2022 – the year of language myopia

Recent years have witnessed some bizarre verbal gymnastics with the English language. Remember ‘alternative truths,’ meaning lies, and ‘fake news’ for truthful reporting. What has struck me in recent months is the wave of dictating vocabulary choice under the guise of not offending people. Sure, political correctness did a lot of this going back to the 90s. With PC, people started using new terms to describe groups of people as these groups wanted to be described themselves. Example: ‘handicapped’ became ‘disabled.’ This was about avoiding offence. What I’m seeing these days is different, and I have to say as a linguist, rather annoying.

Stanford University, following in the footsteps of other US institutions, launched ‘The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.’ These are guidelines for their IT department and page creators of the university’s website. Among the gems that have been thoroughly ridiculed in the press are instructions to not talk about ‘flogging a dead horse,’ or ‘killing two birds with one stone’ since these expressions ‘normalise violence against animals.’

These list makers clearly do not know that these are idiomatic expressions, or dead metaphors. With use and overuse, the literal meanings and underlying comparisons have been lost. Flogging dead horses is merely a more colourful and colloquial way of saying that some effort or continued action is a waste of time. Training or working with horses is for most of us urban dwellers an old-worldly idea from storybooks and films. Any literalness is far removed from our lives. And does anyone really think that when someone kills two birds with one stone that any feathered creature could be in harm’s way?

I’m even more perplexed and again annoyed by this Stanford group advising its IT staff to refrain from calling themselves ‘webmasters’ because ‘historically, masters enslaved people, didn’t consider them human and didn’t allow them to express free will, so this term should generally be avoided.’ These language dictators are not acknowledging that words change their meanings over time. A ‘master,’ whether they are master chefs or master craftspeople are experts who have worked hard or mastered (to use the verb form) their disciplines. Incidentally, if people want to prescribe language used based on etymology or historical use, the word master comes from the Latin magester, which meant not only a master, but also a teacher or leader. Speaking of etymology, the word picnic is apparently offensive because of its supposed origins. Some people believe that the word ‘picnic’ came from ‘pick a N-word’ (if I were to type the N-word, even to refer to it as a lexeme, WordPress would put an offence warning on this blog). The word’s origins actually come from the French and had nothing to do with lynching or slavery, just the custom of eating together outside. Reuters did a noteworthy factcheck on this. This is not to say that picnics weren’t associated with racist lynchings in America. At their height in the early 20th century, these horrible events were community celebrations, and most were done with the full knowledge of local law enforcement.

Brandeis University has included picnic on its offensive word list to staff communicating with the public. This has rightly been mocked by among others, writer Joyce Carol Oates, who pointed out: ‘while the word “picnic” is suggested for censorship, because it evokes, in some persons, lynchings of Black persons in the US, the word “lynching” is not itself censored.’

I do wonder if these prescriptive language dictums are the result of workshops with PowerPoint slides and groups huddled around flipcharts imagining scenarios of possible offence. The results make word lists into language offences themselves.

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