Nick Cohen on the AP’s language recommendation

January 27, 2023 • 12:30 pm

It’s been a while since I posted about anything by Nick Cohen, whom I used to read (and admire) all the time. I guess he’s writing more often on his Substack site.  Checking that out, I found this on his Wikipedia bio:

Nicholas Cohen (born 1961) is a British journalist, author and political commentator. He was a columnist for The Observer and a blogger for The Spectator. Following accusations of sexual harassment, he left The Observer in 2022 and began publishing on the Substack platform.

The footnote for the accusations goes to a Guardian article. in which a woman accused Cohen of sexual assault via groping.  I was shocked, and the fact that Cohen left the Observer after an investigation is disturbing.  I found that out after I already drafted a post with this post from Cohen’s Facebook page. I thought the AP’s “retraction” (an Cohen’s remark) was hilarious, but it loses some humor in light of the above.

I put that first tweet by the AP in the Hili Dialogues the other day, but I guess it’s gone now. At least somebody saved it, and oy did it get pushback!

The kerfuffle over “Latinx”

January 27, 2023 • 9:20 am

Inside Higher Ed, the downmarket version of Chronicles of Higher Education, has published a piece by Bryan Betancur, assistant professor of Spanish at Furman University and a Colombian-American who writes about issues concerning Latinos.  But Betancur would not say “Latinos” as he argues in the following long op-ed, nor would he say “Latinx” which he (and a lot of genuine Latinos as well as yours truly) despises. Betancur’s article is twice as long as it should be, but he does make a couple of good points.

First, he notes, as we already know, that Americans of Latin-America ancestry generally dislike the term “Latinx”:

. . . U.S. politicians (primarily Democrats) continue using “Latinx” in social media posts despite growing evidence that only a small fraction of U.S. adults who identify as Latino or Hispanic (just 3 percent) refer to themselves as Latinx, while as many as four in 10 members of this heterogenous population find the term irksome or offensive.

Check out the links; he’s right.

As you may know, “Latinx” was a term developed by academics and promulgated mainly by the self-styled “in the know” progressive Democrats as the plural for people of Latin-American extraction. Since a male is a “Latino” and a female a “Latina”, it seemed to the wokerati a bit misogynistic to make the word for a group of people the same as the plural for “man”: “Latinos”. They therefore appended an “x” to “Latin,” creating an unpronounceable but ideologically acceptable term. (The same has been done to “women”, getting rid of the offensive “men” part by replacing the “e” with an “x”, creating the equally unpronounceable “womxn”. There’s also the alternative “womyn,” which is touted as less inclusive!

My own objection to “Latinx” is that you can’t pronounce it, and it’s also a performative and nearly useless change that was done to flaunt the virtue of the “progressive” people who confected and who use it. It’s especially bad because Hispanics (the term I use) do not like it or use it, either.

But apparently Betancur agrees with the objectionable nature of “Latinos” as a plural. But his objections aren’t quite the same as the ones given above, for he is woke.  He sees Latinx as non-inclusive.

a.) You can’t pronounce it, and that’s an issue for many Hispanics who don’t speak English (“Latinx” can’t be pronounced in Spanish), and who rely more on verbal rather than written communication.

My perspective on “Latinx” changed in 2019 when my mom, who only speaks to me in Spanish, asked me to explain the term’s significance. More accurately, she tried to reference the identifier but was unsure how to pronounce it. Her uncertainty granted me new insight into my discomfort with the term “Latinx.” I could explain gender-inclusive language to my mom but could only spell out terms like queridx, because these words cannot be pronounced in Spanish. The battle against grammatical gender was inaccessible to my mom, who did not attend college and was not about to read a jargony essay on the subject.

If this new linguistic practice did not lend itself to a simple oral explanation to my mom, it also excluded much of my family and the immigrant community in which I grew up. What’s more, the allegedly inclusive language also left out a significant portion of my students at Bronx Community College, many of whom come from backgrounds like mine. I finally understood that the knee-jerk aversion I felt toward “Latinx” stemmed from an unconscious recognition that this linguistic practice was not as inclusive as its many adherents, including myself, claimed.

