The Great American Word Purge

December 27, 2022

1989 words

Among the many manifestations of political correctness that has swept across the United States during the past several decades is the curious and ongoing effort by university Information Technology (IT) departments to codify words and phrases that civility proponents insist should be blacklisted (oops, racist), deep-sixed (hmm, probably triggering), junked (culturally insensitive), eliminated (possibly violent), rejected (mentally disturbing), abandoned (well, I have to stop somewhere).

I haven’t counted the lists, but I sense they have been breeding the past two or three years. I’ve written more than once about these word purge lists (see here and here).

Ordinarily another one would be old news (for readers of this blog), but a little more than a week ago, the Twitterverse lit up when someone stumbled upon a stout manual of forbidden words posted last May on the Stanford University website. The list was arresting for one word in particular: “American,” which the Stanford techies suggest is a flashy and ambiguous substitute for the more accurate term “U.S. citizen.”

That was too much for the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which mocked Stanford’s “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” (EHLI) in an opinion piece on December 19 that brought the Stanford guide to wide public notice and even more intense ridicule (for example, here and here).

Under the heading “Imprecise Language,” the EHLI guide urges readers to consider using “US citizen” instead of “American” because American “often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries).” I think not. “American” as a word is a usage, not a moral guide, as any competent dictionary will make clear. The OED’s definition 2B says “American” means “belonging to the United States,”as in “American English, the form of English spoken in the United States.” The word in its many relations to customs, land, language, culture, etiquette, landscapes, money, and dozens (probably hundreds) of other usages pertaining to the United States goes back centuries. The terminology is known worldwide, and I daresay that few would be unable to discriminate, for example, between “the American people” and “people of the Americas” or suppose that the former phrase “insinuates” that the latter group is less important.

Also, and I’m sure you’re way ahead of me here, the word “American” is a nicely formed adjective. What a happy wonder is the American affinity for soul-enriching sanctimony. Stanford red pencil pushers, hearken: “What a happy wonder is the United States citizens’ affinity for . . .” or “ . . . the affinity of the U.S. citizen for . . .” Nah.

The Wall Street Journal piece evidently rattled people at Stanford. The day after the paper weighed in, Steve Gallagher, Stanford’s chief information officer, issued an “Update on Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative in Stanford’s IT Community.” Gallagher stressed that the list “does not represent university policy,” nor “mandates or requirements.” It was designed “to support an inclusive community” within the university’s IT community. I’ll let you ponder the oddness of that assertion: an affirmative statement of inclusivity that is not intended to be inclusive. Talk about ambiguity. Moving directly to the point, Gallagher said:

We have particularly heard concerns about the guide’s treatment of the term “American.” We understand and appreciate those concerns. To be very clear, not only is the use of the term “American” not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed. The intent of this particular entry on the EHLI website was to provide perspective on how the term may be imprecise in some specific uses, and to show that in some cases the alternate term “US citizen” may be more precise and appropriate. But, we clearly missed the mark in this presentation.

In other words, and without disavowing the EHLI guide’s rendition of the point, “we’re working on it. We’re going to go back and rethink this one.” Gallagher did one other thing, too, or someone did: The guide was withdrawn from public view and restricted to those with Stanford log-in credentials. Take that, all you taunting souls or, as the Brits might say, all you daft buggers who would “cock a snook at it.”

“American” is only one of more than 150 words or phrases condemned in the harmful-language project. Limits on space, time, and patience preclude a leisurely stroll through the guide, so I shall confine myself to a few terms that illustrate what I take to be its two dominant themes: promoting inclusivity and eliminating disparagement. Our intentions become more inclusive when we make clear we do not mean to exclude by implication (thus “mankind” becomes “humankind”). Disparagement is lessened when we make clear that those who reside at the far ends of the bell curve are just as worthy as those who are firmly ensconced in the middle (“handicap parking” becomes “accessible parking”). A third theme, direct harm that might befall an individual from an ill-chosen expression, is perhaps best illustrated by the warning not to use the phrase “trigger warning” as a descriptor of a content warning because the very phrase might be triggering. Whether these and the other examples achieve their purpose is something else again.

Thus fortified, let’s move to the list:

In a section on “Ableism,” the guide teaches: Instead of “addict,” consider using “persons with a substance use disorder.” Why? Because “using person-first language helps to not define people by just one of their characteristics.” This is a disparagement argument. It’s diminishing to reduce a person to a single feature or attribute. So, say, “Goliath is a person with a heroin use disorder” (or “Goliath has a heroin use disorder”) instead of “Goliath is a heroin addict.”

But do you suppose that calling him a “heroin addict” implies that’s all he is whereas the former phrase makes it clear how many positive attributes he has (he’s also a big guy, fierce warrior, king’s champion, plus, of course, a loser)? Perhaps the contrast is clearer from this pairing: Don’t say “tin-eared”; say, instead, “an IT person with word impairment issues,” as the next example in the same section suggests.

