Complaining about how newspapers thoughtlessly offend this or that cluster of humans has developed into one of the popular folk arts of this era. Like other arts, it's harder than it looks. This specialized form of grumbling requires constant vigilance and a hyperactive imagination, but even when poorly done it can be as satisfying to the creator as a bad wood carving. Letters to the editor about objectionable ethnic terms often appear to be complaints made for the joy of it, like art for art's sake. Those feeling aggrieved happily enlist in the ever-growing army of victims, people who love to insist that they are "hurt."
It's dangerous to take such complaints seriously: Constant worry about offending will drain the life from journalism. Perhaps the danger reaches its most acute form at The Toronto Star, which treats these grievances with utter solemnity. At some point editors apparently decided to cleanse their pages of every word that anyone might conceivably find offensive. So today the Star is to political correctness what the Académie française is to the French language.
Robin Harvey's Saturday column on the editorial page (she became ombudsman last November, after 17 years as an editor or reporter) has been expanding the list of terms that offend. It's now wrong, for instance, to say "black on black crime" because (as one reader complained) no one says "white on white crime." It's not right to call Muslims appearing before a school board "militant." Dictionaries may say the word means "aggressively active," but some people think it sounds too violent.
For at least a century, The Toronto Star has been trying to civilize us. In 1901, Joseph ("Holy Joe") Atkinson, still new to the job of running the paper that he later made into the most successful in Canada, addressed a gathering of Presbyterian ministers on this point: "Civilization itself rests upon the mind and conscience of the whole people, and for this mind and conscience the press is the best vehicle of expression the world has yet evolved." His words appear in J.E. Atkinson of the Star (1963), the corporate history by Ross Harkness. (That was the published official history, as opposed to the later unpublished official history, written on commission by David MacDonald in the 1990s but consigned to a dark vault after Star management decided the manuscript didn't say what they wanted said.)
The Star's anxiety to build a decent society has often rendered its language painfully decorous. Fifty years ago it couldn't bear to print the word "rape." Instead, reporters wrote "assault." (This led to incomprehensible sentences, such as, "She testified that he punched her, knocked her to the ground, and then assaulted her.") In the 1960s, the Star's managing editor eliminated "penis" from an art review of mine, on the grounds that the word would scandalize readers -- an incident I recalled on Saturday when the Star ran a big headline, "Everything's coming up penis," about phallic images in art and design. Joseph Atkinson Jr., when he was head of the company, instructed reporters not to describe anyone as "old." He thought it indelicate. Pretty old himself, he considered "elderly" less repugnant.
Harvey brings to the maintenance of the Star tradition an innocent and humourless approach. She recently told us that terms derogatory to certain groups are more offensive than profanity, giving as an example "hirsute lesbo-nistas," a phrase used lightheartedly by Rosie DiManno in a column. "Unacceptable," pronounced Harvey.
I asked DiManno for her response. She replied that while she didn't care what Harvey thought about her language, she was concerned that this criticism might carry weight with editors. "I've been fighting them for the last 17 years," she said. "I've been around long enough to trust my own instincts about language. Sometimes I'm wrong. But I'd rather be wrong and publish than be timid and censored." (The Star vigorously opposes all forms of censorship except those it imposes.)
Harvey has ruled against the verb "to welsh," apparently because two or three Welshmen with nothing better to do have elevated this common word to an ethnic slur. "Though it can be found in some dictionaries," Harvey recently wrote, "the term originated as a negative stereotype directed at Welsh people and should be avoided."
Actually, it's wrong to say it appears in "some dictionaries." So far as I can discover, it's in all of them, usually defined as "to cheat by failing to pay a bet." And, from Gage Canadian to Cambridge International, the dictionaries carry no warning about offensiveness.
What does the word have to do with the Welsh? Nothing, so far as I can tell. The Oxford English Dictionary's lengthy entry doesn't mention Wales. "Of obscure origin" is all the OED can say about the background of "to welsh," and the American Heritage Dictionary says "Origin unknown." So what does Harvey know that Oxford and American Heritage don't?
She may have in mind something like the letter received by the late Mike Royko at the Chicago Tribune in 1993, after Royko wrote "welsh on the deal." Rees Lloyd, head of the Welsh-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, insisted that this "dreaded slur" was an "ancient racial epithet invented by the Anglo, Saxon and Norman invaders of Wales in order to degrade the native Celtic peoples." That's not a claim you can easily substantiate.
Clinching her argument, Harvey says the word expresses "a negative stereotype" about the Welsh. She must mean a stereotyped view that Welsh people don't pay their debts. That would make sense, except that in 60 years of consuming books, movies, TV, radio and private conversation, I have never once heard anyone accuse the Welsh of any such thing. Have I somehow missed this ugly racial prejudice? Or could it be that no such stereotype exists, and the rumour of it was invented by people yearning for a grievance to call their own?
There's an evocative sentence in Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World's Languages, a recent book by Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine: "Each language is a living museum, a monument to every culture it has been vehicle to." The language some journalists are creating today could become a monument to The Age of Timidity.