Matthew Yglesias: Woke language change isn’t meant to improve society, but to increase inequality

January 22, 2023 • 10:50 am

Now I’m not sure that the word “tribe” in my title is an Approved Progressive Left Term®, but I can’t think of a better one for the nonce. And if that word were erased by the woke, according to this new article by Matthew Yglesias on his Substack site, I wouldn’t have much reason to complain. According to Yglesias, beefing about language changes, like the recent elimination of the word “field” and suggested replacement with “practicum” by the School of Social Work at USC, is going after low-hanging fruit, “one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics”.  Does that make me and my fellow beefers “reactionaries”? Read by clicking the headline, and subscribe if you read regularly:


Yglesias, whose work I’m not that familiar with, was inspired by reading a John le Carré novel, A Murder of Quality. The novel apparently involves a British family who comes into money but isn’t of upper-class origin, and so has to learn proper upper-class British manners, like peeling an apple and then quartering it before eating it. This makes no sense to me, but that’s the point: this way of eating signals one’s membership in the club, which is necessary (along with money) to settle onself in the right circles.

Yglesias touts his familiarity with tribal language and behavior by touting his street cred, which, it turns out, is rich-people’s street cred. The guy has gone to all the ritzy and upper-class schools:

I went to a private high school called Dalton in New York which, at the time I attended, was known as a “progressive” school in the sense of its pedagogical philosophy. That was in contrast to a more “conservative” place like Grace Church School where I went for K-8.

But these days, both institutions have become progressive in a political sense. On its website, Dalton has an extensive statement about the school’s commitment to “equity and inclusion” that seems on its face at odds with the basic reality of being a school that charges $57,970 per year in tuition.

And yet not only the schools I attended in New York, but Georgetown Day and Sidwell Friends here in D.C., BBN in BostonHarvard Westlake in LA, and other major Fancy-Pants Prep Schools that I’m familiar with have gone all-in on DEI rhetoric.

Remember Dalton? Read my 2020 post about it here.

But then he asks the topic question:

The obvious question about this is why would exclusive institutions, the primary purpose of which is to provide additional advantages in life to academically talented students with rich parents, be so invested in an ostensibly egalitarian ideology?

Good question. The parents, of course did push back against this ideology, which is what my post is about.

Then Yglesias went to Harvard, and there he learned another trick of the elite: how to tie a bow tie before attending a black-tie dinner:

One of the things I learned at Harvard was how to tie a bow tie. The university, as a deliberately retro move, hosted a lot of black-tie events. Kirkland House had an annual formal dance, and I believe the other houses did, too. But there were many other black-tie events linked to the arts — if you had a friend who was in a play, you might get invited to a black-tie premiere.

I think contemporary university administrators would struggle a little bit to explain why there are black-tie events on campus. But I can tell you that I went to more than one per year, every year, for the four years that I was a student and exactly one since graduating.

And the penny dropped vis-à-vis Carré’s book: these complex language changes, like “practicum” (or “Latinx”, which nearly all Hispanics refuse to use), are actually inegalitarian: they setss the users and speakers apart from the hoi polloi.

Today things are different, and one thing you’d learn in a fancy American school is why you shouldn’t talk about the economic underdevelopment of Africa like this. You’d learn better etiquette. Or at least different etiquette — etiquette that will differentiate you from less sophisticated people who might run around saying offensive things about poverty in the Global South. For instance, a person without a proper education might refer to the countries in question as “the third world” without having read Marc Silver’s January 2021 NPR piece about why this is offensive. But to Bright’s point, speaking differently doesn’t actually change anything.

And that, perhaps, is a big part of the appeal.

In the USC case, and others like it, Yglesias notes that the ostensible motivation for changing words is to be “more inclusive”. And that is the case. “Latinx”, for example, was confected by non-“Latinx” people to erase the supposed misogyny of “Latino” (a male form) and “Latinos” (a general plural which also happens to mean “a group of men”). If you use the neutral “Latinx,” you’re showing that you’re an in-the-know progressive.

Yglesias has a point, though it’s not novel to argue that signs of wokeness are purely performative and accomplish no meaningful social change. Yglesias goes a step further, though, and argues that terms like “practicum” (and I’d add “Latinx” or “global South” here) actually foster inequality by buttressing tribalism.

