while it clearly doesn’t occur to the PC Thought Police that this could be seen as equally insulting to men! We now see this everywhere, but there is no rational reason for it whatsoever; it’s just a pathetic case of “political correctness for its own sake”.
Another annoying example of “PC for its own sake” concerns my favourite sport, the “Noble Art” of boxing. Boxing commentators usually identify the two boxers, for the benefit of the viewers, by the colour of their shorts. When one boxer is black and the other white, they still do the same. But when both are wearing shorts of the same colour ( which isn’t supposed to happen, but frequently does ), the commentators will pick on some minor detail by which to identify them, such as “X has the white stripe on his shorts”, or “X is wearing white boots” – bending over backwards to avoid simply saying, “X is the dark-skinned guy” or “Y is the white guy”!
This is especially ridiculous, given that many black boxers give themselves nicknames which refer to their ethnicity, such as “The Dark Destroyer”, “Brown Sugar”, and – for one who is fighting at the time of writing – the decidedly non-PC “Kid Chocolate”. ( In the past, such politically incorrect nicknames were often bestowed by white journalists, whether their owners liked them or not – but today, most boxers choose their own. ) In 2002, a fight took place between two heavyweights, whose nicknames formed a quite comical combination – “The Black Rhino” versus “The White Buffalo”!
It’s as if it has become absolute taboo to make any reference to a person’s race or skin colour – but why? Don’t get me wrong; I’m definitely not suggesting that we should revert to using certain old-fashioned racial words, which undoubtedly were offensive, and which have been rightly consigned to the rubbish bin of history. But there is nothing offensive or racist about simply referring to a person as “black”, or “dark-skinned” as a factual description, as long as such words are not used in an offensive context.
Yet another pathetic case came up some years ago, in the field of – would you believe – astronomy! A brief bit of background is required for this one. Astronomers group stars into a number of “spectral classes”, denoted by letters, based on their temperatures and characteristics of their spectra. These classes, going from the hottest to the coolest, form the sequence OBAFGKM. ( It began as an alphabetical sequence, but evolved over time – extra classes were added, some removed, and some were found to be in the wrong order – to end up with that odd-looking list. )
Since the 1920’s, astronomers throughout the English-speaking world have remembered that sequence of letters by means of the mnemonic, “Oh be a fine girl, kiss me!” But during the ‘90’s, some female students in the US actually campaigned to ban lecturers from teaching that harmless phrase, because they claimed that it’s sexist! Did they really have nothing more important to worry about? ( And apparently, it never occurred to them that women could simply replace “girl” with “guy”… DUH!!!! )
Finally, the rise of PC lunacy has led to numerous absurd cases of people getting into all kinds of trouble – sometimes losing their jobs, or doing irreparable damage to their careers – for saying the “wrong” thing – even when what they actually said was completely innocent. I’ve heard of a particularly moronic case, which happened a couple of years ago, somewhere in the US – in which a local government employee was reprimanded at work, for using the phrase “black hole”!!!
The story goes, this ( white ) fellow made some remark about his city’s finance department being “like a black hole”. One of his “African-American” colleagues, who apparently didn’t know what the term meant, objected to it, and made a formal complaint. Even more absurdly, his manager actually upheld the complaint, and ordered the “offender” to apologise to his colleague!
Er – apologise for what, exactly??? For using a phrase which his colleague didn’t understand? Surely the vast majority of people today have at least heard of the term “black hole”, even if they don’t know exactly what it means! For the last three or four decades, black holes have featured far more in the mass media and popular culture than virtually any other scientific concept. When I was at school in the 1970’s, the idea of astronomers trying to prove that black holes - which were then purely hypothetical - actually existed made it into the popular press and TV news. They have featured – often naively presented as “monster” objects, which “swallow” anything which comes too close – in countless science fiction films and TV series; even Disney, in 1979, made a “family” film ( i.e. intended for children ) called The Black Hole, with an advertising slogan of “You can’t escape the most powerful force in the Universe!”
To prove the point, as I write this, I’ve just Googled “black hole”; it returned 67 million references! ( It took me about 30 seconds to find that slogan for the Disney film. )
So while most people obviously don’t know the exact scientific definition of what a black hole is, they probably do have at least a vague idea, in simple terms, such as “something from which nothing can escape” – and would therefore "get it", if someone likened a finance department to one! Effectively, a totally innocent man was reprimanded by his boss ( who, if equally ignorant, could have enlightened himself with a one-minute Google search ), and forced to apologise, for the fact that his colleague had a deficient English vocabulary!!!
Enough is enough! We have all been forced to live in Cloud Cuckoo Land for far too long. It’s time for us all to resist the brainwashing, stand up to the self-appointed Guardians of Newspeak, and salvage our language from its deathbed, before it’s too late!
Postscript – January 2022:
This linguistic madness has now taken a new and sinister Orwellian turn, which makes me very angry. The PC brigade are now quite literally trying to force their “approved” Newspeak onto everyone else.
It has been announced that the latest version of Microsoft Word includes a “PC checker”, which uses a spellchecker-like algorithm to automatically “correct” words for political correctness! For example, it will change gender-specific terms, such a job titles, to gender-neutral ones.
I’m not using the words “Orwellian” and “Newspeak” lightly here. This is exactly one of the things Orwell imagined – the Big Brother dictatorship engineering the language to control how people must think!
Another example, which has been pointed out, is that it will replace “mankind” with “humankind”. Think for a moment about the implications of that one…
This means that it will “correct” one of the most iconic quotes in history. Neil Armstrong did not say, “one giant leap for humankind”!!!
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