Curated language

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Like the previous post (7/7/21) on gender-inclusive French, it is difficult to refrain from quoting the bulk of this thought-provoking article by John McWhorter in The Atlantic (7/4/21) — "Even Trigger Warning is Now Off Limits":

The “Oppressive Language List” at Brandeis University could have come from countless other colleges, advocacy groups, or human-resources offices.


Thirty years ago, someone taught me to say actor rather than actress and chairperson rather than chairman, to discourage our thinking of occupational performance as elementally distinct depending on sex. I understood. Language does not shape thought as much as is often supposed. But words can nudge concepts in certain directions if the connection between the word and the concept is clear enough; the compound of chair and the gender-neutral person hints that, for most purposes, the listener doesn’t need to know whether the individual running a meeting was male or female.

In the same vein, I heartily approve of the modern usage of they (Roberta is getting a haircut; they’ll be here in a little while). I also like the call to replace slave with enslaved person. Slave can indeed imply a certain essence, as if it were a status inherent to some people. Enslaved person points up that the slavery is an imposed condition. The distinction matters given how central, sensitive, and urgent the discussion of slavery is in today’s America.

But according to counsel from Brandeis University’s Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center, or PARC, considerate people must go further: Apparently, we must retire victim, survivor, trigger warning, and African-American too. We must do so, that is, if we seek to ignore some linguistic fundamentals while also engaging in distinctly callow sociological calisthenics. When we are to even “consider” avoiding the word prisoner (try person who was incarcerated) or walk-in (because not all people can walk) and the phrase everything going on right now (I’ll leave you to find out what’s wrong with that one), we are being preached to by people on a quest to change reality through the performative policing of manners.

McWhorter persuasively shows that we are entering dangerous territory when we are told that we must take metaphorical language literally and avoid it if the expression's surface signification is likely to offend someone.

On the list, metaphors must be taken literally, such that words’ basic meaning never shift. This is like proclaiming that clouds shall never again move. Thus we are neither to exclaim that someone succeeding is killing it nor to refer to taking a shot at a task, because these phrases may evoke violent imagery for some listeners.

But these expressions are metaphors whose actual usage has far too little to do with violence for them to be classified as aggressive language. Where do you draw the line? Let’s consider a phrase not included on the Brandeis list: That sucks. Upon reflection, we know that the original reference was sexual, but even someone who has decided that we can’t take a shot at anything would likely say that the usage of sucks has drifted so far that its origin point is essentially irrelevant. The same verdict applies to killing it and trigger warning, which this list also includes (we are told to substitute the flavorless content note).

After dealing with "crazy" and "insane" (better to say "bananas"), McWhorter dispatches "dumb" and "thumb" ("rule of", that is).

Elsewhere our language crusaders miss that replacing an expression with negative connotations is like swatting away gnats, because those same connotations regularly coalesce on the new term as well. Crippled was changed to handicapped; after a while, this needed replacing, and thus came disabled; today terms such as differently abled attempt yet again to elude the negative associations some assign to physical disability. This is an old story, one that the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker calls a “euphemism treadmill.”

It means that PARC’s suggestion to replace mentally ill with person living with a mental health condition is not only clumsy but futile. If this mouthful somehow catches on, then fast-forward about a generation and people will have conventionalized it into mental-health-condition people. This term will harbor the same unfortunate associations that today’s mentally ill does for some hearers, and we will need yet another new term—while mentally ill is already itself a thoroughly respectful term compared with older ones such as mentally defective.

McWhorter's conclusion is not what I would have expected from The Atlantic of recent vintage:

But these sanctions are based on no general agreement among even sensitive, sociologically concerned people. Couched as compassionate counsel, this list is mostly a series of prim concoctions by people who, one suspects, simply need more to do. In the end, working to change conditions is much more important than obsessively curating the words and expressions we use to describe them.

Good advice!


Selected readings


[h.t. Don Keyser]


  1. Chiara Maqueda said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 6:15 am

    Surely it should be rendered "chairperchild"?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 6:20 am


  3. Philip Taylor said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 6:47 am

    Perhaps my experience is atypical, but in the 40 or so years during which I have served on committees, I have yet to encounter a woman chairing the meeting who is not happy to be addressed as "Madam Chairman", and many who prefer it to the more modern, fashionable, PC alternatives.

    As for "chair", it doesn't generalise — we don't speak of "an act", "a post", "a dust", "a bin", "a milk", "a wait" and so on, so why treat "chairman" specially ?

  4. Bathrobe said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 7:25 am

    This is, of course, McWorther's trademark — the debunking of PC language.

    It is very hard not to sympathise with efforts to eradicate bias in language. It is harder to sympathise, though, when you see the gyrations becoming more and more bizarre.

