The Meaning of Words : NPR Public Editor A recent commentary on the salaries of working women revealed a class bias at NPR, according to one listener. Other listeners objected to the term "dozens" when applied to deaths and use of the word "gyp."

The Meaning of Words

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

--Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

A recent commentary on the salaries of working women revealed a class bias at NPR, according to a listener who asked not to be named.

The commentary by Alexandra Starr aired on All Things Considered on July 5 (See Related NPR Stories link below to hear the segment.) Starr made the point that the real lives of single, working women do not exactly fit a common stereotype:

The phrase "single women" probably brings to mind the image of Sex and the City. But the lives of most of the sideline singles are very different. They're not picking up Manolo Blahniks and lingering over a cappuccino with their friends. The vast majority of these women have hard lives. They're poor. About half of them make around $30,000 a year or less.

The listener noted that, according to Labor Department statistics for 2002, the average working woman in America makes $30,000 a year -- and that that is not near the poverty line. The listener continued:

Assertions like this suggest a misunderstanding of economic experience of many -- if not most -- Americans, and feed into the perception that NPR is a culturally elitist organization. I'm pretty sure that there are people who make $30,000 a year who would feel that classifying them as "poor" and living "hard lives" is patronizing.

'Dozens of Dead?'

Listeners such as Carlos Stern regularly mention that the word "dozens" offends them when it is applied to deaths or injuries:

I notice that your reporters on All Things Considered, Morning Edition and some related news programming have started using the expression "dozens" when referring to casualties and deaths in Iraq. For example, they will say something along these lines: "About two dozen Iraqis were injured when a car bomb was detonated" and "nearly a dozen marines were injured when their vehicle was ambushed."

I find this manner of expressing a serious matter to be both highly objectionable and pointless. There's absolutely no purpose served by referring to humans in the same terms as eggs and other commodities. It is not only more to the point, but also more dignified, in the above examples, to simply state "22 Iraqis were injured" and "10 marines were injured."

Please stop using "dozens" when referring to real people, especially in tragic and serious circumstances.

Roma, Not Gypsies

Alicia Hetzner writes to praise a feature on the flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia by reporter Felix Contreras. She also notes that the NPR Web site was not as punctilious as the reporter in its choice of words:

In the July 16 Paco de Lucia story (a fabulous musical piece by the way), Felix Contreras had the sensitivity to use "Roma" instead of "Gypsy" (he added "Gypsy" parenthetically, for those who might not know). However, NPR's Web text synopsis of the same show uses "Gypsy." It's not used anymore -- [it is] like calling people [epithets]. Please make sure the NPR commentators and editors know to use "Roma."

Cheat, Not Gyp

Stanley Greenberg was one of several listeners who wrote to point out that Weekend All Things Considered on July 4 used a term that, while once acceptable, increasingly is seen as disparaging:

Andrea Seabrook's story on the remedy that music companies have come up with to settle their price fixing lawsuit made me want to go directly to my computer and download some free music. But first I had to comment on her use of the word "gyp." I believe that this word, used to mean "cheat," derives from the word gypsy and should not be used. Happily, most people have removed [ethnically disparaging] expressions... from their vocabularies. Isn't it time to get rid of this one too?

WATC's producer, Martha Wexler, says that no dictionary identifies the verb "gyp" as offensive. This is true as far as I can tell, but I agree with Greenberg. Dictionaries are notoriously slow to acknowledge cultural changes. NPR should be sensitive, without appearing politically correct, when it comes to words with pejorative ethnic connotations.

Fishers or Fisherman?

And speaking of political correctness, Jerry Goldman writes:

Christopher Joyce reported on fishing, the enviro-friendly way, on July 15. But what reason could he have for substituting the noun "fisher" for the preferred (OED 2d edition) "fisherman?" (According to the OED, "fisher" is archaic and superseded in ordinary use by "fisherman.") Would he give offense to the tiny proportion of women in the commercial fishing business? Would he offend NPR's strident and politically correct movement of aging feminists? He might have avoided the problem by referring to the fishing industry or to fishermen and fisherwomen, though I'm sure the latter choice would have made him more a mockery. But frankly "fisher" really has me steaming. Please don't dismiss me as a crabby listener. I much enjoy and support NPR's independent voice, but when that voice bends to the currents of the politically correct, I simply snap at the bait.

There are in fact legitimate reasons for using the admittedly odd-sounding "fisher" rather than "fisherman."

Alison Richards, an editor on the NPR science desk, says the scientific and governmental bodies that oversee the fishing industry increasingly use the term "fisher." Joyce was paraphrasing someone from the Mid-Atlantic Council, an industry body, when he reported the following:

The U.S. government also reports that many species in U.S. waters are on the rebound. … Some commercial fishers are suspicious that ecosystem management will mean locking up the fish.

Also, Goldman may be mistaken when he says there are few women in the fishing industry. A large percentage of the industry's employees are female, not on the boats but in the on-shore processing and canning parts of the business. Perhaps "fisher" is a better generic word than "fisherman." It's worth trying... just for the halibut (groan).

Is it time to change "ombudsman" to "ombuds" as well?

Listeners can contact me at 202-513-3245 or at

Jeffrey Dvorkin

NPR Ombudsman

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