Following the recent furore surrounding the so-called sensitivity editing of books by Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming and others, I dug out this short Orwellian pastiche, which I wrote back in 2016 and failed to find a home for.
Sensitivity editing now goes on in all the major publishing houses, with authors both past and present. In addition to all the other reasons why such a practice is abominable and barbaric and shameful, there is one other: writers choose words not only for their meaning but also for their sound, for their rhythm, for their music. In the story below, for example, try replacing the word ‘fat’ with a synonym in the phrase ‘filthy fat fuckin’ pharmacist’ and see what happens.
Waiting in line for the inhibitor pills designed to curb offensive language – originally developed for use with Tourette’s sufferers – Winnie speaks into his phone.
‘Yeah, still at the pharmacy, running a bit late. Thought I’d be back by six but fat chance of that now.’
A shaft of incandescent pain arrows up his left leg and stabs him in the groin. ‘Fuck!’ he cries through clenched teeth, only to be rewarded with another piercing bolt of pain.
‘For goodness sake,’ his wife says, ‘you know not to use that word.’
‘The f-word of course.’
‘Too many f-words, that’s the trouble. I just got zapped twice. First one must have been the other f-word. You know, the… adipose word.’
‘Doesn’t matter.’ Winnie sighs heavily. ‘Can’t say a flippin’ thing these days.’ He waits to see if ‘flippin” will be punished too, but nothing happens. ‘Sooner they sort out these contextual glitches the better. Can’t take much more of this.’
‘Well that’s why you’re getting the inhibitors, isn’t it? Won’t have to worry about that any more.’
Initially, when the Verbal Offences Act first came into force, he refused to wear the ankle-bracelet gizmo that was now mandatory for all. But after twice being singled out for random spot checks during those early weeks and hit with absurdly heavy fines as a result, he understood that one more infringement would mean an automatic custodial sentence. So, reluctantly, he complied.
Finally he reaches the head of the queue, where the screenwall behind the counter displays a rolling list of the most recent terms to be proscribed. ‘Ugly,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘mad,’ ‘lazy’ and ‘victim’ are, it appears, the latest casualties of the verbal cull. The language is shrinking by the day. As if by eliminating unpleasantness from the dictionary they can eradicate it from the world.
‘Mr Smith?’ the girl – sorry, woman – behind the counter says, handing him his prescription. ‘Take one in the morning and one at night. Any problems, call your doctor.’
He’s about to ask when the ban on the blacklisted words on the screenwall comes into force but catches himself just in time. Not making that mistake again: it’s entirely possible that the word ‘blacklist’ has itself been blacklisted. He contents himself with a gruff mumbled thank you instead.
Filthy fat fuckin’ pharmacist, he says silently to himself as he leaves the store. You might control my speech but you’ll never control my thoughts!
Back home Winnie’s wife sucks on her electronic pacifier in front of the screenwall. The news channel carries a story about the latest verbal-offences measures, something to do with a mass screening programme designed to detect ‘inappropriate cerebral activity,’ whatever that means. She takes another hit on the pacifier and switches to her favourite cookery show.