    It was only a few years ago that I read the justification for using people of colour, namely that it "put 'people' first". I found it difficult to understand how such a lame linguistic justification could be taken seriously, but it was clear that failing to accept it would get you branded as backward and discriminatory. Imagine my surprise at learning recently at a post on autism that people with autism is now out of favour for different linguistic reasons. Yes, it does get very tiring.

    @ Philip Taylor

    I think "the chair", expressing the meaning of "chairman" or "chairwoman", is a perfectly acceptable expression. "Would you please address the chair" is normal English.

  5. bks said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 7:47 am

    Philip Taylor, in the 40 or so years during which I have served on committees I have never once heard the phrase "Madam Chairman". I'm not even sure I've heard the word "madam".

  6. Doug said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 8:48 am


    Is "McWorther" for "McWhorter" a typo or a joke I don't get?

  7. AG said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:01 am

    It's weird that McWhorter understands the euphemism treadmill but not its implications. Words mean what people say they mean at the current time by common consensus. You kind of have to go along with the current usage to be polite.

    If the treadmill dictates that "Black" is the preferred term this decade where "Negro" was OK in the past, you are being rude if you keep saying "Negro". That's just how it is. When they change it in the future, we'll have to start using whatever term is polite in the future. That's how being polite works.

    I don't get why people get so upset by this.

    (I mean, I get it – I still say, for example, "Bombay", "Burma" and "Rangoon", but I know I'm being stubborn & have no illusions that I'm a brave crusader for free speech by doing so).

  8. Michael Watts said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:04 am

    I can't say I understand the argument that replacing "slave" with "enslaved person" is good while replacing "prisoner" with "incarcerated person" is bad. Surely these are identical phenomena.

    I agree that referring to a chairman as "the chair" is conventional, but I also agree with Philip Taylor that that doesn't generalize. As far as I can see, he didn't claim that "chair" itself is a nonstandard lexical item, but that it's a nonstandard (and unproductive) derivation.

  9. GH said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:23 am

    While some of the other complaints seem reasonable, the reference to "everything going on right now" is intriguing, but ultimately, in my opinion, unfair. The criticism from the Brandeis students is not that the phrase is offensive, but that it is vague and potentially euphemistic.

    The exhortation to write plainly and say what you mean is an age-old one, as is the observation that bland, woolly phrases can be used to obscure responsibility for misdeeds and misfortunes, which in turn can allow injustices to go unchallenged. So this is simply a restatement of perennial good writing advice, which even manages to steer clear of the confused references to "passive voice" so often associated with the argument.

    Along similar lines, the Associated Press just tweeted out a recommendation to avoid the phrase "officer-involved shooting," arguing that news reports should plainly state how the officer was involved.

  10. Bathrobe said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:34 am

    Typo. But does make a nice joke.

  11. Doug said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:35 am


    "It's weird that McWhorter understands the euphemism treadmill but not its implications. Words mean what people say they mean at the current time by common consensus. You kind of have to go along with the current usage to be polite."

    You're not being entirely fair to McWhorter.

    He's not discussing cases where you're rebuked for using an old-fashioned term instead of keeping up with the current consensus. He's discussing cases where you're rebuked because your usage is in keeping with the current consensus, but self-appointed curators of language rebuke you for not instead using their newly-proclaimed preferred terms, which they hope will become the future consensus.

    He makes this point explicitly himself:

    "But these sanctions are based on no general agreement among even sensitive, sociologically concerned people."

  12. Starry Gordon said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:41 am

    I'll go along with some of this medieval linguistic theology out of consideration for the very delicate feelings of others, but I balk at 'Latinx'. What an atrocity that is! (No offense to the atrocious!) How can people _do_ that to Spanish? Shouldn't they switch to Volapük or Klingon?

  13. Rodger C said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    I believe I've mentioned that ca. 2000 I taught briefly at a famously liberal private college that had recycle bins labeled PAPER OF COLOR. Those who've tried to tell me this must have been a joke don't know that college.

  14. poftim said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:48 am

    Starry Gordon,

    Yes! How are you even supposed to pronounce Latinx, if at all?

  15. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 10:26 am

  16. AG said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 10:37 am

    my understanding is that the Spanish speakers who originally started using "Latinx" did so as a purely written thing & that the spoken equivalent sounded more like "Latine", but I don't have sources on that at the moment…

    Doug – OK, but shouldn't that make McWhorter's task easier? If these nefarious self-appointed elites try to foist their ridiculous formulations on the world and fail, the natural order will have prevailed, but he's not confident enough to let that happen and felt compelled to put his thumb on the scales in a rather dishonorable way here (in my opinion). On the other hand, if the new terms catch on, he was wrong & will look foolish and insensitive. He should just wait it out.

