Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

As annoying as someone with a clinically diagnosed condition

with 2 comments


English: Portrait of Georges Gilles de la Tour...

Image via Wikipedia

He just annoys me, I don’t really hate anyone in life.

But I’m very bad, in the House of Commons, at not getting distracted, and the endless, ceaseless banter, it’s like having someone with Tourette’s permanently sitting opposite you. I’ve got to learn to tune it out.

That was the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, speaking to the Sunday Telegraph about the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. Tourette syndrome (or Tourette’s syndrome) is an inherited neurological condition.

The jibe is all the more surprising because Cameron’s own son, who died at the age of six in 2009, had severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy.

Would Cameron ever say, “It’s like having someone with epilepsy and cerebral palsy permanently sitting opposite you”? I think not.

Downing Street later issued an apology saying that the remark was ‘off the cuff’. Oh, that’s OK then. And during an interview on BBC TV, Cameron again apologised and said: “It’s a lesson for me that, in the Commons, I have to try to tune out the noise and try to concentrate on trying to answer the question.”

 Well, that’s a good lesson, but here’s a better, more apposite, one for him:

To find out if it’s OK to use a particular word or phrase in a particular context, it’s a good idea to substitute something comparable to check it out, as in ‘epilepsy’ and ‘cerebral palsy’ in Cameron’s remark above. How about ‘Down’s syndrome’? Er, no. ‘Learning difficulties’? Nope. ‘Tourette’s’? That would be no again, then.

Clinical terminology should not be hijacked to use as a term of abuse and Mr Cameron should not provide unthinking prime ministerial endorsement of such use.

Red herrings

Public reaction has been interesting. Comments have included the assertion that Cameron was insulting Balls, not people with Tourette syndrome. But this ignores the egregious fact that we are automatically expected to equate clinical conditions with abusive insults (a special Wordwatch award to anyone who can provide an example of a clinical term being hijacked to express praise or appreciation).

Others have expressed the usual ‘this is political correctness gone mad’ argument in response to criticism of Cameron’s remark. A lovely catch-all rebuttal which attracts much vigorous nodding and saves the bother of having to explain why it’s OK to insult someone by comparing them to a person who has an inherited neurological condition.

One or two people with the syndrome have stated that they are not offended. Good. But that doesn’t negate my arguments above.

Words are tools. They should be used, especially by people in public life, to help demolish our knee-jerk association of disability with negativity, not reinforce it.

You can find out more about Tourette syndrome on the Tourettes Action website.

 A schizophrenic attitude?


2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Much as I would like a special Wordwatch award, I can’t rise to your challenge. I agree with you. It was insensitive. I do enjoy it when politicians indicate their biases through these kinds of mistakes. Thank you so much for using the word “apposite”. I understood the meaning from your context, but I don’t remember ever seeing it before! I know it will be useful.

    Invisible Mikey

    11/01/2012 at 12:59 am

    • Hi, Mikey

      Yes, as I say, all the more surprising in his particular case. I’m not convinced he believes he said anything wrong; his apologies came across as a stock response.

      You’re welcome to apposite! It’s a useful word. I don’t like its derivatives, though: appositely and appositeness, both of which sound a little ugly (to me).

      Thanks, Mikey.

      Oxford Dictionaries on ‘apposite’


      11/01/2012 at 7:13 am

Your questions and comments are welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: