Erikka Askeland: Meanings change, words still hurt

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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WHAT has happened to political correctness? And by this I don’t mean the phrase that certain people, who still chuckle at Bernard Manning jokes, use to mock anything they deem too fussy.

In my university days, it was seen as admirable to be politically correct. The movement involved changing language to avoid so that hurting and denigrating other people.

Overall, I’d say it had some success – most people now don’t blink an eye at the use of “chairwoman” or “police officer”. In these cases, the argument went that if you tweaked it by taking out the traditional “man” part of the word, then it became more possible for everyone to imagine that women could run a board meeting or arrest a perp, as they call the perpetrator in US crime series.

I also opted early on to use the honorific “Ms” – now used mostly when asked to fill out forms online – because I can’t see why it is anyone’s business to know my martial status any more than they do that of the next Mister.

But, of course, if you tell someone else what they are and aren’t allowed to say you risk a backlash. Particularly when an old word, such as cripple, is replaced by something that seems more complicated, such as disabled, or other-abled.

Another trouble is that if a campaign is being mounted to change a word, then there can be a lack of consensus among those who are calling for the change, which can lead to anxiety – is it OK to say if someone is Black, or should you call them Afro-Carribean? Or are they African-American? You might have to speak to them and hear their accent before you can judge.

Both the beauty and difficulty with language – English in particular – is its fluidity. Meanings and nuances change – just ask your grandmother what it meant to be gay when she was a young girl. But language often needs to change because of the stigma that becomes attached to words.

Take a Teuchter. It used to be a term of abuse to describe a country bumpkin from the Highlands. But now, most people consider the term humorous, affectionate even. The word has been reclaimed by those whom it was once meant to hurt. Some Scots now identify themselves proudly as being Teuchtars, and there are even pubs that use the word in their name, where lowlanders, highlanders, and anyone else who might like to come along are all quite welcome.

At risk of causing offence with the comparison, you are not likely to find a pub called “Paki’s Landing”. This is because the invidious word retains its cruel sting from the days when people – not all from Pakistan, either – were abused with the term by racists. And while I believe Asians in Britain are much more integral to the social fabric than in the 1970s, the hurt the word causes is still raw and real to be used by anyone who does not want to provoke ill feeling.

Last year, the American conservative commentator Ann Coulter caused a storm when she referred to president Barack Obama as a “retard”. In addition to a barrage of angry tweeters, she received a response from one John Franklin Steven, a “Special Olympics” athlete with Down’s Syndrome, who couldn’t have been nicer in asking her to refrain. But rather than apologise, Coulter claimed her critics were acting like “word police”. She did make a salient point – other words, such as “imbecile, idiot, moron or cretin”, pretty much mean the same thing. However, their meaning has now changed to be a more general term of abuse for someone who isn’t very clever, that when used does not cause as much offence. When I was a callous teenager, the word “retard” was a common form of abuse in the playground. But seeing the effect of the campaign against use of the “r-word” has made me think again about its impact.

As a lover of free speech and one who revels in the novelty and impact of words, I would argue it should be more important to remove the stigma rather than change the word.

All words are, when it comes right down to it, merely a string of sounds that we form with our mouths and tongues, which also comes with a handy system of notation. But it is important to remember that whoever said “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” was lying.