    Either way, by writing this McWhorter, however principled and well-reasoned his own ideas might be (and I do respect him as a linguist), has de facto once again unfortunately sided with a lot of more cynical and dangerous forces who gain from stirring up conservative anger about "woke" or "PC" bogeymen. Bogeypersons.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 11:43 am

    Victor Mair: I'm agree completely: "chair".

    Philip Taylor: This is a difference between American and British English. In the twenty years or so I've been on academic committees, I've always heard first names, never anything like "Mr. Chairman", let alone "Madam Chairman", which I believe would provoke laughter—though if I'd ever said it, I probably would have had to engage in a serious talk with at least one person higher in the organization. According the OED, the first use of "chair" for "chairman" is

    1659 T. Burton Diary 23 Mar. (1828) IV. 243 The Chair behaves himself like a Busby amongst so many school-boys..and takes a little too much on him.

    So I'd say the special treatment is sufficiently well established.

    (I can only guess at "Busby" from the context. The OED dates it later, and says it's a large bushy wig or a kind of fur hat in some soldiers' dress uniforms, smaller than the Guards' bearskins. Maybe Burton knew a busybody Busby.)

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 11:47 am

    In case anybody's curious, "I'm agree" in my comment above was an incomplete change from "I'm in agreement" to "I agree."

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 12:18 pm

    Jerrry — « This is a difference between American and British English. In the twenty years or so I've been on academic committees, I've always heard first names, never anything like "Mr. Chairman" ». That is an interesting observation. I have always assumed that American's were more "correct" in contexts such as this, given that (for example) the President of the U.S. is always addressed as "Mr President" — we would never dream of addressing Boris as "Mr Prime Minister" — and your police officers are invariably addressed as "Sir" (at least, if Youtube videos are to be believed), so it surprises me to learn that you don't automatically address a committee chairman as "Mr Chairman" (or "Madam Chairman", if it is a woman), Informality is certainly not unknown in British committees, but if someone (for example) wanted to raise a point of order, or "move the previous question", then formality would most certainly be the order of the day.

  20. KevinM said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 12:55 pm

    Associate Justices of the United States were always referred to, and addressed, as "Mr. Justice" so-and-so. The practice was quietly dropped during the Reagan administration. A curious reporter asked Chief Justice Rehnquist why, and his answer was something along the lines of "Figure it out." Shortly thereafter, Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed as the first woman Justice.

  21. Coby Lubliner said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 1:01 pm

    I always thought that using "the chair" for the person presiding (whether such a person is called chairman, speaker or president) was a metonym, analogous to "the court" when the judge is meant, or "the crown" for the monarch: it represents the institution rather than the person. Conflating the two never made sense to me.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 2:42 pm

    Philip Taylor: It all depends. I teach at a fairly small community college in New Mexico. Things may be different at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, or at other great institutions represented here—though no one has spoken up to say they are.

    At the Faculty Senate meetings I often attend, people do occasionally say "Point of order", but I don't remember hearing any vocatives attached.

    Yes, a lot of Americans say "sir" or "ma'am" to police officers. Personally, I don't use a lot of vocatives with anybody, and when I've been stopped or had to call the police, I don't think I've ever said "sir" (or ever interacted with a female officer). I probably have addressed police officers as "officer" a few times. I don't get angry at them or refuse to cooperate either, and I've only argued once. In anticipation of a comment someone might make, I'll add unoriginally that "white privilege" often means being treated the way everybody should be treated.

  23. Robert said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 2:51 pm

    @Jerry Friedman
    Undoubtedly Busby refers to Richard Busby, headmaster of Westminster School. The time period matches up, if his Wikipedia article is correct, at any rate.

  24. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 4:30 pm

    Roll on, Newspeak…

  25. Michael Watts said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 5:34 pm

    your police officers are invariably addressed as "Sir" (at least, if Youtube videos are to be believed)

    Huh? I've managed to live most of my life in the US without ever learning you might be supposed to address police officers as "sir". It's not prescribed; it's not a stereotype; it's not depicted in the media. The stereotypical address would be "officer".

    "Sir" would be expected in the military.

  26. Bathrobe said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 6:12 pm

    a large bushy wig or a kind of fur hat in some soldiers' dress uniforms, smaller than the Guards' bearskins.

    Jerry Friedman, now you’re doing a Philip Taylor on us. If you want to see a busby, check out the Wikipedia article on “Queen’s Guard”. So you’ve actually seen a busby; you just don’t appear to have known what they were called. A nice counterpoint to Philip Taylor’s Colonel Blimp from Tunbridge Wells persona. “I’m American; how the hell would I know what a busby is?”

  27. Chips Mackinolty said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 7:49 pm

    On the Left back in Sydney, Australia, in the 1970s, the accepted norm was "Comrade Chair"!

