What’s in a name? – Seeargh Macaulay considers some troubles with lingo


Centaur and Lapith, Elgin Marbles, British Museum, London.

On first hearing the term, would anyone immediately know what the “Elgin Marbles” are? No wonder there is controversy. The term itself provokes misunderstanding.  “Well, I suppose the poor chap’s old enough to have lost his . . .” A less obscure name for them might be “The Parthenon’s Friezes”. Suddenly the argument clarifies itself.

Remember the campaign in New York for garbage collectors to be called sanitation engineers? Near the top of the strike’s agenda was the matter of getting the respect due to the people doing such essential work. Unfortunately the new euphemistic title clarified nothing about the work and by now is either simply not heard for what it means, or is used in moments of gentle derision. A clearer term may have both generated the respect desired and withstood the test of time.

Clarity and sincerity matter.  Terms which mislead, confuse or cause offence can become a distraction from the real content of public debate.  In the search for consensus, since public understanding is harder to change than terminology, changing terminology might be a better place to start. No additional prejudice or emotion should be brought to a debate by the terminology used in it.

Here are some examples.

Genetic Engineering and Genetic Modification.

These terms have been sabotaged by scientists themselves.

In 1991, USA scientists at DNA Plant Technology Corp artificially transerred the cold-tolerant gene from Arctic flounder into the cell DNA of a tomato plant in the hope that it would then withstand frost.  In the end, they did more than fail to achieve their particular goal. Public concerns arose immediately and have never been allayed.  The acceptability of the well-devised term “genetic engineering” was lost at the same time.

The Minotaur, sets and design by Alison Chitty, opera by Harrison Birtwistle, premiered at the Royal Opera House, London, May 2008.

Despite the insistence of biotech scientists that genes of completely different species are no longer being mixed, the message isn’t being heard. They are adamant that they are now involved only in developments which simply hasten the natural processes of selective and cross breeding or cross pollination. As farmers and horticulturists have been doing exactly this, unquestioned, for years, they cannot understand public resistance.

The problem may well be the terminology. In this context, the words “scientific” or “genetic” have been irreparably sullied.

If “genetic engineering” has, in the public’s view, become synonymous with the indiscriminate mixing of genes,  and if the softer label, “genetically modified”, hasn’t been able to shake off  a perception of sinister overtones, these terms might as well be dropped, or left attached only to experiments in Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Ideally, a new agricultural term would leave out the word “genetic” altogether: it seems to frighten the public.  Somehow the word “breeding”, whether cross or selective, doesn’t.  Assuming it described their benign genetic activities accurately, the term “productivity breeding” would probably encounter less public opposition.

So – let’s have new terms for selective cross breeding by scientists who simply speed up the same process that is carried out in nature.

Gay marriage

Political thinker and professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, George Lakoff, has observed that the people who object to discrimination against gays are often the same people who object to gay marriage. He therefore recommends that polls just avoid reference to homosexuality and rephrase their questions so as to refer to the “freedom to marry” or the “right to marry” whoever one pleases.  The results of such questionnaires elicit little or no opposition to such freedoms and rights.

But if the source of prejudice is often linguistic, it seems to me that the solution in this case lies not in addressing the use of the word “gay” or homosexual but rather the use of the word “marriage”.

The concept of gay marriage has run into problems partly because it hijacks the word “marriage” which, in the broad spectrum of long-term, stable relationships, quite strictly applies to heterosexual monogamy. The world’s various Marriage Acts and most dictionaries define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Two girlfriends (fragment) , Toulouse-Lautrec, 1894, Oil on Cardboard, 48x34.5. Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, Albi, France.

So instead of attempting to widen the meaning of “marriage” to cover “any partnership for life”, it could be left with its specific application to heterosexuals and a completely different word found under the “partnership for life” umbrella for homosexual life partnerships.  This is not a trivial call for a euphemism. “Gay marriage” already exists in all but name, so it would make sense to have a term for it that does not refer to traditional heterosexual marriage.

My own coinage (you saw it here first) would be the “gay facto” relationship or the “gayrriage”.

Perhaps it would suit gayrriage partners to have their union covered by its own Act, distinct from existing Marriage Acts. This would leave the traditional meaning of the word “marriage” untouched whilst avoiding discrimination against gay couples.

So – let’s have new and relevant terms for monogamous, gay life-partnerships.

Trade Union

This is another broad spectrum term which carries a lot of baggage. Despite being applied more widely than solely to trades, its meaning in popular perception has narrowed. Many people now equate trade unions with vocal, work-shy gangs which use standover tactics to get something for nothing. In common usage, “militant” is now often omitted as an adjective but it is implicit in the term which is often applied in a pejorative sense.

As a result, it may be wise for groups of reasonable people of any occupation seeking civilly to negotiate a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay, to generate a different name.

This, again, is not a call for a euphemism, but for clarity. Where terms have been so coloured as no longer to apply broadly, new, more specific terms are needed.  Rather than remaining uncomfortably under the trade union umbrella, a group representing their colleagues in civil negotiations to protect their employment and working entitlements is different enough to warrant a separate title.

Clean coal

If this new term was intended to be clear, it hasn’t worked.

In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell wrote that because so much political speech and writing involves defending the indefensible, it has to consist largely of euphemism. He insisted that, in politics, these euphemisms are “swindles” and “perversions” left deliberately vague in order to mislead.  Deliberate or not, “clean coal” is one of these. Aside from being a contradiction in terms, the name is misleading, creating the impression of the existence of a new type of coal.  In fact it is ordinary coal which has been treated to “eliminate” most of its destructive by-products.

That ordinary coal is first washed in chemicals, gasified, burned, treated with steam, burned again – all of which produces emissions – which are then buried isn’t clear when it is simply labelled “clean coal”.  The term just doesn’t seem sincere.  It’s a red rag to any green.

It’s not asking too much to expect the term describing these processes to be more accurate.  A clearer term would be less provocative.

So what’s in a name? A lot.  There’s the possibility of confusion, prejudice, perversions and swindles.  For the sake of fair debate, let’s mean what we say and say what we mean.