Stanford’s IT language police back off, but only about one word

December 21, 2022 • 9:30 am

This morning I mentioned in Da Nooz that, according to the Wall Street Journal, Stanford University had undertaken an 18-month “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative”, which gave a long list of words deemed harmful or offensive and suggesting replacements. Some of the words were ones I wouldn’t use, while many others are on the border of risible. You can see the whole language guide at this site, which even comes with its own trigger warning:

(I love the “please engage with this website at your own pace”, suggesting that “normally, you’d hurry through this list but we’re being nice by advising you to take it slow”.)  I recommend that you have a look at the list and see which words you also find offensive.

They also suggest alternatives, like using “person who is/was incarcerated” instead of “prisoner”, the grounds being “using person-first language helps to not define people by just one of their characteristics”. Of course if you take that seriously, then you can’t use the terms “professor,” “baseball player,” or “jackass” to refer to people.

At any rate, and probably due to the WSJ editorial, Stanford got a lot of blowback, and decided to remove one word—but only one—off the list. I’ve put a red rectangle around it in the announcement below, hastily issued yesterday. Notice that the language guide was also intended to apply only to the IT community, though there’s no reason why it shouldn’t—if you approve of Language Fascism—apply to Stanford as a whole.

Click to enlarge:

Why did they recommend deep-sixing “American” in the first place? It’s still there, and here’s what they said:

Yeah, that’s pretty stupid, because everyone knows that “American” means “someone from the U.S.,” and I’ve never heard anybody say that’s offensive. (You can say “Canadian”, “Brazilian,” “Colombian”, and other words to narrow down countries.) At least they admit that they “missed the mark”.

Now maybe they should look at other words too, like “submit”, which is offensive because “Depending on the context, the term can imply allowing others to have power over you.”  Which they do, of course: “I submitted to their punishment.”  The fact is that some people do have power over you—that’s life. I doubt that “accede” would be any more acceptable, but they suggest using the word “process”, which makes no sense at all.

Now’s a good time to read or reread Orwell’s great essay, “Politics and the English language.”

66 thoughts on “Stanford’s IT language police back off, but only about one word

  1. Surely the word “American” is colonialist and Eurocentric? After all, Amerigo Vespucci was white and male and European. Aren’t there indigenous words for “America”?

    1. There is a myth out there that it’s wrong that Americans call themselves “Americans” because it implies they are all of North and South America but everyone knows who Americans are. There was even a myth floating around, from Americans, that Canadians hated the term “American” because Canadians considered themselves “American” because they live in North America. This is laughably false. Canadians know who the Americans are and who the Canadians are and do not consider themselves Americans.

      1. We can laugh at things like this, but I think whenever a society becomes so obsessed with such trivialities, it is a sign of a post-decadent culture that simply does not have enough real struggles and too much leisure. We are becoming an extremely soft and fragile society and that is a harbinger of the ending of America as the leading force in the world. It would not surprise me if in a century or two America no longer existed in its present form.

        1. I agree. This county is on a downward spiral. Hopefully the more common sense population will prevail over this idiotic mentality.

      2. America is the least interesting / important part of USA. They are a subset of States in the Americas that are United under a common constitution. Maybe they should call themselves “The United Ones” to emphasize the United part.
        /s

      3. Canadians recognize that the currrent meaning of ‘American’ is a done deal, but we remain slightly miffed that the term was usurped.

    2. At least Esperanto avoided this problem. The Esperanto word for “United States of America” is “Usono” and people who live in USA are Usonanoj (= members of Usono).

    3. No, there are not indigenous words for America, at least I’ve never bumped into one in my reading. The Iroquois, Zuni, Dakota, Dine, Cherokee, etc., had concepts of themselves as a group (usually called something meaning The People approximately) and of course of the place they lived, but none of that was anywhere close to what “America” typically would mean. And even if one group or larger language group had a sort of general name, it wouldn’t be the name another group has.

    4. Some myths in our parts near the Great Lakes refer to the local fragment of North America as “Turtle Island” as it was thought to be a giant turtle swimming in a sea of something or other that itself was contained in a vessel made of something or other supported by something else. (“Turtles all the way down”?) Fortunately this has not made its way into science classes, where if you taught it as a foundation, you would have to teach in the next breath that it was false, which is not what people want to hear.

      If you are really really woke (or intimidated), your land acknowledgement will include explicit reference to being guests in Turtle Island. So if you were going to use an Indigenous name for these parts, that would be it.

