Wordwatch

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Am I allowed to say that?

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Political Correctness is...

Political correctness is… (Dave Kleinschmidt)

A no-nonsense guide to political correctness

Stop groaning at the back there. I’m not about to tell you that a manhole should be called a personhole, or that someone with a disability should be called ‘differently abled’.

Political correctness has unfortunately become a pejorative term. It’s trendy to sit back and scoff when the phrase is mentioned. But political correctness is really just a matter of courtesy, respect, accuracy and inclusion.

This post includes:

  • Are men women?
  • Are girls women?
  • Lady or woman?
  • Gratuitous modifiers (or the lady bus driver)
  • Tomboy?
  • Sexist descriptions
  • S/he? She/he?
  • Black and ethnic minority people
  • Travellers
  • People with a physical disability
  • learning disability/difficulty
  • Mental health issues
  • Autism
  • Gender dysphoria
  • Ageism
  • Christian name or first name?

When is a man not a man?

Studies carried out in the 1970s show that the word ‘man’ is not generally understood to include women. If we want to write clearly and without ambiguity, we need to remember this. Women are not men, but the notion persists. Just look at the frequently used phrases below:

  • The man in the street
  • The average man
  • The common man
  • Early man
  • Modern man
  • Mankind
  • Layman

A headline in the Independent newspaper read:

Stone Age man is now 200,000 years older

The story went on to use the phrase ‘ancient humans’ (hoorah!) in the first paragraph, but then reverted to ‘early man’. Confusion reigns. This double whammy of confusion and women-exclusive language could have been easily remedied by the writer (and the sub who wrote the headline).

Clichéd, women-exclusive phrases slip far more easily from the pen and computer keyboard than do their fresher, and more importantly, far more accurate alternatives:

  • Early man – prefer ancient people, early humans or similar
  • Modern man – prefer modern people or human beings today
  • Mankind – prefer people, humans, humanity, humankind or the human race
  • Layman – prefer layperson
  • The common man – prefer the ordinary person
  • The average man – prefer the average person
  • The man in the street – prefer the person in the street 

Yes, yes, using the term ‘man’ to mean ‘men and women’ has centuries of precedent. But this doesn’t make it right. Some of these well-worn phrases even do a disservice to men too, for example:

Man’s inhumanity to man

Why not: Our inhumanity to each other? This is far more immediate. In the process of finding ways to ensure we include women in our writing, fresh and arresting prose often results – and your readers will sit up and take note.

Sorting the women from the girls

When people criticise me for bristling when they refer to me as a ‘girl’, I explain, if they hang around long enough to listen, that language is a very powerful tool. It can be used (consciously or unconsciously) to demean, insult, undermine and exclude. Male black slaves  (and, indeed, black men after emancipation) in the American south were referred to as ‘boys’. Why then, in our society in the 21st century, is it considered acceptable to refer to women as ‘girls’? I don’t believe it is.

But when do girls become women? It can be a bit tricky, but just use common sense.

Newsreaders on Radio 4 have no problem referring to 17-year-old males as ‘men’, so in my book it’s OK to refer to females of the same age as ‘women’. Otherwise, if that doesn’t feel quite right in the circumstances, ‘young woman’ is fine, as is ‘teenager’ – although the latter is more suitable for younger teenagers. Once you’re in the territory of 18 years and above, ‘woman’ is always your best bet.

Of course I’m not saying that phrases such as ‘a night out with the girls’ or similar, should be banned. That would be political correctness gone mad. However, at the other end of the spectrum, referring to adult female murder victims as ‘girls’, as some reporters did during the recent Ipswich murders, is unacceptable. Perhaps they thought it was appropriate because the victims were sex workers. It isn’t.

 …And the ladies from the women

Try to avoid ‘lady’ – unless, if you were talking about a man, you would use the word ‘gentleman’. For example, it is absolutely fine to say: He was a real gentleman. And so, it is also fine to say: She was a real lady. However, the men working in the sales department should not become the ladies working in accounts.

