What’s in a word? Can an attempt to be friendly, or to describe someone, truly offend, or do them harm? I don’t mean pejorative terms, but ordinary, everyday language, where no malice is intended.
The reason I ask, is that material has been leaked to the Guido Fawkes website, pertaining to a presentation given one lunchtime to a particular department at the Home Office. The subject of the presentation, was the dos and don’ts of language in relation to gender, sex, and sexuality. Given what follows, I should make it clear that the Home Office has stated that the suggestions made in the presentation are those of the person conducting it, not government guidelines.
We are becoming used to seeing, in email signatures, and even social media profiles, “preferred pronouns”. Were I, for example, to conform to such fashionable modernity, my email signature might read, “Basil Clement, he/him”. Someone identifying as a woman might write, “she/her”. A person identifying as nonbinary might opt for, “they/them.”. So far, so relatively uncomplicated. But then there are “mixed”, or “split” pronouns. Somebody’s preference might be for, “he/them”, or “they/her”.
But it can get worse. There are things, God help us,, called “neopronouns”. There are, apparently, people who wish to be referred to as “zie” or “ey”. Ghastly, aren’t they? I have no idea what they mean, but, I suppose, it doesn’t really matter. And to be fair, there is no law that says that a person’s comfort has to be euphonically pleasing.
Those who attended the presentation were also advised not to use the term “homosexual”. It is, apparently, perceived as a medical term, and people might get offended by being reduced to purely sexual terms. Instead, “gay” should be used. How that avoids doing the same thing, given that in this context, one is a synonym for the other, I don’t know. Sweet, merciful heavens. What a minefield.
But the most fascinatingly, fabulously, fantastically fatuous feature of this presentation, is the foolish notion that it is fundamentally wrong to address someone as “mate”. Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly. “Mate” is, it seems, a very, very bad word. True, there are times when it could be considered inappropriate. One wouldn’t write formal letters to the King, or the Prime Minister, or the editor of a newspaper, and begin them, “dear mate”. But in everyday conversation, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to call someone.
A mate can be either a friend or a partner. And of course, there are numerous other kinds of mates including: “shipmates”, “housemates”, “roommates”, “classmates”, “workmates” (although these days, they are more often called “colleagues”, or the unnecessarily sesquipedalian “co-workers”), and “teammates”. The employees/trainees of electricians or plumbers are “mates”, prisons are filled with “inmates”, and the siblings of cats are “littermates”.
The word “mate” denotes neither gender nor sexual preference. People of all genders and none refer to their friends as “mates”. As do people of all sexual orientations. Should other synonyms for “friend”, such as “buddy” or “pal” be discouraged too? If “sir” or “madam” can’t be used because they are too gender-specific, terms of endearment should be avoided because they might be interpreted as inappropriate sexual advances, and “mate” is just wrong, what word should be used if one doesn’t know a person’s name?
You may be wondering, dear reader, what the exact problem is with the word “mate”. You would not be alone. Nobody seems to know. It wasn’t made clear in the presentation.
There were a number of other dos and don’ts. But they were all so banal that they are, quite frankly, beneath contempt, so I shan’t elevate your blood pressure or mine by chronicling them here.
As I have said, these are not government guidelines. And quite right too. They are utter nonsense, and therefore shouldn’t be. It is possible to treat everyone with curtesy and respect, without having to permeate discourse with linguistic trip hazards. They may be fashionable at the moment, but fashion is, by definition, ephemeral.
Civil servants should be left to get on with their jobs, and not be pestered by proponents of verbal virtue signalling. Goodness knows, it can be difficult enough to get anything out of the Civil Service at the best of times. But if they are forced into spending an inordinate amount of time on finding the current week’s acceptable terminology, it will be impossible.
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