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The Globe and Mail

Time to find a different word to describe Bernardo’s victims

Sylvia Stead is The Globe's first-ever public editor.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

We all know that our language changes constantly. Words come in and out of fashion.

In August, Oxford University Press added selfie, unlike and digital detox among others.

Other words become over-used according to this site on dictionary.com -- words like fiscal cliff, epic, to curate etc.

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Then, there are words which made sense years ago but don't sound right today to some readers.

One of those words is "schoolgirls." A reader wrote to me this week after seeing stories in The Globe and Mail about the tours of the Kingston Penitentiary, the jail that once held notorious killer Paul Bernardo. The story described him as "schoolgirl killer."

The reader wondered: "Why does The Globe persist in using the sexist … and outdated term 'schoolgirls' in reference to the victims of Paul Bernardo? What is wrong with 'high school students,' (or) 'teenagers,' or 'young women'?"

She said this word "seems to be invariably trotted out whenever The Globe mentions the Bernardo case. Had the teenaged victims of Bernardo been male, I'm quite certain your newspaper would not be referring to them as 'schoolboys!' Surely, it's long past time that these young women were given a more dignified, less tabloid-worthy descriptor."

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the word itself. It was used correctly. But perhaps it is time to find a different description. Certainly the words "schoolboy" or "schoolgirl" make more sense referring to younger students and those words would have been more common usage in 1995 when Bernardo was convicted in the killing of Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy.

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