Gentleman's agreement gets a black look

STAFF at the National Gallery in London have reportedly been discouraged from using the term “gentleman's agreement”, on the grounds that it could be considered offensive to women.

STAFF at the National Gallery in London have reportedly been discouraged from using the term “gentleman's agreement”, on the grounds that it could be considered offensive to women.

So it might, but then it could also be regarded as offensive to non-gentlemen of either gender on the basis that it implies that only the word of gentlemen (or even gentlepersons) is to be regarded as binding or likely to be kept.

There is, of course, no law against “classist” remarks and so those who regard themselves as working class, or middle class for that matter, will just have to put up with the implied slur.

True, a law against “classism” would also protect us from inverted snobbery, such as Alan Johnson's defence of his former Cabinet colleague Hazel Blears as a “working-class girl” who “says what she thinks” - as if middle and upper class people cannot, by definition, be relied upon to speak honestly.


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On balance, however, the public interest lies allowing freedom of expression - even if the opinion expressed is a prejudiced one.

Of course, if Mr Johnson was correct in his stereotypical view of class identity, the phrase “gentleman's agreement” would never have entered the language in the first place.

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These reason it has is well illustrated by the alternative suggested by the National Gallery to its staff, namely the somewhat cumbersome “agreement based on trust”.

The same report quoted the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission as suggesting “miserable day” as a more acceptable alternative to the phrase “black day” and the South West Regional Development Agency objecting to phrases such as “black sheep of the family”, “black looks” and “black mark”.

It is easy to see that, used in an inappropriate context, such remarks might cause offence. But rather than placing an outright ban on such phrases, which are not only part of the heritage of the English language but are also widely understood as carrying no racial undertones, would it not be more sensible simply to encourage staff to think carefully about how they express themselves?

This would ultimately seem to be the best way of avoiding offence, since no list of banned phrases can ever be entirely comprehensive and even using words such as “black” in a literal context has the potential to offend.

Besides, if the word “black” is to be avoided in any figurative sense at all, what alternative is to be adopted to the phrase “in the black” which, unlike many other phrases using the word, is entirely positive?

And what of the most notorious days in the history of finance, such as Black Wednesday (which was actually misnamed, since leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism was a jolly good thing, albeit at a cost to the Treasury of more than �3billion) and Black Monday.

“Miserable Monday”, even with its alliterative quality, simply wouldn't have done, would it?

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