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October 9, 2012
Whitewashing the Language
If we ever needed proof that our country has spawned too many bureaucrats with too little to do, a recent directive from the State Department's sensitivity police is Exhibit A.
Employees of State were told not to use such offensive terms as "hold down the fort", "rule of thumb", "handicap", or "Dutch treat". Apparently these locutions could prevent North Korea and Iran from trashing their nuclear programs.
Oh, for the good old days when our public servants spent their working hours surfing porn sites.
Ridiculous attempts at sensitivity are nothing new: Recall the hullabaloo when a white aide to Washington, D.C.'s black mayor used the word "niggardly" to describe certain aspects of that city's budget?
A couple of weeks ago we almost lost "shackles" and "chains" but apparently, for the time being, some folks are still allowed to mention them -- as long as they use the right accent in front of the right audience.
Respecting people's feelings is commendable, but should a great country like ours be satisfied with niggling little changes?
I think the President should appoint a commission to rework the entire language. Whatever is left of it can be put in a book, albeit a very slim book, to be memorized by anyone who wishes to apply for a license to speak or write.
Lest anyone think I'm proposing a kind of Newspeak, let me disabuse you. Inventing a language requires imagination. It can take years, and then it might not catch on (how's your Esperanto?). No, I'm talking about a good old-fashioned general purge of anything that might be offensive to anyone, anywhere.
It goes without saying that words beginning with the letters "nigg" are out. No one will miss "niggardly" and "niggling" as long as there are perfectly good substitutes like "stingy" and "piddling" although, since "stingy" might call to mind some nasty ethnic stereotypes, we'd probably be better off with "parsimonious". As for "piddling", unless you wear Depends you're not likely to take offense.
Of course "yellow", "red", "black", "brown", and "white" are out on racial grounds. "Green", while connoting a favorable approach to trash disposal, also suggests a world-weary outlook and could offend Jaded-Americans. Similarly, referring to a depressed person as feeling "blue" denigrates, I mean belittles, his/her true state of mind.
As long as gay activists don't feel that straights are trying to co-opt their color, purple is OK, but "orange" -- oops -- that could offend some Irish people.
So we're left with a rather drab world, but, hey, we can still look at the colors and enjoy them -- we just can't talk about them.
Many less obvious examples can be equally hurtful and should be considered for excision. To wit, people who own houses see nothing at all offensive about the word "house" and, to be fair, perhaps they should be allowed to use it when they're among their own kind. But how can you know whether that nice couple at the next table in Denny's owns or rents? To apartment dwellers and the homeless overhearing a conversation about a "house" could be extremely stressful. "Habitation" is preferable, since even an alley is a sort of habitation. And you should never, never refer to your living room, bedroom, den, mud room, closet, bathroom, dishwasher, clothes dryer, attic, or basement.
Every word has undertones and connotations that must be examined. When Cole Porter wrote "Night and Day", for example, he was metaphorically saying "all the time". But his actual words refer to darkness and light, black and white. At a time when our country is trying to rid itself of these distinctions should we really be celebrating them in song?
Clearly, the president should not leave an undertaking of this consequence to sensitivity trainers at the State Department. No, it calls for a new bureau, an Office for the Filtration and Fumigation of the American Language (OFFAL). As a bonus he would be able to say that with one stroke of the pen he'd brought unemployment among philologists down to 43%.
But when OFFAL becomes a reality, will it eliminate the words I find offensive? After all, I have feelings, too. Whenever I hear words like "affordable", "sustainable", and "comprehensive" I feel my tax rate going up, and instinctively reach for a Prozac.
While I know I shouldn't expect them to keep words like manhole, mandrake, mandolin, mandatory, mandrill, manners, history, histamine, or histrionic, perhaps they'll have the good sense to ban "like."
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