Prof Blog

Prof's English Blog

15 March 2017
Double plus ungood

So, what does the average man in the street think about Christian names such as 'Skye' or 'Saffron'? Our forefathers preferred names like 'George' and 'Oscar' though the headmistress of one well known college suggested that 'Oscar' became less popular after the dramatist Oscar Wilde was jailed for homosexuality. These days mothers prefer exotic names, even though studies have shown that a person with a 'normal' name is more likely to become a chairman of the board, and 'Skye' is more likely to become a waitress.

You may assume that this is an article about names. But actually it means that I'll never work for Cardiff University since the above paragraph would have me subject to disciplinary procedure eight times for using banned words. As a quick challenge, see if you can spot all eight. No?

They were 'man' (in the street), 'Christian', 'forefathers', 'headmistress', 'homosexuality', 'mothers', 'chairman' and 'waitress'.

Now you might wonder what is wrong with apparently innocent words such as 'mother'. Well, it is not inclusive. It should be 'mothers and fathers' and not always in that order. There are other 'offensive' terms on the list including 'housewife', 'mankind' and 'man-made'.

The odd thing is that, were it not for purposes of demonstration I would not have written that first paragraph at all. Apart from not agreeing with the sentiments expressed, I have - for example - enough non-Christian friends to routinely say 'forename' rather than 'Christian name', and I care very little whether a fireman or firefighter pulls me out of a burning home so long as someone does it. However, the issue is not about use of language, but the idea one ought to control it.

My problem with Cardiff University's well-meaning attempt to create 'inclusive language' is that attempts at language control come rather close to thought control. Indeed, George Orwell believed this to the point where he included an entire appendix in '1984' on the topic. If Cardiff wants to control how we speak - and therefore how we think - for a good reason, that opens the door to others to do the same for very bad reasons.
15 January 2017
What is 'hate speech'?

Lately this term has been cropping up in news articles with increasing frequency. One of the problems with the expression is that those using it tend to give the term a very wide application. Since the use of genuine 'hate speech' can lead to legal sanctions against the speaker, it is worth considering what it actually is.

While every country has its own idea of what constitutes 'hate speech', in most places the bit that will get the speaker into trouble with the law are the equivalent of what, in United States legal system, are called 'fighting words'. That is, face-to-face insults specifically insulting a person's race, gender, disability or sexual orientation.

However, that's where legal sanctions end. In the USA – which is very liberal (or lax, depending on your point of view) on this topic – the First Amendment protects what most 'progressives' would call 'hate speech'. Indeed, even Canada up north, with its more progressive approach (or nannying interference, depending on your point of view) only makes hate speech criminal if it incites genocide against a particular group. Prosecutions of individuals who have on occasion used bigoted, racist and indeed, hateful words have failed to overcome the defence of free speech.

When we look at the standard definition of 'hate speech': 'Speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, colour, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits'. We see that a person does not need to actually show much real hate to qualify.

This is often broadly interpreted to mean that if members of a group of a particular race, religion etc are offended by your disagreement, then, by their definition, this is 'hate speech'. Likewise, if these persons feel threatened by your speaking - or indeed, by a pointed silence – this too is 'hate speech'. Since everyone has a gender (these days one might have several), and offence and threat can be inferred to the most innocuous of statements, we can see that the above definition of hate speech could have been crafted by Lewis Carrol's Humpty Dumpty

When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

And that's the problem. We are all in favour of free speech – so long as it agrees with what we'd like so say. However, by labelling those with opposing views as 'misogynist, Islamophobic, racist, homophobic bigots' (to give a selection of labels) it follows that their hateful words should quite justifiably be suppressed.

There's another hateful word that no-one wants to use. That is 'censorship'. For all their determination to do the right thing, those urging the ban of 'hateful words' (and the people who utter them) are getting very close to this.
15 November 2016
How to say something without actually saying it

As we have seen in previous posts in this blog, advertising is one of the areas where we see some of the most creative use of English today. This is because the ambiguities baked into the English language allow advertisers to appear to say one thing while the actual meaning may be completely different. (For example something 'up to 99% effective' can be actually 1% effective – 'up to' simply gives a maximum.)

