Google purifies its language

January 23, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Lawrence Krauss has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (note: this bit of the paper is largely right wing, not that Krauss is) that shows some ways the ever vigilant Google Squad is policing language. Click on the screenshot to read:

According to Krauss, the policing will work this way:

Google has created guidelines for “inclusive” language in software and documentation that describe how software should reflect the hypersensitive feelings of programmers who are immersed in woke culture and fixated on victimhood and offense. Apparently these guidelines will be enforced in the future in all new open-source projects, and the company will scrub earlier versions as well. Various other technology groups, including some at universities and professional associations, have developed their own guidelines. Microsoft recently introduced a feature for its popular Word software that can ferret out and replace noninclusive words and phrases.

He mentions some of the changes that aren’t offensive, like using “master/slave” for technology or “whitelist/blacklist” used in the usual ways, but there are some words whose offense isn’t so easily discerned:

“black box”
“senior citizen” (it is to be “older adults”)
“older version” (now to be “earlier version”)

and the all time champion:

“smartphone”.  What is that about? Is it offensive because other phone are dumb, and thus the term is ableist? No substitute has been prescribed. How about “meritocraticphone”?

“Quantum supremacy”, the point at which quantum computers exceed what conventional computers can do, is has been verboten for a while but to justify that is a stretch.

Krauss gives two reasons why this Orwellian revision of language is bad: it’s a waste of time and it makes language less colorful. But I think it’s bad for a more important reason: it reflects a policing of our whole society by a gang of Medium Brothers (as opposed to Big Brothers), and it stifles dissent. It’s the most obvious sign of how the authoritarian Pecksniffs are trying to force society to talk and think their way.

Here’s a dumbphone, which is offended by the iPhone 13:

63 thoughts on “Google purifies its language

    1. Funny thing is that “evil” (as opposed to bad) is a religious idea. But I don’t think they erased that non-inclusive use.

  1. That’s beyond science fiction, very frightening. By the way, I presume even black holes should be called something else

    1. This came up before – achromatic holes, I think, was the most equitable term… or was is “holes of color”… the problem being where the color is – inside? Then all the color is inside. But the hole is black, per the original name, so there’s no color…. also it isn’t really a hole… its a collapsed star… it is so puzzling… to some.

  2. What could possibly go wrong with the unelected and unaccountable tech giants taking over the world?

    Meanwhile, over at the former Facebook (now Meta), according to today’s Sunday Times:

    What are your favourite categories of pornography?” a stranger with heavy stubble and a Yorkshire accent asked as he sidled up to me.

    The man was hiding behind an avatar — a floating, legless 3D animation of himself — but his voice was real. I was sitting at my desk at home with a virtual reality (VR) headset on, safe, but the conversation was jarring and when I walked away, he followed.

    I was in the metaverse, a virtual reality world typically accessed via a headset where people can socialise alongside other avatars as if they were in the same room.

    Microsoft and Facebook, now called Meta, have heralded the metaverse as the future of the internet.

    Yet academics, VR experts and children’s charities say it is already a poorly regulated “Wild West” and “a tragedy waiting to happen” with legislation and safeguards woefully behind the technology. It is a place where adults and children, using their real voices, are able to mingle freely and chat, their headsets obscuring their activities from those around them.

    1. Yes, when we already see how humans behave online, you’d think those geniuses could foresee the likely outcome of VR.

      1. They very likely can but they see a potentially highly profitable extension of their market which they are very keen to exploit and they are very good at shrugging away any sense of responsibility for any of the dark things that happen on their platforms.

    1. A jungle and a rainforest are 2 quite distinct things. A jungle is a forest with dense undergrowth, of the ‘impenetrable’ kind, while rainforests have most of their business end in a high canopy, and can be quite easily walked through on ground level.

      1. I respect that distinction. However many still call any remote tropical forest “rainforest.” Sounds so kind.

    1. I remember “senior citizen” being mocked as a weird Americanism for “old people” so I guess we’ve pretty much come full circle on that.

      I am reminded of the profound lack of success of the French in trying to formally police language use.

      1. It’s a never-ending race. Term invented because it’s useful. Wide use begets additional connotations. People object to some of the connotations. Term replaced with new variant. New variant is useful. Usefulness results in additional connotations…

        The language police never seem to get that revising vocabulary doesn’t stop ideas from being expressed. It just changes the words we use to express them.

