Language carves out new terrain like a glacier. Slowly but inexorably. It changes when one convention outmuscles another.
Personally, I wince at upstart terms like ‘train station’ (railway station) or ‘impact on’ (affect). But I am one of an embattled and shrinking minority. As for ‘referenda’ or ‘datum’, forget it. The world (and the word) has moved on.
When social convention intrudes, there is more at stake than linguistic dogmatism. Doesn’t ‘guys’ become neuter when used as an informal term for a group of colleagues? Many women don’t think so. And how many lawyers have unwittingly alluded to best-selling author Secret Barrister as a ‘he’? Not just me, I bet. Unconscious bias at work.
In the law such distinctions increasingly matter, as this week’s feature on gender and language shows. Not even a traditionalist should be arguing that it remains defensible to begin every letter ‘Dear Sirs’. Yet some solicitors still do this.
Those who rail against political correctness are missing the point. Courtesy and precision (which can also encompass deliberate imprecision) ought to be the hallmarks of every assiduous lawyer. That means paying careful attention to the context of every interaction, both written and verbal.
It needn’t be difficult. Contracts can be redrafted and sentences recast to finesse references to gender. Nor is there any harm in seeking to establish a client’s preference. This can work both ways. If Mrs Fortescue-Smythe, 86, wishes to go by that time-honoured honorific then who could reasonably object?
Is there a role for legal education here? After all, what may seem outlandish or contrived today may well become the norm in a few short years. Chairs were pieces of furniture not that long ago and ‘Ms’ was the butt of jokes for inferior tabloid columnists.
Transgender inclusion is certainly going to coin fresh linguistic excursions. I can see a bright future for the designation ‘Mx’, in a society where supposedly more than 10% of the workforce is non-binary. The useful contraction ‘s/he’ is underused, too – though, come to think of it, does that work for non-binary people?
Like language itself, this debate will remain fluid.