      But there is no common Indigenous culture, language, or founding myth among North America’s widely dispersed subsistence nomadic tribes, so all names would be local.
      When Jacques Cartier arrived in Baie de Chaleur (now part of Québec) in 1534 he asked the Natives, “What do you call this place?” The response, “Ca nada”, he took down as the name, which has stuck in a variety of uses ever since. But more recent research has disclosed that what the Native person thought Cartier was asking was “Is there any gold around here.” The response is a Portuguese creole meaning “That? Nothing.” /joke.

  2. I am always distraught at the language police. There are some clearly offensive words like “Indian Giver” but saying we can’t say the word “master” or use colours because they are racial now is really going too far.

  3. Ooo, that’s terrible – I didn’t know words could insinuate. I must have been insinuating the whole time and didn’t know it.

    How do we know if any given word “insinuates”? Do we call the Stanford Language Hotline?

    “Dear Language Wizards, I just witnessed an insinuating word on 5th and Pine.”

    What about capitalization?

    Surely, I can stick it to (per South Park) “stupid americans”?

    “Stupid americans!”
    -South Park

    Less facetiously, what about African Americans? Or Black America? … I detect a rumbling in the direction of John McWhorter….

    1. Actually, this is one of the few cases where the Stanford guidance is not totally off the mark. While nobody in the US would think of “American” as designating someone from the US, this is not necessarily true in Latin America. I witnessed a talk in Sao Paulo, where the American speaker, after saying “I am an American” was interrupted by a Brazilian heckler “so am I”

        1. Similarly, I lived in Ecuador for awhile and when I called myself “American” I would often get the response “Oh, yeah, and what am I?” It may be true that everyone knows that America mean USA, but that doesn’t mean that they like it.

      1. Si. My High School Spanish teacher said that if you tell someone from Latin America that you’re an “American,” he or she will ask “What country?”

        (Hola, Miss Petrides, if you’re reading this.)

        1. The “U.S.” in “U. S. Citizen” is an abbreviation for the country named The United States.

          I’m not sure where it originated, or which other states are united, but The United States has a slightly higher probability of meaning the country named The United States of America, or U. S. A., as it is also abbreviated, than any other country.

          So it is not for no reason one might say “American”, in the same way that one might say “Venezuelan” and NOT “South American”.

          Of course, it is satisfying to scold or hector over the particular use of language, but I’m not sure any of what I wrote is opinion.

      2. It would be fun to tweak a conservative about this point, as they are so fond of declaring themselves to be ” ‘Mericans”

      3. Well that, that Brazilian not only had bad manners, but he also wasn’t an “American”—he was either a Brazilian or a South American.

        1. Indeed. Since there is only one country in the world with the word in its name there is only one place where people can accurately call themselves American. Others from the Americas are “Brazilian”, Canadian”, “Mexican”, Paraguayan” etc. In the end, we can call ourselves any damn thing we want. So can anyone else, but we at least have the word “America” in our name.

          Americans should not call themselves Americans because there are people NOT in America who occupy countries in similarly named land masses? Risible. Silly.

          1. I would never use ‘American’ to describe anyone other than a US citizen.* If I want to describe all the people, from more than one country, I would divide it up: ‘North American’ or ‘South American’.

            *And as we all know, they are really British subjects, but rather naughty ones. 🙂

            1. I just remembered:

              Hawaii

              That’s not nor ever was any American continent.

              Checkmate Americans. I mean, americans.

  4. I can recall hearing some snippet of audio, maybe it was an LP, of John Wayne whinging about “hyphenated Americans”, something about you’re not (fill in the blank)-Americans, you’re AMERICANS! I’m sure there was some dreadful patriotic musical accompaniment. It found it rather stupid, but then I realized I don’t know what I feel comfortable calling myself. I do know that to the rest of the world, I am an American. Same goes for black/African Americans or latino/chicano people. And after watching Bruce Fumey, of Scottish History Tours, on YouTube discussing his Scottish heritage (spoiler, he’s less genetically Scottish than I, but of course culturally…he’s 100%) and that’s helped me realized that I’m ok with it. Regardless of your subculture, regional culture, family culture, you are so obviously part of American culture to the rest of the world. Where you are born and raised puts an indelible stamp upon your being. We are different here in the US of A, some good differences, some bad, and that’s just fine.

  5. Good gravy, the very first word on the list is “addict.”

    I happen to be one of those, though thankfully in recovery, and every recovering addict I know is happy to acknowledge that fact about themselves.

