Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Living in sin - the evolving power of words

“Living in sin” was a frequently used term for co-habiting couples even after the sexual revolution in the 1960s. Now the description is most often used ironically or for comic effect. Love and marriage no longer go together like a horse and carriage.
Ian McEwan’s novel On Chesil Beach is set in 1962 and revolves around the disastrous wedding night of a young couple that have remained virgins.
I would suggest that now only the strictest parents would object if their offspring said they wanted to set up house ahead of a planned marriage to their beloved.
These days anyone can see why the Black and White Minstrel Show was offensive (see picture above), although it drew big audiences in its hey-day. It ran on BBC television from 1958 to 1978 even though the first petition opposing white men appearing in blackface dates from 1967. Today it seems odd if a white actor plays Othello.
Some vile words have always been used to deliberately insult minority groups. It seems shameful now but some descriptions – such as spastic, mongol, retarded – were in general usage insensitive to the pain they caused. We know better now.
But sometimes the pendulum swings too far. The plot of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain owes its impetus to the central character’s description of two African-American students as “spooks”. He had used the slang term as it referred to spies and not in a pejorative regard to black people but left himself open to an unfair charge of racism.
In a more trivial context I hesitated to include the word “girl” as it referred to a young woman in my vocabulary for about 30 years. I was a young man at the height of feminism when you earned a scowl if you accidentally held a door open for a woman.
“Girl” was considered demeaning. But not apparently “boy” as in the “old boys’ network” and “boys’ night out” was not.
“Young woman/lady/female” was too formal and not an adequate substitute. Happily “girl” made a comeback.
If girls were content to call themselves girls, why should men continue to worry about this semantic legacy from the excess of feminism? I bet male college lecturers are still careful in their gender terminology. But for the rest of us the word “girl” has been rehabilitated for quite a few years now. Girl groups can challenge boy bands.
Used in the right context girl needn’t be condescending to any female aged between eight and eighty. You can bet where women face real prejudice as in glass ceilings in the workplace, the language is always politically correct.

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