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The crazy battle to police language

Or, as you’re supposed to say now, she’s a risk-taker. Jim Carrey in Yes Man (2008)

Everyone has an “equity-language guide” nowadays, says George Packer in The Atlantic. At the Sierra Club, an environmental nonprofit, employees are told to avoid the words stand and Americans, because not everyone can stand and not everyone in America is American. Likewise blind and crazy, even in figures of speech, because they’re insulting to the disabled – who, incidentally, should really be called people living with disabilities. And that’s just the start of it. Urban, vibrant, and hardworking are examples of “subtle racism”; you guys should be y’all; using battle and minefield out of their real context is disrespectful to veterans. Other big institutions are just as bad. Part of the University of Southern California has abandoned fieldwork because field “could be associated with slavery”. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors once tried to replace felon with justice-involved person.

It’s easy to laugh at this vocabulary policing. But “condemned words are almost never redeemed”, and this whole approach is robbing our language of its power. By avoiding offence, you end up saying much less. Substituting paralysed by fear with refuse to take action, for example, replaces a “concrete image with a phrase that evokes no mental picture”. Being a risk-taker isn’t the same as being ballsy. Saying people with limited financial resources may be less offensive than saying the poor, but the rudeness and bluntness of the poor is part of its appeal, because it evokes emotion – “it might make someone angry or sad”. Besides, saying nasty things nicely doesn’t make them any less nasty. Prison is just as brutal if you’re a person experiencing the criminal justice system rather than a prisoner. These euphemisms don’t help the people they’re supposed to protect – they just make those who use them feel a bit better about themselves. And that isn’t a good enough reason to “cleanse” our language.