Singing the praises of anthem change
A giant Canadian flag covers the field during the Canadian National Anthem before the Jay's Canada Day game against The Tigers, July 1, 2013. (Craig Robertson/QMI Agency)
Many eons ago at Carleton University’s journalism school, Prof. Roger Bird was listening to some of us energetically debate whether the proper spelling was “cigarette” (as The Canadian Press style guide dictated) or “cigaret” (as the Globe and Mail then bizarrely insisted).
Finally, Bird, who most of us adored, held up his hand. “Look,” he said. “Language is dynamic, guys. It changes all the time. Journalism, and society, have to accept that and reflect that.” Bird, or course, was right. Thus, every year, we hear about how new words and phrases are added to the lexicon.
The Oxford Dictionary, for instance, has just this year accepted “selfie” (a photo of oneself, taken by oneself), “phablet” (a device somewhere between smartphone and tablet), and, my personal favourite, “omnishambles,” which is defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.”
The way in which we deal with important symbolic Canadian things, like our national anthem, are usually an omnishambles.
In 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to his credit, used the Throne Speech to announce that he wanted to restore the “original gender-neutral wording of our national anthem.”
That is, change Robert Stanley Weir’s famous lyric, “in all thy sons command,” to “in all of us command.” Two words. From what it has been, to what it originally was.
A national omnishambles thereupon erupted, with traditionalist folks, mainly Conservatives, braying and screeching that the world was about to end.
At the time, I opined that the Conservatives had made a mistake, not in the decision they had made, but in the ham-fisted way in which they had communicated it. They thereafter beat an indignified retreat, and the anthem remained as is, in all of its boys-only ingloriousness.
Until last week, that is, when a group of prominent women — Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats among them — launched a super-slick website respectfully requesting the change to the original words. Some of these wild-eyed radicals included a former Conservative prime minister and a current Conservative senator.
To those who would say “enough with changey stuff, already,” the Restore Our Anthem group say: “In our opinion, change never stops and Canada never stops evolving, nor should it.” True, that.
They go on: “An amendment of the word sons in our national anthem is one that is not meant to alienate, but rather incorporate, every person in this country who identifies themselves as Canadian — a definition that has changed significantly over the years and will continue to do so.”
No biggie, right? The group of esteemed Canadians notes, also correctly, that government has lots of other things to worry about. But tweaking two words in the national anthem shouldn’t take up too much of their time, at all.
Newspaper editorialists and columnists have mostly shrugged at the initiative, with most suggesting it is probably a good idea.
Most online commenters, who are overwhelmingly white, conservative, angry and wearing pyjamas in their mother’s basement as they type up angry missives, think the Apocalypse is nigh.
I side with Roger Bird, at that long-ago journalism class. Language changes, whether we like it or not. This is one language change that is easy to do — and overdue, too.
An omnishambles it is not.