A writer in search of the plot for a comic novel could do far worse than this. He could begin by imagining a famous university, one noted for its hospitality to leftist causes and its tolerance of student demonstrations. He could next imagine a rightist national administration, one hostile to virtually all the fashionable campus orthodoxies. Then, just to get the plot off to a delicious if improbable start, he could imagine the rightist administration attacking the leftist university for being insufficiently attentive to those very same campus orthodoxies.

It's a page out of Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis, isn't it? Well, actually, no, it isn't. It's a page out of last Friday's New York Times, wherein was reported that the University of California at Berkeley has been criticized by the chief regional attorney for the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights for using sexist language in its catalogue. The gentleman in question, Paul D. Grossman, wrote a letter to the university's assistant chancellor suggesting that certain words and phrases in that catalogue -- "manpower," "grantmanship," "workman's compensation" -- should in the interest of egalitarianism be eliminated or euphemized.

These words, according to Grossman's letter to Lola H. Harris, "may be perceived by some persons as subtly discouraging female student interest in the courses." He quite politely suggested that Harris "may yourself have thought of better alternatives," but as long as he was at it he suggested a few improvements all by himself. Clearly he is a master not merely of egalitarianism but also of sesquipedalian gobbledygook, as demonstrated by the following:

* For "mankind," he recommended "humanity, human being, human populations, or the human species."

For "manpower," he preferred "staff development, personnel development, job training or human resource development."

* For "fossil man," he liked "humanoid fossils, human fossils or fossil humanity."

On and on he went, though somehow in attacking "manpower" as used in the course description for "Management of Human Resources" he missed "management," which obviously should be "personagement," except that there's still the problem of "ment." Personagepersont? But Grossman -- oops! How could I? Grossperson! -- left scarcely a stone unturned in his one-person effort to cajole Berkeley into toeing the line of orthodoxy; indeed, he thought it a good idea to hold a meeting of his staff and university officials "to sit at the same table and draw up a common list of questionable phrases," one of which certainly would have to be "common list," which quite transparently has its roots in the ancient West Indian usage "mon."

For its part the university has thus far responded with equanimity. Berkeley is a rather civilized place, memories of Mario Savo et al. to the contrary notwithstanding, and it made a civil reply to Grossperson's request. The chairman of the faculty senate policy committee, David Littlejohn, took the issue under advisement and, after due deliberation, admitted that every once in a while his complaints had merit: "Worker's compensation" is an improvement over "workman's compensation," Littlejohn wrote, and "firefighter" is preferable to "fireman." But Littlejohn -- who has not, at latest report, changed his name to Littlejane -- then took Grossperson to the woodshed:

"Except to avoid obvious terms of derision or words commonly regarded as insulting, it is regarded as culturally sound to let languages evolve according to normal daily usage, and as culturally unsound to try to legislate them artificially according to the mandates of political pressure groups. In no case should good English words, which are a part of our common history and heritage, simply be legislated in and out of usage according to the whims of persons or groups who suddenly declare themselves 'offended' . . . In no case should the university accept the idea that the Office of Civil Rights is a better judge of appropriate language in its publications, or descriptions of its courses, than the university itself."

What I say to that is, "Littlejohn for President," or provost, or dean, or chairman. Yes, "chairman," since as long as he was at it Littlejohn took the trouble to advise the university that it has itself gone off the deep end, without federal assistance, in substituting "chair" and "chairperson." He further took the trouble to express his astonishment, and that of others on the faculty, "that the Office of Civil Rights was able and willing to waste its time and our money on matters of this sort" and to note that "several faculty members consulted found this whole intrusion ridiculous."

Of course it is, though on the other hand nothing can be singled out as especially astonishing or ridiculous when other agencies of the same government are spending hundreds of dollars on toilet seats and hundreds of thousands on in-depth studies of dirty magazines; Grossperson may have been merely going with the flow, doing his bureaucratic duty as that duty is perceived in our current age of enlightenment. It does give one pause, though: Does anyone out there in the regional Office of Civil Rights have any idea who's actually running the Education Department these days? Did anybody stop for a moment and ask, "What would Secretary Bennett have to say about this?"

Apparently not; apparently in this particular federal office it's still the '60s or '70s, and the politicization of everything that moves is still in vogue. It doesn't seem to matter to this particular office that elsewhere in the country the pendulum has swung against the corruption of the language, that people of both sexes are gradually coming to realize that a preference for traditional usage is not prima facie evidence of sexual bias -- is not, for that matter, in and of itself "sexist." We've had our fling with what Littlejohn calls "awkward and unnatural English"; it now seems possible, except in one particular federal office, to use "mankind" as it should be used without being drawn and quartered on the spot.

What Grossperson and his staff do not seem to understand is that the egalitarian attack on the language was good up to a point, but can easily be taken too far. As a purposeful reminder of the insensitive ways in which words are too casually and frequently employed, it was a welcome and useful corrective; most educated people now write and speak more carefully as a result, and that is to the good. But it is going too far when the government, or anyone else for that matter, starts imposing clumsy coinages in the name of political orthodoxy; then it is time to protest, as David Littlejohn so eloquently and tellingly did.