‘Woman’ and ‘women’ are good, strong, down-to-earth words (as are their counterparts ‘man’ and ‘men’) and should be used confidently and without hesitation.

Gratuitous modifiers – or the lady bus driver

A modifier is a noun used as an adjective. Look at this newspaper headline: 

Woman doctor in car sex sessions

Well, at least it doesn’t say ‘lady doctor’ – but there are no circumstances in which this newspaper headline would have read:

Man doctor in car sex sessions

Descriptions of professional people are littered with gratuitous modifiers when the person practising the profession happens to be a woman. ‘Woman lawyer’, ‘woman plumber’, ‘female bus driver’ and ‘female airline pilot’ are all commonplace expressions. Yet we never read of a ‘woman nurse’, or a ‘female midwife’, or a ‘female secretary’. And there lies the rub.

We refer to ‘male nurses’, ‘male midwives’, ‘male childminders’ and ‘male secretaries’ because they are other than the norm. They are an exception and to be singled out as such. And because they are not the norm, the silent question arises: are they really capable of being a ‘proper’ nurse, or midwife or childminder? Conversely, there is the subtle suggestion that being male makes them a cut above their female counterparts (in particular, this can be the case with nurses and sometimes secretaries).

Of course, it is far more frequently professional women who have these gratuitous modifiers thrust upon them, and the effect is always to undermine, never to suggest superiority, as can be the case with the gratuitous modifier ‘male’. A prime example of this is ‘woman doctor’, which makes for an interesting comparison with ‘male nurse’.

And please send me money every time you hear a suicide bomber referred to as a ‘female suicide bomber’ and I will soon be a very rich woman indeed. Are we ever told about a ‘male suicide bomber’? What is the hidden agenda there? That it’s somehow worse because the bomber was a woman?

Listening to BBC News, I hear that ‘a female journalist has been kidnapped in Baghdad and her translator killed’. Now let’s unpick that. Would the newsreader have said ‘a male journalist’? If we want to find out the sex of the journalist we do so soon enough with that phrase ‘her translator’. And why weren’t we told the sex of the translator? I listened to the story related several times over by various newsreaders and I still don’t know. I am presuming this is because the translator is a man (the ‘norm’), otherwise they would have said ‘female translator’.

Say goodbye to the gratuitous modifier. If I want to be flown to Paris, I want someone qualified in the cockpit. In other words, a pilot. Or a pilot who happens to be a woman, no need to mention the fact, thanks for asking. But a lady pilot? Hmm, I’m not so sure. Didn’t she miss that last pilot’s exam because she had an important hair appointment?

Jack of all trades

On a similar note, a number of job titles are male-specific. Fireman and policeman are prime examples, often used unthinkingly when both speaking and writing. And yet the alternatives are more accurate, and sound absolutely fine too:

Firefighters’ or ‘fire officers’

‘Police officers’ or ‘the police’

‘Foreman’ is OK if you are sure the person is male, ‘forewoman’ if she is female, or otherwise, ‘supervisor’ is a good alternative.

Similarly, ‘chairman’ is OK if you are sure the person is male. ‘Chairwoman’ is fine if you are sure she is female. Otherwise, options include ‘chair’, or ‘chairperson’. Sadly (in my opinion), some chairwomen insist on being called a ‘chairman’ – always respect their wishes. It’s always best to ask the person concerned what title they would prefer.

Instead of ‘businessmen’, prefer ‘business people’.

Women-exclusive terms can proliferate when writing about the workplace, for example, ‘manning the phones’ and ‘man-hours’. There are many alternatives to ‘manning’ such as ‘staffing’, ‘running’ and ‘operating’. Similarly, ‘man-hours’ can become ‘work-hours’ or ‘staff-hours’.

Try to avoid popular but exclusive phrases such as ‘our boys in blue’.

Is it a bird? Is is a plane?

Ladies first?

