Words matter. And it’s entirely reasonable to put truly offensive words on the “our history” shelf. There, never to be forgotten and used in the context of understanding our ______ist (fill in the blank) past. I’m fine with be aware of the power of words.
And then there are the silly extremes. I thought calling a pregnant woman a “birthing person” was a prizewinner. But . . . In Case You Missed It . . . here is the latest from the halls of academia to boggle your tongue and keyboard.
From the University of Washington’s Information Technology Department (UW-IT) comes the “Inclusive Language Guide.” The department’s website introducing the project says they have “joined IT organizations at universities around the country that are involved in activities to replace racist, sexist, ageist, ableist, homophobic or otherwise non-inclusive language.” It’s a long list (you can grab a snack and read the whole thing) but these are a few of my favorite problematic words.
֍ Grandfather – “the term was used as a way to exempt some people in the American South as in a grandfather clause.” I hate to inform them that Indigenous people were there first (by thousands of years) with Grandfather Sky and the Seven Grandfather Teachings?
֍ Minority is “problematic” as it implies a “less than attitude.” It means simply not being in the majority. Yes, this word has often carried a “tone.” But will come as bad news for the Supreme Court’s minority opinions, the House and Senate. Being in the minority about most everything (including not being woke and self-righteous) has become more appealing to me. I still want the First Amendment and all the rights it used to guarantee.
֍ Housekeeping also “problematic” and can feel gendered—wow, no kidding!
֍ Man – there are so many words with “man” in them my mind is boggled. I guess Joe B needs to ditch his “come on, man” ASAP.
And not to let the UW-IT Guide die a natural death, the department also wants the university’s vendors to join the sensitivity club and “fix” their websites. Here’s their friendly warning: “Unfortunately, in working with your product/service we have identified language that can be considered offensive due to . . . .”
And the topper—especially in 2022 with supply lines in question and empty shelves at stores— “Can you let us know what efforts you are undertaking to move away from this language so as to create a more inclusive product/service?” Right there, I see a problem with the word “undertaking.” I’ll bet those vendors have set aside the work of getting their product/service into the hands of users (like the university) and are busy doing the necessary housekeeping, adding manhours, and taking a can-do attitude.
This is what I do agree with in the Guide’s prologue or wimp-ass justification. “Language evolves along with culture. It will never be possible to list all the ‘right’ ways of using language for diversity, inclusivity and equity, because language and culture are fluid.”
My concern is this: I’m not sure the culture is evolving. When I wrote The Red Kitchen’s chapter “The Fourth of July” set in a small town in Mississippi in 1949, I deleted my Uncle John’s frequent use of the N- word. And was advised to hint at what might be a disturbing use of a tree on the street where my grandmother lived. I regret doing so to this day—history is for the learning not for the deleting, no matter how wrong and undoubtably painful the word can be. I thought I made it fairly clear that the whole experience during that July 4th, celebrating freedom for some but not all, was horrifying.
The renaming binge we’re on these days hasn’t done all that much to improve life for the targets of the words in question. It seems to me that the word police has too much time on their hands and are too ready to call out, cancel, or ruin the life/work of anyone who crosses their specific line, or as they say too often “made them feel unsafe.” Really? Then turn off your Twitter feed, go outside without your phone, and get some fresh air.
If you have your snack ready here’s where you can find more about the UW-IT Guide.
Photo credits include: Choose your words – Brett-Jordan, Hopscotch – Jon-Tyson, and The great outdoors – Sarah Evans
My thanks to all for your comments. Pete does get the prize for enduring the full list and writing such a funny response.
Yes – words are one thing – deeds quite another. We seem to be swimming in the former and waiting, waiting for the latter.
Wishing you all the best. Barbara
As you so rightly say, things have gone from the well-intentioned to the ridiculous. Words do have power–they create the conditions for change, good or bad as the case may be. But I agree with Stephanie–let’s fight structural racism and other forms of inequity with deeds.
Oh, Barb, you are so right on!
Here are some others from the list that caught my eye: brown bag, mantra, guru (culturally appropriative), pow wow (cultural misappropriation), crazy, normal, see, he or she, his or her, guys.
It will take me at least until the next update to make all the appropriate substitutions both in my written/spoken expression and in my thinking.
This is pretty high bar for me to live up to. Oops.
I love using non-gendered words such as staffed rather than manned, flight attendant rather than steward or stewardess. And dedication to correct-speak has interfered with the underlying goal. Well said.
Hell-to-the-yeah, Barbara. If we spent more time actually doing real tangible things to affect change for the marginalized, oppressed and discriminated, put our actions where our words are, think how quickly we could impact change. Nice gestures that ring hollow.
Thanks for tempering the anger with humor – good read as always.