Jemima Lewis: I'm sorry, darling, but ladies should be banned

Woman is a straightforward word. Lady suggests tiny feet and coy glances
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The Independent Online

According to the Liberal Democrat councillor Carl Minns, this is - brace yourself - "political correctness gone mad. I was brought up to refer to them as ladies - that is good manners - but will this now be a disciplinary matter?"

Councillor Minns's confusion is, perhaps, a problem of class as well as gender. Those words that the lower middle classes tend to think are polite - toilet, pardon, serviette - are often reviled by the upper middle classes, and vice versa. Thus, while one lot considers "lady" to be a respectful and genteel form of address, the other regards it as pretentious and inaccurate. A lady, as my grandmother drummed into me from childhood, is a woman with a title. Anyone else who calls herself a lady is a social climber.

Feminists, too, dislike the connotations of "lady" - though for rather better reasons. Woman is a straightforward word, a description of gender only lightly dusted with overtones of maturity and earthiness. Lady, on the other hand, is saturated with daintiness: it suggests coy glances and batting eyelashes, pencil skirts, pinnies, manicures, tiny feet, dinner on the table and not a hair out of place. It means never burping, snorting with laughter or buying a round.

It is no accident that ladies crop up a great deal in modern comedy, from the mincing transvestite in Little Britain, with his trademark squawk of "I'm a laydee", to the Pub Landlord who insists on serving only "white wine or a fruit-based drink to the ladies", regardless of what they might actually desire. In both cases, the joke relies on an understanding that only someone with an absurdly narrow view of womankind would reduce us all to ladies.

Likewise, terms of endearment such as pet and darling can - in the wrong hands - be powerfully annoying. I once had a colleague - no, dammit, an employee - who, as a much older and mildly chauvinist man, disliked the fact that I was his boss. Most of the time we rubbed along fine; I do believe we quite liked each other. But if I ever queried a piece of his work he would retaliate by calling me darling. "No, darling," he would sigh, his tone both sympathetic and weary, as though he were addressing a backward child. "You just don't get it, do you?" It was untrue, unfair - and above all, unchivalrous. This is something that the good burghers of Hull would do well to remember. Political correctness, mad or otherwise, usually springs from a desire to be polite.

Humans have always used euphemisms and taboos to oil the wheels of social intercourse; without them, we would be forever trampling on each other's sore spots.

It is a curious fact that the same people who rail against political correctness often pride themselves on their gentility in other respects. They would never dream of causing offence by farting or dying; instead, they break wind and pass away. They eat with their mouths closed, give their seats up on the train and open doors for women. Yet as soon as they hear certain buzzwords (women, race, equal opportunities) their manners desert them.

Godfrey Bloom - the Yorkshire businessmen and UKIP member who got in trouble for saying that "no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would ever employ a lady of child-bearing age" - is typical of the breed. When he was accused of sexism, he protested that, on the contrary, he loved women and was the soul of chivalry. I dare say he is scrupulous about standing when a "lady" enters the room, and perhaps even escorting her into the next room by guiding her elbow. But unless manners change with the times - to allow, for example, for the agonies that women suffer over combining motherhood and work - they soon become redundant.

Of course, not everything that is done in the name of political correctness is sensible or even necessary. But the downfall of the anti-PC brigade is that - just like the trend they excoriate - they take everything to extremes. They regard all of modernity as a crackpot conspiracy foisted upon us by the left.

In the end, all that is required is a little empathy. Some of the words on Hull council's verboten list - homo, poof, chinky, gypos, pikies - were always offensive, or have become so with time. Others, like lady, will never be more than irritating. But good manners should spare us even from that.