The convention of placing males before females when referring to people of both sexes is second nature to most writers. ‘Husband and wife’, ‘his and hers’, ‘men and women’, ‘boys and girls’, and ‘male and female’ are all phrases which we use unthinkingly and unquestioningly.

When writing about married couples, it is almost always the man who is named first, and when writing about a married couple’s joint business (or indeed, a woman and man’s joint business), it is almost invariably the man who is named first.  Similarly, ‘husband and wife team’ is a commonplace expression, automatically churned out from many a keyboard. The phrase  ‘man and wife’ is an interesting one, the former being a person and the latter a role; for that reason, I avoid it.

Ring the changes – shake up this ‘natural order’ of things. Mix it up a little. Women don’t always have to be mentioned first – but hey, sometimes would be nice.

She’s such a tomboy

If a girl is physically active, or doesn’t like prissy dresses, or climbs trees, or expresses a wish to become a professional footballer, she is labelled a ‘tomboy’.

This is because the unthinking assumption is that anyone confident, energetic and daring must in some way be an honorary male.

Well, girls can demonstrate these qualities too – and should be able to do so without the risk of having their gender impugned.

A friend said to me recently, “Why isn’t there a word that would be the opposite of ‘tomboy’, such as ‘suegirl’?” That question is interesting on so many levels.

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

Sack that bossy, haughty, strident, arrogant, domineering and abrasive woman who’s always demanding her own way, and hire that assertive, single-minded, self-assured, confident man who’s a natural leader.

See what I’m saying? The same qualities are often described differently, depending on whether or not the writer is referring to a man or a woman.

Sit back, take a deep breath and put on your best impartial hat before committing your judgemental descriptions to screen or paper.

Trilling and shrieking – an example of how women can be represented in the media.

Everyone did their best to write good English

Some strict grammarians would say this heading is wrong and should read:

Everyone did his best to write good English.

But there is no need to write ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’ when the ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’ might be a ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘hers’. Some writers who are doing their best to be inclusive, use terms such as ‘s/he’, or ‘he/she’, or ‘he or she’ (usually in the traditional male first, female second order). While there is nothing wrong with this, the result isn’t pretty on the page and can be distracting to the reader.

The solution is both simple and grammatically correct. ‘They’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ can be used to refer to a single person who might be female or male. After all, Shakespeare wrote: God send everyone their heart’s desire, and various dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary,  say quite clearly that ‘they’ (or ‘them’ or ‘their’) can be used to mean ‘he’or ‘she’.

So, the sentences below are correct. The underlined words refer to a single person, but it is not known if they are female or male:

Anyone can take their umbrella if they wish.

No one said their recipe was the best.

He heard them enter the house.

If they would like to take the exam we will ensure a room is ready for them.

Someone saw their dreams come true today.

Another solution to this problem is discussed in the comment thread accompanying the post, ‘Another he that could be a she’.

A word from the authoress

You can safely discard the suffix ‘-ess’ in most cases. Avoid, for example, words such as ‘authoress’, or ‘poetess’.

Some of these ‘-ess’ words are considered more acceptable than others: ‘actress’, for example, has a certain ring to it. If you are writing about a specific woman who wants to have ‘ess’ added to the name of her profession, do her the courtesy of abiding by her wishes.

It is obviously still OK to use the suffix ‘ess’ when writing about female animals, for example, ‘lioness’ and ‘tigress’.

He’s so cute

Another interesting point is the tendency to refer to animals as ‘he’, whether or not their sex is known. As with so much other female-exclusive language this gives the impression that maleness is the norm and the standard, and femaleness something else. If the sex of the creature is unknown, the alternative is simple: ‘it’ is not offensive to animals and is gender-neutral.

A black and white argument

Many of the guidelines which apply to writing about women and men can be easily transferred to writing about black and ethnic minority people. Just as you should never write ‘woman doctor’ or similar, it is obvious that you should never write, for example, ‘black doctor’ or ‘Asian doctor’ unless it’s absolutely necessary to the sense, context and import of what you are writing about.