This creative use of English happens even more in politics because, unlike advertising, there is no official body to hold people to even minimum standards. Here's an example. 'Policy X can help to earn the country millions of dollars every year'. The average voter reads this as 'Policy X will earn millions of dollars if its promoter is elected'. However, the weasel word 'help' means that Policy X might contribute only a single dollar, while tax increases do the rest. And the modifier 'can' also means that Policy X might 'help' with that one dollar, but also might not.

Or it may be you once rudely called someone a 'pig' and someone else a 'slob'. Possibly both the people you so described were women. This means that you have called women pigs and slobs. You have not said 'Women are pigs and slobs', but if the charge is often repeated in an election campaign, people will eventually believe that you did.

On the other hand supportive media might point out that candidate A looks better for having no beard, whereas Abraham Lincoln had a beard. In a later editorial the media might mention that 'Candidate A has been favourably compared to Abraham Lincoln', while carefully not mentioning what was compared or by whom. In fact the passive voice is an excellent device for avoiding outright lies because a rival politician can be accurately described as 'an accused [insert heinous offence here]' without the accuser requiring any credibility.

I have, for example, been described as 'a brilliant, award-winning blogger whose posts reach up to a million people every day'. I know this is completely true, because it was I who thus described myself, and I did indeed award me a cupcake in recognition of my talents. Vote Prof!
15 September 2016
There is a word for that

The Oxford English Dictionary has come out with its new list of words for 2016. Some of these words are upstanding citizens of the lexical world. For example, flerovium, the superheavy chemical element developed in the Flerov laboratory in Russia. Others are stomach-churning denizens of the linguistic gutter which refer to sexual activities and bodily functions which have managed to get through the last thousand years without the need for a single word to describe them. Yet more are slang references to the ever-growing pharmacopoeia of street drugs.

So, unless you are a drug-addled scientist with odd sexual proclivities, how many of these new words do you actually need? Even without the current batch, there's well over 800,000 words in the current OED. If you are a native speaker of English with average reading habits, you know less than one word in twenty of your own language.

Note that the main indicator of breadth of vocabulary is not education, but reading - especially of fiction. It has been shown that a prolific reader of a variety of fiction picks up an average of 2.5 new words a day, and these are words that people actually use, rather than the ephemeral slang of the 'hip' crowd.

However, there is also now a type of slacktivist called a clicktivist. A slacktavist is a person who makes a meaningless contribution to a worthy cause in order to feel good about himself - someone who wears green on Earth day and congratulates himself on saving the planet. A clicktivist's contribution to worthwhile causes is merely to click approval on social media forums.

There's also 'non-apology'; used when politicians and large companies admit they have angered the public and issue what looks like an apology but isn't. ('We regret that people were upset ...'.)

While additions like 'vom' should be ignored with disdain, these new words accurately reflect developments in our times and are worthy contributions to the language.
15 July 2016
Guys in whatever guise

Were I to formally address you, Dear Readers, I would use the term 'Ladies and Gentlemen'. This is an established format which has the weight of tradition behind it. However, in the fast-moving world of contemporary speech there is, by definition, no tradition. So how does one address a mixed group of males and females without offending the sensibilities of the politically-correct members of the audience?

The problem is that it is hard to informally address a group of women without offending someone. 'Ladies' sounds too formal, and, as one blogger complained, 'It makes me think of the word ‘ladylike’ which has some very outdated and sexist connotations.' If 'ladies' is offensive to some, those same people get apoplectic about being referred to as 'girls' (unless every one of them is under the age of seventeen). And somehow addressing a group as plain 'women' just does not work.

The usual solution is to refer to the group - be they males, females or both, as 'guys'. However, this too has come under fire because (according to a recent article in the Guardian Newspaper) it patronizes females by making them 'honorary males'. So apart from throwing one's hands into the air and walking off in despair, what is one supposed to do?

The Guardian suggests using 'folks', but I would argue that, outside parts of the American Mid-west, one can only get away with using this term while wearing dungarees with a corncob pipe clenched firmly between one's teeth. Why not stick with 'guys'?

For a start this term is already generally used these days to address men, women or both, so why change what works? Furthermore, the word originally was used in the 19th century to refer to a grotesquely or poorly dressed person without discriminating by gender. Thus one can argue that women are merely reclaiming the right to be jocularly insulted as men always have been.

But in fact, just as the word evolved from its original derogatory sense to informally refer to a group of men in general, there is no reason why it cannot evolve further to address a mixed gender group.

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