Now I’m not sure that the terms are intended to buttress inequality, though fostering tribalism is probably a major part of their genesis. But I doubt that they do increase inequality—any more than using woke language reduces inequality.  What I object to, I guess, is how he takes people like me to task—people who beef about the constant turnover of language (my bolding below):

Language is arbitrary and always changing, so personally I find “getting mad at language change” to be one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics. At the same time, it’s worth just applying a little bit of common sense to the question of who is and isn’t included by saying “practicum” instead of “field.” Highly educated people and white-collar workers who spend a lot of time bored at the office staring at computer screens and reading articles are well positioned to have large and flexible vocabularies. We are used to learning new words and learning how to use them.

I am quite fluent in why we don’t characterize non-white people as “minorities” anymore, and even why affirmatively characterizing them as “people of color” is in favor rather than saying “non-white,” which tends to center whiteness. I know what it means to “center” something. I know that URM stands for under-represented minorities, and that we tend not to spell it out because “minorities” is out of favor. I also know what URM means (not Asians) and how URM is distinguished from BIPOC. I don’t talk about third-world countries.

I know these things in large part for the same reason I know how to tie a bow tie. And while everyone knows about Skull & Bones, I also know about Scroll & Key and can tell you which school has eating clubs. But while there may be merit to cultivating a set of esoteric practices for the sake of maintaining a national (or these days, increasingly, global) elite class that can recognize its fellow members, that’s like saying (à la John Rawls) that there may be reasons for even egalitarians to support a certain amount of inequality.

These elite institutions and codes of manners are not egalitarian, not just because manners are insufficient but because their purpose is to be inegalitarian. Changing “field” into “practicum” doesn’t include more people — it’s a new means of excluding people whose information is out of date.

But when I think of it, I’m not mad at language change just because I am a conservative who doesn’t like change. I’m mad at changes like “field” to “practicum” because it’s pompous, unnecessary and stupid given the ubiquity of the word “field” in other contexts, and above all because it’s purely performative. And I guess that’s not so different from what Yglesias thinks. The difference is that he also believes that these languages changes palpably decrease inclusiveness, and thus do the opposite of what the users claim to want.  And there I think he’s wrong. The language changes, regardless of their motivation, don’t change anything about society.

27 thoughts on “Matthew Yglesias: Woke language change isn’t meant to improve society, but to increase inequality

  1. Performative changes in language don’t change anything about society, but they do enable those responsible for them to brand anyone outside of their exclusive circle as bigots.

    For example, “transsexual” is now abhorred despite being the preferred language at the time and hence the legal term used in British legislation. Now its replacement “transwoman” is also verboten and must itself be replaced by “trans woman” because, allegedly, the “trans” part is merely an adjective describing the type of women being discussed (cf “a black woman”). Anyone refusing to go along with this change is a hateful bigot – and yet to accept this verbal sleight of hand is to tacitly agree that a “trans woman” is indeed a woman, when they are not.

    1. Yes, for example, you try referring to someone as a “coloured person” as opposed to the newer version, “person of colour”, and see what happens.

      1. It certainly is all crazy-making. I’ve given up trying to accommodate people’s denials of reality. Going along with anyone’s delusions really helps nobody.

  2. I understand the idea that “language is arbitrary” to a certain extent (yes, why isn’t a “dog” called a “cat” and vice versa?), except for deep etymological roots and the fact that language is our agreed-upon form of communication, how we describe and convey the world to each other, one of the bonds that goes to link humans together and make up each separate tribe.
    But the whole “language is always changing, get over it, bigot!” is deeply dishonest. There are changes that are organic (like how back in the 80s we started saying “bad” to mean good or slang like “fresh” and “dope”) and then there are top-down political impositions, almost all from Left academia, almost all about manipulating political opinion, all based on the idea that if you change how people speak you can change how they think and act.
    Think of it this way: it’s like the difference between an act of nature where a tree falls and breaks your window, vs someone smashing it with a rock. One is natural and comes with no agency or agenda, the other is a human act of aggression inflicted upon you.
    The modern Left has dedicated itself both to constant language games, most w the goal of presenting themselves as the sensitive saviors of the oppressed, and also to dishonestly gaslighting about it, trying to pretend these are organic bottom-up changes.

    1. Yes, some people seem to think that George Orwell’s notes about Newspeak are an instruction manual and not a warning.

  3. I’m mad at changes like “field” to “practicum” (which my spell check doesn’t even recognize) because of the way it manipulates. It manipulates minorities into thinking of themselves as fragile trauma victims easily triggered by words they simply must take out of context. It manipulates the rest of us into thinking of minorities this way and considering it a sign of respect.

