The sterilisation of language

Former Herald editor Gavin Ellis writes:

The latest example to get me in hot water was a public service announcement on the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine which stated: “Based on how the vaccine works, experts believe it is as for pregnant people as for everyone else.” I made the mistake of questioning why the announcement had used the word “people” instead of “women” and rashly pointed out what I thought were biological certitudes.

Oh dear. Heresy.

Is that why we are seeing an increasing number of media reports, particularly sourced from Police, that tell us that ‘a person’ has been killed/injured/assaulted/arrested? In my newspaper today, for example, I was told “A member of the public was taken to hospital after their car was hit by a driver fleeing police…” However, righteous prohibition doesn’t seem to have permeated the entire force. Alongside it was a Police-sourced saying “A man [unnamed] has been charged with murder’ and another (similarly sourced) saying “A man has died after being injured…” Would the world stop turning if the first story had informed me whether the member of the public was a man or woman? Of course not, and there was no valid reason for not doing so, except that it wouldn’t be very PC.

One day almost all stories will just refer to a “person” with no descriptions of gender, age or race.

I believe it was the result of our language becoming sterilised, as more and more develop what I might call idiomatic mysophobia or a pathological fear of the use of certain contaminating words in case someone might have their feelings hurt.

Saying ‘man’ or ‘woman’ does not amount to a harmful failure to acknowledge those nominate another gender identity. Frankly there are far more serious forms of discrimination against those groups and individuals that should concern us.

Exactly. Concentrate on the issues that matter.

It is equally appropriate for journalists to accept and report whatever gender the subject nominates. Last week, for example, actor Eddie Izzard reaffirmed the use of ‘she’ and ‘her’ as preferred pronouns. Good on her.

It’s also okay to talk about ‘pregnant women’.

I agree. One should respect people’s preferred pronouns while also using terms such as “pregnant women”.

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