    Proceeding from there, I estimate that well over half of these strike me as completely idiotic or hypersensitive. For example, any word with “suspect” origins is supposed to be offensive, but how many people are even aware of those purported origins? “Brown bag” as in “brown-bag lunch” is supposed to be grievously hurtful because — we are assured — it originated as a way for sororities to discriminate against black people.

    OK, if you say so. But if nobody knows that, isn’t making a big deal of it just “Streisanding” the problem and bringing it to everybody’s attention, thereby *increasing* the word’s (supposed) insensitivity?

    And ffs! “African American” was promoted by—natch—African Americans, oops, I mean black … I mean Black … people, including, prominently, Jesse Jackson. But now we are assured of its deep capacity to wound.

    Damn, I hate these language ninnies. And this is Stanford. Yikes.

    1. [ I am trying to be encouraging here ]

      “You are an addict. So be addicted. Just be addicted to something else. Choose the ones you love. Choose your future. Choose life”

      -Rent Boy
      From Trainspotting 2

      Trailer : https://youtu.be/oQlaYKP996c

      I found that to be a memorable quote.

    2. These people behind this, these administrators, need something to do. It’s not like they are teaching or doing research.

  6. Now maybe they should look at other words too, like “submit”, which is offensive because “Depending on the context, the term can imply allowing others to have power over you.”
    Given the translation of “Islam” there’s another whole can of worms…

  7. Some of the recommendations make sense. But most are just foolish. “Killing two birds with one stone” does not normalize animal cruelty. That one falls into the foolish category. Replacing “trigger warning” by “content note” might be OK, but I will continue to use the phrase “trigger warning” when my meaning is pejorative (which it always is when I use it).

    To me the weird and even pathetic thing about all of this is how paternalistic it is, as if adults are children who need their mouths washed out with soap. Unacceptable words and phrases filter out of the lexicon all by themselves as the terms of the social contract change over time. Some of the words or phrases in the list probably do belong in the ash heap of history. But creating a list of this sort in an effort to *pre*scribe speech seems like putting the cart before the horse. Oops! Am I allowed to say “cart before the horse” or does that defame horses… or carts?

  8. It’s nice to see that our elite institutions are focusing on humanity’s most pressing issues. I’m in awe of the formidable cognitive firepower that assembled this “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative”.

    Oh, how I wish I was a college student again, so that could aspire to attend Stanford and rub shoulders with such intellectual giants!

  9. Thanks for the post that referencing the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section regarding the index of forbidden words published by Stanford University administrators. The replacement of the word “American” with “US Citizen” reminded me of the song by the Canadian musical comedy group The Arrogant Worms titled “I Am Not American.” Here is a link to the song, in case you are interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29g57XTYgLE

  10. In the background of Jerry Coyne’s remarks is a more complex issue. He notes the falsity of the claim that language that does not put person-language first does not respect persons. Talking of someone as a baseball player in no way disrespects his personhood. The idea that person-first language is supposedly more respectful of people is an empirical claim about language but it is put forward with no evidence. There is an attitude that evidence doesn’t matter if you are on the side of social justice. See some of the discussion (not in the Stanford list but related) that we supposedly should not say slave, but “enslaved person” and that this supposedly is more respectful. But again there is no evidence. The issues here are close to those concerning supposed Maori science.

  11. An exactly similar advisory bulletin on disfavored language was issued by an IT committee at the University of Washington, and can be savored at:
    https://itconnect.uw.edu/guides-by-topic/identity-diversity-inclusion/inclusive-language-guide/ . From these two examples, I conclude that committees at many different institutions vied with each other to produce pronouncements of this sort, each one sillier than the last.

    They all undoubtedly date from the frenzy that swept through the groves of academe in the summer of 2020, giving rise to proclamations like the one from the U. of Chicago
    Music Department that demanded abolition of the police. The 2020 eruption of mass hysteria takes its place in a long history of like events, including the Children’s Crusade of 1212, the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s, and the invasion-from-Mars mass terror unleashed by Orson Welles’ radio program in 1938. 2020 was perhaps unusual only in the extent to which university departments, including IT and Music, led the parade.

  12. I was surprised to see that the word “Asian” was not on the list. I’ve read that that word did not exist until Europeans began using it to describe people living in that part of the world. Those that lived there didn’t think of themselves as part of something larger.

