Oh, goody! Another city bans 'potentially offensive' language

Oh, goody! Another city bans 'potentially offensive' language

Politically correctLanguages change: That is an accepted truth among students of language. But linguistic change occurs independently of academic interdiction or fiat. Take the word notoriety. It used to be a synonym for “infamy” or “negative publicity.” For language purists it still is, but their opinion hardly matters. The masses have spoken, literally. Popular usage of notoriety to mean “fame” has been so widespread for so long that the dictionary definition has been expanded to include the positive connotation. Eventually, the pejorative meaning may fall out of favor altogether.

Try as they might, arbiters of language have had little success forcing words to acquire new meanings. And try they will.

The latest example comes from the Seattle Office of Civil Rights. Fox News reports that the agency instructed city workers in a recent internal memo to avoid using some words because they may offend some citizens.

Strike that: They may offend some residentsCitizen is one of the words that is taboo because it can supposedly cause hurt feelings.

Ditto for brown bag. Elliott Bronstein, of the Office of Civil Rights, explains:

For a lot of particularly African-American community members, the phrase brown bag does bring up associations with the past when a brown bag was actually used, I understand, to determine if people’s skin color was light enough to allow admission to an event or to come into a party that was being held in a private home. Luckily, we’ve got options.

For example, lunch-and-learn and sack lunch are acceptable alternatives to brown bag. “Lunch-and-learn”?

So what’s wrong with citizen? According to Bronstein, many people who live in Seattle are residents, not citizens:

They are legal residents of the United States and they are residents of Seattle. They pay taxes and if we use a term like citizens in common use, then it doesn’t include a lot of folks.

But the word citizen derives from the same root as city. Originally it was used exclusively to mean “resident of a city.”

Seattle isn’t the only burg trying to ride herd on which words its citizens can use and which they can’t. New York City, another bastion of liberal ideals, last year published a list of 50 forbidden words. The list was announced by schools chancellor Dennis Walcott, who expressed the view that words like birthday and politics could be troubling to students. Walcott explained that birthdays are not celebrated by Jehovah’s Witnesses, which could make some kids feel left out. He didn’t say what was wrong with politics, although listening to members of the word police, such as Walcott and Bronstein, you begin to understand.

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Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy has written for The Blaze, HotAir, NewsBusters, Weasel Zippers, Conservative Firing Line, RedCounty, and New York’s Daily News. He has one published novel, Hot Rain, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), and has been a guest on Radio Vice Online with Jim Vicevich, The Alana Burke Show, Smart Life with Dr. Gina, and The George Espenlaub Show.


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