Light is Right Joe Campbell

Following the reunion, we reminisced about former classmates who hadn’t attended.


“Charlie’s not doing so well,” he said, when I asked about one of them. “He’s living with angina.”

“He’s left Gaylene?”

“Of course not,” he said. “Charlie and Gaylene are happily married.”

As he seemed annoyed, I tried to re-start the conversation. I told him that our old friend Pete was living with Candida.

“Too bad,” he replied. “It’s hard to get rid of a fungal infection.”

Thanks to linguistic engineering, we nearly had a falling out. I’ve tried – really I have – to keep abreast of the successive ways of saying unpleasant things pleasantly. I remember when we called the sick “victims,” then “sufferers,” next “survivors,” followed by “people with a named ailment “and now, apparently, “people living with a named ailment.” I think that’s the order. I’m not sure if it’s the end.

Anyhow, I had overlooked living with. I thought it was just a pleasant way of saying shacked up. I didn’t realize it had become a pleasant way of saying suffering from.

Nobody minded when we used to call the lame “crippled.” Nobody, that is, except linguistic engineers. They re-labeled them “handicapped,” then changed it to “disabled,” followed by “physically challenged,” “differently abled” and, of course, people with, or living with, a named disability.

Lately, though, some linguistic engineers have withdrawn “physically challenged” and “differently abled” from circulation. Both, apparently, are considered condescending. The same goes for “intellectually challenged” as a substitute for “mentally retarded.” However, “developmentally disabled,” “disadvantaged” or “delayed” remain.

I know what’s behind the changes. As in the Johnny Mercer lyric, the intention is to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” But no matter how positive they initially seem, new labels eventually absorb the negatives they describe. I guess that’s why linguistic engineers keep changing them.

But it’s not easy to outsmart reality. If, as Shakespeare said, ”A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” it seems to me that a carrion flower by any other name would smell as sour. Maybe linguistic engineers haven’t read Romeo and Juliet.

They say that accentuating the positive is about building self-esteem and not giving offense. That’s why they play up the person and play down the disorder, as in people with disabilities rather than disabled people. Still, I can’t see how you get rid of offensiveness by altering words. I thought you had to change hearts.

Disorders aren’t the only things linguistic engineers play down. To avoid marginalizing racial and ethnic groups, they minimize differences. This, apparently, is why “Negro,” “coloured” and ”Black” gave way to “Afro-American,” which in turn yielded to “African-American” and “coloured people,” followed finally, or maybe not, by “people of colour.”

With sex, differences disappear. “Chairman” becomes “chair,” “lady luck” becomes “luck” and “he” and ‘she” become “they,” grammar be damned. I guess linguistic engineers are not committed to diversity.

But members of identifiable groups are. Some of the disabled call each other “cripples.” Some Blacks call each other “niggers.” Some feminists and homosexuals call themselves “bitches” and “queers,” respectively and respectfully.

Oh, I realize this is insider language. Nevertheless, it seems to me that members of identifiable groups who flaunt their differences are at cross-purposes with linguistic engineers who conceal them.

Like diversity, clarity is not a priority with linguistic engineers. If they or their disciples commit sentences like, “lawyers say it is not always a criminal offence to upload a compromising photo of an adult without their permission,” I want to reply, “perhaps not, but it is always a grammatical offence to unload that kind of ambiguity.” Although pervasive, the lack of agreement between pronouns and their antecedents is not the only sin against clarity.

Suppose an earthquake interrupts a parent-teacher meeting. If an unspoiled observer says, “They each broke a leg when the fat man fell on the woman who was presiding,” you call a paramedic. If a linguistic engineer says, “They each broke a leg when the person with an eating disorder fell on the chair,” you also call a carpenter.

The engineered version conceals the nature of the chair, how many people were injured, and whether the one you know about was male or female, or obese, anorexic or something else. It not only sins against clarity. By misleading the medical responder, it sins against charity.

Yes, I realize that clear sentences are sometimes insensitive. But clarity covers a multitude of sins. Lack of clarity, on the other hand, makes me ill. Although I haven’t been diagnosed, I suspect that I’m living with political correctness.