Humans are wired for language. Soon after birth we start noticing phonemes, and within a year we’re recognizing words. Then we’re off to the races, absorbing vocabulary, trying out new words, and refining how we communicate.
Despite having learned enough words to get by, as teenagers we continue to rapidly assimilate new words and phrases. We go beyond saying what needs to be said, and experiment with how it can be said. We learn the nuance between different word choices, and the subtext that certain phrases imply.
For example you could say that something is “cool”, which means you think it’s good. It also means, these days, that you are old. Alternatively, you could say that thing “slaps”, which means you think it’s good, and also that you are not old. Or you don’t want to be seen as old. Or you are attempting to embarrass your kids.
While preceding generations may roll their eyes at today’s kids’ flexing, capping, and yeeting, new words and phrases like these stick out. Through exposure, they often enter our receptive vocabularies whether we like it or not. They become words we recognize.
What does have a tendency to calcify with age, though, is our expressive vocabularies. The words we say, and the meanings we ascribe to them, tend to kind of settle in, and don’t change much unless we intentionally update them.
Although the meaning when I use the word “cool” is, ironically, changing over time to communicate that I am not cool, I don’t really want to stop saying “cool”, and I am certainly not cool anymore – if I ever was, which I wasn’t – and you know what? I’m cool with all that.
In the case of cool, the word’s meaning has shifted, but it still works. Sometimes though, words’ implications shift in ways that we don’t want. Or their implications already are something we don’t want, and we just don’t realize it yet.
Meaning is in the ear of the recipient
While our language continually mints new words, our society also deprecates old ones. Sometimes they just fall out of fashion. I know my grandma calls a couch a “chesterfield”, but nobody in my generation would call one that. That’s the way it goes.
Other times, though, we retire a phrase because it has an in-built hurtful or discriminatory connotation, or has developed one. As our society has become more tolerant, many overtly racist, sexist, and homophobic terms have fallen out of use in everyday speech.
More recently, we’ve started making progress on less overt but still racist language, ableist terms, gendered phrases, insults that stigmatize people living with mental illness, and… wait a minute. Did we actually have a major league sports team using the name “Redskins” in 2020?
There’s still a lot of work to be done. That work though, the process of improving our expressive vocabularies, is a complex process.
Let’s take “crazy” as an example.
Popular discussion around mental health terms like crazy, and how we should probably not be using them, has been going on for a few years now. Although a few people have successfully retired crazy from their repertoires, it is still an extremely commonly used word.
Although most of us would be uncomfortable directly labelling a person living with mental illness “crazy”, English speakers of today constantly label negative, unpredictable, or ridiculous things as crazy. I myself used the term over 30 times over the years on this very website, especially before 2015. It’s in commercials, it’s in music, it’s in kids’ cartoons. Over the same years that terms like “retarded” have fallen into disuse, use of the word “crazy” has actually increased.
Yet, if it is to be a retired word, as it seems like it probably will be, its demise will probably still follow a familiar pattern:
- Term is pervasive, concern about it is not mainstream.
- Pushback against it builds, discussions occur, “early adopters” start working it out of their vocabulary, years of habit make change difficult.
- Term slowly becomes thought of as inappropriate. It stops appearing in polite media. Laggards protest, claiming the change is “political correctness” or “cancel culture” run amok.
- The change hits a tipping point, and the word is widely considered offensive. Grandparents using the word at dinner cause a ruckus.
Like many changes, words are retired first slowly, then quickly.
Disney has been criticized for playing cognitively impaired characters for humour. One one hand, I love Heihei. On the other hand... yikes.
A strategy for evolution
One of the things the last few decades of civil rights progress has taught us is that social justice is an ongoing process. The sheer scale of the racism, sexism, ableism, and other kinds of discrimination in our day to day speech is staggering. We can’t fix it all simultaneously. Society develops awareness of it, and strips it out, in waves. And as with any society-scale change, the size of it all can feel overwhelming.
It can seem, especially if you’re Very Online, that there is a correct and socially acceptable way to talk, and it’s constantly changing, and you’re constantly at risk of being wrong, and even if you’re putting in effort, there is a legion of more-correct hyper-woke Twitter people poised to strike you down if you speak in error or ignorance.
And maybe that’s a little bit true.
But that idea, the concern that we should be motivated by the social-justice word police out on the internet, is not a productive frame of mind for doing this work. Fear of backlash is a bad place to start from when you’re doing slow, meaningful, lifelong self improvement.
Because – and this is easy to forget in the noise – the actual goal is not to just avoid backlash. The goal is to show love. It’s to be respectful of people worthy of respect, to invest in small changes that can make people feel more welcome in this harsh world. The goal is to slowly build a better understanding of how our words make people feel, and the example we set when we use them. To refine our communication so it gets across the love and respect and empathy we’ve built.
And if it prevents you from getting destroyed on the internet for saying something poorly and necessitating a screenshot of your heartfelt Notes-app apology, well then that’s a nice bonus.
An empathy-first mindset to language actually feeds two birds with one scone: it informs and motivates our process of doing better, and can also act as a damper on the “smash people on the internet” instinct. The goal is not to alienate. We don’t need to be the person who learned how to use “racialized” last month and then turn around and jump on somebody who did not use it today. Heck, Apple’s autocorrect hasn’t even picked up that racialized is a word yet.
Meanwhile, there are many phrases probably worth banishing, dozens of words we may not yet recognize as problems, but that could – if we don’t work them out of our systems – make us that caustic grandparent at some future dinner table. So it’s a journey.
If you are interested in prioritizing “crazy” for a vocabulary eviction, I have a little tidbit for you. The word is used really broadly these days, to the point of being a cliché. Since crazy is usually used to describe something that is interesting, there are a lot of novel words you can use instead. Depending on what you’re trying to say, your kids might be acting feral, that proposed schedule might be ridiculous, and your uncle might have been trying to sell you on his latest absurd scheme. And overall, it’s probably worth focusing first on avoiding labelling people or their actions as crazy, and worrying less about how to describe the crazy day you had.
Especially if you’re in a visible position – parent, writer, manager – it’s worth putting in the effort, slowly over time, to work words and phrases out of your vocabulary that might be seen as hurtful. Even if there’s no consensus yet that they’re offensive. Even if nobody notices, other than people who read your reluctantly self-righteous blog post about developing a just vocabulary.
Truly though, words are a case where I think the price of being an early adopter is worthwhile.
We can’t control how people interpret what we say, but we can practice continual improvement of the words we choose.
In my research for this post, I reviewed a lot of problematic phrases and proposed alternatives. (There are a lot. That’s why this is a process.) One of the more surprising candidates for banishment was the term “Kill two birds with one stone”. Coincidentally, I’d recently started using an alternative for this in recent months after seeing it on Twitter and enjoying it. To wit:
- Kill two birds with one stone: Cliché, rather morbid
- Feed two birds with one scone: Evokes same meaning, is adorable
To me, this is a clear upgrade.
What I hadn’t realized until this week was that the “scone” phrasing was featured in a 2018 campaign by PETA to end “common phrases that perpetuate violence towards animals”. As with many PETA initiatives it instigated more eye-rolling than actual change – most of their proposed phrases are pretty awkward, and I’d argue we have more pressing linguistic battles to fight than the campaign to retire the poultry-hostile phrase “put all your eggs in one basket”.
However, in addition to the birds and scones, I also liked another of their suggestions: swapping “Beat a dead horse” with “Feed a fed horse”. It subs in seamlessly for the existing cliché, and it also replaces the quite unnecessary unpleasantness of bludgeoning a deceased equine. Everybody wins.