May 6: please, operational grid, give me the right language

Language is all. ‘Please, operational grid, give me the right language,’ urged David Cameron in a laugahble memo to his strategy team when the old Etonian, Christ Church Oxford, PR man, Spad was plotting how to speak to the poor aliens who were his electorate. And this week too President Macron of France committed the translational infelicity of thinking that ‘delicious’ is always the right translation for ‘delicieux’ and so referred to another president’s wife as something tastier than ‘delightful’. The world of metoo et autres is incresingly sprinkled with the broken glass of language faux pas. In a class I teach, my 18-year-old students were unable to find a word that would be valid and acceptable for non-white ethnicities. All they had was a handfull of no-goes. Like nutritional advice, language injunctions tend to promote the negative. No gluten; no dairy; no carbs; no meat. But advice about food, as language, as life, should aspire towards recommendations, not interdictions. Language recommendations tend to be fairly random, and dictated by the dominant power: the US, the centres of influence. London cannot speak for all. It cannot insist that micro-centres of culture that have nourished certain usages are necessarily mistaken. ‘People of colour’ has become curiously acceptable. In the same way as ‘world music’ still exists to denote all the also-rans that fall outside the English-speaking monster. We are all at sea. It will take more than an operational grid to sort us out.

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