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Don’t blame words, they’re innocent

Comment by students at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds ANL-151025-114649001
Comment by students at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds ANL-151025-114649001

As you read this, A-level exams are hurtling towards those of us in Year 13. As a student of English Language, I have spent two years reading and writing about how it works, how it is used and how, inevitably, it changes.

In fact, one of the fascinating facets of English is the battle between those we call prescriptivists – who insist there is a ‘right’ way to use the language – and those known as descriptivists. The second group includes many linguists, who observe the changing ways that English is used without making value judgements. The battle occasionally erupts into the columns of newspapers, often to do with questions of political correctness. One of the most amusing issues to come to light since I’ve been paying attention is the question of ‘Spotted dick’. It’s a dessert, right? Well, apparently not, as we welcomed ‘Spotted Richard’ as a replacement for what someone thinks is an ‘embarrassing’ phrase.

So, we are not supposed to call one of our nation’s favourite desserts by its legitimate name, while US presidents can use sexual epithets on live television, in front of millions with, seemingly, no repercussions. Why this dichotomy?

It is clear that language itself is not the problem. Language is a deep well of thousands of years of thoughts and cultures. Each word is innocent. It is the way we choose and use those words that gives them their meaning. Context is all. Nowadays, the term ‘golliwog’ is offensive and, for many, incomprehensible. But only 30 years ago, the cartoon representation was the trademarked logo of Robertson’s jam.

A school in Seattle renamed Easter eggs ‘spring spheres’ to avoid causing offence to those who did not acknowledge the Christian celebration. This certainly is political correctness gone mad, but to be sensitive to your audience and to use appropriate language is not necessarily political correctness. It is simple courtesy.

In normal day-to-day discourse, politically correct language is generally funny rather than dangerous. The use of expressions such as ‘vertically challenged’ for ‘short’ and ‘living impaired’ for ‘dead’, or attempting to neuter the word ‘mankind’are genuinely funny – and this sort of super sensitivity is becoming increasingly common. It may now be considered offensive to refer to ‘fireman’, ‘chairman’ and ‘craftsman’, but taken to its logical conclusion, offence may soon be taken to words such as ‘German’, ‘manslaughter’ or ‘gamesmanship’. This is where, I think, we tip over into manifest nonsense.

In Victorian England, it was politically unacceptable for someone to ‘show a leg’, and the legs of furniture such as pianos were covered. Nowadays, that is quite clearly ridiculous, but who is to say that today’s political correctness will not be equally laughable 100 years from now?

Perhaps political correctness is impossible to define. An American High Court Justice once said he could not define pornography but added: “I know it when I see it.”

Perhaps the answer to the question “Has Political Correctness Gone Mad?” is, “I can’t generalise, but I know it has when I hear it.”

-- Beth Mottram is a student at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds


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