Did you know these new Oxfam Language Rules?

A glance at the Guide suggests that the urge to get people to bite their tongues rather than use language which some may find “politically incorrect” has now crossed all reasonable limits


By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 13 Apr 2023, 9:47 PM

A few weeks ago we discussed Stanford University’s “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative”, under which the famous American university issued a list of words that people should avoid using because they are “ableist”, “ageist” or show “gender bias”. No doubt prompted by this, a reader has sent me a new Inclusive Language Guide issued by the British charitable agency Oxfam.

A glance at the Guide suggests that the urge to get people to bite their tongues rather than use language which some may find “politically incorrect” has now crossed all reasonable limits. Oxfam has urged its employees to avoid the terms “mother” and “father” and instead use “parent”. It warns its staff to “avoid assuming the adoption of gendered roles by transgender parents”. According to the Guide: “If trans parents have a preferred specified gender role, such as ‘mother’ or ‘father’, this should be respected. If unsure, it is more inclusive to use ‘parent’.”


Including “mother” and “father” among its list of potentially offensive terms, however, defies simple common sense. These are among the most basic terms employed by the human race; there is no language on the planet that does not have words for “mother” and “father”, depicting the primordial relationships a child encounters upon entering the world. Hilariously, Oxfam prefers the very words “male” and “female” to be replaced with AFAB and AMAB (“assigned female at birth” and “assigned male at birth”). Isn’t this taking political correctness too far?

Oxfam argues that “the important principle here is to be inclusive in the broader sense by describing people as ‘parents’.” Of course it also concedes that “if individual parents have a preference for a role name, [staff may] respect their choice." But it goes on to urge people to replace the term “expectant mothers” with “people who become pregnant”. How many such “people” in the world would actually protest being called “expectant mothers”?

I am not objecting to every point in the 92-page Oxfam document, which is available online. It makes sense for a philanthropic body working around the world to guide staff to be sensitive to issues of race, gender justice, sexual diversity and women’s rights, disability, physical and mental health, migration and the linguistic legacy of colonisation, which left behind a number of terms whose unconscious use might indeed hurt people. Oxfam also warns employees to be conscious of words and phrases that might be considered “discriminatory” or “that have been used historically to oppress certain people or groups”. Thus it makes sense to say “sex worker” instead of “prostitute”, or “humankind” in place of “mankind”.

But even innocent, commonplace everyday words are proscribed for reasons that seem absurd. For instance, Oxfam encourages its staff not to say “attitudes” or “behaviours” but to replace them with “social norms, social beliefs or collective beliefs”. Excuse me? Equally ridiculous is the exhortation not to use the word “headquarters” because it “implies a power dynamic that prioritises one office over another. In the context in which we work the implication is very colonial, reinforcing hierarchical power issues”.

Oxfam’s hyper-sensitivity to anything that might cause offence extends preferring the use of the terms “menstrual products” in place of “sanitary products” or “feminine hygiene products” because such seemingly neutral terms imply “that periods are in themselves unclean”. You can’t say “ethnic minority” because it “places the emphasis on that ethnicity being a minority or having less power in a particular context”; instead you must say “minority ethnic person”. The guidebook also states that one should not speak of a “migration crisis”, only of “migration as a complex phenomenon”. (Both these are examples of “splitting hairs”, except that perhaps that term itself would be outlawed as being offensive to bald people!)

Don’t get me wrong: I agree with Oxfam that inclusive language is important. I accept Oxfam’s justification that the guide intends to help employees “communicate in a way that is respectful to the diverse range of people with whom we work. We …. won’t succeed in tackling poverty by excluding marginalised groups.” But the inclusion of silly prohibitions that can easily be caricatured risks undermining the more worthwhile ideas. It’s important to know when you’ve gone too far. Stop!


Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 13 Apr 2023, 9:47 PM

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