    2. I’m 77. That makes me an old man. Fair enough. “Older person” makes no sense; older than whom? I’m a younger person than Bernie Saunders and Joe Biden. Euphemisms like “older person” and “senior citizen” show an unnatural obsession with and distaste of old age.

      1. I’m sure the “youth” know exactly what that means and want to “include” those that are not young and hip like they are by specifying the correct language to use. How kind of them.

  3. I am convinced that most of the people making these decisions at Google and elsewhere know they are wrongheaded but they do it purely out of defense. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough upside to fighting it or downside for those that push it. Calling the Woke names doesn’t seem to bother them that much as they can just regard the name-callers as enemies, racists, and bigots. I wish there was a solution but I don’t see it. We can wait for it all to blow over but that will surely take decades, if it happens at all.

    1. “but they do it purely out of defense” – I think that is a half-truth. Plenty of folks are just going along and trying to keep their heads down. However, there are also plenty of ‘true believers’ who think this will create a better world. My comment could be (and should be) applied to every aspect of ‘woke’.

  4. I can’t read that op-ed without subscribing, but I work professionally in software development and know the “master/slave” issue very well. And there’s almost no resistance among actual software engineers to using better terminology. Lawrence Krauss is a very smart guy but he’s from a different discipline and seems to be griping about things he doesn’t quite understand.

    “Master” and “slave” aren’t just cringeworthy to engineers because they remind people of slavery, they’re also terribly imprecise terms with no clearly accepted meaning.

    Often they mean a main copy and periodically-updated backups kept offsite in case your system crashes or your network center burns down.

    Other times they mean a primary and constantly updated local clones of a database or service used to speed up access when it’s is being used by multiple people at the same time.

    Other times they mean a system that broadcasts a message and nodes that receive and pass it along, like a Wi-Fi router and range extenders. Or an internal messaging queue and distributed hubs that transmit important updated to other systems.

    They can also mean a controller system that manages a whole project and connected computers that do the actual work, like processing data or compiling software.

    Master also means, in many open source projects, the version of the source code that its engineers are currently working on. Or in other projects it means the version that was actually released to the public which nobody would be editing directly. In yet others it means the version you temporarily copy your code into so people can beta test it before it gets released. The only thing they have in common is they’re the usually whatever versions the projects’ managers decided to designate as “most important” to people visiting their web site — but the actual function and level of care you have to show can be drastically different.

    The fact is nobody knows what “master” and “slave” really mean. Terms like “primary”, “transmitter”, “controller”, “backup”, “clone”, “local copy”, “node”, “beta”, “release”, “main”, or the above-mentioned “range extender” are clearer in every case.

    The fact that they’re named after literal slavery and not some historic feudal system like “serf” is just a nail in their imprecise coffins.

    1. Another problematic use of ‘master’ and ‘slave’ in automotive nomenclature refers to the brakes in some vehicles. The master cylinder is situated in the engine bay, slave cylinders at each wheel.

      1. Indeed, one master and many slaves (there are even > or = 6 wheel ‘go anywheres’). Sounds pretty bad, I might need a doctor’s prescription to help me continue to function in society after what that thought conjures up in my fragile mentality.

        But there was also a master cylinder with a single slave, on the clutch of gearshift cars.

        I wonder what these people would have made of Jack Benny and his single servant called Rochester on the radio in the old days—Rochester got the better of him in every week’s edition. Benny was vastly superior to Bob Hope IMO, though even I was pretty young then, so hard to say how it would sound to me now.

    2. Being involved with software and computers for more than 30 years, I strongly disagree with these statements.

      These technical terms, which the Woke try to censor out, are well accepted and useful.They are not offensive. No normal person ever made this mental connection between ‘master node’ (or ‘master copy’) and human slavery. Or was offended by using the term ‘dummy variable’. It is all performative Woke idiocy. The proposed replacements are plain dumb and Krauss is right of ridiculing it.

      Unfortunately, many people feel intimidated and do not feel like fighting, so they agree to play this game. It’s not that they agree with this Newspeak, they are afraid to speak up against it.

      1. I have to disagree about the master/slave problem. Any ambiguity they have in software is not derived from the terms but from the software itself. When two pieces of software interact with each other, they are usually designed such that one (master) completely controls the lifetime of the other (slave). The master issues commands to the slave and the slave only replies to the master. In that case, the master and slave terms apply and seem natural. If the relationship between two processes is more complex then perhaps the programmer should use different terms.

