Sanitizing the Language

Readers should be warned that the following is written by a deaf-old-woman-writer who loves the language in all its dimensions. I’ve lived long enough to remember previous efforts to change attitudes by manipulating the language, and I urge political correctness proponents to look more carefully at the consequences of those previous attempts.

I understand the urge to eliminate derogatory terms for groups of people who differ in some way from the norm, but that doesn’t mean all terms used to describe others are derogatory. I’m deaf—it’s a state of being, not derogatory—and to replace it with “hearing impaired” is a meaningless head game. To replace “diabetic” with “person with diabetes” is just wordy. In what sense is “diabetic” derogatory? Indeed, we no longer “suffer pain;” we merely “have” it. To ban all negative words is to miss the distinction between negative and discriminatory. It is, as the Purland Training resources for learning English site correctly says, to create a euphemism.*

We’ve been there before. During the last half of the Twentieth Century, there were no “wars.” There were “conflicts.” The Vietnam “conflict” was famous for its euphemisms. The invasion of villages, as I remember, became “pacification.” “Friendly fire” referred to accidentally killing one of one’s own. Outrage at this practice became fodder for protests against the war across the nation.

The Victorians were also famous for avoiding the embarrassing or unpleasant. We refer to chicken parts as “white” meat and “dark” meat because they thought “breast” and “leg” too erotic for the dinner table. Volumes have been written on American taboos surrounding death. My own family was an example of this culture. When my father died, no one in the family gathered around the luncheon table after the funeral, mentioned his name. Couldn’t. When my sister and mother came to me after the death of my daughter, they literally were without speech. They couldn’t break the taboo. This was agonizing enough, but I assure you if they had followed PC rules and termed her loss as “terminally unavailable,” I would have been wordless in shock.

I’m all for a positive attitude, but that doesn’t mean silencing or concealing the negative. We were walking our dogs along the harbor one day when a young girl came toward us, her dog dashing about all over the path. My housemate yelled in alarm, because one of our dogs, on lead, was unreliable if charged upon. The girl froze—became literally non-functional. “You yelled at me!” she kept muttering, making no move to control her animal. If this is a result of protecting children from all negatives, it’s no wonder our teenagers are in crisis.

Using objective language in science and engineering is appropriate; it is the attempt to be objective—to remove subjective bias in search of objective truth. Much of the politically correct sounds like an effort to be scientific or clinical. Beware, however, of replacing the Anglo-Saxon with the Latinate (“deaf” with “hearing impaired,” “death” with “terminally unavailable”) to sound educated. This longstanding plague of English speakers dates back to the Middle Ages when only the priesthood could read and write, and I taught academic writing long enough to guarantee it makes the language unreadable.

It’s the job of everyday language to express life, to have impact. To share our joy and suffering (another word on the forbidden list). Hawthorne once declared, “I love the language of the street—it bleeds.” Language has great power to shape our thinking, and English has many dimensions, many purposes. To use it to conceal, as the Vietnam protesters decried, is dishonest. So is language to promote an ideology. The Victorians barred all mention of sex; the PC regime calls “promiscuity” “sexually liberated.” Neither promotes understanding of oneself or others.


One Response to Sanitizing the Language

  1. Patricia Bloom March 22, 2023 at 6:34 pm #

    Hear! Hear! Well said.

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