Following that conversation, I scoured the internet for critiques of “Latinx” and found an edifying interview with Mexican linguist Concepción Company. Company asserts that using language in a manner that yields words such as amigx privileges writing over orality and excludes groups, such as some Indigenous communities, that lack formal writing systems These populations are thus denied equal opportunity to participate in activism via language. My family, my community and my students were not the only ones left out of the Latinx conversation.

b.) The term is therefore not inclusive but divisive:

My perspective on “Latinx” changed in 2019 when my mom, who only speaks to me in Spanish, asked me to explain the term’s significance. More accurately, she tried to reference the identifier but was unsure how to pronounce it. Her uncertainty granted me new insight into my discomfort with the term “Latinx.” I could explain gender-inclusive language to my mom but could only spell out terms like queridx, because these words cannot be pronounced in Spanish. The battle against grammatical gender was inaccessible to my mom, who did not attend college and was not about to read a jargony essay on the subject.

. . . If this new linguistic practice did not lend itself to a simple oral explanation to my mom, it also excluded much of my family and the immigrant community in which I grew up. What’s more, the allegedly inclusive language also left out a significant portion of my students at Bronx Community College, many of whom come from backgrounds like mine. I finally understood that the knee-jerk aversion I felt toward “Latinx” stemmed from an unconscious recognition that this linguistic practice was not as inclusive as its many adherents, including myself, claimed.

In other words, he’s using a woke argument against a woke term (my bolding):

Arguments that emphasize the use of “Latinx” among English speakers implicitly separate persons of Latin American descent into two groups: monolingual Spanish speakers and those who were born in the U.S. and primarily speak English. This de facto division runs counter to assertions that “Latinx” denotes inclusivity. Some descendants of Latin American immigrants might not feel a strong attachment to Spanish, but that does not mean the language in its spoken form ought to be dismissed. For the more than 460 million native speakers in the world, Spanish is not an abstract remnant of colonialism but a lived means of communication. Expecting a multinational ethnic group to tolerate language simply because it is acceptable to English speakers is linguistic imperialism under the guise of social progress.

Following that conversation, I scoured the internet for critiques of “Latinx” and found an edifying interview with Mexican linguist Concepción Company. Company asserts that using language in a manner that yields words such as amigx privileges writing over orality and excludes groups, such as some Indigenous communities, that lack formal writing systems These populations are thus denied equal opportunity to participate in activism via language. My family, my community and my students were not the only ones left out of the Latinx conversation.

So what term does the sweating professor want to use? I guess “Hispanic” isn’t good enough (I suppose you could make some kind of argument for geographical accuracy, but do we really care?) As the Pew Poll notes, most people of “Latino” extraction in the U.S. actually prefer “Hispanic”:

A majority (61%) say they prefer Hispanic to describe the Hispanic or Latino population in the U.S., and 29% say they prefer Latino. Meanwhile, just 4% say they prefer Latinx to describe the Hispanic or Latino population.

But Betancur likes the new term “Latine”, with the neutral “e” at the end, a usage that, he says, is gaining ground in Latin America in terms like “amigues” for “friends.” It is not only inclusive, but easy to pronounce:

But when it comes to “Latinx” and “Latine,” the question is not a matter of personal choice, as many claim. This assertion creates a false equivalence between the terms. I use “Latine” because inclusive language should not value literacy over orality, English over Spanish, or the ivory tower over the greater community.

But why not “Hispanic”?

This is, of course, a tempest in a teapot. I could just as well campaign for the elimination of “Jews” as a pejorative plural, and insist on using “Jewish people” to emphasize our status as human beings. But I can’t be bothered. (Of course, “Jewess” is no longer a viable word for a Jewish female (have they been erased?), so perhaps even “Jews”, construed as plural for the formerly male term “Jew”, should now be “Jewx”.)

From the Pew Poll:


h/t: Wayne

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.

Expand this list of related words

January 19, 2023 • 12:30 pm

All of these words are like the others, and you’ll see why. I invite you to add to the list:







violence (referring to language or words)

problematize (or problematic)

I thought of more, but thought I’d throw it into your laps. The words are, of course, red flags for ideology, and when they appear in a science paper, or in a paper in a science journal, be careful.

