The other night my eighth-grade niece Parker interrupted a furiously boring adult conversation about the impossible difficulty of “they” and “them” pronouns by simply and not self-righteously pointing out that for her and her friends, the usage comes perfectly easily and naturally. Middle-schooler for the win; middle-agers, get out of the way if you can’t lend a hand.
Yet, if you let every would-be language activist have their way, we won’t know what the hell anyone is talking about. Language is a living thing, yes. But it’s not a changeling, and the whole purpose of it is shared meaning, which is fed in large part by its constancy over years, generations, centuries and millennia.
These days, lots of newly sensitive terms invented on Monday morning are deemed problematic by noon on Tuesday and ___________-phobic slurs before the week is out. British speechwriter Alex Marklew tweeted that he wanted my take on this, published last month in an academic journal called Addiction, published since 1884 by the Society for the Study of Addiction:
A peer reviewer of a submitted paper on methadone maintenance states that she avoids the author’s term ‘opioid agonist therapy’ because new patients associate it with agony and become less willing to try the medication. She recommends ‘opioid substitution therapy’ instead. When the author uses this term in a revised submission, a different reviewer says that this term implicitly supports the canard that ‘methadone just substitutes one addiction for another’. Trying to moderate the dispute, an assistant editor proposes ‘medication-assisted treatment’, to which everyone agrees. When the paper is published, a reader writes in, angrily declaring that the author is putting lives at risk by ignoring the evidence that the main benefit of methadone comes from medication rather than it merely being an assist to the ‘real treatment’.
Great Scott, do we have to reinvent the language every twenty minutes in order to anticipate someone’s objection? People should be diplomatic with their words, but words can’t be made to become diplomats themselves!
Of course, it was less than a generation ago when there was a coin jar on a bar in a tavern in Chicago that said on the side, “Help the Retarded.”
We’ve since developed so many more precise terms for the various conditions and disabilities once so brutally described … that “retarded” is no longer an actual classification of human beings, and its modern usage signifies only the unpleasant presence of a crass and thoughtless older person.
But again, language also requires much stability if it is to do its job. The question is not only, “Who gets to determine which words we use?” It’s also, “Do those people have a broad and deep enough understanding of the purpose of language in society to weigh their linguistic brainstorms against the need to stack the wisdom we’re gathering now coherently atop all the wisdom humanity has gathered up to now?”
Happily, the editors of Addiction are trying hard on that count. In response to situations like that described above, they agreed on four principles on language. I describe them briefly:
1. When writing or talking about themselves, people can call themselves what they want. If I want to call myself a “boozehound,” editors can’t switch it to “alcoholic” or “chemically dependent,” or whatever is in vogue at the moment.
2. To the extent that you can actually (even if if roughly) ascertain what various populations of people want to be called, you should call them that—yes, even if those preferences change over time. And if they don’t want to be called a thing? Then ixnay on “Latinx,” perfesser.
3. To the extent that it’s demonstrably true that a term causes harm, that term should not be used. Here, the principles begin to tiptoe along the crumbling cliff of absurdity: “For example, even if the term ‘person with AIDS who uses drugs’ reduces stigma, it remains an empirical question whether PWAWUD produces the same benefit.” When it comes to words, I’m afraid those that try to avoid “harm” often do more harm than good. I think I might eliminate number three here, and revert to number two.
4. “Historical accuracy is a scholarly obligation.” Bravissimo. “Terms that are seen as harmful today may be present in the text of old laws, scholarly studies, diagnostic manuals, newspapers, diaries, letters and other material that a historian analyzes. In such cases, we want the historical terminology to be presented accurately, not to condone it, but to meet the standard of scholarly integrity.”
With the exception of that squirrelly “harm” item, I can get on board with most of this 137-year-old journal’s desperate attempt to maintain linguistic coherence amid almost constant quibbling, interrogating, fault-finding and pencil-fucking.
Communication colleagues, can you?