  28. Bathrobe said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 7:52 pm

    On second thoughts, maybe Jerry Friedman did know what a busby was. He just quoted the OED as if he didn't. In which case I've simultaneously managed to insult both Jerry Friedman and Philip Taylor.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 8:02 pm

    Bathrobe: Nice job insulting two birds with one stone, but I did look up "busby". (See next comment, though.) Furthermore, what you quoted from me says the Queen's Guards' bearskins, which are seen in many of the pictures at that article, are not busbies; they're bigger than busbies.

    Robert: Thanks. I admit I didn't bother to look up that Busby's dates.

    On another subject, more on topic: McWhorter likes "enslaved person" better than "slave" because "Slave can indeed imply a certain essence, as if it were a status inherent to some people. Enslaved person points up that the slavery is an imposed condition." But he dislikes "person who was incarcerated" as a replacement" for "prisoner". It seems to me that exactly the same argument could apply to "prisoner" as to "slave". What's the difference?

    And is there any evidence that "slave" is more likely to be felt as implying an essence than "enslaved person" is? As far as I know, we don't hear "student" or "tennis player" or "retiree" as referring to essential characteristics. The idea that a noun suggests more about essence than an adjective has some plausibility and has become popular, but is anything known?

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 8:11 pm

    Michael Watts: Sorry, I forgot that you had already pointed out "slave" versus "prisoner". I'm changing my comment to "I agree with Michael Watts."

    Bathrobe: I was interrupted while posting and didn't check for updates, so my comment above is a response to your first mention of me. But indeed it's still true that I don't know what a busby is and may have seen pictures of them without knowing the word. However, I did look it up and get all the information I wanted, and busbies are not the famous tall hats that the Guards wear, unless the OED is wrong or out of date.

    OK, now I've looked it up. This is what someone at Wikipedia says a busby is.

  31. Bathrobe said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 8:42 pm

    Whatever the OED or Wikipedia might say, those bearskin hats are referred to as busbies.

    Try Outrage as army spends almost £1million on real bear, fox and rabbit FUR hats

    The first sentence is: "For many, bearskin busbies – the hats worn by the Queen's Guards outside Buckingham Palace – symbolise the British armed forces."

    "The ceremonial caps are bought from suppliers in Canida who source pelts from animals culled as part of a government-controlled programme to manage the wild bear population."

    So you weren't actually familiar with the term "busby" after all.

    Philip Taylor is occasionally the butt of negative comments due to his uncompromising Britishness and professed ignorance of American usage.

    However, I've noticed an interesting trend for many Americans posting here on Language Log to betray ignorance of non-American usages. And they are not caricatures; they appear to unselfconsciously regard it as normal not to know anything about any English other than their own country's. One starts to feel a sneaking sympathy for Philip Taylor.

  32. Anthony said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 9:42 pm

    So we should call eunuchs castrati, since this makes transparent what was done to them and wasn't inherent.

  33. Bathrobe said,

    July 9, 2021 @ 10:51 pm

    Amendment: They are incorrectly referred to as busbies. But the technically incorrect usage is very widespread. That's why the Wikipedia article makes a point of stating that 'busby' doesn't refer to the bearskin hats worn at Buckingham Palace.

  34. Seth said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 12:22 am

    The "slave" vs "enslaved person" terminology recalls to me the part of the US Constitution which reads "No Person held to Service or Labour …", so the essence vs function distinction has some historical precedent. I think the current usage is about stressing the institution itself, which is not a factor in a similar "prisoner" vs "imprisoned person". We could well imagine a world which consider abolishing prison to be "central, sensitive, and urgent", and that world might have a similar recommended language.

  35. Michael Watts said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 2:11 am

    I've noticed an interesting trend for many Americans posting here on Language Log to betray ignorance of non-American usages. And they are not caricatures; they appear to unselfconsciously regard it as normal not to know anything about any English other than their own country's.

    While I like knowing things about languages, including foreign varieties of English, I would have to support these hypothetical people in their claim that it is completely normal not to know anything about a language you don't speak.

    About "slave" — as far as I can see, the claim that the word "slave" obscures the fact that slaves are people is fully as plausible as the unmade claim that the word "actress" obscures the fact that actresses are people. We're talking about a word with no nonhuman referents.

    Of course, that's a usage argument; in terms of etymology, it would be the equivalent of arguing that "Russian" obscures the fact that Russians are people.

    Interestingly, there are in fact live controversies over whether ethnic designators can be allowed. I frequently refer to "Chinese people" because that is normal usage. But that phrasing is so awkward that it indicates a hole in the language where the demonym should be. I also refer to "the Chinese", which makes people uncomfortable in a way that "the French" does not. Referring to "a Chinaman" recently got one of Dr. Seuss's books banned, while referring to "a Frenchman" is still fine.

    Which of "he is Chinese" and "he is a Chinaman" focuses the fact that the people over in China are, technically, people?

