Magic Words

We had been to see a tailor. They had a special offer on suits last June and this was the latest final fitting. The problem is that the chest looks like the suits of armour in the film Excalibur – pointed.

“Mm,” said the young man and we drove home without it again.

It was Friday afternoon, the main roads were glutted with City workers grabbing an extra hour of Essex weekend and the better half guided our little Mini into lesser-known but still more or less eastern-bound thoroughfares. Radio 4 was on and it was a programme for listeners to air their complaints. The main topic was that Michael Heseltine, referred to as Lord Heseltine, when a guest on Any Questions had referred to disabled people as ‘handicapped’; not only had he done this but he had not been condemned by the chairman of the programme nor had the offending word been bleeped out when the show was repeated.

(I didn’t know incidentally that Mr. Heseltine had come into a title. I had always imagined that his antecedents were not quite at that level. But ‘More power to his elbow!’ is what I say.)

Objections of this sort tend to come in one of two categories: the whiny and the truculent. So:

‘I have been a member of the disabled community for many years and to hear Lord Heseltine using that demeaning word to describe my condition made me feel soiled inside.’


‘Come off it, Mike. ‘Handicapped’! Which century are you living in?’

I don’t know which it was on this occasion, as we turned on too late to hear the voice of the offended listener.

I didn’t realise that ‘handicapped’ was now a bad word. It seems semantically to be much the same as ‘disabled’ but I appreciate that these things go in and out of fashion. No doubt it was the same for Lord Heseltine. When I grew up, and even more so when he was young since he is older than I am, the word ‘cripple’ was still neutral. I remember a charity called ‘Action for the Crippled Child’, a phrase that described exactly what they were raising money for. No doubt it’s no longer called that. No: ‘Action Medical Research’, it says here, an anodyne name if ever there was one for a charity that does much needed work.

There followed a conversation with a man from the BBC whose job it is apparently to ensure that appropriate language is used to describe disabled people and their conditions. He was anxious to establish that he was no politically correct pedant; he said that he was blind himself and that he objected to people shying away from that word towards some euphemism or other. He was not ‘vision impaired’, he said: there had never been any vision to start with.

The important thing, he explained, was to depict disabled people as active rather than passive. ‘Wheelchair user’ was better than ‘wheelchair bound’.

They don’t of course mean the same thing. I spent one of the happiest afternoons of my life as a wheelchair user. I had broken my ankle in New York, and we visited the Museum of Modern Art. That august but caring institution provided me with a wheelchair, which my daughter pushed. Whenever she felt that too many people were milling around between me and some masterpiece she would shout, entering into the spirit, ‘Get out of the way, you bastards! Can’t you see that my father is disabled?’

And so, meekly, they did. Goodness, it was empowering.

But I was never, thank God, wheelchair-bound.

Curiously the man from the BBC noted that disabled people often used among themselves the word ‘cripple’, just as, he said, black people use among themselves a word that couldn’t be used even in reportage. He meant, of course, ‘nigger’.

I find it strange that we spent years in the sixties and seventies saying that there were no such things as bad words; that was no more than superstition; phonemes had no magic qualities. Hearing ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’ couldn’t actually hurt you; likewise ‘nigger’ or ‘yid’; it was what people did that mattered. Give us equality, give us opportunity, we thought (taking on whether they liked it or not the role of the wretched of the earth), just don’t threaten us in our homes, and you can call us whatever you like.

Now no one could get away with arguing that. There is a fund of words that will give someone somewhere the vapours, it is growing, and we must all take care in case the someone somewhere is a someone near you and you may give them offence.

Feminists should I think take some of the blame A movement that started trying to right wrongs has descended into an increasingly anal picking of linguistic nits. Why is it that they are only now, after decades of imposing ‘s/he’ on innocent texts, starting to attack the enormity of female genital mutilation, picking a way gingerly past the traps (since apparently we are all imperialists at heart) of insulting the culture of the barbarians who carry it out, and reducing the foul practice itself to a three-letter acronym, presumably in case the constituent words offend someone. What a set of priorities!

I find strange the dichotomy between empowerment (people use wheelchairs, they are not confined to them) and the desire often evident to be a victim, a member of what the hapless Fiona Woolf calls ‘the victim community.’

What is this community? Can I join?

Round the corner from where I live there is a sign outside a house. It reads:

Disabled person please leave this space clear

Goodness, I thought, when I first noticed it: although worded in bland and unexceptional language it means nothing less than ‘Cripples Out!’ They are using compliant words to disguise, but nonetheless convey, a brutal message.

Of course I was wrong. I hadn’t parsed it properly. They are not bullies, just illiterate.


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