George Orwell popularised the word ‘thoughtcrime’, but he also wrote extensively about the destruction of language. This week, the United Nations has been playing that worrying game, of meddling with what people say.
‘What you say matters’, the UN wrote in a tweet. ‘Help create a more equal world by using gender-neutral language if you’re unsure about someone’s gender or are referring to a group,’ its Twitter account urged, telling people to substitute words like ‘mankind’ for ‘humankind’, ‘maiden name’ for ‘family name’ and ‘businessman’ for ‘representative’.
There is nothing bad, of course, about trying not to offend people. But there is something deeply troubling about adapting language in a way that dilutes meaning. And is it really the UN’s place to try and police what people say?