News reports tell us there has been a small furore over a list of ‘derogatory and offensive terms’ included in Flinders University’s Harassment and Discrimination Guidelines. The furore kicked off because a trans person objected to the inclusion of the expression ‘transexual’. But what was most interesting to the broader Australian community was that included among the ‘derogatory and offensive terms’ were the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. A Flinders University spokesperson Jane Russo is quoted in news reports as saying: ‘When it comes to husband and wife it really comes down to a matter of personal choice.’ Oh no it doesn’t. They are real words that have a long and respectable history as part of the language. ‘Husband’ and ‘wife’ have both been around for over a thousand years – from Old English through Middle English into Modern English these words have survived. And they carry legal weight – when a man and woman marry legally he becomes a ‘husband’ and she becomes a ‘wife’. They don’t legally become ‘partners’ (unless they decide to go into business together). Their inclusion in this Flinders University list (supposedly a holdover from an earlier version of the Adelaide University’s website) tells us that someone, somewhere, decided that ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ needed to be banned as offensive – and their decision to cancel the words got through the editorial process and onto the website of two Australian universities. If that doesn’t worry you, it should!
In the United States the psychiatric profession uses (and regularly updates) a guidebook to their discipline called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known by the abbreviation DSM.). The most recent edition is edition five – and it includes a grim new issue that (it claims) some people are struggling with these days called PGD—Prolonged Grief Disorder. After years of discussion, the manual now includes this ‘Prolonged Grief Disorder’ as a coded diagnosis for those with intense grief symptoms that significantly impair functioning lasting longer than one year (or longer than six months for children). American author and authority on grief Clarissa Moll writes, ‘The specific advantages or disadvantages of this new inclusion are debatable. As an advocate for the bereaved, I both trust those who have performed extensive research and also approach their conclusions with measured scepticism because of the possibility of financially motivated influence from pharmaceutical companies’. She goes on to say that grief is not a mental illness. Grief is a normal part of the human experience. And you can’t, she says, put a clock on grief and expect it to automatically end within an arbitrary time limit (say, 12 months). Which shows that the ‘D’ of ‘PGD’ is wrong—it is not a ‘disorder’ at all. (Although it may succeed in generating more customers for the counselling industry.) If you’re interested: Clarissa Moll’s book is called Beyond the Darkness: A Gentle Guide for Living with Grief and Thriving After Loss.
We are told that Vladimir Putin (or Mad Vlad from Moscow as he’s known to his friends) continues to ‘flaunt’ the opinions of the rest of the word. Well, no – he’s not ‘flaunting’ them. ‘Flaunt’ has been part of English since at least 1576 and it means: ‘To display ostentatiously or obtrusively; to flourish, parade, show off.’ Mad Vlad is not showing off the opinions of the rest of the world – he is ignoring them, or cocking a snoot at them, as we might say. What those commentators were trying to say was that Vladimir Putin is ‘flouting’ world opinion. ‘Flout’ has been part of English since at least 1551 and means ‘to express contempt by treating with disdain, or mocking or jeering’. That’s more like it, isn’t it? That’s what Mad Vlad from Moscow is doing. Along the way ‘flout’ has been used by Shakespeare (‘Norwegian banners flout the sky’ – Macbeth, 1623) and Dickens (‘flouted by beadles’ – The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841). And what’s good enough for Shakespeare and Dickens should be good enough for us. So, be careful – if you mean disdain say ‘flout’ and if you mean show off then say ‘flaunt’.
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