  36. Bathrobe said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 2:33 am

    I would have to support these hypothetical people in their claim that it is completely normal not to know anything about a language you don't speak

    I know quite a lot of British and American English, even though I don't speak either of those "languages", so I think that particular claim is a bit extreme.

  37. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 3:07 am

    In my first professional job as a librarian (1970) at the largest teacher training college in England I came across two book published by the University of London Press for Cheshire Education Committee — "The education of dull children at the primary stage" and "The education of dull children at the secondary stage". One the next 30 years it was astonishing how the terms in this area of education were changed and adapted.

  38. Doug said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 7:35 am

    Since Seth mentioned the US Constitution:

    It would be interesting to have a Language Log post on the Constitution's conspicuous non-use of the word "slave" (and "slavery" and "enslaved" etc.) As most of you know, the Constitution refers to slavery on several places without ever using the word, most notably in the section that lays out who is counted and not counted in the census, which ends by noting that the count should include "three fifths of all other persons." Those would be enslaved persons, but the authors were apparently too squeamish to say that directly.

  39. Blythe said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 7:57 am

    As to the term "trigger warning" itself, I've never seen "content note", but "content warning" is what it appears to be shifting to, at least in the communities I'm in. My understanding of the shift is that it's less about sensitivity about the word "trigger" and more of the nature of what people are labeling for, with a trigger warning and a content warning not always being synonyms for the user (they are many, many that do use them as synonyms however). A trigger warning could label any material that could provoke a negative reaction, for example, noting out cousins as some people have experienced loss or abuse that still haunts them. A content warning is for the more common dislikes, like forms of violence.

  40. /df said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 8:13 am

    In engineering and software especially, where you would have thought there are enough functional defects to address, a lot of effort has been put into changing metaphorical terms that some consider exclusionary, eg "master" and "slave" terminals, "black"/"white"-lists. This doesn't generally mean changing existing documentation that uses such terms, so the exclusionary terms still have to be confronted to participate in the field.

    Anyone can see that it might be uncomfortable as a team leader to discuss "your slave terminal code" with your team member of more recent African origin, regardless of whether the metaphor derives from societies throughout the millennia of recorded history. But maybe "controller", "secondary" or "peripheral" will be found to be problematic and the terminology further revised.

    It remains to be seen whether relieving such sources of discomfort is performative obsessive curation (to adapt the quoted article), or whether previously discouraged sources of software engineering recruitment will be tapped.

  41. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 9:31 am

    Bathrobe: If I understand you correctly, you're saying I should have known "busby" meaning a kind of hat already. Sorry, though I'm interested in British usage, I think that one is so trivial that I don't feel bad about not having known it. I also don't see that people have any kind of obligation to know a lot about the usage of varieties of their language from other countries.

    Thanks for looking into the technical versus popular meaning of "busby". There's a whole question of style and register about such words and phrases where the popular use differs from the technical use: "tin foil" versus "aluminum foil", "crest" versus "coat of arms" or "escutcheon", etc.

    Which leads me back to the article: I'm interested to see McWhorter, a linguist, using "performative" in the sense of "merely a theater-like performance, done for show", which I think is new, rather than in the linguistic sense that covers "I bet you sixpence it will rain tomorrow" and "I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth."

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 9:37 am

    AND another thing. When are "slavery" and "enslaved" going to be deprecated because of the connection to "Slav"? And when is "pedagogy" going to be banned because the original pedagogues were, um, compelled to involuntary servitude.

  43. Trogluddite said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 10:05 am

    Bathrobe said: "Imagine my surprise at learning recently at a post on autism that people with autism is now out of favour for different linguistic reasons. "
    This case may however illustrate a distinction which McWhorter barely mentions. "Person/people with/of …" was largely an edict of theorists with little mandate from the people whom their neologisms were to denote; i.e. a perfect example of the "curation" which McWhorter is decrying. In contrast, the fall from grace of "person/people with autism" was in recognition of the preferences of autistic people themselves. While the quote from your post is not false, it might be as true to say that "people with autism" is now out of favour because it is polite to address people in the manner by which they prefer to be addressed.

    The reasons for this preference have been mentioned in other posts largely to give a flavour of the (indeed often tiresome) debates amongst autistic people, but for most people outside this constituency these should be only background trivia. Merely knowing the preference is sufficient to determine the polite course of action. That is, if one acccepts that there is a principle of self-determination which generally overrides more technical considerations.

    Of course, even if one does accept that, it raises other questions: How do we define who belongs to a constituency? How do we determine what the majority opinion is? To what extent may constituents speak on behalf of other constituents (especially those unable to speak for themselves)? And so on. But surveys and polls of autistic people have consistently shown an overwhelming dislike of person-first language, and however flawed this might be, it is certainly more representative than a tiny bunch of self-appointed theorists from outside the constituency.