Instead of “addicted,” consider using “hooked, devoted.” Why? Because to call someone addicted “trivializes the experiences of people who deal with substance abuse issues.” Don’t say “Goliath is addicted to heroin.” Say, rather, “Goliath is devoted to heroin.” Wait, see last sentence of the paragraph immediately above.

Instead of “black mark” or “white space,” which are forms of “institutionalized racism” (assigning “negative connotations” to “black” and “value connotations” to the color white, both of which are acts which are “subconsciously racialized,” say “something that is held against one” and “empty space.” Except that the references are to marks in ink against someone’s name, which are likely dark, and to the space that is in fact white that surrounds the letters on a page (which are black, and that’s a good reference to the color, unless, I suppose, you don’t like what you’re reading).

Don’t say “abort” the mission; tell the troops to “cancel” the mission, because the A-word “can unintentionally raise religious/moral concerns over abortion.” It follows that you should refrain from calling me “irreverent.” Tag me a “person of skeptical mien.” Imprecise language, like “abort” (according to Stanford), is bad because, among other things, it uses “euphemisms.” Yet many of the “consider using” phrases are just that—“white bread” substitutes for meatier terms (oops, sorry, I just used a connotation of “white” that’s negative; imagine that).

In fairness to the long list, some of the words readers are advised to avoid are indeed offensive, because they are outright slurs. But most are not so rank, and the suggested substitutes sometimes seem close to inscrutable. For example, we’re warned off the word “paraplegic” because “this term generalizes a population of people while also implying that people with disabilities are not capable.” Does “person who is paralyzed” do otherwise?

At a bare minimum, the word overseers ought to scour the list for phrases they’ve added only because some people mistakenly believe they originate in an evil that’s been forgotten by the rest of us. The most obvious example is “rule of thumb,” a phrase appearing on other IT lists as well. The claim, surprisingly hardy for all that it is evidently untrue, is that centuries ago British law allowed a man to beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb. In fact, the phrase most likely emerged from the commonplace habit of measuring something, as a quick but rough estimate, against the width of one’s thumb. Must we yield to those who are mistaken but take umbrage from their mistake? If we must, we’d better start worrying about the real consequences of separating church and state. And even if an armchair origin story might be true, ought it guide in condemning long usage when its “actual” meaning has been lost to the culture?

The great fault of the harmful words list maker is tone deafness to the variability of words—metaphoric creatures that cast meaning far removed from the possibly barbaric or at least plain spoken intent of their coiners. Words can take on different colorations or functions (closely related or not) even when they are outwardly identical. Some words can even mean their opposite (“sanction”) or have connotations that seem quite opposite in spirit (“sanguinary”). These meanings proliferate: for all the invention of new words chronicled yearly by dictionary makers, many of our conceptual needs have been confusingly satisfied historically by assigning varying meanings to a single word. My unabridged second edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language gives 35 distinct definitions to the word “master.” That one of the definitions embraced evil committed some time ago by one set of human beings against another does not mean the other definitions are tainted, as if the very expression of it infects Midas-like all other meanings.

I don’t insist that the task is easy. Words accepted by one generation can become ready slurs by the next. Some are easier to spot than others. These days it’s pretty hard to argue that calling someone a “retard” is not meant offensively, intended to slur. It’s harder to put the kibosh on labeling the genius who brings a knife to a gun fight an “idiot.” The Stanford IT department might want to enlist the aid of their nearby colleagues in the Department of Linguistics.

I’ll stop (soon), because this post is already too long. But it raises, I hope, these questions, to be considered at greater length on another day: How does referring to a particular attribute disparage a person so characterized? How does it exclude him or others from humanity in general, at least when it is that particular feature that is relevantly the point? Does an adjective rather than a noun really spell the difference between respect and denigration (“prisoner” vs. “person imprisoned”)? What ought to happen to us if we do express a thought in words that reasonable people condemn as unfeeling, untoward, uncharitable, unforgiving, or offensive?

What I fear from these lists is not the well-intentioned effort to treat people respectfully (even when the attempt misfires), but the supposition that distinguishing among people in any way must necessarily be harmful and therefore avoided. Must we insist, despite all evidence, that we live on the banks of Lake Woebegon, where all the people are above average? Or, as Dr. Seuss might have put it had he not been trying so hard to live down his youthful indiscretions:

Each culture [person] is equal in every way, shape, and form.
And not a single one anywhere departs from the norm
(appearances to the contrary notwithstanding).

Happy New Year to all, even the makers of these lists.

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  1. rich appelbaum December 27, 2022 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Let’s see, Jethro – if we substitute US Citizen for American, what are we to call those with green cards who are not yet citizens? Dreamers? The undocumented? So many decisions to be made..

  2. Van Lanckton December 27, 2022 at 2:19 pm - Reply


  3. John Meigs December 27, 2022 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    My experience in Latin America is that their denizens refer to us as “Americans” if they don’t use “gringos”. This stuff is indeed complicated!

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