    They’ve introduced the Little People Argument by vocabulary: making allowances for the unreasonable because they are too weak and simple to be expected to behave normally and separate the concept of anthropological field work from being told to pick cotton. Race relations are reduced to Beavis and Butthead: “He said ‘field’ — heheheh.”

    I don’t see this as signaling class so much as a too-refined sensitivity to the needs of others.

    1. “It manipulates minorities into thinking of themselves as fragile trauma victims.”

      Yes. It also incentivizes others who are not minorities to self-identify into an oppressed class of trauma victims. Becoming common for academics to confect an intersectional identity for clout: enby, they/them pronouns, undocumented mental illness, “first gen”, “survivor”.

  4. I think we can all agree that language (vocabulary and pronunciation), like dress, is a marker of social class and region and/or country. And that is what Yglesias is mostly banging on about in this article. Other claims made by Yglesias and Jerry are:
    1. Changes in language, “regardless of their motivation, don’t change anything about society.” (Jerry) Or, as Yglesias puts it, “Language is arbitrary.”
    2. “getting mad at language change” is “one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics.” (Yglesias)

    If 1. is true, then 2. might be true too. But is 1. true? I don’t think it is. I agree with George Orwell here. He opened his famous essay Politics and the English Language (1946) as follows (emphases added):

    Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.
    Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

  5. For an emeritus professor with sufficient wherewithal, it is easy to have such an attitude, from a coign of vantage with coin of the realm.

    1. RE: “it is easy to have such an attitude”
      This applies also to Yglesias. For a portrait of him:
      Dan Zak: The boring journey of Matt Yglesias. Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2023

      See also here:
      Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias quits, cites ‘inherent tension’ and desire to be ‘independent’ voice. Nov 13, 2020
      Yglesias follows Glenn Greenwald, Bari Weiss, and Andrew Sullivan in exodus of journalists from prominent news outlets

      I have nothing against Yglesias. The opposite is true. I also don’t begrudge him making a million dollars a year on Substack. I just think the claim that “getting mad at language change” is “one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics” is false.
      Yglesias is now also a columnist for Bloomberg News:

      Also noteworthy: Yglesias called out the stupidity of defunding the police as a way of fighting crime in 2019!
      Matthew Yglesias: The case for hiring more police officers. Feb 13, 2019
      A crime-fighting idea that actually works, and new exclusive polling shows it’s popular across all racial groups.

  6. A major issue for me isn’t introducing new terms, but co-opting existing ones. At least in their minds, the woke left has re-defined or greatly amended the meanings (at least in their minds), of “racism,” “sex,” “feminism” (in some circles, and for the nth time), “harm,” “violence,” and many others. I suppose these shifts, and the use of these words in their “new” meanings, could be a way of demonstrating membership in the tribe. But my response is to stubbornly use the words according to their normal meaning, as used by most people.
    “They” is another one specific to the trans community. I don’t have much issue with the pronoun push, but “they” is really a dumb choice due to its common conventional use as a plural pronoun. Referring to her trans friend, my daughter told me “they” were coming over for dinner, and I assumed it was her friend plus roommates. I set the table for 3 guests, and only one showed up. Learned my lesson.

    1. What has happened recently to the meaning of words like racism, sex, violence (as in: words can be violence), or the phrase free speech (it’s harm now) these are very fitting examples contradicting the claim that language is simply a natural growth. Sometimes it is. These days it certainly isn’t.
      Of course, it is also true that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
      Our esteemed host recently commented on the changing definition of racism (now: prejudice + power) as follows (emphasis added):

      “Anybody who hates people simply because of their ethnicity is a racist. The ‘power’ bit is an add-on to excuse minorities from being racist.”
      So you change the definition of racism and, as a result, minorities can’t be accused of racism anymore. That’s fine Newspeak à la George Orwell.

  7. This story may be making the rounds, so before you click on the link — and yes, the New York Post is at the other end of the market from Mr. Ygelesias’s schooling — let me write the story using language that would have been considered accurate 20 years ago, maybe even 10.