    In fact, it might be said that this is an example of a failure of "curated" language to impose its neologisms. The most commonly given reason for rejecting person-first language might be summarised as; "plain English is perfectly adequate, thanks, so quit the grammatical gymnastics"; and you may be glad to hear that the lameness of the "accentuating personhood hypothesis" is also a common objection.

    Finally; most autistic people's attitudes to this are very moderate; we're not usually interested in "branding" anyone, and even objectors to whatever specific terminology will happily utter it occasionally rather than butcher an otherwise cromulent sentence (language disabilities are hard enough work already, thanks!). Personally, the only time it gets my goat is when people are rude enough to interrupt me in order to "correct" the language I'm using to denote myself and my wonky neurology (maybe it's because I like 'doolally' and 'discombobulated' so much – what wonderful sounds they make!)

  44. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 10:31 am

    @Jerry Friedman

    You just hit the nail on the head.

  45. Rodger C said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 11:50 am

    "Crest" for "coat of arms" is simply wrong. A crest is something different.

  46. Rodger C said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 11:51 am

  47. Rodger C said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 12:01 pm

    I propose that the x in "Latinx" be pronounced /eH2/.

  48. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 12:26 pm

    Antonio L. Banderas: I'm glad you agree, but I just said a few unrelated things. Would you mind telling me which one was right?

    Rodger C: Is "tin foil" for "aluminum foil" any less wrong than "crest" for "coat of arms"?

    Is that a PIE laryngeal in "Latinx"? Anyway, I've been meaning to say that in my experience "Latinx" is pronounced "Latinex", with the accents on the first and third syllables.

    Philip Taylor and others: I've also been meaning to say that what I wrote in my first response about a British-American difference was misleading. What I should have said is that British people often refer to a non-male "chair" as a chairman (from what I've read in alt.usage.english as well as what Philip said). That's now very rare in the U.S., if it happens at all.

  49. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 12:59 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman
    And when are we going to outlaw 'ciao' as a near-universal greeting? See, for example,

  50. DMcCunney said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 2:54 pm

    I have seen this sort of thing all over. In some forums aimed at programmers, there are folks proclaiming that Master and Slave should not be used by programmers. In computers, Master and Slave designate a device that controls another, and the one controlled. But both are now seen by some as taboo terms because of the historical existence of slavery in the US.

    Hmmm. What do we use *instead?* I've been tempted to suggest "top and bottom" or "dom and sub" just to watch heads explode, but managed to restrain myself.

    Ultimately, this sort of thing involves what economists would call " transaction costs". The notion of transaction costs was formulated by economists Ronald A. Coase and Douglass C. North, who shared a Nobel Prize in Economics for it.

    A transaction cost is a barri3er to doing something. It may be measurable in monetary terms, but does not have to be. One of the effects we see currently is that increases in power and dropping costs of computer hardware make it possible to do things not done before because the cost of trying was too high. Computers and the Internet have dramatically lowered them and they *can* be done.. A good deal of the disruption we see in the marketplace now stems from this.

    Communications between human beings are critical, and anything that causes difficulty in doing that imposes very high transaction costs and makes doing things with others far harder. In the circles in which I move, gender identity is a pressing issue, so the evolving custom is to add an identifier like (He/Him/His) to the name you use online to indicate your proffered pronouns and gender identity. It's a beginning step toward reducing transaction costs until the new normal is established.

  51. Chas Belov said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 4:21 pm

    According to Wiktionary, Latinx has a few possible pronunciations, /ləˈtin.ɛks/, /læˈtin.ɛks/, or /ˈlæt.ɪnˌɛks/ or expanded to Latino and Latina, although the last doesn't allow for non-binary. I was initially tempted to pronounce the x as equis, but as it's an English word I went with x. Spanish is latine.

  52. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 4:32 pm

    Tom Dawkes: Good one! Your humble servant missed that.

    DMcCunney: This Wikipedia article lists a number of replacements for "master-slave" that are already in use.

    RodgerC: P. S. If your teeth need gnashing, try this.

  53. Bathrobe said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 5:15 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman

    Oh yes, it was definitely an unprovoked attack for not knowing “busby”.

    It was rewarded with several gems of uncompromising insularity. Those attitudes were exactly my point. So thank you to you and Michael Watts for rising to the occasion.

    Your examples of aluminium foil / tin foil, etc. were linguistically more interesting (and worthy of a language blog), and I hadn’t related those phenomena together before. So a positive thank you for that.

    And thank you to Trogluddite for addressing the issue raised by the post in such detail. It’s obviously a lot more complicated than “that’s how being polite works”. Which is not, of course, a reason for being impolite, but the politics of who is claiming the authority to dictate what is polite or impolite lies at the heart of the issue. It is one reason for continued resistance to new terminology by more conservative (not necessarily reactionary) or conventional people who don’t appreciate their language being continually curated.

