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The Linguistic Minefield

On September 11 we heard a lengthy interview on the local CBS radio affiliate with a man who had managed to get out of a World Trade Center tower just before it collapsed. We haven’t been able to get the interview out of our mind. What the man said was dramatic, riveting. The discussion focused on the bravery of the firemen who were going up the stairway with heavy equipment to save people as everyone else was going down to get out, including the man interviewed.

Curiously, the man spoke of the firemen while the lady interviewer said firefighters. Back and forth they went.

Now, the man, who was articulate and obviously quite intelligent, did not respond to the interviewer’s cues; he always said firemen. Surely, we thought, this alert and perceptive man knew he was talking to the establishment media, surely he knew he was violating their linguistic protocol.

Finally, at the end of the interview, the lady interviewer relented and said firemen, perhaps at last realizing that to insist on being p.c. in times of crisis is quite absurd.

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