Month: March 2022

Amo, amas, amat…

I recently found myself caught up in one of those excruciating ice-breaking exercises. “Reveal one surprising fact about yourself!” I’ve been here before – three times to be exact and, once again, I find myself reverting to the fact that I studied Latin for A Level.  At least one person in the room raises an eyebrow in what certainly looks like a mild form of amazement but, on further reflection, perhaps this is not actually so surprising a fact for someone who has carved a career as a freelance writer.

Composing copy

I may no longer spend my days chanting Latin verbs, but I do spend hours and hours agonising over my choice of language.  Day in day out, I deliberate over the merits of using this word or that one and, quite frankly, nothing gives me more pleasure. When entrenched in a piece of writing, I have words constantly flowing through my mind in the same way I imagine quavers, minims and crotchets spinning around a composer’s head.

A quiddling thermopot

In my job as a freelance feature writer, I have had the pleasure of interviewing so many interesting people including lexicographer, Susie Dent, known for being in charge of the Dictionary Corner on Channel 4’s Countdown.  I am a huge fan of her Twitter feed where she reveals ancient words that have dropped out of everyday language. There’s ‘quiddling’ – 18th century speak for paying extra attention to trivial matters as a way of avoiding the important ones and ‘thermopot’ – one who downs a copious amount of hot drinks. I have to confess to being guilty of both of these actions today!

Words of the year

Susie Dent started her career at Oxford University Press working first on bi-lingual dictionaries and then English dictionaries. It’s always intriguing to hear what the different dictionaries have chosen as their ‘word of the year’.  For 2021, Oxford Languages have gone for ‘vax’ while Cambridge Dictionary have plumped for ‘perseverance’, selected because it ‘captures the undaunted will of people across the world to never give up, despite the many challenges of the last twelve months.’ Never has a truer word been spoken!


Much as I love playing around with words, it would seem this pastime is no longer just the privilege of writers and lexicographers. Since Wordle became the latest craze, nearly three million people from all walks of life are choosing to take time out of their busy schedules to try to uncover the only five letter word that matters that day.  But does my Latin grounding put me at an unfair advantage?  As my mother and three teenage daughters beat me over and over again, clearly not!  Odds on ‘outwordle’ being the frontrunner for 2022 word of the year?

LANGUAGE MATTERS: moving from invalidating to inspirational words…

Themes around gender and how language – and life – have changed have surfaced twice in my work recently. It’s a tricky area; as an editor I need to keep the author’s ‘voice’ and retain the attitudes and spirit of the day and the characters in it – in these cases a 1970s housewife, and a group of lads in the late eighties – but also be aware of today’s conventions, and not upset or confuse readers by language that is now inappropriate. How things have changed in a short time!

1970s mindset

In 1975 – the year International Women’s Day was first celebrated by the UN, though its beginnings date to the early 1900s – my fictional housewife is a stay-at-home mum. She gave up work when children arrived, never to return. The proud owner of a hostess trolley and a Teasmade (a little machine which automatically brews a cup of tea by your bedside) – how many people have these things any more? Housework is a major occupation, she spends whole days on it, regularly cleaning windows, dusting ornaments, shampooing carpets and washing curtains. While her husband is busy on some DIY project, she will be preparing prawn cocktail, steak and trifle for dinner parties.

Life in the late ‘80s

While this book highlighted the way women’s lives have changed in the last fifty years, another one gave me a different challenge: finding a way for the author to express the language and behaviour of the late eighties. Some of the characters in this book were criminals, some were lads out on the town. The main character was a likeable young man, and we want the readers to sympathise with him, not be turned off by an occasionally sexist attitude which to our ears is unacceptable but was commonplace then.

So, what do writers and editors need to look out for? Language can be alienating and can trip up the reader. While we need to stay true to the era (in fiction), we also need to know the audience and be aware of gendered terms, pronouns, exclusivity and racism in all writing.

Gendered words

Gendered words are so common in English usage they mostly go unnoticed, unless the reader is tuned in. Phrases such as ‘boys and girls’ or ‘ladies and gentlemen’ don’t represent every group, but can be reworked using other terms such as ‘guests’ or ‘friends’. Then there are the ‘invisible’ gendered terms that we use a lot but have already changed to an inclusive alternative – ‘police officer’, ‘flight attendant’, ‘server’. But what about those that might escape notice: ‘manmade’, ‘masterful’, ’manpower’?


Where once we only used ‘she’, ‘he’, ‘it’ or ‘they’, we now have neopronouns – a category of new (new-ish – some are actually years old) alternative pronouns that are increasingly used by transgender, non-binary people – and indeed by cisgender people – that give inclusion and accuracy for someone who doesn’t identify by the male/female gender classifications. While ‘they’, as a nonbinary singular pronoun, is probably the most commonly used and has become the pronoun of choice if the antecedent is unknown or irrelevant, there are many other neopronouns to choose from.

Male-first language

Even in our natural-gender language, gendered language is prevalent. How we use gendered words subconsciously expresses belief about gender and the way we see the social world. Language has the ability to alter our perception of gender, and to subconsciously indicate who is the most important. Most conjoined phrases put the male first and female second: ‘his and hers’, ‘kings and queens’, ‘men and women’. The use of ‘his’, if the gender of the person in question isn’t known, automatically – understandably – evokes an image of a man.

Blog reach far greater than a book…

While this may be about book editing, it is relevant in all writing and editing. Today, the reach of a blog post is so much further than that of a real paper book, and you never know who will read it. It matters because for some, gendered language is a reminder that they are excluded, or different, or invisible. It matters that we use sensitive, inclusive language because we don’t want to hurt or alienate readers. Language can be invalidating and hurtful, but it can also be powerful, positive and inspirational.

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