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'.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high