USC’s highlighting of “field” as a racist word perplexes the students

January 13, 2023 • 9:15 am

Two days ago I reported that the University of Southern California’s (USC’s) School of Social Work had highlighted the word “field” as a racist term, for it was used in the phrase “field hand”, referring to enslaved people forced to do agricultural labor. Below is part of the memorandum issued by the School’s “Practicum Education Department”:

This is about as arrant an example of changing language for no good reason that I can think of, for who would think of the phrase “my field is psychiatric social work” as racist? And if you use “practicum”, which isn’t even technically correct, nobody would understand what you meant.

As readers here also noted, the phrase “field” in the agricultural sense goes back centuries, and, further, “field” has many other uses that can’t in one’s wildest imagination be seen as racist—like “field work” for ecologists. This is an example of an action that did not need to be taken, but also an example of how crazy the language policing has become. Words are getting deemed racist so fast that a good ideologue can’t keep up with the changes.

The memorandum has also confused USC students, too, as this article from Wednesday’s USC student newspaper, The Daily Trojan, notes (click to read):

The paper notes that the word’s earliest usage antedates its use in American slavery:

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term “field work” can be traced back to 1767 in uses meaning “gathering statistics or doing research out-of-doors or on-site.” Merriam-Webster’s website says the term’s first-known use was in 1686, to mean “a temporary fortification thrown up by an army in the field.”

But what’s doubly confusing is that the school administration walked back what the School of Social work declared:

Twitter pundits quickly seized on the announcement, decrying it as “woke” virtue signaling.

“The university does not maintain a list of banned or discouraged words,” wrote Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Elizabeth Graddy in a statement to the Daily Trojan Wednesday. We will continue to use words — including ‘field’ — that accurately encompass and describe our work and research.”

If that’s the case, then the School of Social Work is at odds with USC’s administration. When, then, is the word “field” to be seen as racist? I look forward to clarification from the Practicum Education Department.

What’s curious but predictable is that only a few students interviewed were willing to criticize the announcement about “field”. It looks like some were puzzled, but others thought that because “field” was declared racist, it must be racist.

Students — interviewed by the Daily Trojan on Tuesday both at random on the University Park Campus and specifically in the school of social work — seemed largely split on the school’s decision.

“I’ve never been in a conversation with another Black person that has had a problem with the word ‘field,’” said Leka Mpigi, a graduate student studying architecture. “But I don’t know if that’s because I’m of African descent; I’m not African American.”

Mpigi said she could see why the terms would be taken the way the memo characterized them, but suggested that USC might have “bigger problems” to focus on, specifically admitting more students of color.

“At this point, it looks like we’re fishing for something of relevance,” Mpigi said. “It feels like a stretch.”

Kudos to Mpigi for at least saying the obvious. She’s clearly savvier than the factotums in the School of Social Work.

Here’s a student bowing to authority and dissing free speech as well:

Paloma Williams, a junior majoring in design, said that if the phrases being replaced originated from slavery or have an offensive origin, she supports the decision.

“Free speech doesn’t make saying offensive things OK,” Williams said.

That last statement is wrong if by “OK” she meant “legal.”  Notice the revival of the old critique of free speech: it should be curbed when that free speech is deemed offensive.

Three other students who will go along to get along:

“I have no issue with [the change],” said Maya Borenstein, a graduate student studying social work. “The title of my courses doesn’t really affect me. I’m all for changing language if it’s what they think is correct.”

Borenstein said she doesn’t feel like the change is limiting her own speech. David Lerman, another graduate student studying social work, said he thinks it isn’t his place to judge whether a term is harmful or offensive because he’s white.

“Coming from a background where I had family members that grew up working fields, I don’t think that they themselves would find it particularly offensive,” said Rylan Jimenez, a freshman majoring in engineering. “It just seems a little ridiculous to me.”

Jimenez said he can’t speak for people whose families have been through slavery.

“I feel like I can see both sides of the argument,” said Rozheen Barekatein, a graduate student studying social work. “But at the same time, why are we calling it a ‘master’s program?’”

