BOY oh boy, what trouble a three-lettered word can cause. Even when embedded amongst other letters it seems that “man” – as in chairman or layman or workmanlike – is a stealth bomber among nouns or adjectives, a grenade whose pin is pulled when it finds itself in the wrong hands or mouth. Those of us, say, who can remember the stench of uncollected rubbish during the three-day week, have grown up with hearing and using words such as mankind to describe humanity. Or referring to a boss talking man-to-man with an under-performing employee. Or expecting someone, of either sex, to man up and confess they forgot to feed the cat.

When used in an innocent context, what possible harm can there be in a word that goes back to a time when cave-dwellers were beginning to shape language as well as arrow-heads? Who on earth could take offence? Well, how about half the population? It might not be intended to insult or exclude, but when its meaning implicitly includes women yet simultaneously manages to suggest that we are both invisible and inferior, man is problematic. Every time it appears it is a reminder of women’s lower status. The sensation is only a pinprick, yet while few of us would be prepared to go to the barricades over this small point, it does not slip past unnoticed or unfelt.

It was thus startling but not entirely surprising to learn that Hull University has announced it will mark students down if their essays do not use gender-sensitive language. As well as those I’ve mentioned, the words that trigger the university’s disapproval include forefathers and fireman, cleaning lady and headmaster, which, they suggest could be replaced without losing any meaning or nuance with humankind and forebears, firefighter and cleaner, and so on.

The spluttering of outrage this cautionary list caused was predictable, as was the fact that all who railed against such “linguistic policing” and censorship were, to a man, male. One academic expressed the fear that such a step would “be used as a coercive tool to impose a conformist outlook”. Another, demonstrating how in tune he is with the modern world, called it “pettyfogging”.

Yet are these naysayers right in suggesting Hull University and other institutions that encourage students to think before choosing their words, are allowing political correctness to run wild? Should those behind this kind of pedantry be simply dismissed as feminazis, or grammar guerillas, and mocked for their zeal?

Not in my book. Admittedly they have invited ridicule by being so uncompromising, and stating their beliefs publicly. But while one might suggest that it would be better to use persuasion rather than penalties to coax students into broadening their vocabulary, only Luddites could deny that sexist terminology remains a live issue, and they are entitled to highlight it.

Nor is it a recent awareness. To my mortification, not long ago the Kirk minister in whose pews I had to sit every Sunday as a teenager reminded me of the week when, aged 15, I approached him on the church steps after the service. I have no recollection of this encounter, but he has never forgotten me asking why he used words like mankind and manpower, when it made women feel left out. Thereafter, he said, he amended the way he addressed his congregation.

The thought of taking him – when talking about Him – to task like that now makes me squirm with embarrassment. Even so, the sense of injustice I felt was and remains real.

However hard they try, few men can identify with the moment when a girl or woman realises she is second-class. The fact is that until relatively modern times most books and laws and most of society were written and run by males. For men, by contrast, from the day they were born, their environment has largely been fashioned by and for their gender.

Take, for instance, the indubitably lovely text of the King James Bible. Arguably the most influential book in our cultural history, echoed and quoted by writers, legislators and politicians for centuries, it is nevertheless saturated in male bias and the assumption that women do not much matter. Not for one moment would I decry it for this. No modern translation can compete with its poetry, and like so much of the finest literature, it must be read in the context of the period in which it was composed.

But it is one thing to accept alienating phraseology in a historic book, and another to perpetuate it today. The fuss over Hull’s attempt to redress an ancient imbalance seems rather ironic. We have never lived in a more sensitive age, when euphemisms and acronyms abound to make sure all members of society are respected. As the dictionary of neologisms expands exponentially, everybody is included, it seems, except women.

You could understand this 200 and more years ago, when the concept of a female firefighter or surgeon was almost unheard of. In our own times, however, when there is virtually no job or profession from which women are excluded, for us not to broaden our linguistic range to reflect this is more than lazy. Whether deliberate or accidental, it is a slur, and a sign of contempt.

Naturally, there are some old words that ought not to be eradicated simply because the attitudes they reflect are outdated. On this many would part company with Hull’s little list. Workmanlike or manfully, for instance, come from an earlier stage of our civilisation. Like pettyfogging, their days will be numbered, less because of the prejudice they reflect, but because such old-fashioned concepts will gradually become meaningless.

Equally, there are new words and coinages that those of my vintage will never be comfortable adopting. The day I describe myself as cis-female is the day I apply for a sex change. With the exception of such abominations, however, where’s the crime in being thoughtful about the way we describe the world? Most of us need to think harder about the words we choose, not fall back on the tired old lexicon of previous, less enlightened generations. Trying not to sideline 51 per cent of the country is not ridiculous. And if this idea annoys you, then why use words at all if you don’t believe they matter? Better, surely, just to haud your wheesht and bite your tongue – as women have had to do for too long.