By the way, the phrase ‘minority ethnic’ is, to my ears, a strange inversion of ‘ethnic minority. The latter seems to make  more sense and is the one I use.

I also have a bit of a personal thing about the phrases ‘black community’ and ‘ethnic minority communities’. Do all these people really feel they are part of such a community? Or are they convenient verbal constructs for lazy writers? I know it would really irritate me if I were described as belonging to the ‘white community’. Just something for you to ponder as you chew your pen or tinker with your keyboard.

Travellers

No, not people off on their holidays – they would be travellers (lower-case ‘t’). I’m talking here about people who are Travellers, Gypsies, or Irish Travellers – all of which are acceptable terms and all of which take initial capital letters.

There is no need to describe people as any of the above if the fact is not relevant to what you are writing about.

Never use words such as ‘tinker’, ‘gypo/gyppo’ or ‘itinerant’. Not even with an initial capital letter. Ever.

Sweeping away class barriers?

People with a physical or mental condition

Describing people who have certain physical and mental conditions can be very tricky indeed. But there are two golden rules that will help you no end.

  • Firstly, don’t mention a person’s physical or mental condition unless it’s relevant to what you are writing or speaking about.
  • Secondly, if you are talking about an individual, don’t hesitate to ask them how they would prefer to be described. If they cannot speak for themselves, ask their parent, personal assistant, carer or the person closest to them. Don’t be shy about doing this. It shows respect for their feelings and preferences, and they will prefer being asked to later reading a description that they will interpret as patronising, insulting or inaccurate.

Here are a few more guidelines:

Avoid using general phrases to lump people together as a homogenous group defined solely by a particular condition. For example, terms such as ‘the deaf’, ‘the blind’, and ‘the disabled’ should be avoided. Anyone with a particular condition should not be defined as that condition. Never write, for example:

He’s an epileptic.

No he isn’t. He has epilepsy. Read more on this, including the views of the charity, Epilepsy Action.

Avoid phrases such as ‘victim of’, ‘suffering from’, or ‘afflicted with’.

Avoid calling disabled people ‘brave’ or ‘special’ – unless you would have described them in this way if they had not been disabled.

Being described as ‘brave’ or ‘special’ because you use a wheelchair, or are deaf or blind, is astonishingly patronising as well as a lazy cliché.

Be aware that ‘carer’ can be a tricky word – the term ‘personal assistant’ or ‘enabler’ is often now preferred. Also, some people object strongly to this label (and that of ‘enabler’ or ‘personal assistant’) when they are first a parent, husband, wife, friend, sister, brother, son or daughter.

Wheelchair-bound?

Don’t describe people who use a wheelchair as ‘wheelchair-bound’ or ‘in a wheelchair’. Prefer ‘wheelchair user’, or use phrases such as ‘he uses a wheelchair’.  

It is true that some disabled people don’t mind how they are described, and have no objection to words such as ‘handicapped’, for example. However, some disabled people object very strongly to such terms, and it’s advisable to avoid them completely.

See this excellent must-read discussion about various terms used to describe disabled people.

A while back, a columnist in the Sunday Mirror referred to a child with Hunter Syndrome as ‘handicapped’ and also used the phrase ‘handicapped kids’. I’d argue that it’s best not to follow such examples.

I used to think that ‘people with disabilities’ was a better phrase than ‘disabled people’ because it puts people first. However, I’ve since learnt that ‘disabled people’ is usually preferable, as disabled people can feel they are ‘disabled’ by an unsuitable physical environment and the negative attitude of society which holds them back, rather than their own physical condition. (This is to do with a concept referred to as the ‘social model of disability’.)

Don’t get too bogged down in all of this. All you need to know is that the phrase ‘disabled people’ is fine and should not cause offence. However, do note that there will always be disagreement about this issue (see the discussion relating to this under ‘Describing people with physical and mental conditions’). This underlines my advice above – to ask the person concerned how they would like to be described (if a description is needed at all).

