Such is the current proliferation of media and media outlets, and any number of other platforms from which we are assailed by communicators with or without qualifications for using the English language, any survey of the morning’s news bulletins will yield shocks and surprises galore for those on the lookout for how our language is mauled, mangled, and treated with lazy indifference or gleeful incompetence. It’s one of the purposes of this column to spot and record at least some of these aberrations — while welcoming those happy inventions and divergences from standard usage that enliven and enlarge the repertoire of words and phrases with which we regularly say what we want to say.
In that spirit of curious enquiry, I bring to your attention an aberration that may never occur again, but which seems to me an example of a very typical misunderstanding that crops up all the time in one form or another. Back in March, a news report told us that Dr Geraldine Strathdee, the “chair” of an Essex Mental Health Independent Inquiry into 1,500 recent deaths in Essex care homes, could not confirm the cause of the deaths but said she had heard evidence of “unacceptable examples of dispassionate care”.
We might well enquire exactly what Dr Strathdee meant by this. The word “dispassionate” is defined by the dictionary as follows: “Free from the influence of passion or strong emotion”. It’s clear that this is not what Dr Strathdee intended to say. She meant to use a term that was the opposite of “compassionate”. The report suggested that the Essex mental health authorities “didn’t care” about the people in their charge.
There’s a parallel, I think, with that well-known chestnut “disinterested”, which is so often used to mean “uninterested”, or “having no interest”. Here’s a recent sighting: “a subsequent attempt to explain to [the writer’s] nephew just what this handsome fellow [J R Ewing] meant to us all those years ago met with the kind of blank disinterest one’s come to expect from cold-hearted millennials” (The Critic, August/September 2022). As we all try to remember, it doesn’t mean that: “disinterested” means “impartial” or “without bias”, as a judge should be when assessing a case in law. Likewise, “dispassionate” carries with it a clear sense of impartiality, which would not in itself be “unacceptable”, surely?
There exists an increasing tendency to believe that officials in every walk of life should bring to their judgments and actions deep humanity, overtly expressed with passion. If one fails in this regard one risks being condemned as unfeeling, lacking in the finer instincts of humanity. Everything must be spelled out explicitly so that no one can doubt the sincerity of the speaker. This is a dangerous habit of mind. Believing (and encouraging others to believe) that all we need do is emote, shout or cry loud enough leads to a world of artificial feeling not far removed from sheer adverting. A due decorum, reticence and modesty in our use of language might encourage those virtues in the practical enactments of real life.
I took the liberty of putting the word “chair” in inverted commas because, although it’s no longer an innovation I’m still slightly shocked by the substitution of a piece of furniture for a person. The change has taken place, of course, because feminism dictates that we can’t say “chairman” when referring to the leader of a committee or a meeting when that leader is female. And “chairperson” is, quite reasonably, considered clumsy. Feminism is busy reinventing the language in its own image, but most of its inventions are, in my view, themselves clumsy. But I can’t see what’s wrong with “chairwoman” if that’s the word that best describes the individual in question.
And if you’re squeamish about any word that specifies the gender of anyone, may I humbly suggest you ask whether you really wish to be taken over by an overtly political agenda aimed at tearing our social assumptions apart and setting different groups against each other. Should we not rather adopt a dispassionate approach that keeps rancour well away from day-to-day discussions, whether under the guidance of a chairwoman or anyone else?