Errors and Omissions: Four decades on and still we are using children to label women

Our Letters Editor points out attitudes more at home in the 50s than a picture caption

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The Independent Online

Here is a picture caption from last Saturday’s paper: “A rare white humpback whale rises out of the sea off north Queensland. This stunning image was captured by nurse and midwife Jenny Dean last month. Ms Dean, a mother-of-three, came across the amazing show while on a whale-watching trip with her husband.”

Four decades of second-wave feminism have touched the writer sufficiently for Jenny Dean to be Ms Dean, rather than Mrs, but straight away we plunge back into the 1950s with “a mother-of-three”. If it had been her husband who took the picture, nobody would have thought of reporting the number of his children. It has nothing to do with the story.

One further point. It is patronising to tell readers that the picture of the whale is “stunning” and “amazing”. They can judge for themselves how stunned or amazed they are. I suppose we should at least be grateful that we were not told how many children the whale had.

We cannot flatter ourselves that this mother-of-three business was an isolated lapse. On a news page on Thursday we reported: “Lord Sugar’s bid to recover legal costs from former Apprentice winner Stella English has failed. The tycoon launched a counter-claim against Ms English, who has two children, after she lost a constructive dismissal claim against him.”

Is the reader supposed to imagine the mingled hope and anguish of the poor little tots as they follow every twist and turn of their Mummy’s legal battle against the evil ogre Lord Sugar? No, the children are mentioned only because writers see the number of a woman’s children as defining her identity, a measure they would not apply to a man.

Redundantness: This is from a film review published yesterday: “With every twitch, every startled glance and impatient gesture, Blanchett finds the human within this monster of snobbishness.”

Why not “snobbery”? Once more an abstract noun constructed from an adjective and  ending in “-ness” drives out an equivalent, shorter, simpler word, and the language becomes a bit more uniform, drab and clunky.

“Snob”, by the way, is an interesting word. In the 19th century it meant a vulgar person who tried to ape the rich and high-born; in the 20th it turned round to mean one who looked down on social inferiors: the fawning upward glance turns to a downward sneer. 

“Snobbishness” is recognised by dictionaries, but we don’t have to like it. What next: angriness; obscureness; distantness? Any absurdness is within the realm of possibleness, it seems.

Deathly: A world news in brief item on Thursday began with a horror that should have been cut from the agency copy: “A bill allowing stray dogs to be euthanized…”

“Euthanasia” is derived from “thanatos”, the Greek word for “death”. So if you must turn it into a verb, it would be “euthanatise”. But it is in any case the wrong word for putting down stray dogs, because euthanasia is supposed to be for the benefit of the patient.