Saturday, June 13, 2009

Too Sexy For My Isotopes

Context: Canada is/was the main producer of medical radioisotopes ( but a few months ago, it had to shutdown its main reactor at Chalk River in Ontario because of a leak, creating a world wide shortage. The Harper government has now decided to just close up the plant and throw away the key, because it cannot be economically viable. In the middle of the shitstorm that ensued, the Minister of Natural Resources was accidentally caught on tape calling the issue "sexy" and commenting on how it could be beneficial to her ministry and her party. Of course the tape went public (would you believe the tape recorder was left in a public toilet?) and the Minister had to issue a tearful apology.

I would like to comment, not on the wisdom of forgetting a tape recorder in a public place (the guilty party was promptly fired), but on the media reaction to the use of the adjective "sexy". People are shocked, shocked I say, that the minister would choose such a word because it was so disrespectful of the seriousness of the problem and the predicament of cancer patients.

The thing is, in this specific instance, the word "sexy" is used in its journalistic sense and is completely neutral. People in the media and public relation industry would call "sexy" any issue that would attract a lot of attention or interest and would guarantee lots of reporting and editorials.

To me, the outrage over the use of that word is yet another example of the general aversion to anything unpleasant called political correctness, compounded with linguistic ignorance. Because of the speed of communications in this modern age and the «excessive» democratization of Western society, anybody and his uncle can (and probaly will) declare themselves shocked, insulted or outraged by any word or expression. Their sensitivity will be taken seriously and deferred to, even if it was based on stupidity or ignorance, and that word or expression will be avoided in polite conversations and replaced with some euphemism. Any word, no matter how inoccuous, can be a trigger word because there will always be someone somewhere who will be "hurt" from hearing it.

As a linguist, I wish people would just use words the way they were supposed to be used, i.e. with their straitghforward dictionary meaning. Of course, poetic license and humouristic play on words would always prevail , thank G-d, but most of the times, why can’t we use negative words like «fat», «deaf», «ugly» instead of trying to sugarcoat them with euphemism like «something-challenged»? If I were fat, deaf and ugly (OK, I can hear you thinking : at least she’s not deaf) and I know it, I wouldn’t try to make you use other words to describe me, because a new terminology wouldn’t do shit to change my condition.

Teenagers and young people like to have their own language, and that’s fine, but just like baby language, it’s discarded as one grows older. As a society, shouldn’t we be grown up about the way we talk and have the courage to call a spade a cat (my contribution to bilinguism) without having some delicate flowers recoil in horror, clutching their pearls and looking for their fainting couch?

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