Never use the word ‘invalid’ as this can suggests that someone is in-valid or without worth. It almost goes without saying that words such as ‘cripple’ – and others I won’t insult your intelligence by listing – should never be used.

It can be problematic to refer to someone who is not a wheelchair user as ‘able-bodied’. If you need to differentiate in this way,  the term ‘non-disabled’ may be a better choice. This is because ‘able-bodied’ may imply that someone who uses a wheelchair is not able.

Deaf and not so dumb

Unbelievably, the phrase ‘deaf and dumb’ still appears in newspapers and magazines, and is still used by broadcasters. It makes me cringe every time I see or hear it.  The phrase is both insulting and inaccurate. The terms ‘stone deaf’, ‘deaf-mute’ and ‘mute’ are also best consigned to the dustbin.

Always use ‘deaf’ or ‘hearing impaired’. ‘Hearing impaired’ can be a good bet if you are talking about a number of people, as levels of hearing can vary widely from person to person.

If a deaf or hearing impaired person does not speak, be aware that they may be a sign language user (not ‘deaf and dumb’, or a ‘deaf mute’).

As a slight complication, the word ‘deaf’ should sometimes take an upper-case ‘D’. You should write ‘Deaf’ when referring to the Deaf Community, or members of the Deaf Community. Members of the Deaf Community in the UK usually have British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language, or have adopted it as their main language. They share a culture and heritage, and BSL is at the heart of their community. In comparison, deaf people (with a lower-case ‘d’) live more in the ‘hearing world’, and depend far more on lip-reading. Again, do not be afraid to ask respectfully how someone would prefer to be described (if it’s necessary to refer to their deafness at all).

Don’t automatically assume that people who are deaf, hearing impaired or members of the Deaf Community can be described as ‘disabled’. People who are deaf or hearing impaired can deeply resent this description. I shall never forget the deaf teacher who demanded of her (hearing) sign language pupils: ‘Would you describe me as disabled?’.  Be aware that this attitude may be shared by others with physical conditions which are commonly described as a ‘disability’.

This same woman was deeply angry about a lot of newspaper coverage of deaf or hearing impaired people. One story in particular, which described the ‘miraculous’ way in which a deaf woman was able to care for her new baby, struck her as being particularly ludicrous and patronising (she was herself a mother).

As a side issue, do bear in mind that British Sign Language is not a form of pidgin English (a patronising and insulting assumption that many people seem to make). It is an independent language, as sophisticated as spoken English, and with its own grammatical rules. NEVER refer to British Sign Language as ‘deaf and dumb language’.

Remember the golden rule – if in doubt about how to describe someone, ask them.

Blindingly obvious

Phrases such as ‘blind people’, people who are blind’ ‘partially sighted’ ‘sight impaired’ and ‘people with a visual impairment’ are all acceptable.

When referring to blind and visually impaired people generally, prefer the term ‘visually impaired’ as not everyone with a visual impairment is completely blind.

Learning disability? Or learning difficulty?

Tread extra carefully in this particular minefield.

I was told off by a very kind but very po-faced council employee that my use of the term ‘learning disability’ was no longer acceptable. ‘Learning difficulty’ was the phrase du jour and I should start to use it forthwith. The very next day I was listening to a radio phone-in. A mother rang in to say how deeply angry she was that officials in various professions had started to refer to her son as having ‘learning difficulties’. He had, she asserted, a learning disability; there were many things he would never learn to do, and many obstacles he would never overcome. Things were not ‘difficult’ for him: they were impossible.

‘Mentally handicapped’ is now an outdated term and in many quarters no longer acceptable. You will still see and hear it used, but that doesn’t necessarily make it OK. In 2006, I heard a BBC World Service newsreader refer to ‘mentally handicapped children’ and on the same day a radio play synopsis in the Radio Times described one of the characters as  ‘mentally handicapped’. In both these cases, ‘learning difficulty’ or ‘learning disability’ would have been preferable.