Barekatein sees the hypocrisy of expunging some words but not others. (After all “master” has been thoroughly demonized, as in the removal of the term “master bedroom” from real estate descriptions.)

But clearly the students aren’t as willing to take as hard a line against the term’s elimination as did readers here. That could be for three reasons:

a. The students are more woke than our readers and willing to accept changes in words deemed offensive.

b. The students are, as the paper notes in its headline, somewhat confused, and so are ambiguous in their thoughts and responses.

c. Many of the students think it’s dumb to eliminate the word “field,” but are too intimidated to say so.

I think the answer involves all three factors, but I hope that a.) is a minor one. But make no mistake about it. The School of Social Work may USE the word “practicum”, but I strongly doubt that it will catch on.


h/t: Anna


Stanford deep-sixes its list of “harmful” words and phrases

January 12, 2023 • 9:15 am

The other day I was kvetching about wokeness to two members of Team Duck, and moaning that the “movement” wouldn’t go away for years. Both of them assured me that I was wrong, but I didn’t think so. Now, with the publication of the article below from Inside Higher Ed (IHE), I think there may a smidgen of hope. That’s because widespread mockery has caused a university to eliminate a list of words considered harmful. Remember, mockery can be an effective weapon in the fight against the benighted.

First, a review. The Wall Street Journal first cited the Stanford “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative,” which I mentioned in a Hili post. It was a guide to language that was supposed to be used at Stanford University’s IT group. Here’s what the IHE article below notes about the words recommended by Stanford for erasure (there were many more: around 150 in total):

The 13-page guide contained more than 150 words and phrases organized into 10 categories of harmful language: ableist, ageism, colonialism, culturally appropriative, gender-based, imprecise language, institutionalized racism, person-first, and violent words and phrases. Words and phrases such as “brave,” “seminal,” “American,” “take a shot at,” “no can do” and “submit” were deemed harmful.

“Brave,” according to the guide, was deemed harmful for perpetuating stereotypes of the “noble courageous savage.” (The guide did not recommend a replacement for this word.) Instead of “seminal,” readers were encouraged to use “leading” or “groundbreaking,” so as not to reinforce male-dominated language. Instead of “American,” the guide recommended “U.S. citizen,” to avoid insinuating that the U.S. dominates the Americas. The guide also recommended that “give it a go” take the place of “take a shot at” to avoid violent imagery. “No can do,” per the guide, should be replaced by “I can’t do it,” since the former originated from stereotypes that mocked nonnative English speakers. The guide recommended replacing “submit” with “process,” as the latter “can imply allowing others to have power over you.”.

A few days later I noted that Stanford’s Language Police backed off on only one word; they decided it was okay to use the word “American.” The rest stayed on the list as verboten language.

Now, glory be, and after widespread mockery, Stanford has rescinded the entire list.

Does that mean there hope that wokeness will disappear? Well, remember that I reported yesterday on USC’s new “progressive” drive to get rid of the word “field”, apparently because it’s associated with slavery, though the word, meaning, “plot of farmed land”, goes back centuries. So maybe some are overly optimistic that this type of illiberal ideology is on its way out. I reserve judgment.

Click to read:

The article describes other schools, like The University of Texas at Austin, Brandeis, the University of San Francisco, and Indiana University’s library system, that also have recommendation against “harmful” language and have begun projects devoted to identifying it. But the highlight today is Stanford’s backing off of its long list, culminating with a letter from the University’s President saying “we goofed up”, and then with removal of the entire guide from the University’s website. It’s gone. It is an ex-guide, singing with the Choir Invisible. From IHE:

Following the backlash, the university hid the website from public view on Dec. 20. Stanford chief information officer Steve Gallagher clarified in a statement that the website had been intended to guide discussions about inclusion within the university’s information technology community and did not represent university policy. But the university pulled back more in January by removing the guide from its website.

The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative “was created to address racist terms historically used in IT, such as ‘master’ and ‘slave’ to describe aspects of systems,” Gallagher wrote in a statement. “The feedback that this work was broadly viewed as counter to inclusivity means we missed the intended mark. It is for this reason that we have taken down the EHLI site.”

