What’s In A Name?

Inside Higher Ed reports that the American Association for Affirmative Action, which contains a probably un-diverse collection of college “diversity” apparatchiks, has just changed its name to the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity. Looks as though the bad reputation of affirmative action finally caught up with its implementers.

As it happens, I have some personal experience in dealing with terms attempting to flee the declining reputation of their subject. Allow me to quote myself quoting myself quoting myself:

Please indulge me in quoting myself on the subject of words falling out of favor for political reasons:

I have a bit of personal experience in these ongoing word wars. I once had an odd job (in several respects) working on a revision of the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors, a companion to the Education Resources Information Center (a part of the National Institute of Education) database of educational literature. This was back when political correctness was just getting launched in a big way, and indeed one of the reasons for that particular revision of the Thesaurus was to dump newly politically incorrect terms such as “handicapped” for their politically correct replacements, such as “disabled.”

I had, and still have, serious problems with this effort to police the language, and, in fact, the transition from “handicapped” to “disabled” nicely reveals one of them, the ignoring of plain meaning.

If you were lost, driving alone in an old car on an isolated mountain road late at night, would you rather be in a car that was handicapped or disabled? (The Oxford American Dictionary that’s built into my Powerbook’s operating system says of handicapped that it means “having a condition that markedly restricts one’s ability to function.” The verb “disable,” by contrast, means “put out of action,” and its thesaurus entry refers to “incapacitated,” “paralyzed,” “immobilized,” etc.)

“Liberal” to “Progressive” followed the same trajectory, and for the same reasons, as the transition from “Crippled” to “Handicapped” to “Disabled” and from “Colored” to “Negro” to “Black” to “African American” to “People of Color” to … “Diverse” or whatever the new term will be.

What is producing all of these verbal transitions, I think, is that the group to whom the term refers is “disadvantaged” in some way (whether actually in bad shape or only perceived that way doesn’t matter here), so that the term that applies to it takes on the same negative connotations. The new, substitute term reflects a determination to improve the image of the group, but over time it, too, comes to reflect the little-changed reputation of its referent. So it must be changed again … and again….

No matter. Affirmative action Access Equity Diversity will still be race preferences.

Say What?