The F-word, the C-word and even – as a tribute to our American friends – the compound M-word are more or less standard fare on TV.
But let the A-word, as in ape, cross your lips and you’re in deep trouble, as ITV news anchorman Alastair Stewart has found out.
In a spat with a (black!) man on Twitter, he had the gall to quote the (white!) playwright William Shakespeare: “But man, proud man, Dress’d in a little brief authority. Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d, his glassy essence — like an angry ape.”
His correspondent justifiably complained that he had been called an ape, and as a result Mr Stewart had to tender his resignation, accompanied by regrets about his “misjudgement”.
He clearly has a firmer grasp of classic literature than of modern realities. Otherwise, he would never have fallen into that racist trap. His excuses sounded feeble and meaningless, even though Mr Stewart showed that he had used the same quote before when arguing with a white man.
He ought to have known that certain words are to be avoided on pain of dire consequences – regardless of any absence of racial connotations.
As a lifelong fighter against racism and for diversity, I’m pleased to offer a short, by no means exhaustive, sample of such objectionable words, and also put forth some suggestions on how they can be circumvented.
You’ll find that in some instances such detours make the sentence longer, but that shouldn’t put you off. Think of it as taking side roads to avoid a motorway gridlock. Yes, your new route may be longer, but that wouldn’t bother you, would it?
In that spirit, here are my choices. Make them yours and you just may be able to hang on to your job for a while longer.
Ape (or monkey) should never be used. Simian is a good substitute noun, and imitate is a safe alternative for ape as a verb. A woman may thus discourage a man by saying “no simian business”. A “simian puzzle tree” will take some getting used to, but time is on our side.
Banana is off limits. When shopping at a greengrocer’s, just ask for a pound of curved yellow tropical fruit, making sure he understands you aren’t asking for a homosexual hunchback from Burma.
Black may be acceptable in some situations but, to be on the safe side, is best to avoid. BlackBerry mobiles can be just as easily described as AfroCaribbeanBerry mobiles.
Boogie-woogie is a wrong name for that style of jazz. Call it jitterbug: what you lose in accuracy, you gain in job prospects.
Coconut is a fruit of the palm tree. Why not call it just that to avoid trouble?
Coon, as in raccoon, is so offensive that, if you have to talk about American mammals, call them rac-youknowwhat.
Jig may have been an appropriate name for that dance in 16th century Britain, but in the 20th century you’d be lucky to get away with merely a sacking if you use the word. You can’t go wrong with reel, though it’s not quite the same thing.
Jungle is a tropical rainforest. Avoid the word like the plague in all uses, such as j=music or j-bunny. Ideally, you should campaign for Kipling’s Jungle Book to be renamed Tropical Rainforest Book.
Niggardly and niggling are strictly taboo. Exercise caution even with phonetic associations appearing in words like renege and sniggering. Nigeria and Niger are hard to avoid, although it’s worth trying circuitous routes like West African country with Lagos (or, in the latter case, Niamey) as its capital. Better safe than sorry.
Sambo is a Russian martial art. Use the word in any other meaning, and unemployment beckons.
Spade is grossly pejorative, a sacking offence no matter how it’s used. Say shovel instead, as in “call a shovel a shovel”.
Never say spear. Always say javelin, even if it means quoting from Shakejavelin.
Watermelon is a Cucurbitaceae, in botany. A much safer word, that, but don’t ask me how to pronounce it.
Oh well, this will do for a start. The important thing is for you to get into the general spirit of things, for which the poncy word is Zeitgeist. Whenever you open your mouth in public, think of a minefield, where one wrong step can reduce you to red spray.
If you’re careful, you just may negotiate your way safely and get on the right side of the racially sensitive people, among whom I proudly count myself. I hope this little glossary has been helpful. Good luck, and watch your step.