Wednesday 6 February 2019

If I Could 'Fix' Language: Three Words I Hate

When Samuel Johnson was commissioned to write the English Dictionary, he had some big ideas about what he might do.

“This, my Lord, is my idea of an English dictionary; a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.”

His idea was powerful, to ‘fix’ the English language. This was not to fix in the sense of something broken, but to fix in its place, to glue the language into a solid and unchanging state. He knew this was a difficult, almost impossible task and compared it to the task before Julius Cæsar who tried and failed to conquer the unruly British Isles.  

“When I survey the Plan which I have laid before you, I cannot, my Lord, but confess, that I am frighted at its extent, and, like the soldiers of Cæsar, look on Britain as a new world, which it is almost madness to invade.”

When he got to the end of his project, nine pain-filled years later, he realised that the idea of ‘fixing’ the language was impossible. His preface to the dictionary explains how difficult it is to pin any idea of language at all, and how language change is a force impossible to resist.

“If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses of humanity?”

Since then, English Lexicography has taken the inevitable notion of language change as the joy of language. For a modern lexicographer in English, language exists in transaction, words are not objects to be pinned but tokens to be exchanged. The Oxford English Dictionary, begun as a continuation of Johnson’s dictionary, is founded on the notion of watching and recording language rather than controlling it.

However, if I could change language, here are three words I would eliminate.


The other week it was #penguinawarenessday. The fact is that I am aware of penguins. They are short dudes in black and white who waddle around in the snow and weave beautifully in the water. There is no-one above the age of three who are not aware of penguins. There are loads of children’s books about penguins - I particularly like Oliver Jeffers books like ‘Lost and Found’.

Awareness is the wrong word. What is trying to be raised far more than ‘awareness’ is money. Awareness is politer.

Homo/Trans Phobia

The trouble with this phrase is that ‘phobia’ sounds sort of sweet - that such people may see the sight of a rainbow flag above a pub or a masculine face above a dress, and run away terrified and screaming. 

It’s simple. These people aren’t scared, they’re bigoted.


I was introduced to this word by the phrase, ‘check your privilege,’ every word in the phrase is wrong.

This is not to say that I disagree with the intention of the phrase. The fact is that I am a white male, I have only been stopped by police twice in my life and when I go on a trip, the tour guide frequently comes to me as ‘person in the know’ than the teacher I am assisting. I am completely in agreement that I have perks simply in being what I appear to be. But every aspect of that three word phrase irks me.

The first is the word ‘check’. It is the verb of the sentence and as such is the most important one there. It is the job of the verb to make plain what it is I am required to do. Unfortunately, I can think of at least three readings of the word ‘check’ that are plausible readings. The first is that I must check my privilege as I would check for keys, that I should merely note and acknowledge it. The second is that I must check my privilege as I would check in a coat in a cloakroom, divest myself of said privilege so I can communicate at an equal footing. The third is that I must hold my privilege in check, like a dog on a short lead, that I might not be able to divest myself of it but must keep it under control. As each version could be the one meant by the phrase, it makes the whole thing fuzzy and indistinct as it’s not obvious. 'Check' is clearly the wrong verb to use.

The second word I have a problem with is ‘your’. It turns the phrase into an accusatory, finger-pointing activity, Everybody is telling everybody else to check their privilege. No wonder the idea has met resistance. If the phrase used the word ‘my’ it would be much better. An encouragement for each person to take notice of the little benefits they receive from their perceived identities is far healthier than the nagging, pestering use of ‘your’.

The last word, and the one I think most pernicious, is ‘privilege’.

The fact is, that a privilege is something extra that we give someone. In my case, not being repeatedly stopped by police or being dismissed by tour guides is something given to me extra than normal human cordiality. The fact is, that these things ought not be privilege at all. They are not extras, they should be the standard by which we treat each other.

Worse still, privileges are earned. they are the reward granted for something. To use the word ‘privilege’ is to imply that I deserve not to be checked by police for the merit of being white, or that I deserve not to be ignored for the merit of being male. To say such beneficial treatments are privilege is to say that they are deserved, which is surely against the whole ideology of the notion.

As such, the phrase ‘check your privilege’ manages to be (in three words) indistinct, needlessly confrontational and secretly undermining the equality sought. It’s a shittily produced phrase.

The fact is, privileged or not, I don’t have the power to keep the English language in check. So I have to live with the words that don’t quite say what I think they should, and hope people understand what I actually mean.


For a long time ‘enthusiasm’ would have been on this list, but luckily even employers are beginning to realise that an emotion as genuine as enthusiasm can’t be faked.

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