Dealing with ideas rather than events.
Last month, the NHS published an explainer about its adoption of simple – some might say childish – words to describe bodily functions. Pee, poo and sick now take the place of urine, faeces or stool and vomit in their web copy, in what some will argue is a race to the bottom (formerly rectum) in medical vernacular. It’s tempting to agree with them: hospitals are serious places, doctors are scientists and we shouldn’t trivialise illness or infantilise patients.
But this shift in language wasn’t taken lightly. Content designers reviewed common search terminology and survey data and weighed it against the comparatively small number of complaints they’ve received for similar changes in the past. Ultimately, the need to communicate clearly and effectively with as many people as possible (including those with learning difficulties and non-native speakers) won the day. Indeed, the squeamishness, pedantry and pomposity of the few shouldn’t be a barrier to anyone’s health and well-being.
Also, it turns out that doctors actually aren’t scientists, they’re jazz musicians – or so says the British Medical Journal. In any case, they’ll definitely treat you for Whiplash.
Another British institution became more inclusive this week, with a raft of updates to the Oxford English Dictionary. Heavily featured in the 650-word entry instalment are a range of Scottish words and phrases and gender-related terms that will be unfamiliar to many or most English speakers.
Among the Scottish entries (a lot of which just happen to be insults), highlights include:
roaster (n.) an obnoxious, annoying, or otherwise objectionable person; an idiot
sprag (n.) a person with an arrogant, swaggering manner; a boaster, a braggart
tube (n.) also in form choob a stupid or contemptible person; an idiot. Frequently as a disparaging form of address
Gender-neutral, gender inclusive and ungendered terms have been added, most notably the pronouns hir and zir, alongside Latin@, a term adopted by the Latin American trans community as an alternative to Latina, Latino, and Latinx. Where the latter refers to the community without referring to gender, Latin@ encapsulates those who identify as third gender, genderless and a combination of genders. Laypeople (and all of peoplekind, also added) may want/need to read more.
Less confusingly, the concept of misgendering (i.e. to mistake or misstate a person’s gender, or to refer to someone using language that ascribes a gender to which they don’t identify – often maliciously) has officially entered the lexicon.
Perhaps less pleasing is the knowledge that the first known use of the term comes courtesy of Vladimir Nabokov back in 1959 – an author whose prejudice against female writers was both well-known and self-declared. The inclusion of the Scots term tittie, meaning “a young woman, a girl, a lass”, will likely provide little consolation.
Finally, Damian Hinds, the government’s education secretary, has called on students to report users of so-called essay mills to their institutions’ academic malpractice boards. He also suggested universities should ask students to sign “honour codes” declaring that they will not cheat in their assignments and examinations.
Students who use essay-writing services pay enormous sums of money to unscrupulous companies who will write bespoke essays for them, evading plagiarism-detection software because the material, while authored by a third party, is ostensibly original.
As an academic proofreader, this issue is of great concern. Sometimes people mistake third-party proofreading for cheating (when in fact most universities now explicitly permit it), believing such assistance to be a nefarious attempt to get ahead of the curve. The reality is very different, however, and academic proofreaders are bound by institutional regulations that stipulate the type, level and frequency of intervention permitted.
Essay mills should be banned (as they are in many countries) and more should be done to prevent those operating outside of UK jurisdiction. Users of such services should be punished, but encouraging students to inform on one another like a particularly boring Stasi could further stigmatise the use of academic proofreaders, whose clients often speak English as an additional language or have language-based learning difficulties.
Calls for pledges are similarly tone deaf: students are already bound by terms that forbid all forms of plagiarism, and are warned against them regularly throughout their academic careers. The education secretary’s concerns are legitimate, but his response unfairly vilifies students – most of whom are of course honest and hardworking.