        I see no reason why anyone should take offense at these terms. They aren’t being applied to people. They aren’t being used to honor the history of slavery. Not using them in software does nothing to fight racism. No one winces if black programmers use the terms.

        IMHO, anyone who wants to make this an issue is not at all serious about fighting racism.

    3. Speaking as somebody who has worked in the industry for nearly 40 years, I have to say I completely disagree with almost everything you are saying.

      “Master-slave” has a fairly precise meaning. It means there is one thing “in charge” and one or more things that just take orders from the master. I rarely come across it used in a software context.

      “Master” by itself is more often used in the “source of truth” sense. For example, the “master” branch in a git repository or “master backup” (I’ve never heard anybody talk about slave backups). This usage does not come from slavery. If I had to guess, I’d say it comes from master in the sense of somebody supremely good at their craft. e.g. Leonardo was a master painter and he made paintings that were masters (or masterpieces) and people would then copy them. That’s speculation, but it seems more plausible than there master-slave etymology for most of the usage of the word “master” in the IT industry.

      “Master-slave” doesn’t make me cringed when used in the correct context because I’m an adult and I understand context and I know it’s got nothing to do with actual slavery.

      1. “I’d say it comes from master in the sense of somebody supremely good at their craft”


        … BTW you argue “precise”, but I argued “imprecise” … I suppose I picked “imprecise” as an afterthought, for “broad description”….

        … and now I exceeded my WEIT ration for the day on one old post.

      2. “Master branch” uses the same sense of “master” as “master copy” (which I’m pretty sure has nothing to do with slavery). It’s the master copy of the source code.

    4. “Master/slave” nomenclature is imprecise by its nature. What else would we expect from language that is a broad description, a shorthand, useful in spoken conversation for its short, quick nature to navigate the solving of problems?

      Imagine this conversation :
      “The slave cylinder is leaking, you need a new one.”

      “Well, _I_ don’t, my car does. It isn’t a “slave” either, it is a hydraulically actuated lever driven by the brake cylinder fluid reservoir that I press with my foot as a prerequisite to efficiently increment the vehicle velocity. It is very much integral to the process. The only reason you use that term is because the first people to invent the engineering had ghastly notions influencing their impulsive word choices. In fact, there are way better ways to increment velocity in modern vehicles than to implement a hydraulically actuated lever.”

      “Go buy a Tesla. Your car will be on the side with the key on the rear tire and a leaking slave cylinder. Have a nice day.”

  5. According to the linked document, “crazy” and “insane” are ableist and not to be used. You can’t have a sanity check anymore. Which is, to be frank, kind of crazy and insane.

  6. At my university, the Correct Language guide also lists “lower the bar” and “brown bag” as problematic.

    As for cellphones, like the one I keep in my car for occasional use, I am reminded of the early days of
    mobile phones. I spent some time in Sweden in 1998, when Nokia and Ericssson still dominated the field, and one day I beheld a sight that was quintessentially Swedish (for the time): an individual was talking on his phone while riding his bicycle across the snow. I couldn’t take a picture of it, of course, because I didn’t yet possess even a d*mbphone.

  7. I do happen to think that ‘smartphones’ should be called ‘dumbphones’, as they have made us lazy, distracted, complacent, and stup*d.

  8. I couldn’t care less if it were just for renaming some technical documentation, but I see where it goes. Every instance of (pseudo) colour terms black and white might eventually become racialised. The black box, black market, black magic, and black knight have their name from metaphors of darkness, invisible, obscure, occluded/occult, opaque, inofficial and anonymous (as in blackening heraldry). Nobody ever envisioned a “poc”. The white counterpart are public, official, authorised etc. Black can also be related to censored, as in blackening names to erase: this comes from ink and printing, as the black letter. Blacksmith vs whitesmith come from the material colours, and so on. When someone sees everything through a racial lens, I suggest they seek counceling as they might discover that they are indeed raging racists.

