It’s hard for a poor boy from downtown Russia to keep pace with the rapidly developing language of his adopted land.
I can just about muddle through trying to convey the meaning of what I want to say. But words have more than just meaning. They are also tinged with colour, stylistic, emotional – and, these days above all – political.
Even the meaning of words is changing, largely thanks to our progressively comprehensive education. Some words just disappear, to make life easier for those who have had the benefit of said education.
Look at words like uninterested, apprise and masterly, for example. Why do we need them if, respectively, disinterested, appraise and masterful can do the same job? Of course pedantic spoilsports may argue that the job isn’t the same because these words mean something else.
That just goes to show how little they understand the dynamics of linguistic progress – and they don’t even have the excuse of being poor boys from downtown Russia. For, repeat after me, words mean whatever the formerly downtrodden masses want them to mean.
Since majority vote decides matters in a democracy, and the comprehensively educated masses greatly outnumber the aforementioned retromingent pedants, it’s the masses who pass the verdict on the meaning of words. Or, more precisely, the verdict is passed by those who speak on behalf of the masses.
If semantics is decided by due democratic process, the colouring of words is determined by more dictatorial methods. Those who take it upon themselves to speak on behalf of the masses, dictate what is or isn’t acceptable.
That’s where my problem begins. While in no way disputing the right of those chaps to dictate, I can’t help noticing that their views are fluid. What’s de rigueur today may become questionable tomorrow and criminal the day after. This especially applies to words designating racial, ethnic and sexual minorities – starting with the word minority itself.
How does a former outlander keep track? My only consolation is that I’m not the only one who has this problem.
The other day, for example, I wrote about the – justified and commendable! – sacking of the FA chairman Greg Clarke who proved to be a straggler on the march of progress.
Apart from his semantic lapses, he enraged all progressive people like me by saying that homosexuality is a matter of personal choice. How is it possible for a modern man to be so blatantly unmodern?
Mr Clarke ought to know the current, correct thinking on the subject. A man can choose to be a woman, but he can’t choose to be a homosexual. He is what he is. It’s his sex, not sexuality, that’s a matter of choice.
If you find a logical flaw with this explanation, you belong in a re-educational facility that Britain regrettably doesn’t have yet, but, one hopes, soon will. But Mr Clarke’s real problems were indeed semantic.
He described those for whom apparently no proper designation exists as ‘coloured’ people, ignoring the fine distinction between ‘people of colour’ (acceptable) and ‘coloured’ (sackable).
Writing indignantly about that reprobate, I suggested that the only allowable term is BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). And what do you know? Turns out I’m just as behind the times as Mr Clarke. Thank God I have no job from which I can be sacked.
The new spokesman, or rather spokeswoman or, even better, spokesperson for the FA has declared that BAME is offensive for being demeaning. The word ‘minority’, she (if one is allowed to be gender-specific) explained, implies inferiority.
Hence it’s as racist as ‘coloured’, if not quite as objectionable as ‘of colour’. The permissible term is ‘those of ethnic diversity’.
Aforementioned pedants might argue that, since ‘minority’ refers only to numerical inferiority and no other, it’s factually, if not politically, correct. After all, persons of ethnic diversity are still shamefully outnumbered in Britain, even if they no longer are in London.
Then again, the progressive person in me may argue that the word ‘diversity’ is problematic too, for it implies that whiteness is a default colour. After all, diversification can logically proceed only from an established norm.
This is yet another proof that perfection is unattainable in this world. In the Kingdom of Man we just aren’t blessed with a vocabulary sufficiently extensive to convey all the nuances of identity politics.
Now, I suspect that the new FA spokesperson leans leftwards in her political inclination. Yet on this vital subject she has found unexpected allies on the right, in the person of the former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).
The term BAME is “useless”, argues the CSJ, because it lumps together groups of people with entirely different backgrounds, attainments and problems. That’s no doubt true, but it exacerbates the problems this poor boy from downtown Russia has with today’s English.
After all, exactly the same can be said about any term designating a large group of people. For example, I’ve met many women in my life, most of them also characterised by different backgrounds, attainments and problems. Does this invalidate the word ‘women’? I’m just asking here, not asserting anything.
While debunking BAME, the CSJ has so far failed to recommend an alternative that could satisfy all comers from either end of the political spectrum. A couple of years ago, our present Home Secretary Priti ‘Very Priti’ Patel did offer a way out, which to a progressive person like me sounds more like a copout:
“I don’t like the labelling of people,” she said. “I don’t like the term BAME. I’m British first and foremost, because I was born in Britain.” Adopt this attitude and we’ll have to ditch identity politics, which simply won’t do. Where will we be without it?
There are some Priti thorny problems with Miss Patel’s doctrine too. What about those not correctly identifiable persons who weren’t born in Britain but have settled here? There are millions of them, and there will be more if Boris Johnson becomes as flexible in his EU negotiations as John Major demands.
Please don’t read more into this than there is. This piece is a cry for help, not an attempt to pass judgement. Though originally a poor boy from downtown Russia, I too am British first and foremost. So is Miss Patel. So is Sir Iain. So is the FA spokesperson. And none of us has a bloody clue.