It was interesting to watch the British journalist Laurie Penny last week. She used the word "Lunatic" in a piece about misogynistic abuse of women online and in doing so inadvertently offended some people. For some sufferers of mental illness, the word is a slur.
To her credit, she responded immediately with an eloquent apology. Ms. Moore and Ms. Burchill could learn from her example. She may at times be a typical product of the left-wing London-centric media bubble into which she was admitted straight from university, but it seems she hasn't quite yet been sucked into it enough to consider herself infallible.
Personally I think she got it right to apologise because though the word "lunatic" is a rather archaic in a pure mental health sense it is still within living memory. When I was young our local mental hospital was informally referred to locally as "The loony bin" for instance, so it's entirely understandable that for some the word is still a slur.
But here's the problem. Words change their meanings over time, and "lunatic" has acquired some non-offensive senses in common speech. I'm guessing that through being painfully right-on Ms. Penny is more aware of offensive words than most people, and her considering it acceptable to use was not entirely unreasonable in the context of those senses.
There was a good parallel example of a language shift causing controversy on Radio 1 back in 2006. The DJ Chris Moyles described a ringtone as "gay" which prompted calls of homophobia, yet he was simply found to have been using the newer sense of "gay"; "Foolish, stupid or unimpressive". Reach your own conclusions about Chris Moyles' general misogyny or homophobia, but here this was probably linguistically correct. You don't have to spent long in the company of someone young enough to be a Radio 1 listener to gather that this sense of "gay" is not used in a homophobic context however annoying it may be. It's not impossible to conceive that this sense of the word might even become the dominant one in future decades.
The BBC programme complaints committee reported on the Moyles incident thus: "The word 'gay', in addition to being used to mean 'homosexual' or 'carefree', was often now used to mean 'lame' or 'rubbish'". The irony of their using "lame", in itself seen by some as a piece of ablist language, would probably be as lost on them as that of the annoyance to the older generation at the use of "gay" as a synonym for "homosexual".
Highlighting the use of inappropriate language will unfortunately be necessary as long as there are unpleasant people who will push the boundaries of its use. But I can't help feeling that sometimes those who do it can be a little too zealous in their pursuit and often do more harm than good. For the best example of this we should look no further than the multiple controversies surrounding the word "niggardly" in academic speech. It is simply a word which sounds like an offensive one, it has no sense related to the word it sounds like and it was in no way offensive in meaning. Yet the controversies have given new life to what was a rather archaic and rare word, and an entirely new sense as a dog-whistle word used by racists who wish to enrage others with the use of a 'non-racist' word. Well done, language police! (slow hand clap)
I feel there is a lesson here that everyone can learn ( Especially some people rather close to home who should know better! ). If I take offence at something, I should consider for a moment the nature of what I am taking offence at. Is it something anyone like me would find offensive or am I in a minority of one? Is the word being used in an offensive sense, or indeed is it even an offensive word in the first place? Careful consideration of both those questions before complaining would I think lead to a much better targeted and more effective management of the use of offensive language and far less of a sense of crying wolf. If an archaic or marginally offensive word acquires a new, non-offensive sense that is to be celebrated and encouraged, for that is the way that offensive senses become forgotten (See the early etymology of 'nice' for a good example.). By attempting to halt this process when it is already under way we risk two things: breathing new life into the offensive sense, and simply alienating people whose use of the new sense is entirely innocent. We want people to use language in a particular way because they see it as the right thing to do, not because they have been told to use it in that way which they then resent.