What’s in a Word?

Words have the power to heal as much as they have to cut someone down. For instance, derogatory words targeted at certain individuals or communities often leave a long-lasting negative impact and lower their self-esteem. Today, however, more people are becoming aware of the negative effects of such terms. Recently, Twitter and JP Morgan made an announcement in light of the Black Lives Matter movement where they stated that the words, “master,” “slave,” and “blacklist” in the code would be replaced by “leader,” “follower,” and “denylist” respectively.

Though a simple move, it reveals how naturally everyone had adopted these pejorative terms into everyday language without thinking twice about the side-effects they had on the Black community. This is a classic example of systemic racism––something we must all work towards abolishing completely. 

However, it is not only these terms that need to be modified. Let’s take a look at few other terms that are biased and regressive in nature and their replacements: 

  • Blind/deaf person: terms that placed disabilities first were replaced with person-first emphasis. Instead, “a person with blindness/deafness” is considered more appropriate. This indicates that people are more than just their descriptors.
  •  Hey guys: the word “guys” is restricted to men and gives the impression that women are excluded. In place of this, “hey y’all,” or “hey everyone” is deemed more inclusive.
  • Mankind: similar to the one above, “mankind” is highly gender exclusive. A better replacement is “humanity” or “humankind”.
  • That’s so gay/queer: used earlier to denote something as “uncool,” this phrase is a homophobic slur. The best option is to avoid such phrases that appear to insult the LGBTQ community. Interestingly, the negative connotation of the word “queer” was removed and then reclaimed by the LGBTQ community as an umbrella term to cover diverse experiences.
  • Chinky: an ethnic slur that targets Chinese/people of Chinese descent. Often used to describe the shape of their eyes, i.e. chinky eyes, it should be replaced with “slanted eyes.” Unfortunately, during COVID-19, there has been an increase in usage as people expressed xenophobic sentiments against Chinese/people of Chinese origin. 

This list continues, and it is imperative to recognize these words as pejorative and alienating. In order to respect and properly represent all communities and cultures, it is essential we adopt inclusive language. People should feel accepted without exception. Though it is possible to make mistakes, one must learn from them and avoid using those words in the future. Only then can this world be a much more accepting and loving place to live in. 

In the field of writing and publishing, being accurate is not enough. It is an editor’s responsibility to ensure that the language is appropriate, inclusive, unbiased and culturally sensitive. Moreover, most style guides also include inclusive language sections and resources that are updated regularly. By researching and educating themselves with these resources, editors can then uphold their responsibility and that of the author.

Amala Reddie

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