Thursday, January 14, 2016

News from the world of words

Tools of the Trade
With a nod to Bob Dylan, the words they are a-changin’, and I find plenty of the changes disconcerting.  But then, I’m a self-proclaimed grammar geek and word nerd.  Those of you who aren’t may not find any of the latest pronouncements problematic.  And, I use the word “problematic” because that’s one of the words on Lake Superior State University’s (LSSU’s) annual list of “Banished Words.”

What’s the rationale for banning this word? LSSU gives two reasons: it’s “a corporate-academic weasel word … a trendy replacement for ‘that is a problem’.” I say anytime you can use one word to replace four, you’re doing well.

“The list was compiled from nominations received from word-watchers across the world throughout the year, some of whom are quoted” in explaining why a word was banished. Also on the list is “stakeholder.” If you’re not a change manager, this ban may not irritate you, but as a former practitioner of change communications, I particularly dislike this rationale: “In recent years ‘stakeholder’ has expanded from describing someone who may actually have a stake in a situation or problem to being over-used in business to describe customers and others.”  Another word-watcher took exception to its being used with the term “engagement,” as in “stakeholder engagement” further explaining that “if someone is disengaged, they’re not really a stakeholder in the first place.”

Well hell-o-o, anyone who’s impacted by a change is a stakeholder.  You’re developing a new product? Anyone who buys it, sells it, uses it, builds it … is a stakeholder, and if your stakeholders are disengaged, you’re in trouble.  You identify stakeholders so you can be sure to engage them.  Okay, okay, I’ll get off that soapbox. Check out the list for yourself; I think you’ll consider at least a few of the banished words odd choices.

My next bugaboo is the declaration that the pronoun “they” can be used to refer to only one person.  That’s right; you may think “they” means two or more people or animals, but not any longer.  Now, because it can be awkward or “problematic” or possibly offensive to say something like, “We want any student to feel as though he or she can speak up,” it’s been decided that, “they” in place of “he or she” is acceptable.

The Washington Post has added this usage to its style guide, and the Canadian Government has endorsed it. After all these years of rewriting sentences to avoid having to say he/she, it seems I have one less thing to worry about.  Even though it seems to make life simpler, it pains me to think about changing.

Last but not least, the title Mx has joined Mr, Mrs, Miss and Ms.  Why?  Because it’s gender neutral.  Great Britain is leading the pack in adopting this new title, adding it to government, newspaper and banking websites and forms. “Oxford University introduced the title last year and described it as 'the most commonly used and recognised gender neutral title'.”

As for our side of the pond, the Merriam-Webster website noted in 2015 that “[I]t's not clear whether or when Mx. will catch on in the US. The timeline for such developments can be long, as the title Ms. taught us not all that long ago. Coined in 1901, the now-commonplace Ms. wasn't fully adopted by The New York Times until 1986.”

Seems those ever so proper Brits are breaking with tradition more rapidly than we upstart Americans. Why do I think the denizens of Downton Abbey would be horrified?

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