Wordwatch Towers

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

Archive for the ‘Am I allowed to say that? Politically correct writing’ Category

Rabid sexism… Oxford Dictionaries says sorry

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untitledODFlippant? Oxford Dictionaries? Who said so? Oh, Oxford Dictionaries.

Just for the record, here’s Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of ‘flippant’:

 ‘Not showing a serious or respectful attitude’

And here’s why (as reported in the Guardian today) Oxford Dictionaries fessed up to such undictionary-like behaviour:

A Canadian anthropologist, Michael Oman-Reagan, tweeted Oxford Dictionaries last week to ask it why “rabid feminist” is its usage example for the word “rabid”. Oxford Dictionaries responded by suggesting Oman-Regan may be a rabid feminist. It has since apologised for the “flippant” response and is reviewing the example sentence.

Here is the definition of ‘rabid’ Michael was referring to (reproduced below in case it’s – hopefully – taken down in the near future):

‘Having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something: a rabid feminist’

untitledrabidOh dear. And good.

Wordwatch Towers has previously pointed out examples of sexism within the (virtual) pages of Oxford Dictionaries and we’re (me, the butler, and my reader, Gladys) are glad to see this being given a prominent airing over the Interwebs.

Since this – um – discussion surfaced on Twitter, Oxford Dictionaries has published an article about how it chooses examples of word use. It has humbly eaten humble pie and is to be commended. Brace yourself, the key paragraph rambles on a bit, but the upshot is that Michael has been vindicated:

‘In the case of an example which has recently received much attention, of the phrase “rabid feminist” to exemplify the sense of rabid meaning ‘having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something’, the example is an accurate representation of the meaning of the word: rabid is used in this way to denigrate the noun it modifies, and the real-life sentence from which the example was taken involved someone denigrating a person described as being a feminist. However, it was a poorly chosen example in that the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning. A more generic example, like “rabid extremist” or “rabid fan”, would also have been supported by evidence on our corpora, and would have illustrated the meaning of the word without those negative impacts.’*

Go, Michael.

*Just in case you’re interested in a plain language version of this explanation, here you go:

‘We used a sexist example to explain the word ‘rabid’. Sorry. We’ll put that right now.’

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The brain of a pea … hen

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Peacock in Portugal

A peacock. Not prone to distraction. Obviously.

This morning, a story about peahens made me angry. (Did I just write that?) Or rather, the reporting of it did. It was the BBC, too. Shame on them.

You know that thing – how descriptions and interpretations can differ, depending on whether the person being referred to is female or male?

If you missed that meeting, catch up here:

Trilling and shrieking
Excitable and bubbly

Anyways, I was half-listening to the BBC’s flagship news programme on the radio this morning when a ‘scientists have found’ story came on. Apparently, according to the BBC, ‘scientists have found’ that peahens are ‘prone to distraction and easily lose attention’.

Really??

That noise is an alarm going off. The Wordwatch Towers butler just checked and has confirmed it’s the ‘women being undermined via descriptions of the animal kingdom to avoid accusations of blatant sexism’ alarm. Thought so.

I checked. In fact, the scientific study has found – no surprise – that the female of the species in Peacock World, the maligned peahen, is actually a multi-tasker: Dr Jessica Yorzinski explains (on the BBC’s news website, ironically) that peahens have to stay alert, shifting their focus between potential mates and their immediate surroundings to avoid being eaten by a predator. The exact opposite of being prone to distraction and easily losing attention, I would have thought. Still, why let the facts get in the way of a cheap (sexist) jibe?

I’m willing to bet an extensive amount of chocolate, two wildlife DVDs that I’ve never watched, and my ticket to see Harold Pinter’s The Hothouse (this Saturday: very excited), that similar findings about peacocks would not have been deliberately misinterpreted in this way.

You might also like: The female of the species.

Available now: Wordwatch for Kindle

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Wordwatch for KindleWell, the cover looks good… (that bit wasn’t me).

Here’s the blurb:

This is a basic guide to writing well. Aspects of grammar and punctuation that commonly cause confusion are demystified in plain English. You’ll find clear instructions on the correct use of possessive apostrophes, commas, speech marks, hyphens and semicolons.

Other topics include the subjunctive, split infinitives, and the difference between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’. You can also learn more about active and passive sentences; commonly used foreign words and phrases; and word classes, including nouns, adjectives and verbs.

Also included is a brief, no-nonsense guide to politically correct language.

Coming soon: a paperback version.

Available on Amazon.com and Amazon UK.

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People are too complicated…

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Only You Can Define Yourself

Ricky Gervais’ latest series, Derek, is currently airing on UK television. Gervais plays Derek, a care worker in a residential home for older people. Reaction in the papers today prompted me to watch it. Here’s a link to the first episode. (Probably available in the UK only.)

The programme raises a number of interesting issues, but I’ll stick to the language-related ones.

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, a common error: Derek is described in the Guardian as ‘a 50-year-old man with an undiagnosed mental health problem’. Now it’s safe to say that Derek is depicted as having some kind of learning difficulty or disability. This is not the same as having mental health problems. Journalists should ensure their terminology is correct.

More interesting to consider is the following, written by a different critic in the same newspaper:

Gervais insisted that the character is not intended to represent a specific disability; he is simply naive and gullible….Personally, I accept that Gervais is not portraying someone living with an identifiable syndrome. But, for me, this is a weakness of the series…The drawback of Derek is not that it is cruel about disability but that it is often soft on a character whose identity remains too vague.

A critic in The Independent newspaper is similarly reductive, asking, What if there’s a label for this kind of dimness? But doesn’t provide an answer. (And such an interesting use of the word ‘label’ there.)

We shouldn’t feel this need to place people in neatly labelled boxes; their individual identity is not defined by a diagnosis. And it should be noted that Derek’s identity as portrayed by Gervais is anything but vague.

Tellingly, none of the other characters portrayed in the programme have been criticised by TV critics for not having been assigned a label. Even though none of them have one.

As Derek says in response to an official’s offer to have him ‘tested for autism’, if being ‘tistic’ doesn’t mean that he’ll die and won’t change him, then he doesn’t need to find out, thanks. And neither do we. The words, the labels, would get in the way of the person.

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People are too complicated to have simple labels.
Philip Pullman,  The Amber Spyglass

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(To be clear, I’m not saying that individuals and those who care for them should not have the right to obtain a clear diagnosis in order to receive the advice, treatment and services to which they are entitled.)

Photo credit: mtsofan

Am I allowed to say that? A no-nonsense guide to political correctness

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