Verbal Hygiene in Language Usage

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Verbal Hygiene by Deborah Cameron
Verbal Hygiene by Deborah Cameron (Routledge Linguistics Classics, 2012).

Verbal hygiene is a phrase coined by British linguist Deborah Cameron to describe "the urge to meddle in matters of language": that is, the effort to improve or correct speech and writing or to arrest change in a language. Also known as prescriptivism and language purism.

Verbal hygiene, says Allyson Jule, "is a way to make sense of language and represents a symbolic attempt to impose order on the social world" (A Beginner's Guide to Language and Gender, 2008).

Examples and Observations

  • "Edward Koch . . . as mayor of New York City once compiled a list of vulgar New Yorkisms he wanted city teachers to eliminate from children's speech, including the use of 'really good' as an adverbial. Practices like these, born of the urge to improve or 'clean up' language, exemplify the phenomenon I call verbal hygiene. . . .
    "'[D]escription' and 'prescription' turn out to be aspects of a single (and normative) activity: a struggle to control language by defining its nature. My use of the term 'verbal hygiene' is intended to capture this idea, whereas to use the term 'prescription' would just recycle the opposition I am trying to deconstruct. . . .
    "We are all of us closet prescriptivists--or, a I prefer to put it, verbal hygienists."
    (Deborah Cameron, Verbal Hygiene, 1995. Rpt. Routledge Linguistics Classics, 2012)
  • The Work of Verbal Hygienists
    "According to [Deborah] Cameron, a sense of linguistic values makes verbal hygiene part of every speaker's linguistic competence, as basic to language as vowels and consonants. . . . [Verbal hygienists] are the people found in those language associations formed to promote causes as diverse as Plain English, simplified spelling, Esperanto, Klingon, assertiveness and effective communication . . .. Verbal hygienists also enjoy thinking and arguing about words, correcting the writing of others and looking things up in dictionaries and usage guides. These activities are born of the urge to improve and clean up the language."
    (Keith Allan and Kate Burridge, Forbidden Words. Cambridge University Press, 2006)
  • Euphemisms and Connotations
    "Subversive innovation may take various forms. but the most popular is probably verbal hygiene (Cameron, 1995)—the attempt to 'cleanse' the language and divest it of its salient, offensive connotations. At times, verbal hygiene involves replacing offensive language with 'politically correct' or euphemistic language (for example the replacement of disabled with physically challenged or woman with lady). At times, however, it is obtained by challenging salient meanings via a defiant use: by deliberately insisting on, rather than avoiding, their usage. Such practice endows them with new meanings as when the 'derogatory' woman, feminist, and Jew assume positive connotations in positive contexts (cf. The Women's Room, or the title of a Singaporean newspaper article I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar echoing cat woman in Batman Returns)."
    (Rachel Giora, On Our Mind: Salience, Context, and Figurative Language. Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • Diagnosing Problems
    "With reference to both speech and writing, most of us practice linguistic hygiene, brushing or swabbing away what we see as pollutants--jargon, vulgarisms, profanity, bad grammar and mispronunciations--and sometimes in the process replacing one kind of evil with another. Alarmists are apt to vilify the types of people they think most culpable: they have in the past condemned travellers, shopkeepers, journalists, university students, nurses, hairdressers, people who live in cities, homosexuals, the authors of translations, and women. All of us, besides using language, comment on it, and we complain about others' usage far more often than we applaud it. Where language is concerned, some are engineers, but more of us are doctors."
    (Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars. John Murray, 2011)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Verbal Hygiene in Language Usage." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Verbal Hygiene in Language Usage. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Verbal Hygiene in Language Usage." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).