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No dinosaurs on the dance floor

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"New York City's new sensitivity guidelines for standardized tests ban 50 undesirable words that might 'evoke unpleasant emotions' in students, including 'dancing,' 'dinosaurs,' and 'birthdays.' Fundamentalists might be upset by dinosaurs and dancing, while Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate birthdays. Also banned are 'Halloween' and 'junk food ...' "

I can understand Fundamentalists' distaste for "dancing," but why "dinosaurs"? I don't think anti-evolutionists deny that dinosaurs existed, they just say that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, on an earth no more than 10,000 years old, rather than that dinosaurs died out millions of years before man came along, which is the scientists' version. Halloween's association with ghosts and witches and other supernatural stuff makes it distasteful to some religious groups, I suppose.

Partisans of all stripes try to gain control of the language for their own purposes. If you can make your opponent use your choice of words, you have the advantage. People in the anti-immigrant movement speak of "illegal" aliens; those on the other side prefer "undocumented." I'm not anti-immigrant, but I'm anti-subterfuge, and that's why I prefer "illegal." "Undocumented" is murky, pussy-footed; most Americans don't understand what it means, and that's why its users like it. It conceals rather than reveals, in the same way that "pro-life" and "pro-choice" shroud the real issue of abortion.

A recent newspaper article about the growing number of illegitimate children in America brought a protest from a reader. All children are legitimate, she said, and the word "illegitimate" should be dropped. But what would take its place? Courts of law and government welfare agencies, as well as adoptive parents, need a word to describe these children. The older term, "bastard," would surely be considered even more offensive, since it's often used as a vulgar insult. "Born out of wedlock" is clumsy and old-fashioned too. It wouldn't be widely used today.

We don't have to follow the authorities slavishly, but we do need to pay them some attention, if we hope to communicate with each other. The first definition that Random House gives for "illegitimate" is "born of parents who are not married to each other." Simple, informative, nonjudgmental — I doubt we'll beat it.

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