  54. Michael Watts said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 6:10 pm

    According to Wiktionary, Latinx has a few possible pronunciations, /ləˈtin.ɛks/, /læˈtin.ɛks/, or /ˈlæt.ɪnˌɛks/ or expanded to Latino and Latina

    Assuming the second given pronunciation is supposed to have penultimate stress, I think it's impossible. I can't accept the /æ/ in an unstressed syllable.

    Does /læˈtin.ɛks/ feel natural to someone else?

  55. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 10, 2021 @ 11:57 pm

    Michael Watts: Not very natural, though it's no harder than "San Juan" and similar names. I heard "Latinx" quite a bit during the spring, taking a class on teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) to Hispanic students, and it was never stressed on the second syllable. Maybe others have had different experiences. (Also a Hiispanic participant said he doesn't use ""Latinx" because he's tired of gringos telling him what he is.)

  56. Philip Taylor said,

    July 11, 2021 @ 3:58 am

    "Does /læˈtin.ɛks/ feel natural to someone else ?". Not natural to this native speaker of <Br.E>, but that is only because of the unlengthened /i/ rather than the /æ/. The /æ/ is natural for me in "Latino" (/læ ˈtiːn əʊ/), so I could see no reason not to carry it over to "Latinx", were I ever to need to pronounce the word.

  57. Rodger C said,

    July 11, 2021 @ 9:42 am

    I in fact avoid "tinfoil," but then I have a chemistry background. And whenever I hear "Latin-ex," my old ears want to perceive it as "Latinesque." As for "crest," it's imply part-for-whole, but then what are you going to call a crest crest?

  58. Calvin said,

    July 11, 2021 @ 10:16 am

    NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) published a guidance on "Using Inclusive Language in Documentary Standards". It's website has examples of "potentially biased language" in past publications with replacement suggestions.

    Besides terms like "master/slave", "black-market", "male/female", some caught me a bit off guard:
    the needy -> persons experiencing material poverty
    “right” answer -> correct answer
    jumping off -> start
    elderly -> older adult
    traditional -> agree upon

  59. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 11, 2021 @ 11:33 am


    Elderly applies to the stage of life well past middle age. When used as a noun in referring to older persons in general, it is relatively neutral, denoting a group of people whose common characteristic is advanced age: policy issues of special interest to the elderly. However, when used as an adjective in describing a particular person, elderly has a range of connotations that go beyond the denotation of chronological age. On the one hand it can suggest dignity, and its somewhat formal tone may express respect: sat next to an elderly gentleman at the concert. On the other hand it can imply frailty or diminished capacity, in which case it may sound condescending: was stuck in traffic behind an elderly driver. Regardless of other connotations, a phrase such as the elderly couple in the second row suggests greater age than if the couple were described as older.

    The Oxford English Dictionary traces the use of senior in the sense of "an older person" to the 15th century. In contemporary American English, however, this sense of senior is generally taken to be a shortening of the more recent senior citizen, and those who object to the compound may object to the shorter term as well. However, as the OED makes clear, senior has always evoked the positive qualities of aging, including wisdom, dignity, and superior position, and it is less likely to sound condescending than the obviously coined term senior citizen. In any case, there is often no clear alternative to senior other than constructions such as older person or older adult.

    Old, when applied to people, is a blunt term that usually suggests at least a degree of physical infirmity and age-related restrictions. It should be used advisedly, especially in referring to people advanced in years but leading active lives. · As a comparative form, older might logically seem to indicate greater age than old, but in most cases the opposite is true. A phrase such as the older woman in the wool jacket suggests a somewhat younger person than if old is substituted. Where old expresses an absolute, an arrival at old age, older takes a more relative view of aging as a continuum—older, but not yet old. As such, older is not just a euphemism for the blunter old but rather a more precise term for someone between middle and advanced age. And unlike elderly, older does not particularly suggest frailness or infirmity, making it the natural choice in many situations.

  60. Calvin said,

    July 11, 2021 @ 3:52 pm

    @Antonio L. Banderas, thanks for the explanation on the nuances.

    This makes me wonder how we can apply these guidelines consistently across different authorities, and where the lines should be drawn.

    For example, if "dark uncertainty" is deemed non-inclusive, then what should "dark matter" and "dark pattern" be called instead?

  61. Seth said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 1:22 am

    @Calvin Whether or not their particular taboos are optimal, the functional principle is clear: "Avoid colloquialisms, metaphors, similes, idioms, and other unnecessary jargon."


    dark matter -> unknown matter, invisible matter
    dark pattern -> deceptive pattern

  62. David Morris said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 6:35 am

    For some of today, Wikipedia's front page asked me did I know "that in a court case, William Gregson was awarded £30 for every enslaved person that his crew had murdered in the Zong massacre?"

