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What's wrong with ‘alt-right’ and other usage questions from 2016

Ian Jolly

Style editor, BBC newsroom in London

BBC journalists at work in the newsroom at London's New Broadcasting House

We've just had a gathering of what is known as the "style council", a musical reference that hints at the age of the usual participants.

Any style guide is a work in progress and ours is no different. Do newly popular words and phrases need including? Are we happy with our rules on capitalisation? Should we drop some practices that we adhere to simply because we always have?

Among other issues, we considered whether the prefix "cyber" requires a hyphen (in our view, it does); decided that breeds of dogs should be capped only when there's a country in the name; and agreed that ‘social media’ should be singular.

Not momentous steps, but each a useful contribution in ensuring greater consistency in our output, which is the aim of any style guide.

In a year of political upheaval, we can look back at numerous developments that have challenged us.

I remember discussing whether we needed to explain what Brexit was and put it in quote marks. Now we treat it like an old friend, as we do selfie, which also raced through the quote marks stage to full acceptance.

Other terms, though, are less readily welcomed into the fold. "Alt-right" has rather come from nowhere and finding an accurate and acceptable definition has not been easy. One website reader had his own - "racist, xenophobic and in many cases misogynistic, if not outright sexist".

He went on: "By continuing to refer to them as 'alt-right' you are perpetuating the idea that it is acceptable to hold such views in 2016."

It's a fair point, and we should avoid adopting it as a cosy synonym without giving some clue to the ideologies that shelter under this umbrella term.

In fact, in a rapidly changing political landscape, terminology is constantly under review; which groups, if any, can accurately be labelled as far right - or indeed far left?

But perhaps a key recent development has been the pressure on the media from elsewhere - both politicians and the public. In 2015, there were calls for the BBC to adopt "Daesh" to describe the Islamic State group, a lobby rebuffed by the corporation.

This year, the media have been criticised for not doing more to flag up questionable statements, whether the £350m claim during the EU referendum campaign or Donald Trump's allegation that millions had voted illegally in the US presidential election.

US media seem much more willing to brand the president-elect a liar, but our preference is to give the facts clearly so audiences can decide for themselves.

Our use of language is challenged too.  As child abuse continues to feature heavily in our news coverage, campaigners say they would prefer us to talk about "survivors" rather than "victims" and "non-recent" rather than "historical" abuse.

On the other side of that coin, a week or two ago we had a discussion with an audience member about whether we were using "paedophile" correctly. He argued that paedophilia is a clinical condition that we too readily apply to criminals - child sexual abuse and paedophilia are not the same thing.

It's a point of view I've considered before, but sometimes we do have to accept that language moves on. These days ‘paedophile’ does have a wider meaning, although we still aim to ensure it is used appropriately.

So there will always be some new catalyst in our discussions about words and language, even if a particular term may be prominent only fleetingly.

Should last year's Christmas must-have be called a "hoverboard", a "ride-on", a "self-balancing scooter" or a "rideable"? We settled on hoverboard, but they probably won't feature on many Christmas lists this year.

We pondered whether Dame Justice Lowell Goddard should be Justice Goddard or Dame Lowell at second reference. Eventually we asked her office (Dame Lowell, if you're interested) but no sooner was that settled than she had left her post.

So we look forward to 2017, wondering how our language and usage will shift in the coming year.


The BBC News Style Guide

Other Academy blogs by Ian Jolly

Writing: The English language