Times have changed, why not our words?


I must start with a confession. Cardiff Metropolitan University has recently chosen to ban words they deemed politically incorrect. The list includes words ‘manpower’, and ‘sportsmanship’. On first reading, I found myself rarely, and rather worryingly, agreeing with the Daily Mail, who branded the decision as ridiculous.

I couldn’t quite place my finger on why. I suppose it amounted to feeling that this was a small, minute and slightly irrelevant detail in a much larger sea of problems in tackling marginalisation in society. However, I now see that I missed the point entirely.

“Political correctness has gone mad!”

‘Political correctness’ follows the basic principle of attempting, in both language and action, not to exclude or insult particularly marginalised groups in society. This, I think we can agree, is a good thing. Yet, it has become common practice to claim that ‘political correctness has gone mad!’ or some equivalent. The phrase is increasingly rolled out by critics at every instance someone attempts to deviate from the norm and push beyond a society’s comfort zone.

In some instances, these calls are justified. Decisions, such as the Tunbridge Wells city council banning the term ‘brainstorming’ as to not offend epileptics, can often seem ridiculous. As a result, those wishing now to collect ideas must take a brain shower. However, we can’t pretend this is a one-size-fits-all issue. Simply because some words seem ridiculous to change, it does not follow that we cannot address others.

“Words have a tremendous impact”

It is impossible to deny that, even in 2017, women are marginalised. There is still very much a pay gap between men and women for doing exactly the same jobs. Women are dramatically underrepresented in top positions in large companies. There are, for example, more men named John running FTSE 100 companies than there are women. Clearly, our society has a problem with ingrained misogyny. It, therefore, seems perfectly reasonable to point to language as being a player in this, certainly not the biggest, but a player nonetheless.

Words have a tremendous impact, an impact that is all too easily glossed over with cries for people to be less ‘sensitive’ and ‘grow a backbone’. The words that we use without thinking go some way to further instilling misogynistic tendencies within us.

Perhaps, it helps to contextualise this. Before I began writing this article I had not thought about the way in which at school we commonly refer to male teachers as ‘Sir’ whilst female teachers are assigned ‘Miss’. Little is thought of this, but ‘Sir’ is a phrase clearly connoting power whilst ‘Miss’ is a symbol of their marital status. This is ridiculously outdated.

There is no doubt that embarking on a mission to shift language to address the implied dominance of men would result in cries of ‘political correctness gone mad’ from the Daily Mail and co., yet these must be ignored. There is no genius, undiscovered way to tackle the plague of inherent sexism, perhaps our best plan should be to simply throw things at the wall and see what sticks. Replacing words which inherently present male dominance, is one such method which may help us move a little closer to an equal culture.

“This is about making society an equal place”

This isn’t to say that this experiment is perfect. Phasing out of gendered language and replacing it with more inclusive words, such as firefighter instead of fireman and manpower with human resources, must be slow and gentle. Aggressive implementation will be likely to only heighten the noise from the ‘Anti-PC’ camp, and nobody needs that. I can’t vouch for every single one of Cardiff’s suggestions and approved terms, though I now understand where they are coming from.

This is not about being offended or about making people’s lives more difficult. This is about replacing outdated terms in order to make society an equal place. This won’t be the final step, nor is it even close to being the most important, but addressing outdated, gendered language does resemble a small, but nevertheless an important step in the right direction.

Tomer Raphael

Image courtesy of ‘Trevor’ via Flickr.

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