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Language police bar 'old,' 'blind'

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LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- Oh heck: Hell hath no place in American primary and high school textbooks.

But then again you can't find anyone riding on a yacht or playing polo in the pages of an American textbook either. The texts also can't say someone has a boyish figure, or is a busboy, or is blind, or suffers a birth defect, or is a biddy, or the best man for the job, a babe, a bookworm, or even a barbarian.

All these words are banned from U.S. textbooks on the grounds that they either elitist (polo, yacht) sexist (babe, boyish figure), offensive (blind, bookworm) ageist (biddy) or just too strong (hell which is replaced with darn or heck). God is also a banned word in the textbooks because he or she is too religious.

To get the full 500-word list of what is banned and why, consult "The Language Police," a new book by New York University professor of education Dianne Ravitch, a former education official in President George H.W. Bush's administration and a consultant to the Clinton administration.

She says she stumbled on her discovery of what's allowed and not allowed by accident because publishers insist that they do not impose censorship on their history and English textbook authors but merely apply rules of sensitivity -- which have expanded mightily since first introduced in the 1970s to weed out gender and racial bias.

Ravitch's book is taking people by surprise the same way that Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" did in the 1960s in exposing the effects of pesticides.

'The Older Person and the Water'

She says a lot of people are having fun finding new titles for Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" which presents problems with every word except "and" and "the." Ravitch said old is ageist, man is sexist and sea can't be used in case a student lives inland and doesn't grasp the concept of a large body of water.

But some people say the phenomenon of sanitizing words and thought is not isolated to textbook publishers seeking not to offend anyone so that sales can be as wide as possible.

The New York Times recently reported that National Institute of Health researchers on AIDS are not only avoiding using words like gay and homosexuals in e-mails so as not to offend conservatives in the Bush administration, they are also inventing code words.

Times journalist Erica Goode reported that one researcher was told to "cleanse" the abstract of his grant proposal of words like gay, homosexual and transgender even though his research was on HIV in gay men.

Nor is the government the only source of constraint or censorship in the watch-what-you-say business. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, recently banned racy men's magazines from its shelves although it continues to sell sexy underwear.

According to Ravitch both the right wing and the left wing get what they want in American textbooks, for example an emphasis on family values and equality among ethnic groups.

"Everyone gets their pet causes incorporated in textbooks. The history texts are reluctant to criticize any dictator unless they are long dead. And even then, there are exceptions like Mao is praised in one text for modernizing China but his totalitarian rule is not mentioned," she said.

She was also unhappy to see photos in one text of Saudi women working as doctors and nurses because that implied that they had gender equality.

"You also can't say Mother Russia or Fatherland or brotherhood in texts and that's both silly, trivial and breathtaking. It is like George Orwell's 'Newspeak' come to life," she said in an interview, referring to the manipulation of language in "1984."

Ravitch said that textbook publishing is controlled by four main publishers and they aim to sell texts state by state, thus forcing them to dumb down the books and make the language as inoffensive as possible. "They don't want controversy and they don't want people screaming," she said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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