Wordly Wise Succumbs to Political Correctness

Note James Dickey’s phone number on the cover; he’d let students call him and interview him for research papers on Deliverance.

Years ago, in a less sensitive century, I taught a course in Remedial English Developmental English at a community college. Of all the various workbooks we tried during my stint there, my favorite was Practically Painless English by Sally Foster Wallace, who happens to be the mother of David Foster Wallace. David would have been a late teen when I was teaching from his mom’s workbook, and I was only in my late twenties myself.

Alas, a couple of years ago, I gave my only copy to DFW aficionado and kickass essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan. As of this morning, surviving copies are going for $138 a pop on Amazon.

However, thanks of an internet recovery site, I was able to cop these exemplary snippets from Sally Wallace’s book:

Orlanda McGurk and Chively Sneed drink kerosene.
I went to the grocery store. I bought some soap. I bought some dynamite.
His eyes sparkled as he sprinkled poison on the cupcakes.
The bright pink sports car crashed on the icy winding road.
Until the killer confesses, we are all under suspicion.
The murderer himself was in the funeral procession.

Delightful but dangerous in this trigger-unhappy era. It’s possible one of your students’ mothers died when her pink Porsche skidded off an icy, winding road and smacked into an aspen. Although unlikely, Mrs. Wallace’s macabre example could cause legitimate heartache. Believe me, it happens. I’ve hurt people alluding to a much more unlikely death scenario.

So it’s not surprising that editors of long running series like Wordly Wise occasionally revise sentences to better reflect contemporary sensibilities. In fact, several new editions have come out in the 32 years I’ve been teaching Wordly Wise; however, because I’m lazy, I still use the very same workbooks issued to me in 1985. (see illustration above) Just because the word buxom[1] has been removed from Book 7, doesn’t make it worth the trouble of re-doing the exercises of the latest iteration to accommodate such a minor change.[2]

These changes usually take place in Section B, where students have to select sentences in which italicized words have been used incorrectly (see footnote 1 below).

Many of the emendations reflect skittishness about religious references.

Exercise A

a heathen tribe

(a) living in the jungle (b) living on islands (c) converted to Christianity (d) without Biblical religious belief

Exercise B

16 (a) Any person not a Christian, a Jew, or a Moslem was considered a heathen. (b) Missionaries went abroad in great numbers to convert the heathen to Christianity. (c) The people in the jungle are best left alone to worship their heathen gods. (d) The natives continued to heathen their own gods despite the efforts of the missionaries.

So when students hear Bob Marley sing “Heathen back against the wall,” they won’t have a clue.

Examples of violence are also targets for replacement.

From the same world list, one example of recoil has been softened. The 1983 edition includes the sentence, “He recoiled in horror when his gaze fell on the murdered man,” which in the 1998 version reads, “He recoiled in disgust when he saw the slugs in his driveway.”

My favorite changes occur in Book 6, Word List 6 where the sentence “Following their defeat in battle, the tribesmen were ruthlessly massacred” has been changed to “Some people see meat-eating as the massacre of animals.” Also, the strange “The animals were driven into the ravine and massacred by men with high-powered rifles” has given way to the metaphoric “The visitors massacred the home team; the score was 57 – 0.[3]

Apparently, George Custer remains fair game. The 1983 sentence “The massacre of General Custer’s men at Little Big Horn occurred in 1876″ survives in the 1998 edition.

Sex is not so much a problem because the editors ignore any sexual connotations a word may have. For example, orgy is defined as “wild, abandoned merrymaking.”

Hi, Emerson how was school today?

It was a blast, mom. The pep rally turned into an orgy!”

I’ll leave you with one last example, another sentence that has withstood the [tautology alert] censorious eye of the Wordly Wise censor:

“He led a chaste and ordered life with his uncles.”


[1] It’s defined as “plump.” See if you can guess which usage is incorrect: A. She was a healthy, buxom woman in the prime of life or B. She offered to buxom the pillow to make it more comfortable.

[2] Our department eschews teacher manuals.

[3] What offends me more than religious references or allusions to violence is the examples’ unnecessary use of passive voice and their lack of specificity. How about “A band of hunchbacked Lithuanian dwarves drove the bison into the ravine where their Russian overlords massacred them with AK 47s” or “The visitors massacred the home team 57-0?

3 thoughts on “Wordly Wise Succumbs to Political Correctness

  1. Pingback: Fun with Grammar Nazis – You Do Hoodoo?

  2. I speculate on what you might comment on the usage of ‘Easter worshipers’ (sic) in the recent tweet on the blasts in Sri Lanka.

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