Moms and media speak out against offensive language

December 07, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

The Los Angeles Times has issued to its writers and editors new guidelines banning the use of common words and phrases and suggesting alternatives that are less offensive to ethnic and racial groups and women.

For example: "mailman," "mankind" and "man-made" will no longer be used, because they appear to exclude women. "WASP" is out. So is "co-ed," because it "appears derogatory to female college students." You can't use "Dutch treat" or "Chinese fire drill" anymore either.

The Times outlawed phrases such as "admitted homosexual" and "tidal wave of immigrants," and suggested that writers think twice before using the phrase "the New World" when writing about Christopher Columbus, because there were lots of people here when he arrived and it wasn't a new world to them.

Also on the banned list are: "babe," "biddy," "bra-burner," and "divorcee." "Ghetto" will no longer be used. Neither will "handicapped person," "deaf or deaf-mute" and "male nurse."

The newspaper doesn't want anything or anybody called "normal," either. Not that that word gets much use in California.

The document is called "Guidelines on Ethnic, Racial, Sexual and Other Identification," and it was drafted by a 22-member committee.

I wonder if the committee could get my daughter to stop calling her brother a "butt-head"?

I wasn't aware of how pervasive "butt-head" was in the language of grade-school kids until I heard another mother refer carefully to "Beavis and his friend."

When policing the language of my children, I had focused on the really bad words. You know which ones they are. But it is easy to see that "butt-head" falls into a bad-language category not far removed from those.

I tried to explain that "butt-head" and all its cousins, such as "dork," "jerk" and "dweeb," reflect an uncivility, a disrespect for another person and a disregard for that person's feelings. It is not the words to which I object, although "butt-head" does not conjure up a very pretty picture. It is the idea behind that word, the intolerance, the judgment, the unkindness.

It is difficult to make children understand that simple words can carry powerful emotional baggage. How do I tell my 9-year-old son that he should never, ever use the word "nigger," when that is how some of the black boys in his class refer to each other -- and to him? There is no sense in that, and I can't make sense of it for him, except to say that our family has its own standards.

It's those kinds of standards that the Los Angeles Times is apparently trying to codify and publish. I don't know. Maybe my kids would remember not to use bad words if I wrote them all down. That would be the easy part. The tolerance, the respect are a lot harder to get across.

Not long ago, my son's fourth-grade class was trying to explain the proverb "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." Some of the children concluded they would much rather be hit with a stick than have someone make fun of them.

Words hurt. I learned that early. "Shut up" and "liar" were &L forbidden in my family. "Be quiet" and "story-teller" were the only acceptable terms and my mother would scrape a bar of Ivory soap on our tongues if we spoke those bad words.

"It sure worked on you," my husband says when some provocation sends me off cursing like a sailor. Oh, sorry. I shouldn't have said "cursing like a sailor." That's an offensive generalization.

The Los Angeles Times committee would have its hands full with me.


Susan Reimer would like to hear how you decide what television shows you don't allow your children to watch, if you watch those programs yourself, and how you decide how much television your children watch. To comment, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County). After you hear the greeting, punch in the four-digit code 6150.

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