Embarrassment can lurk in a careless turn of phrase

Don't worry too much about what you call something, as long as people can understand, writes our columnist Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

The hair-trigger capacity of the nation for taking offence means that we are all only a few ill-chosen words away from losing our jobs. This is mostly a good thing, because it banishes some words that have no place in a fair society.

But it gets really tricky when you realise that, depending on which charity you work for, certain phrases that are usually acceptable become fantastically inappropriate.

If I worked for an anti-gambling charity, for example, I'd have to avoid phrases such as "I bet you anything you like that ..." or "what are the odds on that happening?" or "it's a racing certainty". If I worked in that field, I reckon I would be a busted flush and have to fold early on.

Last-chance saloon

Something similar obviously applies to alcohol-addiction charities: you would soon find yourself in trouble for using phrases such as "I'll drink to that," "let's get the beers in", or, when offering someone a job, telling them they can crack open the bubbly. And it would be unwise, when managing someone's underperformance, to warn them that they are drinking in the last-chance saloon.

Once, in a hospice, I had to suggest to a nurse that she might find a better turn of phrase than to describe an under-used area of the building as 'dead space'. Working in such an environment, it's best just to avoid any reference to death, unless you're talking about the real thing.

Christian charities present similar scope for linguistic purgatory (sorry, I'm at it already). These include loudly taking the Lord's name in vain when you stub your toe, putting "OMG!" into your emails, or threatening to crucify people who annoy you.

This can also be a hazard at conferences. To stop delegates from asking rambling questions at one that I was chairing, I told them that if they didn't get to the point quickly I would cut them off at the knees; and as I spoke these words, I found myself looking into the audience at a lower-limb amputee.


On the other hand, people can also be too precious when trying to avoid words that they fear will upset their service users. For example, some people tiptoe around the word 'disabled', which, as a former wheelchair user myself, I never found patronising.

In the field I work in now - palliative respite - service users care very little about the debate currently going on among certain earnest professionals as to whether it should be called 'short breaks' or 'respite care', so long as they actually receive it.

So don't worry too much about what you call something, so long as people can understand you. But for heaven's sake, remember what type of cause you've just joined before you bet the ranch on a deadly turn of phrase.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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