So many language rumors, so little time to check them out.
Some are easy, of course, like the Wikipedia entry claiming that the word blackboard is now perceived by some as being politically incorrect in the United Kingdom. Citation needed, a parenthesis cautioned. Indeed: a Nexis search of UK publications found some 30 blackboards in a week, against just three chalkboards.
Then there was the news, relayed last year by a New York friend, that real estate brokers were banning walk-in closet and ocean view in ads, so as not to offend those who cant walk or cant see. Well, the ads still say ocean view, but the rumor is lurking on the Web, looking for chances to replicate.
As for the scandalous tale of the transfer tubesas the Pentagon was supposed to have renamed body bagsBen Zimmer squelched that one in a Slate magazine piece last April, explaining that it all started with a misunderstanding. (The actual term is human remains pouches, or HRPs, which may not strike you as an improvement.)
On the other hand, some horror stories pan out. The New York education department really did bowdlerize the texts they used on the statewide Regents examswithout the authors permissionuntil a students mother blew the whistle on them in 2002. Their editing, The New York Times reported, included removing references to Judaism in a text from Isaac Bashevis Singer, changing gringo lady into American lady in a quote from Ernesto Galarzas Barrio Boy, and changing fat to heavy.
In the same vein, as Diane Ravitch documented in her 2003 book The Language Police, textbook and test publishers, in pursuit of the widest markets, have added hundreds of possibly touchy words to their index expurgatorius, including soda (a regionalism, like pop), elderly, and straw man.
And David Howard, an aide to Washington, D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, really was fired in 1999 for using the word niggardly in a discussion with two other city employees. (He was rehired after the entire English-speaking world pointed out that the word has no connection to the racial slur.)
So I didnt know what to believe when I read, a few weeks ago, that a college textbook had paraphrased Bob Dylans lyrics to read How many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult. OK, its no more absurd than banning fat, but the sourcea 2004 column by Margaret Wente in the Toronto Globe and Maildidnt name the textbook; it just credited Ravitch.
And Ravitch had indeed used the Dylan quotenot in The Language Police but in a Wall Street Journal story about responses to the book. She had asked for more examples of language policing, she wrote, and in they poured: A college professor informed me that a new textbook in human development includes the following statement: As a folksinger once sang, how many roads must an individual walk down before you can call them an adult. The professor was stupefied that someone had made the line gender-neutral and ungrammatical.
Ravitch didnt name a source either, but the stupefied professor, who had used that very word, turned up in a Google search; he was Bernard Chapin, a Chicago writer who had included the Dylan item in his Web review of Ravitchs book. He had the footnote I was looking for: The quote came from Adolescence, by John W. Santrock, 8th edition, 2001.
But he hadnt, in fact, commented on its grammar, for a good reason; he had quoted from memory, and not quite accurately. The sentence in the book, he e-mailed, actually read, As singer Bob Dylan asked, how many roads do individuals have to go down before they are called adults? A copy from my local library confirmed this version: cheesy, but not ungrammatical.
Whose idea was it? I e-mailed Santrock, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, to ask, and ventured that paraphrasing Dylan, whatever the motive, was maybe a bit uncool.
I couldnt agree more with you, he replied. The alteration was an editors work, he saidan inappropriate decision that he used to point out to his own students. The citation is gone from the latest edition of Adolescence, he said, though Dylans line, in all its manly glory, appears in another of his psychology textbooks.
So its a happy ending, after all; the language police beaten back, Dylans lyrics restored. Is everybody satisfied nowor was it more fun to complain?