  9. And people laughed at Jordan Peterson when he spoke out about ‘compelled speech’.

    “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
    ~ George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four

  10. It’s called “Doing The Work” people – come on!

    If a cool nerdly project just for fun in 90’s Stanford that develops into a mission-creepy, privacy-defining NASDAQ exchanged force of Nature with its fingers in every pie it can see can make a small effort to “include” all the “diversity” using “code”, I don’t know what “Doing The Work” means!… nor do I know what “Orwellian” means!…

  11. I remember learning about my first master/slave relationship in a technical context in the early 80s. At the time, it seemed over-done, overly-dramatic, or unrealistic anthropomorphizing, when the programs were clearly not intelligent or human. Really, slave? Like most things, those concerns faded with time and use. Many projects / companies switched to manager and workers, or root, trunk and branch when that metaphor fit better.

    Naming anything (everything) smart got tiresome too. For decades for those of us working in ML/AI, it’s the easy name pattern for the naive product managers who were probably worrying about their own limited technical understanding. Instead of thinking about users, they stay focused on the products, that they don’t really understand. We don’t know what it’s really doing, so we’ll just call it smart, because we don’t know what that really is either. They’re all just miracles. Avoiding that name seems like another good challenge for PMs.

    Words matter. Tech language started in the university equivalent of a locker room. Trying to change it later feels both potentially noble and like peeing in the ocean. Of course one company won’t change things. But trying feels right. It’s another almost trivial way to be intentional about company culture.

    It’s not an orwellian limit of free speech, because there’s nothing hidden, and there’s no hypocritical double-speak. It’s admitting: here are some ruts we’ve gotten ourselves into in our technical jargon, and so please avoid these cliches and find some new snow to describe what you’re making for the world as part of our company.

    1. IMHO, you’re way overthinking this.

      Your tech language may have started in a locker room but I doubt whether that’s true for most programmers. I started working as a professional programmer in 1974, right after I left college. The place I landed worked in CAD/CAM. We produced interactive computer graphics software on minicomputers to help engineers design products. Although most of the programmers were men, several were women. I would definitely not characterize it as a locker room.

      I’m sticking to the words that best describe a relationship between software and hardware components. If “master” and “slave” are appropriate to the context, I will continue to use them without a second thought. If someone around me objects because it reminds them of human masters and slaves, I will suggest they seek help from a mental health professional.

      1. Top schools, top tech jobs, top companies for almost 40 years (hardware, software, and research), and it was almost all 90% male. A lot of the work was new, the ideas were new, so we needed new names, and we couldn’t just look things up. The culture in those labs to me was about getting stuff done and making it work really well. It was the opposite of writing a news article, or a political speech. I remember one project called “bare metal.” Less was almost always more, and bare efficient minimalism drove most efforts. We’d “take our gloves off” to “find the core of the problem” and “rip its head off.” Those are almost exact quotes from an early glowing annual review.

        Decades later, it’s still 90% male at most of these places, and some of that culture is reflected in the jargon. It’s not all bad, but trying to tweak that too, in addition to tweaking all the programs and all the models and all the UIs and product definitions seems like fair game to me. (As is support from mental health folks.)

    2. Sure, “master/slave” is obviously a slavery reference, but they take it too far. The “master” branch of a source control repository has nothing to do with slavery. “Blacklist” and “whitelist” have no racism in their etymologies. Neither does “black box”. Once they start going there it becomes obvious that they aren’t talking about the actual meanings or histories of the words, but some kind of invented racial fantasies. And I can’t get on board with that.

      1. Baggage is baggage. Master might not have baggage for you, but it’s not a word I use lightly, or around friends or around family. If i do, it’s probably sarcastic. Black and white meaning bad and good in perfect absolutes is also typically intellectually clumsy (the real world isn’t binary), and it perpetuates the good/bad white/black connection, which in the US feels almost willfully emotionally and historically blind.

        Is there a point that’s laughably off the deep end? Sure. Have they found it with master, black, slave, white, smart, and the others mentioned here? Not for me. Those seem like good tweaks if we’re serious about the emotional impact of our language.

        Think about it the other way around. If the old words meant nothing to you (they had no emotional baggage), then the new ones won’t either. And so there’s no cost or worry to you for the change. Switch terms and move on. (Fortran becomes Pascal becomes C becomes C++, becomes Python… as techies we change languages, not just words.)

        But there is baggage there for many of us. There’s even baggage for some of us who have been using the words in their new technical senses for decades. So sure, why not tweak that too.

        1. How about we continue to use master and slave in programming in order to remind people that racism still exists?

          Concentration camp protection would be a stupid phrase. That’s why it never caught on.

