It’s a Beautiful Thing

“You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. . . . It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four.

KOMO the CBS radio and TV outlet in Seattle reports that an internal memo at Seattle City Hall is causing quite a stir.

According to the City of Seattle, the terms “citizen,” or “brown bag” are potentially offensive and other words should be used. It suggests government workers no longer use the terms.

“Luckily, we’ve got options,” Elliott Bronstein of the Office for Civil Rights wrote in the memo. “For ‘citizens,’ how about ‘residents?’” Bronstein wrote.

What if you’re not a citizen or a resident?

And while city leaders publicize “brown bag” lunch meetings as a way to designate a bring-your-own lunch time event, the term has a sordid history. Huh?

“It used to be a way people could judge skin color,” Bronstein said in a phone interview.

Anyone ever heard that?

Does the public find it offensive? Most people agree it’s not.

Do they agree that Bronstein is an idiot?

But the City of Seattle isn’t alone. Washington State lawmakers have voted to remove “gender” specific words in official records.

Freshman can now be “first-years,” journeymen are “journey-level,” and penmanship is simply “handwriting.”

For the entire history of modern English, at least until the hyper sensitized present, the word “man” was used to refer to all human beings, regardless of sex. The Oxford English Dictionary explains the etymology. Many languages have one word for humans regardless of sex, and others that are sex specific. Latin had/has “homo” not to be confused with the Greek root meaning “same” as in “homosexual” or “homogeneous”) and “vir” meaning a male human. German has “Mensch” for the general term, and “Mann” and “Frau” for the sex-specific word. I suppose we could use “human” as a sex-neutral term, but “freshhuman” “journeyhumans,”and “penhumanship” are all awkward. “First year” is alright, but “journey-level” would be as awkward as the other proposal. “Penmanship” connotes a quality judgment that “handwriting” does not.

To offend or not to offend, turns out to be a very sensitive question. And a ridiculous one at that.

Word usage tends to evolve nicely on its own. The state dictating what words should be used creates awkwardness and affectation.

So what is a person supposed to say instead of brown bag? According to the memo, people should try “lunch-and-learn” or “sack lunch.”

Perhaps Bronstein is the one who should be sacked.

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