Chris Hastings, The Times of London, August 23, 2009
It could be construed as a black day for the English language–but not if you work in the public sector.
Dozens of quangos [quasi-non-governmental organizations] and taxpayer-funded organisations have ordered a purge of common words and phrases so as not to cause offence.
Among the everyday sayings that have been quietly dropped in a bid to stamp out racism and sexism are “whiter than white”, “gentleman’s agreement”, “black mark” and “right-hand man”.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has advised staff to replace the phrase “black day” with “miserable day”, according to documents released under freedom of information rules.
It points out that certain words carry with them a “hierarchical valuation of skin colour”. The commission even urges employees to be mindful of the term “ethnic minority” because it can imply “something smaller and less important”.
The National Gallery in London believes that the phrase “gentleman’s agreement” is potentially offensive to women and suggests that staff should replace it with “unwritten agreement” or “an agreement based on trust” instead. The term “right-hand man” is also considered taboo by the gallery, with “second in command” being deemed more suitable.
Many institutions have urged their workforce to be mindful of “gender bias” in language. The Learning and Skills Council wants staff to “perfect” their brief rather than “master” it, while the Newcastle University has singled out the phrase “master bedroom” as being problematic.
Advice issued by the South West Regional Development Agency states: “Terms such as ‘black sheep of the family’, ‘black looks’ and ‘black mark’ have no direct link to skin colour but potentially serve to reinforce a negative view of all things black. Equally, certain terms imply a negative image of ‘black’ by reinforcing the positive aspects of white.
“For example, in the context of being above suspicion, the phrase ‘whiter than white’ is often used. Purer than pure or cleaner than clean are alternatives which do not infer that anything other than white should be regarded with suspicion.”
The clampdown in the public sector has angered some of the country’s most popular writers.
Anthony Horowitz, author of the Alex Rider children’s spy books, said: “A great deal of our modern language is based on traditions which have now gone but it would be silly–and extremely inconvenient–to replace them all. A ‘white collar worker’, for example, probably doesn’t wear one. An ‘able seaman’, under new regulations, could well be neither. ‘Spanish practices’ can happen all over Europe. We know what these phrases mean and we can find out from where they were derived. Banning them is just unnecessary.”
Marie Clair, spokeswoman for the Plain English Campaign, said: “Political correctness has good intentions but things can be taken to an extreme. What is really needed is a bit of common sense.”