Brandeis University in the US has, on its website, an “oppressive language list.” These are words the university wants students and staff to avoid using so as to protect the feelings of the more sensitive souls around them. The list has been drawn up by students involved with the university’s Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Centre. At Brandeis you’d have to be very careful of the words you use, as the list is a long one—in five different categories: Violent language; Identity-based language; Language that doesn’t say what we mean; Culturally appropriative language; and Person-first and Identity-first language. Some of the things they want students to avoid saying seem pointless to me. For example, under “Violent language” they want to ban “Give it your best shot” and replace it with “Give it a go” presumably on the assumption that it’s a reference to gun violence. This is absurd—it is possible to “take a shot” in cricket or tennis by wielding a bat or racquet not pulling a trigger. Under “Identity-based language” they want to ban “African American” and replace it with “Black”—but it was only a few years ago we were told to do the opposite! These things are based on current fads, not on reality! And some of the things they have on their list are just plain wrong. For instance, they want to ban “rule of thumb” based on the old urban myth that in England a man was allowed to beat his wife as long the stick was no thicker than his thumb. Untrue. There never was any such law. It was (as it sounds) a rough method of measurement—and banning it is idiotic. They also want to ban the word “tribe” because they claim this is a “dehumanising” word. According to who? The anthropologists who use it certainly don’t dehumanise. And people who use it metaphorically (e.g., naming football supporters “the Tigers’ tribe”) likewise. And they want to ban “homeless person” and replace it with “person without housing”—which just proves they have a tin-ear and can’t recognise a badly construct phrase when they see one. This whole list addresses is an imaginary problem invented by would-be language fascists.
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