Nonetheless, it’s very important to note that some people believe the terms ‘mentally handicapped’ and ‘severely mentally handicapped’ are not only acceptable, but actually preferable to other phrases such as ‘learning disability’. This debate was aired a while back in the Independent newspaper when columnist Dominic Lawson defended his right to refer to his daughter, who has Down’s syndrome, as ‘mentally handicapped’. He argued persuasively against ‘fashionable catch-all phrases such as “having learning disabilities”’ and posited that such language has the pernicious knock-on effect of denying the reality of some people’s lives. Some people believe this has led to a reduction in financial and social support for those who are severely affected by a mental and/or physical disability.

Nevertheless, I would argue that the term for someone with Down’s syndrome is just that. Upper-case ‘D’ lower-case ‘s’. Obviously, terms such as ‘mongol’ and ‘mongoloid’ should never be used. Don’t use phrases such as ‘Down’s baby’, prefer ‘a baby who has Down’s syndrome’. ‘Down syndrome’ is also used in the US.

Remember the golden rule – if in doubt about how to describe someone, ask the person concerned, or if this is impossible, those closest to them. And remember to always ask yourself if it’s necessary to mention the person’s condition at all.

If someone insists that they or someone they care for should be referred to as ‘mentally handicapped’, make this clear in your text. For example: ‘Mr Brown, who describes himself as mentally handicapped’.

By doing this, you are showing your respect for the wishes of the person concerned, as well as your awareness of and respect for the views of those readers who object strongly to such terms.

Mental health issues: Bonkers Bruno locked up

This 2003 Sun newspaper headline was changed in later editions following an outcry from mental health organisations and the public.

But words that convey a negative image of mental illness and distress still saturate our media and everyday language.

Bipolar as a term of abuse.

Don’t confuse mental health issues with learning difficulty/disability issues.

As a general rule, put the person first when writing. For example: ‘Michael has a mental illness’, ‘Anne has a mental health problem’, ‘They have mental health difficulties’, ‘George has experienced mental/emotional distress’. Avoid phrases such as ‘Mary is mentally ill’, or ‘Paul suffers from a mental illness’.

Avoid using any clinical terms for particular mental health conditions (especially those frequently bandied about such as ‘psychopathic’ and ‘psychotic’) unless you are absolutely sure you are using the correct one. A while back, the Sunday Mirror columnist mentioned above referred to a murderer as a ‘psychotic piece of scum’, a ‘freak’, the ‘devil’s child’ and ‘filth’. It’s that casual, non-clinical use of the word ‘psychotic’ there that bothers me. People diagnosed as psychotic should not be associated in this inaccurate and highly damaging way with a murderer who is also described as a ‘freak’, ‘filth’ and the ‘devil’s child’ (and may or may not have been diagnosed as psychotic).

Don’t use the word ‘schizophrenic’ to describe anyone or anything unless you are writing about someone who has the specific and diagnosed condition of schizophrenia. Casual references to ‘schizophrenic’ opinions, attitudes or behaviour should be avoided. This is because the word is frequently and inaccurately used to describe a type of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ behaviour, and perpetuates a negative and fear-inducing image of people who live with this condition.

Never say someone is in a ‘mental home’: they are in hospital.

I would far rather be called a nutter…

There is no denying that the use of language in relation to people with mental health problems is very tricky indeed. Just look at this range of opinions published a while back on the charity Rethink’s website:

I would far rather be called a nutter, crazy, or a mentalist than a service user. It’s an absolutely ridiculous term, alongside ‘client’ which indicates some sort of business relationship…’

I actually went to see some mental health worker and when I said to her: “And then I went mad,” she actually told me off. I accept the fact that I am mad.’

Words are only words, we attach too much meaning to them. I refer to myself as mental, mad, crazy, loony – I don’t take offence at these words, they are only words. I’ve removed the power of such words in my life.’

