Did I Just Say That?

“All big changes of the world come from words.”

~ Marjane Satrapi

Are you fretting and afraid whenever you are chatting — worried that you will use a word or phrase that is hurtful without realizing it? Today, it seems that our chances of making a linguistic faux pas have increased 100-fold.

The English language is always evolving and changing. Words that were once in vogue have disappeared from use — relegated to the musty pages of an old dictionary while others no longer have their original meaning. More often these days, we are becoming aware of the offensive origins of the things we say. 

Some people scoff at the notion that words can be harmful in any meaningful way, claiming instead that those who are offended by mere words are weak, or insecure. But words do hurt, even those seemingly innocuous ones that we have used all our lives. Hidden or forgotten nuances of meaning reinforce stereotypes, racial disparity, and discrimination among multiple groups of people. 

As a child of the 60s and 70s, I grew up knowing that some words and phrases were inappropriate in any circumstance. You remember them — the many slang terms for various disabilities, those racial slurs, or jabs at mental health issues. While these terms are now seldom if ever, used there are still many words and phrases that are problematic today.

These words are deeply ingrained in our vocabulary. We say them without thinking of how they can hurt, demean, and exclude others. When used indifferently, these words devalue peoples’ minds, bodies, ethnicities, and identities. 

The first step in understanding the discrimination present in our everyday life is to be aware of our own speech. Exclusive language shows prejudices against people that we feel are different from us.

I am working hard to remove discriminatory words and phrases from my speech. With practice and mindfulness, I am learning to change my language by using different words to express myself — swapping out ableist terms like crazy, dumb, and lame for better alternatives such as wild, silly, and uninteresting. I’m trying to create a gender-neutral lexicon by switching “guys” to “people” or “peeps.” I’m taking baby steps to build a new word-stock that is respectful, kind, and tolerant of all people.

One way to re-wire our brains and switch to more inclusive language is to use people-first words and phrases. People-first language imparts respect and emphasizes humanity regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability

Want some examples?

Swap out:

  • the homeless for homeless people or people without housing
  • person in a wheelchair for confined to a wheelchair
  • indigenous person for Indian
  • transgender people for transgendered

A note about gender-inclusive language

To build a gender-inclusive lexicon, there are some tips that you may find helpful.
First, try to avoid gendered nouns such as policeman, wife, mailman. Instead, replace them with their gender-neutral terms: police officer, spouse and mail carrier.

Watch for phrases that reinforce gender stereotypes like throw like a girl, man up, be a man, pretty as a princess, act like a lady, you’re such a drama queen, or you’re such a tomboy.

Pronouns: if you are unsure of a person’s preferred pronoun, ask – they will most likely appreciate your thoughtfulness. Always use their preferred pronouns when known, even if you find it awkward at first. Never make assumptions about the pronouns a person uses

As Marjane Satrapi said, big changes come from words. Our words have power and, we can make a difference by harnessing that power to create greater inclusivity in the world.

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? It’s never too late to change your ways! See note below*

If you are interested in this subject, I recommend this in-depth thought piece on ableism and language, Violence in Language: Circling Back to Linguistic Ableism, by Lydia X. Z. Brown.

Also found on her blog, this interesting article on ableism and language. The post contains a glossary of ableist terms coupled with a list of alternatives that may be better (and more descriptive) that we can incorporate into our everyday speech.

For a broader perspective on inclusive language, read this article, A Guide to Inclusive Language, on Scribely.

Read this article, Consciously Choosing Our Words, for thoughtful insights on using words in writing and speech.

Watch this Ted Talk, The Importance of Using Inclusive Language by Fahad Saeed, for a unique perspective on discriminatory words.

What do you think? Should we be more aware of our speech habits? Or do you think there is no need to change our language? Let’s start a dialogue — leave your thoughts in the comments.

*November 2, 2021 — I suddenly realized when I was rereading this post today, that the “strikethrough” sentence above is 100% ageist! I am horrified that I did not notice this HUGE faux-pas! To me, this underlines how deeply discriminatory phrases are in our everyday language. I changed the wording but left in the offending term to remind myself to do better. Also, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks! Find out more.