Each time an American institution commits a new corruption of the English language in the name of ‘social justice,’ US wire services, assisted by the internet, circulate the latest absurdity to the four corners of the world. Nearly everyone I know has commented on the University of Southern California School of Social Work’s recent ban on the use of ‘the field’ when referring to the world outside the classroom because it might have ‘connotations for descendants of slavery or immigrant workers that are not benign.’
In my circle of friends we laughed, a bit ruefully, and increasingly so do a few mainstream publications such as the Week, which headlined its item ‘Only in America.’
I tend to take these assaults on speech and writing more seriously than some of my colleagues, but I still have hope that the current tide of inanity and language abuse will inevitably ebb in the wake of this latest stupidity. Surely, I tell myself, ridicule from libertarian comedians like Dave Chapelle and Ricky Gervais, and eyerolling from national news editors, will win the day and halt the suffocating campaign to drive meaning, metaphor and colloquialism out of the language of Shakespeare.
But then came the news last week that the Associated Press – the most important wire service in the world, the gold standard of old-fashioned journalistic propriety and plain writing – had itself perpetrated an act of violence against clear language and thinking. The AP has long dictated style to the vast class of middle-brow American writers for whom H.W. Fowler is too highbrow and subtle. I grew up on the AP stylebook, and to this day cannot rid myself of certain of its rules about proper punctuation, such as serial commas. So I was shocked when I read that the grand old agency had tweeted a new recommendation targeting what it claimed to be prejudice, but was in fact an attack on the very idea of generalisation. This recommendation urged us to avoid ‘general and often dehumanising “the” labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated.’ I’m all for precision and a sense of proportion, but this was pretty idiotic – so much so that even the ultra-woke New York Times ran a gently mocking story that chided the AP, albeit cautiously: ‘The point it appeared to be labouring to make about facile stereotyping of large groups of people seemed lost in this instance.’