In a community letter, Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne acknowledged the good intentions of the university staff who sought to promote inclusivity. But he also reiterated that “at no point did the website represent university policy” and affirmed that Stanford’s “efforts to advance inclusion must remain consistent with our commitment to academic freedom and free expression.”

Here’s an excerpt of the letter from President Tessier-Lavigne, emphasizing the priority of free speech over language policing:

Although, some language really shouldn’t be used except in a didactic sense because it truly is offensive (the n-word is one, and another, in my view, is “master” and “slave” when referring to electrical devices), the Stanford list went way too far, resulting in widespread mockery of the University. The only real backlash cited by the article, though, is that given in the WSJ:

“Parodists have it rough these days, since so much of modern life and culture resembles the Babylon Bee,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote on Dec. 19, referencing the satirical website that is sometimes referred to as a conservative version of The Onion.

Finally, there’s a bit of pushback—even from members of “marginalized groups”—in this case a Jewish man:

“The inclusion of ‘Jewed’ as a verb is warranted because it clearly associates being Jewish with a negative stereotype,” Josh Yuter, a rabbi who was ordained by Yeshiva University and was named a National Jewish Outreach Program top 10 Jewish influencer in 2012, said via email. “Including ‘hip-hip hooray’ as ‘harmful language’ towards Jews is less understandable. Until reading the initiative I had no idea that a variant of ‘hip-hip hooray’ was a German rallying cry during the Holocaust, and I suspect few others would as well. I cannot speak to traumas experienced by actual survivors, but I would be very surprised if ‘hip-hip hooray’ was passed down as intergenerational trauma to merit inclusion as being ‘harmful’ in any way.”

The origins of this phase predated Nazi Germany, Yuter added. “Even if we accept language evolving such that innocuous idioms may turn into harmful speech, it stands to reason that harmful language can evolve further and resume being innocuous.”

Yuter, reflecting on Stanford’s public relations debacle, likened it to a recent controversy over a New York Times crossword puzzle that resembled a swastika.

“The design is common in crosswords and unnoticeable to many unless someone points it out,” Yuter said. “However, people who want to be offended will always find their reasons if they look hard enough. I believe the same is true here.”

The rabbi is right. But “field” didn’t evolve in general meaning at all: it simply was used in a phrase associated with slavery (“field hand”), and now that phrase is outdated. And yes, “hip-hip hooray” was indeed on Stanford’s list. Only the offended would have even traced back its meaning so that it could be singled out for elimination. There are many woke people trawling through the dictionary looking for words that are offensive and that they can tell us not to use. That reminds me of the famous anecdote about Dr. Johnson and his dictionary, which goes something like this:

After Samuel Johnson published his masterful dictionary of the English language he was reportedly approached by two prudish individuals:

“Mr. Johnson, we are glad that you have omitted the indelicate and objectionable words from your new dictionary.”

“What, my dears! Have you been searching for them?”

But I reiterate: mockery can be a powerful weapon. In this case it forced the President of Stanford to retract a policy of one sector of the University.

h/t: Wayne

USC progressives: you can’t say “field” any longer

January 11, 2023 • 9:40 am

Every day the language policing gets more and more ludicrous, but this example, from the School of Social Work of the University of Southern California, takes the cake.  I can no longer say that “my field is evolutionary biology” because that is racist language. The connection, as outlined in the official letter below from the USC group, is that enslaved people went “into the field” in the antebellum South. That makes the word “field” off limits. But farmers were going into the field long before that!

Now the recommended verbiage is “my practicum is evolutionary biology.” At that point people will say “Whaaaat???” And, as several readers note below, the words “field work” for biologists are also unacceptable; I suppose the alternative is “ecological labor in the great outdoors”.

I don’t think people will buy this change. Note that USC’s stated goal is not just to change language but to “acknowledge inclusion and reject white supremacy, anti-immigrant, and anti-blacknesss ideologies.” I don’t think that this aim will come to mind when someone says “practicum.”

