The “Words Matter Task Force” at the University of Michigan is busy expunging deeply offensive language like “brown bag,” “picnic,” and “long time, no see.”
· Dec 24, 2020 ·

I should probably have posted a language warning right upfront. If you have small children, you might want to make sure they are not in the room as you read this.

No doubt, when you hear the word "picnic" it immediately conjures up images of white racists lynching black people. But you know all about the problematic history of that word because I told you just now. It is also completely false.

No matter, out it goes, replaced with "gathering."

"Hey, guys, anyone up for a 'gathering?'" which hardly at all conjures up an image of a Wicken ceremony under a full moon.

This particular manifestation of the Language Police was assembled by the University of Michigan's Information and Technology Services because I can't think of a better arbiter of the appropriateness of the spoken and written word than a bunch of IT geeks.

This is all absolutely necessary because of "inclusion," which is a "core value." You can tell it's a core value because they tell you by repeating the word "inclusive," or "inclusion," 30 times in the 10-page document.

Task Force was formed and charged with identifying terms used within ITS that are, or can be construed to be, racist, sexist, or non-inclusive.

Of course, there are ways language can go wrong, and be genuinely racist and sexist but once a "task force" is formed, things go off rails quickly.

Here's the list (or most of it, you can read the entire document here).

So you start with something reasonable like suggesting that calling a work colleague or customer "honey" or "sweetheart" probably isn't a good idea unless they happen to be your wife or husband, or a small child. Unless you're a waitress at a roadside diner taking my order because I kind of like that.

Their proposed alternative suggests dry humor that I suspect they don't possess:

"use the person's name."

I can live with that.

There are a few others like that and then it gets silly.

Out: native

In: built-in, innate.

Keep in mind, we are talking about computer hardware and software. "Native" is a real word with a well-understood meaning both in and out of the IT world but out it goes because offensive.

I guess calling something a SQL Server Innate Client rolls off the tongue much better than a previously accurate and benign word.

Out: brown bag

In: lunch and learn.

Is this really a problem?

Why, yes, and for some time now. Care to hazard a guess as to where it originated?

If you said Seattle, you've been paying attention.

This, from seven years ago:

"Innocuous phrases, right?" it went on. "Mm, not so much. For some people, the phrase 'brown bag' calls up ugly associations with use of the expression 'brown bag' to determine if people's skin color was light enough to allow admission to an event, a home, etc.

I am pretty white, and I have never heard that. Have you? I'm genuinely curious.

More to the point, when you bring things like this up, only then do you make it widespread knowledge. It's a perfect example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Elliott Bronstein, chief spokesman for the Seattle Office of Civil Rights, advised the city's public information officers to avoid the phrase and use terms like "sack lunch" or "lunch-and-learn.

I guess we'll be "lunch-and-learning" it from now on!

Back to Michigan.

Out: disabled

In: when referring to a system: deactivated, broken

Again, "disabled" is a defined term. We've already been instructed that we can't use it when referring to human beings. Now we can't use it when referring to inanimate objects?

Is there any time we can use it, other than in virtue-signaling documents like this, or should it be banished from the English language forever?

Out: long time, no see

In: "It's been a while," "I haven't seen you in ages!"

Apparently, it's offensive to Asians in Colorado, for no known reason. This, from 2018:

"In a meeting with Zahra Al-Saloom, the director of Diversity and Inclusion at Associated Students of Colorado State University, she showed me an entire packet of words and phrases that were deemed non-inclusive," student Katrina Leibee wrote in the Rocky Mountain Collegian. "One of these phrases was ‘long time, no see,' which is viewed as derogatory toward those of Asian descent."

Out it goes, another victim of our endless pursuit to seek out offense where none is intended, and never was.

Out: grandfathered (in)

In: legacy status, legacies in, exempted, excused

We wear masks to save grandma. Grandpa? Throw him on the ash heap of intolerance!

Where in the world did this come from?

From 2019, "Words Matter: Why We Should Put An End to Grandfathering."

I don't recall exactly when I first became aware of the origin of the term "grandfathering" — an article shared by a friend, or a gender-based sense of discomfort that drove me to Google it.

She literally googled a new way to be offended. "A gender-based sense of discomfort."

But it arises from the term grandfather clause, and the reason to leave it in the past is right in the Merriam-Webster definition(1):

Who knows this, other than perhaps hard-core racists, historians, and people with gender-based senses of discomfort?

And this is why we can't have nice things. There is no incentive to stop, only built-in incentives to create as long a list as you can and keep it growing.

Acknowledging the longevity and important efforts of this initiative, a Words Matter Advisory Board should be established as part of the broader ITS and U-M DEI efforts. This advisory board will continue to support ITS as it relates to updating inclusive language resources and artifact naming standards and supporting ITS services in the adoption of inclusive language best practices.

In so doing, they institutionalize it.

Not all words on this list may be offensive to everyone. Regardless, if a colleague considers a word or phrase offensive, their lived experience should be acknowledged, and an alternative word or phrase should be used.

"Not all words on this list may be offensive to everyone," but if one is, out it goes. You've heard of the heckler's veto? This is the hectored veto, anyone anywhere who can either manufacture offense, or dig up an obscure historical reference and make it popular again just so it can be summarily banned in a spectacular display of self-righteousness will have a say as to what you are and are not permitted to say in public.

How many words now considered reasonable substitutes won't be found to be offensive by someone, somewhere, sometime?

Take the alternate words above. "Legacy status," could remind someone of the college admissions tradition of showing preference to the children of former graduates, clearly making people whose parents did not go to college feel inferior.

How about "lunch and learn," which clearly elevates the traditional European notion of the patriarchal three-meals-a-day eating paradigm as normative thus deeply offensive to other cultures.

Well, at least we're focusing on what's really important.

Ready to join the conversation? Subscribe today.

Access comments and our fully-featured social platform.

Sign up Now
App screenshot