Annals of offense-finding

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From the Times Online of August 23, under the head "Quangos blackball … oops, sorry … veto 'racist' everyday phrases", a story that begins:

It could be construed as a black day for the English language — but not if you work in the public sector.

Dozens of quangos and taxpayer-funded organisations have ordered a purge of common words and phrases so as not to cause offence.

Among the everyday sayings that have been quietly dropped in a bid to stamp out racism and sexism are “whiter than white”, “gentleman’s agreement”, “black mark” and “right-hand man”.

Details to follow, but first a word about quangos, for readers unfamiliar with the term.

(Hat tip to Danny Bloom.)

Quango is a mostly British term. Here are the OED (draft revision of March 2008) definition and etymology:

Originally: an ostensibly non-governmental organization which in practice carries out work for the government. Now chiefly: an administrative body which has a recognized role within the processes of national government, but which is constituted in a way which affords it some independence from government, even though it may receive state funding or support and senior appointments to it may be made by government ministers.

[Acronym, originally < the initial letters of quasi non-governmental organization…, but in later use also frequently reinterpreted as the initial letters of either quasi-autonomous non-government(al) organization or quasi-autonomous national government(al) organization.

The coinage of the acronym is frequently attributed to A. Barker of the University of Essex: see e.g. R. L. Wettenhall in Current Affairs Bulletin 57(1981) 14-22, and compare:
1982 A. BARKER Quangos in Britain 220 This was around 1970, when I invented this near-acronym from an American term ‘quasi-non-governmental organisation’.]

(NOAD2 characterizes it as "chiefly derogatory", but the OED has no such usage label, though it does label as "depreciative" the derivatives quangocracy and quangocrat.) Probably more than you wanted to know, but quangos have come up on Language Log only in a passing remark by Geoff Pullum, here, that "quangos are now called NDPBs" (that is, non-departmental public bodies).

Now let's return to our muttons, with some specific pieces of language advice from the Times Online story:

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has advised staff to replace the phrase “black day” with “miserable day”, according to documents released under freedom of information rules.

It points out that certain words carry with them a “hierarchical valuation of skin colour”. The commission even urges employees to be mindful of the term “ethnic minority” because it can imply “something smaller and less important”.

The National Gallery in London believes that the phrase “gentleman’s agreement” is potentially offensive to women and suggests that staff should replace it with “unwritten agreement” or “an agreement based on trust” instead. The term “right-hand man” is also considered taboo by the gallery, with “second in command” being deemed more suitable.

Many institutions have urged their workforce to be mindful of “gender bias” in language. The Learning and Skills Council wants staff to “perfect” their brief rather than “master” it, while the Newcastle University has singled out the phrase “master bedroom” as being problematic.

Advice issued by the South West Regional Development Agency states: “Terms such as ‘black sheep of the family’, ‘black looks’ and ‘black mark’ have no direct link to skin colour but potentially serve to reinforce a negative view of all things black. Equally, certain terms imply a negative image of ‘black’ by reinforcing the positive aspects of white.

“For example, in the context of being above suspicion, the phrase ‘whiter than white’ is often used. Purer than pure or cleaner than clean are alternatives which do not infer that anything other than white should be regarded with suspicion.”

I haven't read all of the comments — there are 158 at the moment — but they seem to be uniformly negative, in various modes (dismay, outrage, mockery, and so on, with plenty of references to Orwell). It does seem like a (laudable) desire to avoid offense has gotten out of control, probably as a joint effect of the etymological fallacy (the idea that the original meaning of a word, or rather what people believe the original meaning to have been, continues to color uses of the word) and the belief that all uses of a particular pronunciation or spelling are united, so that if some use gives offense, all do (offense inheres in the physical object itself, not in a relationship between the object, the people who say or write it, the people who hear or read it, and the context of use).

[Addendum 26 August: Ray Girvan writes with an important cautionary note — something I'd intended to incorporate in the original posting but left out in my hurry to get the posting out:

The Times piece follows a very common story format in the more right-wing UK newspapers, which tend to be hostile toward various bodies (local councils, quangos, arts organisations, groups helping minorities, etc) and use "political correctness" stories as a stick to beat them with.

Quite often the edicts cited in these stories turn out to be exaggerated, urban myths, or even fictitious.

Alas, yes. I don't know the true status of the four reports in the Times story.]

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