The thing that strikes me is that someone had to see the world “field” as racist, and then take action to expunge it from USC’s language. You have to be sniffing around very hard for offense to do something like that. And I suspect that their goal, in fact, isn’t any of the ones they state, but simply to assert power.  How bizarre that these initiatives actually work in today’s America!

If you think this is fake, it’s not: it’s been reported by quite a few venues. They’re mostly right-wing sites, of course, because the mainstream media would never highlight something like this, as it makes the progressive Left, as well as academia, look too crazy. It’s stuff like this that Republicans use to tar not just the “woke”, but all Democrats and left-centrists.

There are good cases to be made for changing some language, but this isn’t one of them.

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.”

Germans and Brits try to eliminate gendered nouns in the German language

October 29, 2022 • 11:30 am

If you’ve studied German, you’ll know that the language has three classes of gendered nouns, feminine, masculine, and neuter, with the definite article (“the”) being “die”, “der”, and “das” respectively. There are two indefinite articles (“a”), with the male/neuter and female forms being “ein” and “eine” respectively.  The articles don’t always correspond to the actia; sex of the noun used. For example, “Mädchen” (“girl”) in German goes with the neuter definite article “das”.

German also has nouns like “actor” or “actress” in which the designated word is indicated as male or female, with “-in” usually added  to the male form (see below).

Some Brits and Germans, who confuse language gender with sex gender are trying to change this system, which they consider noninclusive, sexist, or offensive who don’t see themselves represented by the language genders.  You can read about the kerfuffle by clicking on the headline below the tweet. As you see, Steve Pinker thinks the dispute involves a category error.

Here’s the article from the Times of London mentioned by Pinker (click to read):

The impetus below comes not from Germany but from Cambridge University:

It aimed to encourage students to speak more “inclusively” and not fall foul of those who may be offended by sex-specific pronouns. But the University of Cambridge’s decision to say Auf Wiedersehen to teaching gendered German has prompted warnings from linguists that students risk making a fool of themselves when talking with native speakers.

Undergraduates paying £9,250 a year have been urged to use “inclusive language” and “to use gender- and non-binary-inclusive language when we address or refer to students and colleagues, both in writing and in speech in English and in German”.

Course managers said they encouraged students and staff to choose newer forms with plural nouns.

When writing, they may render feminine nouns unisex by inserting an asterisk before the suffix — a nonstandard usage known as the “gender star”.

They noted that “in extended German texts grammatical structures can inhibit inclusivity . . . relative and other pronouns, for example, are obligatorily marked for grammatical gender, so going gender-free is difficult to achieve”.

There are several suggested ways to use “gender-inclusive German”; many suggested in this article from Language Lab. Here are two:

Here’s the asterisk used for the plurals of “Lehrer” (male teacher) and “Lehrerin” (female teacher):

The change in language is motivated by two things. FIrst the default article for the plural is masculine, ergo seen as sexist/ As noted by NPR:

In Germany, the debate about gender-neutral and inclusive language is complicated by grammar. Just as in many other languages, gender in German isn’t denoted by personal pronouns alone. German nouns that refer to people have traditionally been masculine or feminine. So, a male citizen is a Bürger and a female citizen is a Bürgerin. But in the plural, the masculine is traditionally used by default — a point that’s been contentious at least as far back as the second wave of feminism in the 1960s.

One solution, noted above, which is actually the law in one German state:

In 2019, Hanover became the first state capital to mandate the use of gender-neutral language in all official communication, from emails to brochures and posters. It deployed what’s known as the “gender star,” an asterisk placed within a noun to indicate it refers to men, women and nonbinary people alike. For instance, the word for all citizens became Bürger*innen.

And for some people who don’t feel that they’re either of a male or female gender (e.g,. intersex or nonbinary folk), the gendering of nouns is seen as offensive.

As expected, those more on the Left in Germany favor this linguistic change, while conservaties are fighting against it. If America is any lesson, the prediction is that the language will change, becoming gender neutral.

I have no dog in this fight: if some Germans think that this usage is inclusive, that’s their business because it’s their language, and I’ll let Germans fight this one out.  However, as Pinker notes above, and I’ll take his word for it because he’s a linguist, “gender” in languages like German is a kind of class that has nothing to do with sex. If that’s the case, then this whole effort is misguided. (The problem, though, is that the classes are labeled as “masculine”, “feminine” and “neuter.”)