I do not give a damn whether I am called a client/patient/service user or whatever. What matters to me … is that I receive the help I need when I need it…’

We have all heard the cry: “I do not care what I am called it is how I am treated that matters.”  Well I do care, and I care very much because how and what I am called has at least as much to do with how I am treated…

All we can do when writing is be aware of this range of opinion, and do our best to ensure our prose is accurate and respectful, and does not fuel negative assumptions and attitudes to mental illness.

Update: February 2013

Rachel Whitehead, press officer at the charity Rethink Mental Illness, argues in The Independent that:

The language used in the media around this (taking medication for mental health problems) is very telling. There is a clear dividing line between those who simply ‘take’ medication, such as people with diabetes, and those who are ‘hooked’ on it – people with mental health problems. Antidepressants in particular are often written about in the context of someone trying desperately to ‘give them up’ as if they’re some kind of bad habit. Read the full article.

Defining autism

According to the National Health Service here in the UK, autism is defined as a serious and lifelong developmental disability. On its own, autism is not a learning disability or a mental health problem.

People with autism usually have difficulties with:

  • social communication
  • social interaction
  • social imagination

However, some people with autism have an accompanying learning disability, learning difficulty or mental health problem.

Read more information here.

Autistic as a term of abuse.

Autism update: December 2012

Latest from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, the American publication that is one of the most influential references for the profession around the world:

The term ‘Asperger’s disorder‘ will not appear in the DSM-5, the latest revision of the manual, and instead its symptoms will come under the newly added ‘autism spectrum disorder’, which is already used widely. That umbrella diagnosis will include children with severe autism, who often do not talk or interact, as well as those with milder forms.

Read more on this update in the Guardian.

Also:

From John Rentoul in The Independent’s Errors and Omissions column:

On Monday, in a report about possible explanations for the inexplicable, namely Adam Lanza’s murder of 26 people in Connecticut, we said: “His brother, Ryan, reportedly told police he thought his brother had a personality disorder, possibly Asperger’s, a form of autism.” Asperger’s syndrome is indeed a mild form of autism. It gives people difficulties with social interaction and can make them come across as odd. But it is not a personality disorder, and it is not associated with violence. We should avoid relaying, without clarification, erroneous speculation of that kind.

December 2012 update: new diagnostic term for children

Latest from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, the American publication that is one of the most influential references for the profession around the world:

Abnormally bad and frequent temper tantrums will be diagnosed as DMDD, meaning disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. Supporters say it will address concerns about too many children being misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated with powerful psychiatric drugs.

December 2012 update: Gender identity disorder

Latest from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, the American publication that is one of the most influential references for the profession around the world:

The term ‘gender identity disorder‘, for children and adults who strongly believe they were born the wrong gender, is being replaced with ‘gender dysphoria‘ to remove the stigma attached to the word ‘disorder’.

Read more on this update in the Guardian.

Feisty pensioner fends off burglar

Have you noticed how people of a certain age become ‘feisty’ or ‘game’ or ‘spritely’ or ‘dapper’ or ‘lively’ or ‘nimble’ or ‘alert’ or ‘bright as a button’? Look at this prime example from the Sunday Telegraph:

It was a Friday evening in January when Laurie Leigh, a feisty 73-year-old antique dealer, visited her estate agent after hearing the house she was trying to buy had been withdrawn.

Drop the clichés. If you wouldn’t use these words in connection with a younger person, don’t automatically reach for them to describe an older one.

And note I’m avoiding the phrase ‘old people’. I know it shouldn’t, but it sounds pejorative (probably because of our youth-obsessed culture), as does ‘the elderly’. Prefer ‘older people’.

Don’t describe an incidence of confusion or forgetfulness as a ‘senior moment’. It’s not funny. It is disparaging.

And your Christian name is?

For obvious reasons, avoid the term ‘Christian name’. Prefer ‘first name’.

Sexual preference or sexual orientation?

Sexist children’s books reinforce gender inequality

The dehumanising effect of driving-related metaphors in the UK’s NHS

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