What Ever Happened to 'Sticks and Stones?'

We live in a world where you really have to watch what you say. As Ben Stiller recently discovered, even authors and film directors are not exempt from censorious crusaders. A few days before the release of the film Tropic Thunder, co-written and directed by Stiller, protesters denounced this comedy for its repeated use of the word "retard" to describe one of the characters.

You don't need to be a director of a multi-million dollar comedy to become subject to the attention of censors. The other day I received a helpful guide to the words that I should not use by a publisher who was interested in my work. As expected, the guide warned me about using the word "retard" to refer to retarded people. But I was surprised to discover that the term "mentally ill" was now deemed so offensive that I was instructed to use the term "mental health service user."

One day I will write a book about the kind of mental state and imagination that leads people to cobble together such a long list of blasphemous words.

But what struck me was how out of touch I had become with the sensibility of contemporary censorship. I was genuinely taken aback when I discovered that the term "Chinese Whisper" was offensive because of its apparently racist connotations. I was moved to despair when I found out that one of my favorite words, "civilized," ought not be used by a culturally sensitive author because of its alleged racist implications. But "seminal"? Who other than a sad retard could imagine that the word conveyed a powerful hint of patriarchal domination.

The censorious moment

Censorship has a long history. Back in Roman times two magistrates -- or "censors" -- were charged not only with counting the population but also with the supervision of public morals. Although in the 19th and 20th centuries censorship was frequently driven by a political imperative, its aim remained essentially the policing of moral behavior.

Twenty-first century censorship continues this tradition of moral enterprise. Today censorship is not simply the project of state or religious authorities. Advocacy groups, educators, media organizations, and professionals are actively engaged in rhetorical crusades to ban certain words and/or to promote their own favored ones. In modern times there has never been an era such as ours where language is so carefully regulated and policed by both private and public institutions.