Jemima Lewis: Let's hear it for the housewives

What harm can it do to learn about the vanished race of jam-making women
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The Independent Online

"Language is the archive of history," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Alas, we citizens of the 21st century make poor curators. Words are dropping like flies all around us - wiped out by the vagaries of fashion, or sacrificed to appease the disapproving gods of the liberal orthodoxy - while those of us who love language watch, heavy-hearted but impotent, from the sidelines.

This week, for instance, the death knell was rung for "housewife". The Scottish chapter of the Women's Institute - an organisation powered by the elbow grease of generations of housewives - has announced that it is to debate the discontinuation of this old-fashioned term.

At present, the institute has a Housewives Committee, which administers something called a Housewives Proficiency test. For £3 per exam, members can be tested on their baking, flower-arranging, jam-preserving and lunch-rustling-up skills. But progressive forces within the institute say that the word "housewife" sounds derogatory, and may deter hip young things from joining, so they propose to use the mealy-mouthed term "housecraft" instead. "The role of women has changed and we need to reflect that," said a spokeswoman. "Our members are not necessarily wives or in the house that much."

In which case, you might wonder, why would they want to sit a jam-making exam in the first place? Is it a change of name that's needed, or a more enticing prospectus? And by the way, isn't it rather insulting to Britain's many proud housewives to declare that housewife is an insult?

Fiddling about with words in order to disguise or burnish the facts is a habit as old as civilisation. But there is something particularly wrong-headed about the modern passion for linguistic rebranding. Increasingly, it seems, we earnestly believe we can remove a problem simply by renaming it.

I was struck this week by a newspaper report about a school in Bristol that cast two black pupils as monkeys, provoking a minor furore. The father of one of the boys observed that, in a city made rich by slavery, racism was endemic. "As long as Bristol has Blackboy Hill," he said, "things won't change."

Words are to blame, you see: those pesky relics from our past, reminding us of things we'd rather forget, standing in the way of progress. What Bristol needs is a blameless, upbeat-sounding hill (I'm thinking Mulberry ... Magnolia ... Mandela!) and racial harmony will at long last settle over the city.

This is what the art critic Robert Hughes describes as the contemporary mission to "create a linguistic Lourdes, where evil and misfortune are dispelled by a dip in the waters of euphemism". By cleansing ourselves of anachronistic language, we hope to be absolved of sin. In reality, however, we are merely washing away our history, and with it the opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

If I were a child in Bristol, I would want to know how Blackboy Hill got its name. If I asked my teacher, or looked on the internet, I would quickly find myself immersed in the history of the slave trade, in Bristol and America and all over the world: a vast tale of human tragedy, all contained in a single street name.

The past is not confined to history books: it is scattered all over our linguistic landscape. And a good thing too, since history lessons in school are increasingly confined to the Second World War and Britain's heroic bashing of the Nazis. The more complicated, unfashionable or inglorious bits - the Indian uprising, General Gordon, the Tolpuddle Martyrs - might be forgotten altogether were it not for the clues hidden in nursery rhymes, street signs, blue plaques, graveyards and - my own favourite source of historical knowledge - fiction.

Enid Blyton's biographer is on the warpath at the moment, grumbling about the modern reprints of Blyton's work in which all mention of corporal punishment and pre-decimal currency have been excised, and old-fashioned phrases such as "queer" and "I say" updated. I share her dismay, and not out of concern for literary integrity.

Being "out of date" is not a failing in a book, least of all a children's book. One of the many virtues of reading is that it exposes us to the authentic flavour of past times. A child who reads Enid Blyton will discover things about his nation's past that he wouldn't find anywhere else. He will learn, for example, that there used to be an occasion called high tea, where ham was often eaten before cake; that Fanny wasn't always a name for a front bottom; that it used to be acceptable for people to say things like: "She was clever, for a girl."

Children are not as narrow-minded or incurious as their adult educators sometimes suppose. They realise that things were different once, and they are interested to know how. If we rid our language - both literary and public - of oddities and anachronisms, we rob future generations of the clues that help them to understand our past. What harm can it possibly do them to learn about Britain's imperial past, or the vanished race of jam-making women who once called themselves housewives?

jemima_lewis@dennis.co.uk

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