Wordwatch Towers

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

Posts Tagged ‘politically correct writing and speaking

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.’


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.


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


(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

As annoying as someone with a clinically diagnosed condition

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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?

Royal wedding bombshell

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Cover of

Cover of Royal Wedding

Ephraim Hardcastle, writing in the Mail newspaper, displays a rare ability to combine side-splitting Wildean wit with a genuine concern for public safety shared by all right-thinking people: 

Meanwhile, security at Friday’s royal wedding is being overseen by blonde bombshell Commander Christine Jones. Help! 

With thanks to Daisy Bennison 

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver. 

Top scientist or top female scientist?  

Marketing man — or woman? 

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

She’s such a tomboy. 

Old wives’ tales — good or bad? 

Ladies first? 

Jack of all trades. 

Sorting the women from the girls. 

When is a man not a man? 

Am I allowed to say that? 

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