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Finding suitable non-controversial labels for minority groups is often difficult. It’s good that attempts should be made to find names that are both accurately descriptive and also neutral and inoffensive. However, that’s often harder to do than the casual observer might think, since inventing new terms isn’t easy.

The British Department of Trade and Industry is drafting new anti-discrimination laws and feels that homosexual is “no longer the way forward in defining sexual orientation”. It is reported this week to have decided instead to use OTPOTSS, which stands for “orientation towards people of the same sex”. Any abbreviation that saves having to say that mouthful is probably an improvement, but not by much. And somebody’s bound to point out pretty soon that it’s an anagram of tosspot.

My own feeling is that it’s going to have a niche existence, like the term introduced by the US Bureau of the Census in the late 1970s: POSSLQ, “Person of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters”. William Safire argued this was discriminatory, and should be changed to PASSLQ, “Person of Appropriate Sex Sharing Living Quarters”. The DTI’s suggestion is actually very similar to one that has been widely used online: MOTSS, “members of the same sex”, and which has been in the title of a Usenet newsgroup since 1983.

The British press has been having some mildly satirical fun with OTPOTSS, as the Guardian quote below suggests. Philip Hensher, in his piece in the Independent on Tuesday, suggested with tongue firmly in cheek that the DTI should go back to its roots and use sodomite instead.

Otpotss? I suppose it could catch on, given time.

Independent, Nov. 2002

We otpotsses and our otpotss-hag friends spend much of our time thinking up our own new — and often rather insulting — ways of describing homosexuals.

Guardian, Nov. 2002

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Dec. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 7 December 2002.