    A 17-year-old girl in San Diego complained to authorities after she encountered a naked man in the showers of her YMCA, which frightened her into hiding her own nakedness behind a shower curtain. The authorities took no action and the Y had to close because of violent demonstrations in support of the man and of the girl. The man, a 63-year-old transvestite who calls himself Christynne Wood, spoke to reporters while wearing makeup, a plaid dress, dyed-blonde hair, and women’s sunglasses hooked into the bodice of his dress. Mr. Wood said he was “thunderstruck” that anyone should be upset by his presence in a women’s shower room and insisted that the assertion that the girl had seen his penis could not be true because he has had it amputated, a claim not able to be verified at press time. “I don’t know what’s in the mind of that child,” he said.

    Mr Wood has been in trouble before. He attempted to enter a women’s locker room at a gym in El Cajon until barred by gym custodians. No charges were laid in that episode. The State of California sued the gym on his behalf on unspecified grounds.

    OK, now click to see how the Post reported it.
    (Do note that the Post accurately reports that the girl said only that she saw his bare buttocks and the claim about his penis got added as the story circulated.)

    Tell me that enforced language does not change the very meaning of how we are supposed to make sense of these events.

    Here’s how it works. Once they compel you to use their pronouns to describe them, you can no longer argue that men should be kept out of women’s locker rooms. While you are parsing the reasonable limitations on trans rights — showers, shelters, sports, and prisons –, they simply assert, “I am a woman” and march right in.

    1. Absolutely, Leslie. This, from The Times on Wednesday last week, is where this language nonsense gets us: “A transgender woman has denied raping two women with her penis as she went on trial at the High Court in Glasgow”.

  8. I repeat my recommendation of Diane Ravitch’s “The Language Police” (2003). It reveals that the “multicultural” policing of language goes back 30 years in educational publishing. Consider, for example, McGraw-Hill’s 1993 “Reflecting Diversity: Multicultural Guidelines for Educational Publishing Professionals”. Its list of forbidden words includes individual pronouns (he/she, his/hers) as well as girls, lady, fireman, fisherman, salesman, manpower, mankind, forefathers, brotherhood, etc. etc. Its guidelines for images contain injunctions like these: “mother seeing father off to work must be replaced by mother leaving for work with her briefcase or tools”; and “pioneer woman riding in a covered wagon as man walks must be replaced by both man and woman walking or both riding, or woman walking while man rides”.

    Needless to say, the world history textbooks emphasize cultural equivalence to the point that one exasperated critic of one text wrote as follows: “What do you suppose the Europeans were doing while those Indians and Africans were erecting temples, instituting ‘complex’ societies, taking courses at Timbuktu U., and making sculptures? …There is not a single photo to depict European art or architecture. There is not a word about Dante, Erasmus, Brunelleschi, Bramante, or Leonardo; not a word about Donatello, Giotto, Ghiberti, or Botticelli; not a word about Raphael, Machiavelli, Gutenberg, Durer, or the van Eycks. All of these, and the cultures they represented, have been erased.”

    Ravitch cites many similar rules and practices of other US publishers and agencies. In short, the guidelines governing what could be published in children’s textbooks and in educational test materials back in the 1990s did whatever they could so that students entering college in the 21st century would arrive with pre-coddled minds. The result was then encountered by Haidt and Lukianoff a few years later.

  9. As a geology undergraduate student, I went to “field camp.” All geology majors did in my day. Field camp for me entailed a month mapping the geology of various sites in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico. It was beautiful country, but field camp was hard. It was physically difficult; we slept in our tents on the ground; we ate from a food truck that would drive many miles to the nearest town each day for provisions. Beer was 3.2 only. (Oh the humanity! But the drinking age at the time was 18, so at least we had that.) We stayed in a motel one night a week to take showers. It was unbelievably hot in the daytime, and we stayed up late at night using Coleman lanterns so we could see the maps that we were attempting to draw. It was a right of passage into becoming a professional geologist. It was a month-long “practicum,” one that no geologist will ever forget. It will always be Field Camp to me.

    Yglesias makes an interesting point—that the new language rules are about exclusion rather than inclusion. If so, this means that the virtue-signaling that we see today is doubly hypocritical. It’s (1) not truly helping the aggrieved, nor (2) is that its intention.

    While I know that language changes over time—and I both welcome change and find interesting—I do think that it’s fine to criticize attempts to torque the language, particularly when the purpose is so cynical as the changes advocated by the far left.

  10. I think Yglesias has been misinterpreted. He himself is complaining about language change: he doesn’t like the changes he discusses. The reason he doesn’t like them is because they serve to enable the elite to identify and exclude those who are not members of the elite.

