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Public Editor: Does an idiom have a ‘best before’ date?

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

Our language doesn't stay still. It adapts to a changing world, gains new terms, drops old ones and changes course when a term or phrase is widely acknowledged as hurtful and derogatory.

One of those phrases appeared in the big headline on the front page of the June 15 paper, which read: "Our warnings fell on deaf ears." The story was about the horrific and deadly fire at the Grenfell social-housing project in London. It quoted a statement from the Grenfell Action Group, a residents' organization that had predicted a catastrophe like the one that happened.

(The headline online did not repeat that phrase. It said: "Fire at London social-housing project raises questions about spending cuts.")

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The mother of a deaf young man wrote to me to say that, while being deaf is a physical disability, it does not mean you are incapable of communicating. "Being deaf does not mean ignoring something, being stupid, being inattentive or insensitive…. People can be deaf, but trust me, it is not because they are deaf that they allow inferior buildings to exist, leading to horrific tragedies…. My son should feel no shame. This time, it's on The Globe."

She is right. The Globe should not use terms that are both inaccurate and insulting to any group in society. And this was not the only time The Globe has used the phrase. Other than appearing in a quote, it has been used eight times in the past year.

The current Globe style guide makes a similar point. It says phrases such as "turned a deaf ear" are marginally acceptable in copy but not so in headlines. In the absence of context, it says, such a phrase as "fell on deaf ears" could be taken to equate deafness with stubbornness or intransigence.

I would recommend toughening up the style guide to say such phrases as "deaf ears" are not "marginally acceptable" and should be avoided. While I don't believe any phrase or word should be outright banned in a quote, it should never appear in big headline type nor be used casually as a cliché. Journalists need to stop and consider whether using that old phrase is hurtful and whether there is an alternative quote that might be used to make the same point.

Kevin Siu, The Globe's Head of Experience, said, "It's a good reminder that we should look critically at all of the language in our paper. This is the kind of once-common idiom that we don't always question, and we should."

The Globe and Mail has a group of senior editors who currently are reviewing the current style guide. There is some good information in the guide, such as advising journalists not to describe a person or group or people by their condition, such as "the autistic," but refer to "someone with autism." I would recommend going further and suggest that the standard should be to ask those involved how they would like to be described. While the guide recommends putting a person before their disability – describe "a girl who is blind" rather than "a blind girl" – some advocates don't like this approach. So isn't it better, in cases where a description of the person is relevant to the story, to quote their own description? These are complex and fluid issues and being open to changing terms is important.

Of course you don't want to ban all idioms, like "raining cats and dogs." They enrich the language. But perhaps more of them should be carefully considered. I see no problem with this one either, but a reader asked if it is acceptable to say "bête noire." It was a term used to describe Robert Mueller, the new special counsel investigating U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisers.

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Translated from French, it means "black beast," and refers to someone who is a thorn in your side, so a vivid description.

Do you share the reader's concern or do you have questions about other terms or descriptions of groups of people? If so, please send them in, and I will share them with the committee updating the guide.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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