PC language police crackdown on staff

Many universities are falling foul of do's and don'ts in their own guidelines. Melanie Newman reports

August 6, 2009

Universities are trying - and failing - to prevent staff from using a host of terms that they deem to be inappropriate, such as "mankind", "affliction" and "OAP".

The terms are listed in a guide on non-discriminatory language by University College London, which instead suggests terms such as "humankind", "impairment" and "older person". It also disapproves of words such as "chairman", "chairwoman", "homosexual" (preferring the term "gay man") and "manpower".

The guide urges staff to be "sensitive to the risk of patronising, offending or excluding colleagues or students".

Although staff have been told that the guidelines "must be reflected in UCL communication", an internet search found 3,000 documents on the institution's website that use the word "chairman", for example.

UCL is not the only university to issue and ignore advice on language. Loughborough University's "inclusive language policy" advises staff to use "older people" in preference to "the elderly", "pensioners" or "senior citizens".

"It is important to remember ageism can also be used negatively against young people, for example assuming they lack maturity," it says.

A Loughborough press release last year announcing the Olympic debut of Heather Corrie, a PhD student and canoeist, failed to follow this advice.

Noting that the 37-year-old had been competing internationally since "the tender age of 14", it also includes a quote from her on her research into preventing falls among older people, stating: "I've been testing 93 senior citizens on a weekly basis."

A conference at the University of Sheffield last year, titled "Bearded Ladies: Hair and Hairiness in Literature and Culture from the Middle Ages to the Present", also breached a language guide.

The title should have been "bearded women" according to the university's preferred language guide, which says that the term "ladies" should not be used "except when in conjunction with 'gentlemen'?".

Elsewhere, the University of Aberdeen's "considerate language" page notes that "the word 'special' (eg special needs) when referring to disabled people tends to either mean extraordinary or not good enough, and is therefore ... patronising".

It also tells staff to avoid using the words "epileptic" or "dyslexic", yet a section on its student-support page headed "What support will I have being dyslexic?", explains that the support available includes "making special-access arrangements or making special arrangements for you to take exams elsewhere".

Another institution to fall foul of its own rules is Lancaster University, where a postgraduate student handbook issued by the English and creative writing department warns that "if an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded student does not complete within four years, then the department is at risk of being blacklisted".

This is in spite of a language guide advising staff to "avoid terms such as crippled, blacklist or black mark".

A report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the "language of equality" suggests that institutional guidelines may never have the desired effect.

It says: "It is by consent of the speakers, not at the directives of higher authority, that language changes most effectively."


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