Steady As She Goes


The relation of language to thought has long been a philosophical puzzle, one to which no universally accepted answer has yet been given.

Is language a precondition or determinant of thought, or thought a precondition and determinant of language? For myself, I incline to the latter view, on the no doubt simplistic grounds that, when writing, I often have the following experience.

I know that there is something I want to say, but at first the right words do not come to express it. They are, I realise, only an approximation to my idea; then suddenly, dredged from I know not where (though it feels like somewhere located near the base of my skull), the right words arrive and I know at once that they are the best possible words in my possession for what I want to say.

I suppose it might be argued that somewhere in my preconscious there is a linguistic representation of what I am at first unable to verbalise, and that my little eureka experience (so delightful that it makes the struggle seem worthwhile) is only a recognition that the words in my consciousness now accord perfectly with those in my preconscious. Be that as it may, it seems to me that my experience suggests that conscious thought, at least, can be pre-verbal, even when it is propositional in nature.

Not every one agrees, of course, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell put forward the rather dismal idea that reform of language -- that is to say, the imposition of certain locutions and the prohibition of others -- can actually mould the content of thought, making some ideas unthinkable and others unchallengeable.

This, of course, is what politically-correct language is all about. It is certainly what its proponents hope.

I was recently the victim of a politically-correct sub-editor of a distinguished medical journal for which I write. I do not claim to have suffered inordinately as a result; at most I experienced a brief spasm of anger, leading to a slightly longer period of irritation. Then I calmed down: 99.99999 per cent of the world's population would never read what I wrote, and of the 0.00001 per cent that did read it, 99.99 per cent would not notice the change.

On the other hand, as Burke said, liberty is seldom lost all at once; usually it is nibbled away, until -- to change thinkers to Tocqueville -- people become 'a herd of timid and industrious sheep, of which the government is the shepherd.' (It needn't be the government that does all the shepherding, intellectual apparatchiks will do just as well.)

Therefore, at the risk of sounding and even becoming a little paranoid, and of seeing dangers to our freedom lurking everywhere, even in insignificant phenomena, it is necessary sometimes to protest at the most minor acts of arbitrary power.

The paragraph that was altered by the sub-editor of the medical journal went as follows:

Modesty was once considered a virtue, but nowadays it is
clearly an impediment to a successful career. We prefer -- or
perhaps I should say we demand -- boastfulness. To judge by
[medical] job applications, the world is now stuffed full of
paragons whose moral commitment to the welfare of
humankind is equalled only by the brilliance of their
contributions to medical science.

Enough of satire -- if only because satire these days has an inherent tendency to turn into prophecy. There are enough mad ideas in the world without my adding to them.

Now I should have rejoiced had the sub-editor made two or three alterations to the paragraph -- which I wrote very quickly, and did not bother to re-read. I am very far from believing that a sentence is perfect just because it is mine. Had the sub-editor removed the words 'it' and 'clearly' from the first sentence, it would have read better. The sentence would have had a better rhythm and no essential thought would have been lost. And, other things being equal, fewer words are better than more.

Moreover, I don't really like the locution 'stuffed with.' This does not seem to me one that is properly applied to human populations; probably, it is never very elegant. I think 'pullulates with' would have been better.

But these are not the changes the sub-editor made, and on which I would have congratulated him or her had he or she made them. No; the change made by the sub-editor was to substitute 'humankind' for 'mankind.'

My first objection to this is aesthetic. The phrase 'whose moral commitment to the welfare of mankind' is much more elegant than the phrase 'whose moral commitment to the welfare of humankind.' Indeed, the inclusion of an extra syllable ruins the rhythm altogether, and turns it into a horrible mouthful; it sometimes seems to me that sub-editors are chosen exclusively for their cloth-ears and indifference to the beauties of language. Perhaps they are given tests by editors that consist of a choice between two lines of William McGonegall, self-styled Poet and Tragedian of Dundee, and two of, say, Keats:

On one occasion King James the Fifth of Scotland, when alone, in disguise,
Near by the Bridge of Cramond met with a rather disagreeable surprise…

No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine…

If, by instinct, the applicant for the post of sub-editor chooses the McGonegall, the position is his.

But my other objections to the substitution are more serious, at least if moral considerations are more important than aesthetic ones. Of course, to object to the use of the use of the word 'mankind' because it is sexist is as absurd and literal-minded as to object to the word 'person' because it, too, is sexist: who, after all, is this 'per' whose son has given his name to everyone in the world? Surely, to be absolutely egalitarian between the sexes, it should be 'peroffspring'?

Come to think of it, 'humankind' is also sexist, very nearly as sexist as 'mankind,' for it contains the world 'man'. It should therefore, in all consistency, be changed to 'peroffspringkind.' Moreover, the word 'woman' should likewise be changed to 'woperoffspring.' The possibilities for language reform are almost infinite, at least in English.