    The line about “reactionary politics” is a rhetorical device to fend off the criticism that he’s a reactionary. He’s saying, “Yes, complaining about language change can be reactionary, but in this instance, I [i.e. Yglesias] have identified changes that violate common sense and have bad effects.”


    1. Hi Greg. If Yglesias thinks it makes sense to criticize the language police, we’re in full agreement. I do think that his argument that the new rules are about exclusion, rather than inclusion, is fascinating and probably on the mark. That’s a new twist to me.

      1. Hey Norm. I think Yglesias does think it makes sense to criticize the language police, in some circumstances. I think his critical position is too restricted, though– I accept Orwell’s argument, expressed most fully in 1984, that imposed language change can be used as an ideological weapon. I think our agreement here, including on Yglesias’ point about exclusion, is pretty complete.


  11. I read Yglesias’s twitter and Substack posts time to time and find him a sensible commentator on politics. Perhaps he’s being a bit glib about language change in general, but his overall point strikes at the heart of wokist politics: wokery is an attempt by the cultural and economic elite (they might not always be rich, but they’re well-off or attending elite institutions) to preserve their privileges while fooling themselves into thinking they’re being effective activists. Changing the word “field” maintains the elite by excluding those not privileged enough to learn new-speak and also makes that elite feel they’re striking a blow for justice. Self-delusion is a powerful force in politics, on all sides. We can also see it when an ultra-rich tycoon argues for drastically slashing taxes and dismantling the social safety net—he’s fooled himself into believing what’s good for his wallet must be good for America.

  12. “The difference is that he also believes that these languages changes palpably decrease inclusiveness, and thus do the opposite of what the users claim to want. And there I think he’s wrong. The language changes, regardless of their motivation, don’t change anything about society.”

    He’s not wrong. Imagine trying to get a minority scholarship, or into student government, or on social justice panels, at most schools. A student needs to be up to date on all the current lingo, both what they need to say to signal their allegiance/belonging/knowledge of the ideology, and to avoid saying anything that’s been stricken from “proper” discourse.

    Imagine trying to become a professor with the increasing efforts to “center” social justice ideology as a key (and, in many cases, the most important) criterion. A potential professor must know the language, speak it fluently, and signal their own membership in the group by the fact that they are 100% up to date on the current allowed and disallowed lingo. Indeed, we saw in the scoring system you posted the other day for diversity statements that knowledge of DEI programs and language was a requisite part of becoming a professor.

    Imagine trying to become a DEI consultant — part of a many-multi-billion-dollar industry that’s growing every day — without become 100% up to date on the language. Do you think such a person has any chance of getting one of those cushy jobs?

    So, who knows this language, and who has the time and is part of the environment that allows them to keep constant track of it? Yglesias is correct here: largely people who are upper-class, well-educated, and already part of the system that demands this language. Do you really think the poor black kid from the worst parts of Baltimore knows this language? And, assuming you agree he/she does not, who does know it?

    This language is exclusive, and the more jumbled and complex it becomes, the more exclusive it becomes.

    1. Of course the Diversity Statement rules will not select for the poor black kid from Baltimore who has not learned to refer to himself as a BIPOC or as Blackx, but that is beside the point. The rules are meant to select for those careerists of any ancestry who know the lingo of DEI, and are thus equipped to join the new nomenklatura. This new bureaucratic class will corrupt the US academic world not only along the lines of USSR biology in the 1940s-50s, but in fact along the lines of the CPSU as a whole after the Bolsheviks, having won the Civil War, constituted themselves a new ruling caste. The outcome of that experiment is still being played out.

  13. Good article.

    On “Latinx” I would also add that it’s a form of Anglo cultural imperialism. Whoever came up with that term didn’t bother to learn about gender in Latin languages, where it doesn’t conform to a person’s (or a noun’s) physical gender. Just ask a Spanish person what their language’s gender for the genitalia of males and females is. One can refer to the same person in a neutral, masculine, or feminine gender in the same sentence.

    On your point on whether or not it changes anything, I do think it a form of elite signalling, and agree it excludes others in the out group. Not a huge deal, but for those so sensitive about inclusion it is certainly hypocritical.

  14. “The Global South”. I’ve not heard that before! I live in the south of the globe, but not the “global south”. I resent this south-ist world view!

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