Ridding Ourselves of Problematic Language

Or: Doing the Right and Decent Thing Has All Kinds of Benefits for Everyone, Including You

**Disclaimer: The following contains discussion of words and phrases which are harmful to some people. I do not use these words and phrases with intent to harm, but as examples of the subject.**

I recently came across this article about ableist language:

The harmful ableist language you unknowingly use
(by Sara Nović, published by the BBC, Apr. 5, 2021, last accessed Jul. 26, 2022)

It’s a good examination of how deeply ableist language is embedded in our culture and the harm it does. For many of us, we don’t intend any harm when we use ableist phrases. These are simply phrases that are common in our surroundings and we use them unthinkingly. Most of us don’t even realize some of these terms are prejudiced. Which is why I’m grateful for articles like this one. I care about other people and I don’t want to cause someone harm. Knowing more about ableist language helps me avoid causing harm.

Within this article, there’s a link to an excellent post which lists alternate terms we can use instead:

(by Lydia X. Z. Brown, published on personal blog, last updated Nov. 16, 2021, last accessed Jul. 26, 2022)

What strikes me most about the suggestions for alternate words is how much better they are than the ableist terms they replace. The suggested substitutions are more vibrant and interesting, more precise and nuanced, and far more evocative. Using these suggested terms not only reduces harm to others, it also makes us better communicators. It helps us say what we mean more meaningfully.

At a certain point, reliance on ableist terms is just lazy. It’s unconsidered habit. They’re cultural linguistic shortcuts that allow us to avoid the work of really thinking about how best to say what we want to say.

There’s a quote I adore from the A&E television adaptation of Nero Wolfe, when a woman mentions how he sure uses lots of big words, and he replies:

“Madam, I try to use words to say what I mean.”

More and various words help us say what we mean in more meaningful and varied ways. Doing the work to rid ourselves of ableist language makes us better and more effective communicators.

I recently experienced this first-hand. I became aware of how often I use the term “jipped” when referring to someone being cheated or ripped off. It’s my long-time habitual go-to word for these situations. It’s not an ableist word but I’ve learned it is problematic: the traditional spelling is “gypped” as a reference to “gypsy,” and it’s embedded in deep historic prejudices and stereotypes of the Romani people.

I decided to stop using it. It’s is the right and decent thing to do. It takes a lot of work: breaking long-time linguistic habit is difficult. I have to think about what I’m saying and how I say it. Thinking more before you speak is never a bad strategy, so this is a good thing.

It required me to find other words and phrases I can use instead. As a result, I now have a whole list of terms to draw from, rather than always defaulting to the same word. Each term has its own connotations and tone, which means I can choose words to be more precise, more nuanced, and more evocative, to make my meaning clearer, to add variety and interest to my language. Doing this work makes me a better communicator.

Reflecting on how our vocabulary promotes and sustains bias and prejudice in our society is important. Making a choice to use less hurtful and damaging language is right and good. That, in and of itself, should be enough to make the work worthwhile.

But it also improves our vocabulary and our ability to say what we mean more clearly and effectively. Win-win.


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