    1. If you really want to bend your brain, read Edward Said’s ORIENTALISM — incredible book, in more ways than I can count. He mainly focuses on what some call the Near East, rather than what I would call “oriental”, but then, I go back to when Wittfogel’s ORIENTAL DESPOTISM (1957) was a classic, and have a hard time thinking of Arabia and Iran as “oriental”.

  13. I was introduced to the idea that it is offensive for US Americans to call ourselves Americans in about 1990. It was pointed out to me that everyone in the American continents are Americans, so who is US to own the name. People around the world call US Americans “Americans” so that ship has sailed, at least for the time being.

    Further, I am shocked that Stanfords IT department recommend replacing it with “U S citizen.” In the mid 1990s I was introduced to the idea that “citizen” is offensive because it erases all the people who live in the US who are not citizens, showing disrespect and erasure of non-citizen immigrants. I don’t agree with that, but it is definitely out there as a liberal position.

    I do care about hurting/ insulting people, including with language. Some of these words/ phrases on that list are unacceptable. However, distributing a long list does not strike me as an effective way to change language. It is paternalistic- who complied this list, and why must everyone agree with everything on it? I would be angry if I received this at work, with the underlying threat that my IT job was on the line if I misused a word, regardless of my intentions or my job skills.

  14. Not that it matters, but Johnny Cash’s recordings include the following titles :

    American Recordings (1994)
    American II: Unchained (1996)
    American III: Solitary Man (2000)
    American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002)
    American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)
    American VI: Ain’t No Grave (2010)

    … I know there’s a Leonard Cohen audience here, so I note that Bird On A Wire is on the 1994 recording.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Cash

  15. One of the web sites that I regularly visit for entertainment is Twisted Sifter, which could be relied upon for the weird and funny. But they have gone downhill in various ways. Now, many of the entries will regularly use asterisks to protect us from triggering words like h*te, or f*ght, and even more benign words like bl*nd. Of course that only triggers us more (!).

  16. I suggest keeping ‘master’ for all uses except for ‘slave-owner’. Use the latter for the plantation drone and keep the former for all other uses, including those which refer to women. e.g. ‘Martha Argerich conducts a master-class in the interpretation of Chopin.’

    1. No, no, you ought to say: “Martha Argerich conducts a m***ter class”. Come to think of it, the word “class” should also be avoided, as it might tr**gger thoughts of classism.

      1. “****** ******** conducts a ****** *****”

        … this is very depressing, so I’ll leave the woke to fill in the blanks.

  17. After the draw for the World Cup, a USian I knew online claimed that the USA would qualify and England wouldn’t because that’s what always happens when England is in a group with an American team. I said this was not the case in 2018 and there followed an argument in which he insisted Panama was not an American country.

    Personally I am not a great fan of the way US citizens have co-opted the word “American” for themselves, but it’s hardly something to be triggered over.

  18. Let Americans dwell in their US centered view of America and call themselves what they wish, we all know they are pretentious about themselves in the world and their continent.

    1. ‘s all right. We in Canada call Americans Americans, too. No biggie. Can’t think of what else we could even call them. “USian” looks cute in print but hard to pronounce. Uss-ian? You Sigh-an? Even as the name of the place, everyone I think knows that “visiting relatives in America” doesn’t mean Montréal. In Canada we just say, “buying gas in the States to avoid the carbon tax.”

      In “Political Science”, Randy Newman sings, “South America stole our name…”

      There was a discussion in The Globe and Mail letters to the Editor many years ago about whether “Yanks” is derogatory, especially by outsiders. But who is an outsider vis-à-vis Yankees? It drilled down to the idea that to a Vermonter who eats pie for breakfast (who himself would qualify to most New Englanders), a real Yankee is a Vermonter who eats pie for breakfast without using a fork.

      But even if “Yanks” is not derogatory — I rather think it is, to my ear, especially as used by the Canadian Left — using it over and over again at every reference to Americans would get stale really quickly. Like pie left out overnight to be eaten at breakfast.

      1. Yeah, I just roll my eyes at them.

        Yankee is just one name, others I’ve heard of are, Spam, Cowboy, Septic and Burger Eating Invasion Monkeys.

  19. For sure this is crazy and over the top. However, I do share the following at work whenever my IT folks use whitelist & blacklist.

    The terms Whitelist (good) and Blacklist (bad) are increasingly out of favor (not “inclusive”).
    The new preferred terms are Allowlist or Passlist, and Denylist or Blocklist.
    Apple, Twitter, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Android, MySQL, and JP Morgan are among the companies that have pivoted here.