And then there’s French with its “le” and “la”. I haven’t heard of any proposed changes there, but surely it’s only a matter of time. . .

What’s the right adjective: “gay” or “queer”? Pamela Paul unpacks David Sedaris

October 23, 2022 • 12:15 pm

I saw this video by writer David Sedaris on Twitter the other day, a video in which he wants to be called “gay” rather than “queer”; instead, he announces, tongue in cheek, that he’s now “heterosexual,” as that word doesn’t change. As he said, “I just don’t see why I have to be re-branded for the fourth time in my life. I started as a ‘homosexual’, became ‘gay’, then ‘LGBT’ and now “queer.”

This is when I learned that “queer” is quickly replacing “gay” as a more “inclusive” term.  I don’t understand that, as I thought, mistakenly, that they were synonyms (but see Pamela Paul’s piece below), but who am I to object to what others want to be called?; I’m a “staight” or “cis” male (or, as some say with snark, a “breeder).  I’m happy with calling people what they want to be called, but Sedaris, as a member of a sexual minority, isn’t all that happy with being called “queer”.  Watch this very short video:

And today’s NYT column by Pamela Paul (click on screenshot to read) explains the change. And that’s when I realized that Sedaris was going to get flak for his words.


First, the increase:

Last month, the new president of the advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, Kelley Robinson, posted a six-and-a-half-minute video to introduce herself and frame the mission of her organization, which was founded 40 years ago by the gay activist Steve Endean to help fund political campaigns for pro-gay-rights candidates. In the video, Robinson talked about voting rights. She talked about transgender kids in school. She talked about abortion access and workers’ rights. She said a lot of things, including getting “to a world where we are free and liberated without exception — without exception — without anyone left behind.”

Not once, however, did she say the word “gay” or “lesbian” or “bisexual.”

She’s not the only one. The word “gay” is increasingly being substituted by “queer” or, more broadly, “L.G.B.T.Q.,” which are about gender as much as — and perhaps more so than — sexual orientation. The word “queer” is climbing in frequency and can be used interchangeably with “gay,” which itself not so long ago replaced the dour and faintly judgy “homosexual.

The shift has been especially dramatic in certain influential spheres: academia, cultural institutions and the media, from Teen Vogue to The Hollywood Reporter to this newspaper. Only 10 years ago, for example, “queer” appeared a mere 85 times in The New York Times. As of Friday, it’s been used 632 times in 2022, and the year is not over. In the same periods, use of “gay” has fallen from 2,228 to 1,531 — still more commonly used, but the direction of the evolution is impossible to miss. Meanwhile, the umbrella term “L.G.B.T.Q.” increased from two mentions to 714.

She mentions Sedaris’s video and then analyzes the kerfuffle in her characteristic straight-out style, which I like (she’s one of my favorite NYT columnists):

This raises a question for me, a language obsessive and someone interested in the ways word choices reflect and drive the culture: Why change the word for same-sex orientation? And to echo Sedaris: Who decides these things anyway?

Let’s start with the basic dictionary-sense differences between the words. “Gay” has a clear, specific meaning that applies to both men and women: “homosexual,” which is the first entry in most dictionaries. “Lesbian,” of course, bears the same meaning, but strictly for women.

Paul then digs into her dictionaries and notes that ““gay” and “queer” are not synonymous“, with “queer” having a multitude of meanings, including “odd” or, in this case, “a person whose sexual orientation or gender identity falls outside the heterosexual mainstream or the gender binary.” That, of course, covers a lot of territory, and also tells us why Sedaris doesn’t like being rebranded, because it makes his sexual orientation less specific—in fact, unidentifiable. And perhaps that’s the point of the change: to put everyone who’s not “cis” into one linguistic bag. Paul:

Confused? You should be! “Queer” can mean almost anything, and that’s the point. Queer theory is about deliberately breaking down normative categories around gender and sex, particularly binary ones like men and women, straight and gay. Saying you’re queer could mean you’re gay; it could mean you’re straight; it could mean you’re undecided about your gender or that you prefer not to say. Saying you’re queer could mean as little as having kissed another girl your sophomore year at college. It could mean you valiantly plowed through the prose of Judith Butler in a course on queerness in the Elizabethan theater.

