There are too few active homosexuals and career women in the Third World. This is because blacks and Asians — from Australasia to Bangalore — have a tendency to put them in a pot, cook them and eat them. Primitive African tribes also eat crippled people — those in a wheelchair, or merely suffering from a hare lip — and indeed those they consider to be ethnic minorities. I know of one handicapped spinster who committed suicide rather than be eaten by some gypsies in Bombay. Her illegitimate daughter, an air hostess, who herself had given birth to Siamese twins in Calcutta, appealed for clemency but this fell on deaf ears. She is now an illegal asylum seeker living in the province of Northern Ireland — and a grandmother to boot, with a bachelor son.
Oh, enough, enough. I had intended to work my way through the entire book, but that will do for now. There’s 27 of them up there, in that peculiar opening paragraph; words or phrases which have been banned by one of our national morning newspapers, the Guardian. It recently gave away a free style guide to its readers, just in case they were mystified by its occasional weird language. Most of my transgressions you will be able to spot, I would guess — Third World, active homosexual, crippled, handicapped, deaf ears (a phrase which makes deaf people cross, apparently, although not if you whisper it), career women (all women are potential career women, OK?) and grandmother (why refer to her familial position at all, you reactionary pig?). Others may come as a surprise — ethnic minorities is not on, you have to say minority ethnic instead. There is of course no semantic difference between these two constructs, any more than there is between the currently fashionable ‘people of colour’ and the utterly de trop ‘coloured people’. Australasia is out because it’s ethnocentric, we should say Oceania instead. The phrase ‘in a wheelchair’ is frowned upon for reasons I simply cannot comprehend and saying that someone committed suicide might distress relatives, so you should say ‘killed themselves’ instead, which will make them feel a whole bunch better. But Bangalore? We should be saying Bengalooru, you idiot, even if it is a place most Guardian readers have never heard of and will have to scurry away to their left-wing atlases to locate.
In fairness, it is the BBC, rather than the Guardian, which has led the way in calling foreign places by names which no British person has heard of, a consequence, mind, of the hyperactivity of its previously overstaffed pronunciation unit (PU). This exemplifies a golden rule: dignify some minor problem with a whole department and you’ll soon be in deep trouble. I remember one of the PU’s operatives, a strange thin man with a ginger beard and spectacles, bursting into the studio cubicle one morning to inform Brian Redhead on the Today programme that he was pronouncing Turkey incorrectly: it should be Turrr-KEE-yah, he said. Redhead responded on the talk-back button with a bunch of high-volume stuff which the Guardian’s style guide has also outlawed, on grounds of taste. But 15 years later the pronunciation unit has won and Redhead has lost; every week, it seems, a new city is rechristened, suddenly pronounced the way they pronounce it over there — and to hell with what confusion this causes among the British public.
The renaming of foreign, and especially Third World, places is a political act. The BBC and others refuse to call Burma ‘Myanmar’ and its capital ‘Yangon’ simply because we don’t like the regime there, but are happy to cede to Beijing, Mumbai, etc. It seems to be largely the Third World which is afforded our linguistic deference — we don’t call Nuremberg ‘Nurnberg’ or Lisbon ‘Lisboa’, still less Moscow ‘Moskva’. I assume that we have succumbed with Mumbai et al at least partly out of some confused notion of guilt about our imperial and colonial past — in other words, for incoherent, leftish, political reasons. If so, perhaps we should start calling Bollywood ‘Mumblywood’ instead. Similarly, it is a political statement to do the au courant thing and place Mexico in ‘North America’ (in the old days it was Central America, at best) and Poland and Belarus in ‘Central’ rather than Eastern Europe. In what possible sense is Poland central? And what’s wrong with being east these days, come to that? And Mexico is part of an isthmus containing many other states — Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras and so on — which are always known as ‘Central America’. Mexico wants to be North America because it thinks it is better than those countries which are geographically to the south of it — and on a par with the USA and Canada. Don’t kid yourself, Pedro.
The Guardian is also a bit touchy about the words ‘daughter’ and ‘grandmother’; it doesn’t really like them although, clearly, it does not think they are in the same bestial category as ‘wog’ or ‘nigger’. Rather, it worries that they might be used inappropriately by its hacks, for example, in saying that so-and-so is somebody’s daughter or grandmother rather than simply a strong, dynamic and independent woman in her own right, thank you very much. It doesn’t like ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ used as nouns and believes that people who have been crippled will think the term ‘crippled’ is objectionable. It dislikes African tribes being called tribes and really, really, dislikes primitive African tribes being so described, no matter how palpably primitive they may be.
The Guardian is perhaps our best written morning newspaper and most of the entries in the style guide it doled out to readers were sensible and written with a cheering amount of wit and chutzpah. Also, the political decisions it has taken about the words I have quoted above (and indeed many, many more) probably accord with the political views of the newspaper’s readership. But what the guide means to do is strip from language its implicit or subliminal connotations, so that — in effect — a sentence in the Guardian will mean rather less, in total, than a sentence written anywhere else, and be far less colourful. It is, on the face of it, a strange thing for a newspaper to wish to do.
Here is the full list of the banned words I used: active homosexual; career women; Third World; blacks; Asians; Australasia; Bangalore; primitive African tribes; crippled; in a wheelchair; hare lip; ethnic minorities; handicapped; spinster; committed suicide; gypsies; Bombay; illegitimate daughter; air hostess; Siamese twins; Calcutta; deaf ears; illegal asylum seeker; province of Northern Ireland; grandmother; bachelor.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 4, 2008