How Words Evolve

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Sylvia Stead, Public Editor at the Globe and Mail, has made two important contributions to polite society this week.

The first is to unilaterally remove the word feyness from general circulation. A Globe TV critic used that word to describe the on-screen persona of the host of a Canadian cooking show, which the latter read as a homophobic slur. It matters not that there was no slur intended, nor that the critic is not homophobic, nor that the word is not commonly understood to carry a homophobic meaning, nor that the dictionary definition of the word is not flagged as "offensive" in either its formal or informal usage. What matters, in the words of Globe Editor-in-chief David Walmsley, is that "we caused unintended offence and for that we apologize."

But it doesn't stop there. The Globe, being Canada's self-styled paper of record and guardian of public decorum, has elevated the incident into a matter of high moral principle. "We need to understand not just the context of words," says Stead, "but how they evolve and are viewed by communities that may be justly sensitive to a range of meanings. In any case, this word should not be used knowingly in any reference to LGBTQ people." And with that edict, yet another benign and eminently serviceable word is rendered verbotena category of vocabulary with which Canadians are becoming all too familiar.