    I think this is a simple, reasonable and responsible pivot.

    1. T.R. Youngblood, Then what do you say to your IT people when they tell you not to use the word “crazy” (as you just did) because it is “Ableist language that trivializes the experiences of people living with mental health conditions.”

      Stanford IT recommends you consider “surprising or wild.”

      Where do you draw the line?

      1. Thanks, Jackie, I value the challenge, and I claim no righteous, supreme know-how here . I’m just personally & professionally drawing the line for now at White = Good and Black = Bad, based on the long standing underclass history here. But I believe that woke language guidelines in general are a bunch of crap. I used to subscribe to a monthly newsletter whose mission was to call out sanitized language – I wish I could recall its name – and I stand firmly in the George Carlin camp re: shell shocked not PTSD. Here’s a good one: San Francisco board rebrands ‘convicted felon’ as ‘justice-involved person’, Appreciate you, Jamie, and I’d welcome a return volley here.

        1. My, but you seem a well-mannered, levelheaded fellow.

          You must have been raised in a fully functional family with a solid role model. 🙂

  20. I find myself actually offended by one of the items on the list. Or, in less woke terms, I’m angry about it. My husband committed suicide. He didn’t “die by suicide” like he might have died by being hit by lightening. He COMMITTED suicide. He did it. And that’s part of the horror of it. This person we cared about did this awful thing. The fact that he did it also opens the gate wide for everyone who knew him to feel guilty about not preventing this.

    It seems to me that replacing “He committed suicide” with “He died by suicide” allows the speaker and listener to slip a little further away from how terrible suicide is. Anybody who writes that “He committed suicide” is “Ableist language that trivializes the experiences of people living with mental health conditions” has no clue what he’s talking about. No clue at all.

    By the way, this happened 30 years ago. It’s not a current source of pain in my life (though it was for a long time). Now it’s an old scar and a memory of pain, not something that requires the reader to express sympathy.

    1. Agree, Barbara. No one in health care seems even to want to say “died” any more. The house staff would always tell me someone had “passed” in the night. I always wanted to ask “cum laude” or did he just scrape by? For nurses it was always “expired.” The Stanford blurb is just a modern iteration of the drive to use flabby euphemisms, preferably a string of adjective phrases with verbs in the passive voice instead of vigorous direct nouns and verbs, motivated this time around by wokeness.

      You might be interested to know that research into bereavement suggests that relatives don’t completely believe that their loved one is really dead until/unless they hear a physician say, with carefully chosen empathic words in the right setting, “He has died.” The jargon I’m weak on but I think this might be part of what we mean by closure. No family ever objected to my insensitivity in saying these three words somewhere in my communication, although young nurses were sometimes appalled. And yes, sometimes you do have to say it over the phone.

      I offer that your growth following your husband’s death may be down to your forthrightness in understanding that he committed suicide, with all that entails. It would have been wrong to have tried to take that away from you.

      Even in retirement, I learn from patients.

  21. I am deeply offended by this nitpicking context-ignoring deeply problematic victim-blaming idiocy. Your move, Stanford.

  22. Idiocy like this language policing is further evidence that Woke-ism is a conspiracy to make all progressive, anti-racist, pro-social justice movements seem ridiculous in the eyes of most people, thereby undermining the effectiveness of such movements. I would not be surprised at all if it turns out that the Koch cabal is financing the propagandists pushing this nonsense under the false flag of “progressiveness”.

    1. Gosh. We wish. We’d all breathe easier if that was true.
      Actually, progressive, anti-racist, pro-social justice movements aren’t ridiculous. They are dangerous. Any spike belts thrown in their path are fine by me.

  23. I’ve just got round to looking at the full list. Good grief – do they take us all for children?

    They object to “To call a spade a spade” despite acknowledging that the phrase originated in Ancient Greece where the negative connotation didn’t exist.

    They say of “Rule of thumb”, “Although no written record exists today, this phrase is attributed…”. So that’s effectively an urban myth then…

    They object to “White paper”, ignoring the fact that the name, like “green paper” and “blue book”, comes from the colour of the document’s cover.

    The deathly and deadening substitutions they offer will make our use of language much less colourful (!) and erase idiomatic phrases (“to kill two birds with one stone”, for example) that no-one takes literally. Phraseology will become dull and grey (although even the latter is verboten, cf “Gray hat hacker”).

    To use a forbidden expression that they overlooked, shoot me now!

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