Words matter: language changes that can help everyone (except bigots) feel included

  • Don’t say men and women unless you specifically mean men and women.  Do say people or adults or whatever subgroup you’re talking about.
  • Dont say blacks.  Do say Black people.
  • Start using the singular they, or if you have difficulty with that, switch examples to plurals.
  • Include “other” options in demographic surveys.
  • Don’t say ghetto even if it is a jargon term in your field.  Say ethnic enclave if that is what you mean.
  • Instead of God giving you something, you got it from Nature or picked it up at the physics supply store (where you can also buy infinitely thin string and frictionless surfaces).

What are other language changes you’ve made?

23 Responses to “Words matter: language changes that can help everyone (except bigots) feel included”

  1. wally Says:

    “Include “other” options in demographic surveys.”
    i would suggest rather than “other” that researchers should include an option like, “My identity is not listed (please specify)…” Other, in effect, otherizes.

    For context, I am a survey researcher focused on marginalized communities.

  2. Steph Says:

    In the past I’ve struggled with how to address my class as a group, because my default was “guys/you guys” for a long time. I still say that sometimes, but using “everyone/everybody” or “y’all” has been a lot smoother this semester for some reason.

    In addition to your point about Black people, say “people of color” instead of “colored” (I didn’t think that still had to be said…but last year I heard someone my age (~30), from a northern state, refer to colored students.)

    And BIPOC when writing is a good one (Black, indigenous, and people of color), to emphasize that Black and Indigenous folks often face higher barriers and stronger bias than other POC. Apparently you can use this term aloud (“bye-pock”), though it still sounds funky to me.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      One very nice thing about living in the South is that y’all comes naturally.

      POC and BIPOC are great terms, especially when talking about the challenges POC and BIPOC specifically face.

      A few years ago our chair had to tell our graduate admissions person that Oriental only refers to a type of carpet and that she should NOT be color coding her spreadsheets in the way that she was. (Yellow and Red were especially problematic.) She wasn’t like a Fox News Trump junkie, but I don’t know how you can get to that age and not realize how problematic that is.

  3. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    At the beginning of every term I always ask “What would you prefer that *I* call you?” Avoids the whole accidental-outing possibilities of ‘what are your pronouns’, etc.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Great idea! I do an anonymous survey at the beginning of the class and am more careful if someone picks something other than M/F. I wish we had more than Mr. and Ms. for people without professional degrees or military experience.

      • Jenny F. Scientist Says:

        True! I call my students by their first/preferred names, and they call me Dr. Scientist, so it’s mostly okay here. (Actually they call us Mrs. Dr. Scientist and Mr. Dr. Scientist.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I don’t like calling them by their first names if they’re going to call me Dr.

      • Jenny F. Scientist Says:

        I know, but it’s what everyone does here. They will not call me by my first name no matter what I do! The South, y’all.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That’s why I go Mr./Ms./Sargent/Major/etc. The students think it’s adorable. When I have someone NB in class I either ask the first day or I just coldcall by last-name without the honorific. “Bueller… Bueller… Bueller…”

  4. revanche @ a gai shan life Says:

    I use the singular “they” professionally a lot, and y’all in non professional settings. I’ve seen “Mx.” for a gender neutral title though haven’t had occasion to use it. I’ve replaced blacklist and whitelist with block list and safe list.

    Ditto the use of BIPOC which I now see everywhere on Twitter.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think a lot of it is focusing on that people are people first and modifiers after, not just their modifiers.

      It’s hard in scholarly writing for me because so much of econ jargon takes away people’s humanity. I have to untrain myself, or at least do a find/replace in every powerpoint and paper. I’m still a work in progress.

  5. Fresh Life Advice Says:

    This is so powerful, Nicole and Maggie! Thank you for sharing! Words truly do matter, and you’ve reminded people of their importance. Keep up the great work!

  6. Leigh Says:

    Writing “their” instead of “his/her” and “they” instead of “he/she”. I try to do that whenever possible. “Y’all” does not feel natural to me, but I’ve been trying to use it instead of “you guys”. I also try to use “they” for anyone who hasn’t told me their pronouns

  7. First Gen American Says:

    I feel a bit behind the times on the pronouns and descriptors. I am always worried I am using an old/outdated term. It still feels weird to describe someone as queer when it used to be such a derogatory term when I was in college.

    The whole “what’s your pronoun” introduction has never happened during any engineering meetings I’ve participated in, inside or outside my company. We just use the person’s name when we address or talk about them. It’s more common in the arts/non-profit sector I volunteer in but it also seems like a very personal question to be asking at the beginning of a meeting.

    I also don’t get how to use “they” correctly. Feels a little off from an English language standpoint talking about a singular person as plural. If I am talking about “them”, how does the listener know if I am talking about one or multiple people in the group?

    It’s all still a little confusing for me.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It takes a while but one gets used to the singular they. I think the most important thing is just to listen to what people want to be called and call them that. (I personally do not want to give my pronouns because I don’t feel particularly female but also I don’t want to draw attention to that fact.)

  8. Debbie M Says:

    I’ve changed:
    * from “girls” to “women,” “ladies,” or “gals” (if I don’t mean girls)
    * from “I don’t want to get gypped out of” to “I don’t want to lose the opportunity for”
    * from “wheelchair people” to “people in wheelchairs”
    * from “Republicans” to “Trump supporters” (for most of them)
    * from “Moooommm-meeeee!” to “Mom”
    * I’m still working on Hispanics/Latinx. Right now I’m leaning toward “Spanish speakers” when that’s my focus.

  9. Lisa Says:

    I generally avoid gendered terms when talking about living people. When I greet or talk about my students as a group (to them), I use “folks,” “history people,” “historians,” or “everybody.” When I’m talking about them to others, I call them students, or majors or nonmajors.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That totally makes sense.

      I also think it’s great how instead of thinking about how to include women (which was the big push during most of my childhood and young adulthood) and not just men, we’re thinking about how to include *everybody* (and not just men).

  10. omdg Says:

    I call my neonatal patients “lil pumpkins” and “nuggets.”

  11. EB Says:

    This is all helpful and provides interesting rationales for the specific choices that each responder is making. But it’s a huge mistake to call those who are not fully on board with language changes “bigots.” Many of them are just old. Many are living in areas where these new habits are rare and sometimes enforced with anger rather than with an understanding that culture changes slowly. It took a long time for Ms. to replace Mrs. and Miss, and in some places it is still a work in progress. We’ll get there, but in the meantime, failure to use “they” as a singular pronoun (and even resistance to using it thus) does not make one a bigot.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      If they feel uncomfortable with any of these language changes, then yeah, they’re kind of bigots.

      Nobody is saying people who don’t do these things (yet) are bigots. Just that doing them may not make bigots feel included.


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