    (I didn't.)

    The article starts: "William Gregson (12 January 1721 – 1800) was a British slave trader. He was responsible for at least 152 slave voyages, and his slave ships are recorded as having carried 58,201 Africans, of whom 9,148 died. Gregson was the co-owner of a ship called the Zong, whose crew perpetrated the Zong massacre."

    Writing or talking about an enslaved persons trader being responsible for at least 152 enslaved persons voyages on his enslaved persons ships is not an improvement.

  63. Rodger C said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 9:57 am

    It's not clear to me that "slave" in these sentences refers directly and exclusively to the persons in the hold.

  64. Robert Coren said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 10:21 am

    Re @Antonio L. Banderas's explanation of the nuances of terms for people who have been alive for a long time: At 75 I consider myself "old", and don't mind if others so designate me; the various euphemisms don't bother me, but I don't consider them necessary. But I'm probably an outlier.

  65. Elizabeth in Astoria said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 10:22 am

    There was a story in The New York Times a few years back about a young woman who finally attained her dreams of working on the railroads. She scoffed at being referred to as anything but a "brakeman".

  66. Seth said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 10:25 am

    @ David Morris Actually, this sounds fine to me, perhaps even better as more forceful (focusing on the process):

    "William Gregson (12 January 1721 – 1800) was a British slaver. He was responsible for at least 152 slaving voyages, and his enslavement ships are recorded as having carried 58,201 …"

  67. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 11:17 am


    "Enslavement ships" suggests that the ships were part of the process of enslaving. But they weren't; the people had already been enslaved when they were put on the ships. Or is enslavement always a process, never a result, so that an enslaved person is always being turned into a slave but never really becomes one?

  68. Seth said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 4:38 pm

    @ Morten Jonsson I'd say it's reasonable to consider that the brutalization, dehumanization, and breaking of human spirit, which took place on those ships was part of an overall process of enslaving, yes. It's indeed a bit more extended view of what it means to enslave a person than taking that as a quasi-legal status. However, it strikes me as a supportable case. By analogy, "parenting" can refer to actions taking place over a long time, and "become a parent" can mean either a discrete event of birth of a child, or an extensive process of doing parenting.

    In the other direction, "slave ships" sounds like each ship itself is an enslaved vessel, to possibly a corresponding "master ship". Basically, I don't think we're restricted to only "slave ships" versus "ships used for transport of kidnapped enslaved people". Perhaps split the difference with "slavery ships"?

  69. Bathrobe said,

    July 12, 2021 @ 6:17 pm

    Interestingly, the use of a participle to indicate that people went through a process to reach their present status can have discriminatory potential in other contexts. For example, “naturalised citizen” potentially holds the subtle implication that said person’s citizenship isn’t quite as authentic as that of a citizen by birth. Which is why media who strive for fairness avoid making any such distinction.

  70. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    July 13, 2021 @ 8:53 am


    It depends. If it's an influencer, say a professional athlete, for example Lebron James or Lionel Messi, everybody will see it as an honor for such a country that they chose them.

  71. wanda said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 2:44 pm

    One thing that hasn't been mentioned is that the list McWhorter references comes from a group that works with and for students who have experienced violence. In that context, it completely makes sense that 1) they would try to use as empowering and non-traumatic language as possible and 2) they would want both counselors and clients to be as specific as possible when discussing what's bothering them. They do imply that their suggestions ought to be applied outside of that context, but I don't think that we talk to everyone like we're anti-violence counselors.

  72. wanda said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 3:05 pm

    …that we NEED TO talk to everyone like we're anti-violence counselors.

    On another topic, "the needy -> persons experiencing material poverty": When I use the word "needy" to describe someone, I use it to mean people who are emotionally needy, who want to suck up my time and attention. My 5 year old is often needy, for example- he's got thousands of toys* and a whole backyard, but he wants us to play with him when we are busy cleaning up after dinner and making his lunch for the next day. I'm not sure that "the needy" has that emotional connotation, but it's probably best to avoid that term for clarity.
    *literally, if you count each individual Lego

  73. Trogluddite said,

    July 14, 2021 @ 7:35 pm

    wanda said: "… if you count each individual Lego".
    Careful now. Excellent as they are, the moderators might become overwhelmed should LL become a battleground in the ongoing trans-Atlantic battle between the count-noun and mass-noun factions of Lego fans – a vastly more emotive issue than trifling controversies over "politically correct" prescriptivism!

    Of course, as a Brit, I am smugly confident that one cannot possibly count "each individual Lego", regardless of how much Lego (or "how many Lego bricks") it would take to spoil a five year old child (or a, erm, fifty-one year old child!) ;-)

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