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When word choice becomes a political act

Londonderry road sign with 'London' graffitied overPart of our job as editors is to tweak any language that might make readers feel excluded or stereotyped – for example, changing ‘firemen’ to ‘firefighters’. In theory, this could be seen as a political act, but these days ‘some firefighters are women’ is hardly controversial, and we wouldn’t expect any pushback.

So it is with deep sympathy that I read about the difficulties of people writing about the city in Northern Ireland known as both Derry and Londonderry.

Since the re-igniting of the Troubles in the 1960s, Republicans have generally called it Derry, with Unionists calling it Londonderry. Whichever you choose to use gives away your loyalties as quickly as saying ‘potato cake’ or ‘scallop’.* But what if you want to stay neutral?

This is a nightmare scenario for someone who’s already pretty anxious about using exactly the right word. Imagine if every time you gave out your address, you were also forced to declare which side of a serious political debate you fell on. ‘Garage sale this Sunday! Clothes, kitchenware, kid’s toys, and our stance on the Northern Ireland!’

And that’s just for a garage sale! What do you do if you’re in an official position, like a city councillor?

Well, if you’re a councillor in the city of you-know-where, you have two sets of stationery, so that you can adjust according to your correspondent.

If you’re the BBC, you avoid the controversy altogether by naming your radio station after the river that passes through the city (the River Foyle), instead of the city itself. (This is usually what Red Pony would recommend: when in doubt, re-write the sentence to avoid using the controversial word altogether.)

One attempt at neutrality was the awkward Derry/Londonderry (pronounced ‘Derry stroke Londonderry’), and the resulting slang term ‘Stroke City’ (which the Guardian forbids its journalists from using in very stern tones).

Irish radio presenter Gerry Anderson was a strong advocate for this compromise, which didn’t do much except earn him the nickname Gerry/Londongerry.

But the fact is, there is no neutral. If you’re a staunch believer that the city should rightfully be called Derry, ‘Derry/Londonderry’ is pandering to Unionists, and vice versa. In fact, the Wikipedia entry for ‘Derry/Londonderry naming dispute’ is itself controversial, because people keep changing its name to ‘Derry naming dispute’ and back again. You can check out the Talk page if you want to read some heavy-handed sarcasm from dozens of people all claiming to be the neutral, logical party.

I’d like to tie this article up in a neat bow, but I don’t have a solution. It would be frankly astounding if I did, given the historical complexity. They could send me to sort out the Middle East next.

* Red Pony, being Melbourne-based, is naturally a potato cake organisation. But we believe in using the language that’s appropriate to the client and their audience, and so would let ‘scallop’ stand for NSW clients, even though they’re wrong and it’s clearly a type of seafood.

Photo: Signpost in Strabane, County Tyrone

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