Paul Payack, president and chief word analyst of the Global Language Monitor, says that “the attempt to remove all bias from language is itself creating biases. It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage in any form of public dialogue without offending someone’s sensitivities, whether right, left or center.”
When Payack’s group surveyed language a couple of years ago, the most offensive words for the year 2009 were Swine Flu, Flush Toilet, Green Revolution, Minority, and Saint, but the top ten most commonly used NICE terms were Politically Correct, Oriental, Founding Fathers, Black Sheep, and Senior Citizen. I will not attempt to explain some of those, but others are obvious.
I used to think that senior citizens were really old people-until I got to be one, that is. I admit that I like the discounts and the special services. I like the fact that my advancing age brings out good manners in so many people who were trained to respect their elders. I like having doors held open, being sent to the front of the line, and being offered a chair when they are in short supply. However, I don’t particularly like the reality that the phrase “senior citizen” is a mere euphemism for old person. These politically correct phrases can send us down the primrose path if we aren’t careful. I would never go so far as to call us ignorant, of course— maybe just factually unencumbered.
Senior citizens did not exist when I was growing up. Back then, those nice folks were just old people, and they weren’t offended by nomenclature. They had reached that state through various trials and tribulations and tended to be rather proud of their accomplishments. As a matter of fact now that I think about it, lots of things exist now that didn’t exist back then. There were no administrative assistants or sanitary engineers. No, I grew up when secretaries took letters and typed them, answered the phone, and assisted the boss in whatever way he needed. The men who came around to pick up the trash we called garbage or trash men. At the time, these folks didn’t seem to be affronted by their job titles. They called themselves by the same terms. They were hired as garbage men. Teachers were just teachers, not educators. Maybe people had thicker skin back in the fifties.
Today nobody is fat; heavens, no! We now are gravitationally challenged. In the past, we were stout, chubby, big-boned, rotund, or maybe even pleasingly plump. We’ve come a long way, baby, to get where we are now. There are no more fat people. Even my doctor says that my strong bones are the result of my being “heavy” all my life. I’m glad that there is an advantage, but he and I both know that heavy simply means fat. Say it however you like, but it’s just a matter of semantics.
People today come from dysfunctional families, not broken homes, and they live in mobile home communities, not trailer parks. You run down to the car lot and purchase a refurbished previously-owned vehicle, not a used car. Never call Cousin Johnny lazy just because he hasn’t held a job in five years; perhaps he’s just energetically declined. And my husband might snore, but I’m just nasally repetitive. A few of my students have achieved a deficiency, but let me not say that some of them are failing. That situation would be too terrible to even consider.
Semantics, semantics, semantics! That’s all it is. Calling something a more sophisticated name doesn’t change a thing. We’re trying to make life sound better. Lying to ourselves is not beneath our dignity at all these days. I think it used to be. I’m not sure.
I wonder if we’ll ever learn that we can call a donkey a unicorn every day of our lives, but in reality, when we remove our own blinders and look with discerning eyes, that braying animal standing there with donkey ears and a donkey tail is after all nothing more than a donkey.