A colleague recently sent me a great article by Peter Kirn: “So yeah, let’s just use plug and socket — industry group recommends obvious change in terminology“. In the article, it is pointed out that the “male” and “female” terminology, referring to and how cables are connected together, is problematic and should be avoided in any environment that wants to feel welcoming to everybody, and that there are alternative terms readily available that are not any less clear, but don’t evoke uncomfortable feelings in people. This prompted me to do a search on other terms that might have similar negative effects on other people and that I might not be aware of, and here are a couple of my take-aways first of technical terms, and later of general everyday language. I especially enjoyed the website https://itconnect.uw.edu/work/inclusive-language-guide/, which seems comprehensive and does provide alternative terminology along with explanations for why terms are problematic in the first place (and there were some terms on that list where I had absolutely no idea where they originated from!). I’m thinking about this in different categories:
A lot of terminology in academia is really ableist once you start thinking about it, for example a “(double-)blind review“. Instead of implying that blindness equals ignorance, speaking about an anonymous review, or one where the reviewers do not know whose article they are reviewing, would be much more to the point of what that term is actually trying to express. Also if we speak about someone who is “blind to something”, a better way to express that might be to talk about them being clueless or ignorant.
Similarly, the “dummy” in “dummy variable” comes from the historical use of “dummy” for someone who cannot speak, and who was then assumed to be less intelligent.
And do you sometimes feel like you need a “sanity check“? Or did you actually want to know whether your perception and/or reaction to something is appropriate, instead of implying that mental illness makes people wrong?
Race / ethnicity / nationality / religion
There is a lot of terminology that is racially insensitive and perpetuating stereotypes of black = bad and white = good, for example “black list” for deny lists (in contrast to a “white list” for the allow list), or a “black box” for a box where we don’t know what’s going on inside (in contrast to a white box, where it is transparent).
Speaking about “master/slave” is obviously problematic, and an easy fix is to speak about a main and secondary program/file.
While these are fairly obvious once we start thinking along those lines, there were others that I had no idea about. For example “no can do“: I thought that was just a fun way of saying “I cannot do it”. Turns out it is imitating Chinese Pidgin English and stems from a very racist time. Not something that I will use in the future!
Another example: I never thought about how a “mantra” has spiritual and religious importance to some people, so using it as abbreviation for “a phrase I often say to myself” is really not ok.
And then there are many more examples of phrases that I would use to show off my familiarity with English phrases, but that are related to the colonial history in the US, and that, on second thought, are actually not helpful for communication (especially in global English when communicating with people in a multicultural team). They are not actually literally expressing the essence of what I want to say, but rather assume some common understanding of what phrases and figures of speech mean (when my understanding was clearly not as good as it should have been in order for me to use these phrases!). Examples of that are “taking the cake” (which comes from pre-Civil War show competitions of enslaved people!!), or even “brown-bag lunches“, where it would be so much better to talk about “bring your own food” meetings at lunchtime, for example, instead of evoking the association of brown paper bags to determine whose skin colour is on the lighter or darker side of that.
Gender / sexual orientation
This is a field that I am very much aware of and that I’m often calling people out on: “man hours” could very easily be “person hours” or “engineer hours”, a “chairman” is a “chair person”, “manning” a work station could just be “working”, “staffing”, or “taking care of” it. Just yesterday someone was talking about “mankind”, and I shouted “humankind”.
Another term that I saw on a list of things to avoid (which I can’t find again now) is “grooming”, as in “backlog grooming”, because it might evoke not just brushing a dog’s fur or clipping its nails (as it does to me), but also grooming that predators do to children. “Taking care of”, “cleaning up”, … there are many alternative that don’t potentially evoke negative reactions!
Another thing I wasn’t really aware of before is how often unnecessarily violent language is being used. For example someone might talk about how they are “killing it“, when saying that they are doing a good job, or exceeding expectations, is expressing the same sentiment in a more precise way, evoking less of a strong-man macho culture.
Or think about “aborting” or “terminating” a child process. Is it really necessary to evoke the imagery and emotions related to abortion, when you could just as easily cancel, stop, end, force quit a process?
So what now?
This was a very interesting excursion into the world of inclusive language for me, and I am much more aware of what I (and others) say than I was before. But what next? How to share this knowledge and awareness without calling people out in a way that just makes them defensive and doesn’t actually get them to think? Yesterday in a workshop, someone was talking about how someone else was “blind to something”. I echoed back what they said, using clueless and ignorant as synonyms, and they took on that suggestion and seemed happy with it. Maybe, since the workshop was on microaggressions, that was enough to make them and the other participants notice and think about how they equated “blind” with “ignorant”. Maybe it also wasn’t. But then how big a deal do we want to make out of language in the moment, potentially distracting from and derailing a conversation that focusses on other, equally important issues? My personal strategy is to circle back to these things privately with the person who said these things, but then that also means that I did accept the situation, did not show solidarity with people who might have perceived the situation as hostile and/or aggressive, and I also did not include everyone in the learning opportunity and potentially intresting conversation. And I’m still figuring out what the best balance is. What are your thoughts?