The New York department of education has been receiving a great deal more publicity than it could possibly have imagined following the release of a recent edict.
Officials have banned the use of 50 words from future tests in order to allow “students to complete practice exams without distraction”. And it is the nature and reason surrounding many of those bans that is causing, frankly, bemusement.
So exams will no longer be able to use the word ‘Birthday’ in case any Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t celebrate birthdays, are put off their work; ‘Dinosaur’ is out, not a word the creationists will want to see; ‘Pepperoni’, because it’s junk food; ‘Computers in the home’ and ‘homes with swimming pools’, as not every child could afford such luxuries; ‘Celebrities’, frankly, I haven’t seen any attempted explanation for this one. And so it goes on, and the complete list is quite something to behold.
Now I’ll admit, this type of thing is not normal Wordability fare, as it is not celebrating the creation of an entertaining new word. But language change is as much about words going out of fashion as coming into fashion, so I have found myself intrigued by this story.
And, to be honest, a little worried. New York officials have clearly defended themselves and even pointed out that words like ‘Hurricane’ or ‘Wildfire’ are banned in Florida because of local worries there. But banning words, proscibing language that is or is not acceptable, smacks of a dangerous level of control and a worrying sense of governance.
Language change is a natural phenomenon. It cannot be forced. Thankfully, people in the major English-speaking countries of the world do not live under a language policy that attempts to control people by making certain words illegal. We all come to know that some words cause offence and shouldn’t be used, but this kind of thing can be taken too far and can undermine efforts to outlaw words which are genuinely offensive.
The officials may also want to look at the nature of the criticism they have received, and what it says about the way language is actually used. People have been laughing at them. The reaction is one of derision. And that is because the words they are trying to ban are so basic, so fundamental to everyday conversation, that to ban them is almost to render language useless. Added to that the concepts are so normal that they cannot be banned, and it can’t be assumed that their linguistic removal will suddenly mean that children no longer know about them.
Issuing rules about banning words, when the words that are chosen are so grossly inoffensive to begin with, simply invalidates any reasonable message that people are trying to get across and confirms that people know how language changes – gradually, and not by force.
UPDATE: New York’s education officials have now changed their mind and ditched the banned word list following the raft of adverse publicity. I like to think that Wordability played a tiny part.