Cambridge University examiners have been asked to stop using words like “genius”, “brilliance” and “flair” as these encourage gender inequality. An argument is that words like “genius” have a tradition associated with men. Of course sceptics say that Marie Curie too was called a genius — but Curie stands out in a field crammed otherwise with Rembrandts, Newtons and Naipauls. The small number of women called “brilliant” could blithely overlook the multiple barriers, from home to the world, that women face. The casual use of a word like “genius” could simply imply that, by their sheer preponderance, genius comes naturally to men — and only occasionally to a few good women.
In Cambridge, the unthinking use of such terms is a worry; the university began as a 13th century monastic universe, which made women students — often resented — full members only in 1948. Even now, the walls of its glowing chambers are lined with the portraits of “brilliant” men, while its female academics argue that the puffed air of male superiority which hangs over the university encourages more men to top.
Against this discussion, the power of seemingly simple words comes to light. Many words appear innocuous — think “mankind”, “forefathers”, “housewife” — but in fact, carry powerful implications, of the world being run by “manpower”, women composing the frills, the cake-bakers, the eager nodders, and not society’s serious core. The weight of such words spills dangerously, impacting psyches negatively, inhibiting some, over-emboldening others. It is no wonder that words once used to describe physical conditions evolved. To call a “wheelchair-user” “wheelchair-bound” may sound the same — but there is a world of difference in those words, one implying helplessness, the other, agency. Of course, critics argue that being ultra-careful with our words is creating “snowflakes” — overly politically-correct individuals. But it’s better to be a snowflake than a bigot — go figure, genius.