(You have to be really valiant to plow through Judith Butler!)

But Paul’s real argument (I think she’s “straight”, since she’s married to a man) is more serious: she sees “queer” as having, among its many meanings, some that aren’t so cool, while “gay” is unambiguous.

But this is important: Not all gay people see themselves as queer. Many lesbian and gay people define themselves in terms of sexual orientation, not gender. There are gay men, for example, who grew up desperately needing reassurance that they were just as much a boy as any hypermanly heterosexual. They had to push back hard against those who tried to tell them their sexual orientation called their masculinity into question.

“Queer” carries other connotations, not all of them welcome — or welcoming. Whereas homosexuality is a sexual orientation one cannot choose, queerness is something one can, according to James Kirchick, the author of “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.” Queerness, he argues, is a fashion and a political statement that not all gay people subscribe to. “Queerness is also self-consciously and purposefully marginal,” he told me. “Whereas the arc of the gay rights movement, and the individual lives of most gay people, has been a struggle against marginality. We want to be welcomed. We want to have equal rights. We want a place in our institutions.”

Many gay people simply prefer the word “gay.” “Gay” has long been a generally positive term. The second definition for “gay” in most dictionaries is something along the lines of “happy,” “lighthearted” and “carefree.” Whereas “queer” has been, first and foremost, a pejorative. For a certain generation, “queer” is still what William F. Buckley, jaw clenching, called Gore Vidal on ABC in 1968 — “Listen, you queer” — before threatening to “sock you in your goddamn face.”

What I hear most often from gay and lesbian friends regarding the word “queer” is something along the lines of what Sedaris pointed out: “Nobody consulted me!” This wasn’t their choice.

Paul’s explanation is—you guessed it—academics (who gave us the odious term “Latinx”), along with the high percentage of Gen Z folks who identify as “LGBT”.  Paul hastens to reassure the reader that people can use any term they want to describe themselves, but some terms are less desirable than others. “Fat,” she argues, is a term that overweight people deeply dislike, along with “obese” and “chubby”. (They prefer terms like “overweight” or “unhealthy weight”.) Why not use the terms that offend people the least, at least in their presence?  And apparently, Sedaris prefers “gay” to “queer”.  As Paul notes,

Language is always changing — but it shouldn’t become inflexible, especially when new terminologies, in the name of inclusion, sometimes wind up making others feel excluded. In the case of “queer,” it’s especially worrisome and not only because it supersedes widely accepted and understood terms but also because the gay rights movement’s successes have historically hinged on efforts at inclusion.

Gay people, lesbians and bisexuals fought for a long time to be open and clear about who they are. That’s why they call it pride.

Well, I have no dog in this fight, either, and am happy to call people what they want to be called. I think that when someone tells you they’re gay, that’s the word you should use. Same with “queer”.  But will we now have to resort to asking people not only their pronouns, but how to describe their sexual orientation? (Actually, I think the person will nearly always tell you themselves without your asking.)

And, as I predicted to myself when I read Paul’s column, Sedaris is being roundly trounced by the Pecksniffs. Take a look at this article in Jezebel, for instance, which goes to great lengths to find flaws in Sedaris’s “argument”, comparing him to an old man yelling at a cloud. And there’s the Language Police at Advocate, saying that there’s simply so much to “unpack” in Sedaris’s claim, much of it offensive. And Queerty documents the social-media “firestorm” around Sedaris’s claim.

So be it. I saw Sedaris’s piece as a bit of humor, with a tiny grain of seriousness. After all, he’s certainly not a member of the class using the word he prefers: “heterosexual”!  But there’s no humor in the Woke Language Police. One could update the old cartoon, now showing a customer in a bookstore (who wants a funny book) being told by a clerk, “Sorry, sir, this is a Progressive bookstore. We have no humor section.”

Just remember—watch your adjectives. Don’t call a person who says they’re gay “queer”. Or vice versa.