Out of the West: English loses its teeth to the word dentists

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WASHINGTON - It was enough that my teeth were falling out. After two years in the US I have learnt that 'substance abuse' is the polite way of describing smoking, alcoholism or drug addiction, and that what I think of as pets are more properly described as 'animal companions'. Still, a new dictionary's listing of 'alternative dentation' as a nice way of talking about false teeth did come as a shock this week. Does political correctness have any bounds?

On the face of it, I must report, the answer is no. Bookshop shelves groan as never before with serious PC literature. Sign of the times, Rosalie Maggio's flagship Non-Sexist Word Finder, talisman of the women's rights movement, has been expanded into a multi- purpose Bias-free Word Finder, with no fewer than 5,000 entries designed to satisfy the most discriminating of non-discriminators. A few random selections culled from a single page give the flavour of the opus. Never, warns Ms Maggio, use 'left-handed' metaphorically. So as not to offend the sinistrals among us, 'backhanded', 'ambiguous', or 'clumsy' are to be preferred. Out too is the word 'legman'; infinitely preferable are the terms 'clerk', 'courier' or 'messenger'. Ditto for leprosy and lepers. They should be referred to as 'Hansen's disease' and 'persons with Hansen's disease'.

One might also ponder the Clinton administration itself; not just the eminence accorded to Hillary, but the very composition of the cabinet - a monument to political correctness in its assiduous blend of women, blacks, Hispanics, not a few of them fired by high office in those ovens of PC that are America's universities. What price George Bush and the male- dominated locker-room culture he embodied? But, just possibly, absurdity is starting to cut the political correctness movement down to size.

After all, where will it end? The Bias-Free Word Finder recommends that Caesar's wife be replaced by the 100 per cent gender- free 'someone whose conduct is impeccable', and prefers the term 'courage from a bottle' to the unpardonably ethno-centric 'Dutch courage'. And already life is imitating art. Earlier this year the new Democratic Governor of Washington state, Mike Lowry, bowed to objections from some members of the local Swinomish tribe (Ms Maggio favours 'nation' or 'people') of American Indians, decreeing that his top aide will be known as 'staff director' rather than 'chief of staff'. Certainly, Mr Lowry acknowledged, the latter were to be found everywhere, from the White House down. He even noted the President's many attributions included that of Commander-in- Chief. But if some Swinomish thought the title 'chief of staff' offensive, then 'we ought to recognise that'.

More seriously, the penny is starting to drop that mere changes in words will not get rid of the underlying problem. With every day that passes, politically correct language becomes less distinguishable from plain old euphemism, dulling the senses to precisely the injustices and prejudices it seeks to eradicate.

Is not the essence of political correctness to replace the wrong words with the right ones? Well, not exactly. If the daily outpourings of sundry spokesmen (sorry, 'spokespersons') on TV, radio and in the newspapers here are anything to go by, those two simple five-letter words - 'right' and 'wrong' - are much too morally loaded for everyday consumption. Far better the numbingly neutral 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate'.

Not that the phenomenon is new, nor exclusively American. The first time I became aware of the pernicious charms of circumlocution was when Ron Ziegler, Richard Nixon's press secretary, turned Watergate lies into mere 'inoperative statements'. But was it not our own Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, who confessed to having been 'economical with the truth' in the rumpus over Peter Wright's book Spycatcher? Bureaucratic fudge- speak of course is all over the place; rare is the accident or breakdown that does not become an 'anomaly' or 'malfunction'. Equally rarely do they cause deaths, rather 'fatalities'. Even weapons, in Pentagon-ese, do not kill; they 'attrite', or 'service the target'. The intentions of political correctness, to avoid offence and gratuitous slur, may be worthier than those of euphemism. But the end product can be all too similar.

Banish the words 'black' and 'white' from the English language, and the issue of race will not disappear. You can call a shop girl a sales assistant or a vending consultant. But that does not improve her income, or even status. Nor will the term 'underhoused' put a roof over the heads of the homeless, any more than 'alternative dentation' puts real teeth back in your mouth.