Enough of satire -- if only because satire these days has an inherent tendency to turn into prophecy. There are enough mad ideas in the world without my adding to them. Let us turn, then, to the meaning of this substitution.

First, it was done without my permission. Now either the sub-editor considered that it was a matter of no importance, in which case there was no point in doing it; or it was a matter of some importance, in which case my permission ought to have been sought. In either case, the change was an exercise in and of raw power, since no writer (at least of my standing) is as powerful as one of the most widely-read medical journals in the world. We writers have two choices: submit to this kind of thing, or shut up.

Was the substitution by itself an example of the descent into Newspeak? It is unlikely that anyone thinks that machismo or misogyny will be much reduced by the universal and compulsory adoption of humankind in place of mankind, let alone that it will actually do so. And yet it is one manifestation of language reform that is intended first to make people afraid to say certain things, then to think them, before reaching the highest stage of thought-control: to make them unthinkable.

Things are worse in this respect, and have gone further, in America than in Britain. Reading American academic books as I quite often do, I have been struck by how common, indeed universal, the use of the impersonal 'she' has become. Occasionally, authors get their knickers in a twist as they try to alternate the impersonal 'she' and 'he' (incidentally, the phrase 'she and he' has now replaced 'he and she,' though to my ear the latter is more euphonious): for quite often when they try it, they do not remember whether their last impersonal pronoun was 'he' or 'she.' Incidentally, I have never heard anyone say 'the hangperson' instead of 'the hangman,' or even 'the taxperson' instead of 'the taxman.'

Now I don't really mind if academic harridans want to insist on using the impersonal 'she;' that is their prerogative and, after all, their words are their own. It is their right to use what words they wish. But I strongly suspect, when I read a book by an elderly and distinguished academic who was brought up, educated and got tenure before the impersonal 'she' was even thought of, and who may very well be the world expert on the subject about which he writes, that its appearance in his books is mandated by the university presses themselves, or by their sub-editors. Here an ideological obsession, cheap and silly as it is, trumps any sense of reverence towards real distinction. This is barbarism.

It is also the worst and most dangerous form of censorship. There are two kinds of censorship, the negative and positive. The negative proscribes, the positive prescribes.

As far as art is concerned, there is a lot, historically, to be said in favour of negative censorship. Most of the greatest art, certainly, has been produced in conditions of such censorship, and -- as we have seen in the last thirty or forty years -- an absence of even the degree of censorship that can be ascribed to self-restraint has not necessarily resulted in an improvement on the paintings of Piero della Francesca, the plays of William Shakespeare or the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Of course, there are arguments against negative censorship, but the good of art is certainly not one of them.

The positive kind of censorship is much worse than the negative and, if it goes very far, is almost incompatible with either deep thought or good art.

The positive kind of censorship is much worse than the negative and, if it goes very far, is almost incompatible with either deep thought or good art. It co-exists with the negative form of censorship, but in addition to making some things unsayable it prescribes what must be said, in the way that any thesis on any subject whatever in the old Soviet Union was obliged to carry quotations from Lenin, showing that Lenin had come to the right conclusions years before. Of course, intelligent people quoted Lenin with satire in their hearts; but forcing men publicly to mouth sentiments as a precondition of furthering their careers is a sovereign way to destroy their probity and induce a state of self-contempt. And men who are contemptuous of themselves are more likely to take to the bottle than to constructive activity.

There is an informal type of positive censorship (at least, I assume it is informal), as well as a formal one. For example, I have noticed of late that when American academics want to illustrate the concept of genius with a list of geniuses, they almost invariably include a sportsman. I doubt that university presses insist upon this as 'house style,' as it were; rather, the academics concerned fear to be accused of elitism by their peers, and elitism carries with it all manner of unpleasant political associations. In a free, or free-ish, society, there is no fear as great as that of losing caste.

The quasi-compulsory inclusion of sportsmen in lists of geniuses is not socially harmless or without effect. To suggest that a basketball player can be compared with Mozart is to put all human activities on the same level; and since some activities come easier and more naturally than others, it has the effect of reducing, indeed making quite pointless, any form of cultural aspiration. If what comes easily is as good as what comes only with deep effort, thought and intelligence, why go to any trouble? There is a Gresham's law of culture: without a scale of values, the bad will always drive out the good.

Thus the intelligent flatter the unintelligent, without, in their hearts, meaning a word of what they say. What seems at first sight progressive is in fact deeply reactionary, in the worst possible sense: it does not permit or encourage social ascent, and changes class societies (such as capitalist democracies have always been) into caste societies.

In the meantime, I look forward (though do not expect) the time when Satan will be referred to routinely in academic books as 'she.' That would be one giant step for humankind.




Theodore Dalrymple. "Steady As She Goes." The New English Review (July, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.


Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He writes a column for the London Spectator, contributes frequently to the Daily Telegraph, is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. He lives in France and is the author of In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 2009 The New English Review

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