Careful with our definitions, guys

Last updated 05:00 07/01/2014

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OPINION: From time to time this newspaper might receive a wee word of encouragement - technically more of a discouragement - to dissuade us from using certain words or phrases.

Casually reporting the word "smoko" might invite a gentle reminder from community health agencies that it would be more helpful if we just called them "breaks", so people wouldn't associate them quite so automatically with the opportunity to chuff away on carcinogenic products.

Once we would write cheerfully about "crippled children". Then we were persuaded to refer to "the disabled". Now some folk would like it to be "people with disabilities" rather than defining anyone by their condition.

Some of these little reprogramming initiatives could be seen as fair enough, some as perhaps PC and some, if you wanted to get conspiratorial about it, Orwellian. Part of the dark future George Orwell warned against in 1984 was the development of newspeak, a manipulated language in which government drones would assiduously delete words to, in turn, suffocate the ideas that those words expressed.

Often the argument for tweaking word usage is one of accuracy, though there are limits to how willing people are to change their way of talking, or thinking, on that basis alone. Remember the ructions in Yes, Prime Minister when Jim Hacker campaigned against regulations that would have meant that, having failed to meet the ingredient standards required by Europe, British sausages would have had to be renamed with the more scrupulously correct but terribly less appetising "emulsified high-fat offal tubes".

That was satire but scarcely less silly than the real-life attempt by some jingoistic United States politicians to express their scorn for France's unwillingness to join the invasion of Iraq, by renaming french fries "freedom fries". Even mainstream Americans' famous patriotism balked at that one.

It isn't always easy to rebaptise something and there really should be a good case to do so as a socially conscious effort.

In that respect there's an interesting call coming from across the ditch.

Australia, especially Sydney, is suffering from a culture of "king hit" assaults, where people, generally innocents, are being felled by monstrous, unexpected blows.

New Zealander Alex McEwen was a recent victim and faces a potentially long, slow recovery. Daniel Christie was left in a coma. Emergency department personnel in Sydney are reporting at least four or five patients a night who have been punched in the head for no apparent reason.

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Given that the phrase "king hit" does, on the face of it, suggest something potent and impressive, or at least emphatically successful, the call is to rename it a "coward punch" does have its appeal. New South Wales Police Minister Michael Gallacher signals the Government will even consider using the description in legislation, so people would have cause to feel ashamed even to name the offence with which they would be charged.

It's hard to argue with the accuracy of the term "coward punch".

Trouble is, contrasting it against other forms of violence it might be said to suggest the existence of a different category of, well, more virtuous punches, in the swaggering bully's arsenal.

You wouldn't want beefy, boozy, puff-chested thugs who have first indulged in some ritualistic abuse, threats and shoving in the name of fair warning of an oncoming assault to feel they are entirely off the hook in terms of accusations of cowardice. Because they shouldn't be.

- The Southland Times

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