          All this makes me think you aren’t very serious about combatting racism. Surely there are many more important aspects of racism than policing words in some profession?

          1. Many/most of the women I knew who started in tech left it. They would have all been great, and would have helped make things better. My motivation is to make tech more inviting to more people so it gets better faster.

            Today, using master and slave “naively” and claiming / hoping they don’t bring up threatening / disturbing baggage for some/many implies an indifference to other people’s emotions, which itself perpetuates the locker-room/old-boy mentality that is a fairly deserved cliched description for many of my decades of work in high tech.

            Why not use master and slave today for technical things to remind them about racism today? Tech itself is pretty complicated, and now we have to remind people about institutional racism, and have that conversation too? Hmm. That’s a distraction.

            Think about it like this: do you still say the phrase “trump card”? Or even use the word trump outside of the context of the former president? The word has too much baggage now. It’s changed.

            Why bring up the extra baggage at work, when work is already hard enough?

            1. I don’t agree at all. You are being racist in assuming they’ll be offended at the mere mention of “master” and “slave” even in contexts that have nothing to do with human slavery. It makes no sense to treat black people as if they were children.

              Yes, “trump card” is fine as long as the context isn’t political. If someone listening might be confused over whether you meant “trump” or “Trump”, then it is best to avoid using the term. This is a basic rule of word usage. Get your point across clearly. That’s why master/slave needs to stay in the programming context. It is clear and everyone knows what you mean.

              1. If it’s best to avoid confusing the terms, and to get your point across clearly, that’s it. You and I already agree, even if you don’t claim to.

                I’m offended by master and slave and it’s easy to imagine others will either be distracted or offended by it too. That’s a waste of time for everyone.

                Thanks for reading, and thanks for the discussion.

  12. I remember reacting to the “master/slave” terminology the first time I heard it, but you quickly get used to it as a neutral terminology.

    That people want to change that now instead of decades ago isn’t much of a sound basis for change.

  13. I honestly cannot understand what is hoped to be accomplished by substituting these words for others that describe the same thing. If master/slave is swapped out without a functional change to what it’s describing, won’t the new label just be a dog whistle to the former?

    Does the relationship between a disk controller and its slaves actually offend people, or are they just pretending? Help me steel-man the argument; I really don’t get it.

    disclaimer in case of wilful misinterpretation: I am against human slavery

    1. Words can be heavy, or loaded and bring subconscious baggage with them. The mother of all inventions, might bring up “big mama” for some people, “mother f-ing” for others, or just a complicated mom for others, so we usually don’t go there unless we want that kind of emotional impact on our readers/listeners/students/colleagues.

      Denying the potential for subconscious or even conscious impact with a word like “slavery” in the US might even get close to denying that slavery was a problem here. It might feel almost willfully emotionally tone-deaf to many. We do it now mostly because it’s made it into textbooks, but again, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

      It’s not communicating the ideas of the technical relationships in the systems more clearly, it’s considering what emotional impact the words and metaphors might have.

      Imagine we had something that helped in a denial of service attack by starving select groups of machines of requests. Then imagine we’re in Germany and we started calling that process a concentration camp protection. Really? We’d want to go there?

      They are all analogies / metaphors / symbols, and we can be a little more creative and still be clear.

      1. Thank for you for reasoned reply. I get your point, to a degree.

        “concentration camp” is so specific and unambiguous I can’t imagine it being useful anywhere else. “Master/slave”, “mother of all inventions”, and “starving” are all generic terms that describe common things and are useful. Context and intention are essential, and it’s obvious to the reader the meaning. “master/slave” is not an allusion to human slavery — it is literally describing a functional relationship between inanimate components. Do those terms really and truly offend people?

        I’ve been in the industry for a very long time now and have seen lots of behavior that make for a hostile work environment for non-tech-bros. The locker room talk, an all-around incompetence of social skills, and poor emotional intelligence. So there’s a problem, but this isn’t it. Surely there are better low-hanging fruit.

      1. I don’t follow

        That’s the first link that came up. There might be others.

        I assume readers can get it from their libraries, and find likely better sources on the internet, what with particular devices and subscriptions. I apologize I could not find your preferred favorite.

        I read the linked copy and a hard copy in a book recommended by a reader – Shooting an Elephant – and I rely on the hard copy saying the essay is clear. But then again, you are “out”, so I suppose you got it under control.

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