In my last post, I didn't mention one of the British towns that the Local Government Association chastised for their substitution of the phrase "idea shower" for the word "brainstorm." The members of the town council had decreed the new phrase because they felt that people with epilepsy might be offended by the term "brainstorm." Strange to say, when members of the area Epilepsy Association finally were asked for their opinions, they stated that "brainstorm" didn't bother them at all.
It's good to be sensitive, but it's always best to go to the source if you don't know what to say. That's what happened years ago when we were unsure about the word "handicapped." When associations that served that population were asked what to do, they came up with what they called "people first" language, that is "people with a disability." Years and years ago, the first association that served those with cerebral palsy said that they perferred "affected by" rather than "afflicted with" cerebral palsy.
Yesterday on campus I heard a middle school student who was attending a camp there refer in all seriousness to a young man she was working with as "vertically challenged." He was shorter than she by far, but I noticed there was no word for her "condition." Is she "vertically superior?" "Vertically enhanced"? He's short. She's tall. That happens in middle school. Kids know it. They may be uncomfortable about it, but we don't have to wrap them in cotton and speak in code about a simple fact.
Could we just use common sense? Of course, we want to call people what they want to be called, but fashions wax and wane, and not everyone prefers the same term. If you don't know, ask the person what he or she would like. Does she prefer "African American" or "black"? Does he mind if you refer to him as a "diabetic" or would he rather you say, "My friend has diabetes"?
We have become so afraid of offending one another that we often avoid meaningful discourse altogether. As I read about George Carlin's death--the man who noticed that in his lifetime "toilet paper" had become "bathroom tissue" -- I thought about what a field day he would have with "idea shower." He certainly had a wonderful ability to skewer the whole PC parade, and I hope that in his memory, we might all become more linguistically honest.
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