A word or two about word choice.
Part of the great human experience is getting caught with your foot in your mouth at least once in your life. We learn as we go, and sometimes, we might have blind spots that are suddenly exposed at the most inconvenient times. There’s something almost liberating and unifying in understanding that you’re not perfect and no one else is either. But that’s just healthy self-awareness and only half of the story.
We’re also accountable for our blindspots and ultimately responsible for eliminating them through learning.
Today’s lesson is about non-inclusive words. Our everyday communication might seem innocent, but it’s full of terms that are exclusionary, offensive and harmful to some people. In our ongoing quest to be respectful of everyone’s experiences, it is our duty to evolve our language away from any regressive content.
Here’s a (judgement-free) run-down of some of the non-inclusive language your vocabulary would be richer without.
What types of non-inclusive language exist?
First, let’s cover some basics. There are different types of non-inclusive words and not all of them are inflammatory or profane. In fact, most of them seem okay to the untrained eye but can still be rooted in bigotry and social privilege. These are the main ones:
- Pejorative terms are words or phrases that have negative connotations.
- Generalisations accept untested statements as universal truths.
- Gendered language sticks to the gender binary while centring on the male experience.
- Health discrimination reduces people to their health conditions.
- Appropriation is when protected language is used by those outside a particular in-group.
- Slurs are derogatory terms used to offend people deliberately.
What are some examples worth leaving behind?
Gender and LGBTI+ experiences
“Guys” is not a gender-neutral way of addressing a gender-diverse group. Use “people”, “everyone”, “folks” or any number of other alternatives instead.
Ladies and gentlemen
This greeting assumes that there are only two genders and alienates nonbinary people. “Colleagues”, “distinguished guests” and “honourable attendees” can all work as substitutes, depending on the crowd.
The universal male
Terms like “mailman” and “chairman” make maleness the default gender when words like “postal worker” and “chairperson” describe the same job without signalling gender.
Similar to “ladies and gentlemen”, this excludes nonbinary people. “All genders” is the more inclusive term.
Transgender people aren’t born with the wrong gender, they are assigned a gender that doesn’t match their identity at birth. Stick to “assigned female at birth/AFAB” or “assigned male at birth/AMAB”.
Note: Unless contextually relevant, there’s hardly ever a need to refer to the gender a trans person was assigned at birth.
Sexual orientation is either exactly that (an orientation) or an identity. Preference implies choice, which isn’t the truth.
Race, ethnicity, culture
These terms used in systems with dependent components make light of serious historical atrocities and should be replaced with words like “primary” and “replica”.
Contrasting whitelist with blacklist subtly attaches negative connotations to one race and positive connotations to the other. There are race-neutral alternatives for all these words: allow list and deny/block list.
Someone who lectures people about split infinitives is a pedant or a grammar stickler. Calling them a Nazi de-fangs a term that should only be used to describe white supremacists aligned with Nazi ideology.
“You people” is an othering phrase used almost exclusively to show disapproval of people of colour. Context matters, of course, and the phrase can be used non-offensively. But, it’s best to drop the “people” and stick with the plural “you”.
“Lame” is a casualty of the euphemism treadmill (learn about what that is here). It used to be a perfectly acceptable way to refer to the physically infirm but underwent pejoration and became a common insult with ableist roots. Try “boring” or “uncool” instead.
“Crazy” has a similar history to “lame”, but its historical target is mental disability instead of physical disability. There are endless innocent synonyms such as “ridiculous” “wild” and “outrageous”.
Sensing a theme? People with mobility challenges used to be referred to as crippled until the word became pejorated. Whenever you feel like describing a problem as crippling or paralysing, you’re better off using “disempowering” instead.
Person-first vs identity-first
People-first language is a way of describing people and their disabilities without leading with their conditions. Use “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled people”.
“Normal people” are not the opposite of people with disabilities because people with disabilities are normal. There are people without disabilities and neurotypical people, but they’re no more normal than anyone else.
It’s not the end of the world if you’ve used any of these terms before. Mistakes are part of the learning process – just ask these brands. The important thing is that you’re willing to learn and do better. An excellent place to start is our beginner's guide to inclusive language below.