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Letter from Washington: The cerebral challenge

THERE IS a group of people here who wish that Norman Mailer had called his landmark war novel The Underclothed and the Nonliving, just as Ernest Hemingway should really have written The Senior Citizen and the Sea. This same group might look more favourably on Clint Eastwood if only he had made The Good, the Bad and the Cosmetically Different.

These linguistic custodians now hold, their foes allege, the commanding heights of American academe and letters. And the above amendments are not just flights of fancy. 'Nonliving person' was indeed offered as a sensitive synonym for 'corpse' by the New England Journal of Medicine; while 'old' was implicitly rejected by Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, who recommended that the Department of Ageing be renamed the Department of Longer Living. 'Different' has been a favoured device ever since the Smith College Office of Student Affairs ruled that disabled people should be referred to as the 'differently abled'.

These nuggets of right-on etymology are to be found in The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook just published here. Its cover features a photo of a couple labelled and named 'correctly'. Since they are both white, an arrow marks them as 'melanin-impoverished' (following the pronouncements of Leonard Jeffries, a militant black professor). The man's dog is identified as a 'nonhuman animal companion'; while the woman's shopping bag, full of eggs, cheese and milk, is shown to contain 'stolen nonhuman animal products'.

It's all a lot of fun, but more than just keep-it-in-the-bathroom reading. The authors have written a thorough critique of political correctness. Some of it is simple lampooning, as when the killer of more than a million Cambodians is captioned 'Pol Pot, a morally different individual', or when the authors explain how 'cerebrally challenged' might make a sensitive alternative to 'stupid': ' 'Move it, cerebrally challenged]', shouted the cab driver.'

Likewise the entry about the sexism of the term 'kingdom' and the speciesism of the word 'horse', which culminates in this proposed revision of Shakespeare: 'A companion animal capable of providing personal transport, a companion animal capable of providing personal transport, my monarchy for a companion animal capable of providing personal transport]'

Beard and Cerf's polemical purpose is served best when they allow the advocates of the doctrine to speak in their own words. In a useful section on suspect concepts, a professor at Dartmouth writes that Ivy League schools 'might be the slickest forms of genocide going', while Professor Jeffries argues that the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger is to be applauded because it deterred white people from 'spreading their filth throughout the universe'.

After a dozen or so entries of this type it becomes clear that the funnymen authors are being deadly serious. Plenty of this brain-washing nonsense is, they show, being peddled by those in the first rank of American higher learning: the genius who described reading and writing as 'martial law made academic' was elected last year as president of the US Modern Language Association.

Throughout, the authors maintain just the right ironic tone of approval. They apologise, at one point, for the book's title, recognising that 'The term 'politically correct', co-opted by the white power elite as a tool for attacking the culturally sensitive, is no longer 'politically correct' '. But this approach prevents Beard and Cerf from explaining how this bug has managed to bite so deep into the American language. For, even though PC has reached Britain - as one English student at Loughborough will testify, having been admonished for his use of the 'racist' term 'black comedy' - it is here that the pace is set.

Perhaps it has something to do with over-compensation: a right-on dialect hides the fact that the country isn't that right-on at all. It somehow seems apt that there are people calling washerwomen 'laundrons' and worrying whether the singular for 'wimyn' is 'womyn' or 'womon', in a country where late night TV includes a game-show based on guessing which of the three bikini-clad contestants has had breast implants. There is a perverse logic to a language designed to conceal reality.

Of course this concentration on wording and the attendant blindness to substance is a slamming indictment of the left. Beard and Cerf blame the PC phenomenon on the post-modern belief that language does not just reflect society - it constructs it. To holders of this view, it makes perfect sense to forget poverty and homelessness, and attack the real enemy - the dictionary. There the struggles are safer, easier and, on current evidence, more likely to bear fruit.

Now that trend might be stopped in its tracks by, of all things, a book. Sorry, make that a 'processed tree carcass'.