Black Hats, Babies and Bathwater // A language list offers silliness and sagacity

Major mirth greeted Stanford University’s Information Technology department’s list of words and terms to be shunned by the university’s publications and website. 

Amplifying the amusement were some of the suggested replacements for the entries that “The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” (EHLI) judged to be “harmful language.”

Like “web product owner” to replace “webmaster”—the second part of that compound noun deemed reprehensible because it evokes “enslaved people.”  (Attention real estate agents: No more “master bedrooms.”)

Or “denylist” (who knew it was a word?) to be used in place of “blacklist”—as the latter “assigns negative connotations to the color black.” As do “black sheep,” “blackballed” and “black hat” (that last one to be replaced, the listers suggest, with “malicious” or “criminal”—I beg your pardon!)

Or “unenlightened,” suggested to replace “tone deaf,” since the latter phrase is ableist (“adj.—relating to, involving, or fostering discrimination against disabled people”).

Sound crazy? Well, hush! “Crazy” is also one of the words-to-not-be-used. Because it, too, is “ableist”—trivializing, the listers say, the experiences of people living with mental health conditions.”

Good thing the folks at Stanford overlooked “right,” which, it would seem, should be replaced by “proper.” Because the former word is rooted in a bias for right-handedness. (German and Yiddish also have similar cognates of the direction “right” and the concept of propriety.)  And “sinister” should be verboten, since it comes from the Latin for “left.” How handednessist!

The EHLI is a veritable cornucopia of comicality. 

It considers “beating a dead horse” offensive, since the expression “normalizes violence against animals.” (Though it’s hard to imagine a deceased equine feeling pain, much less offense.)

Ditto for “killing two birds with one stone.”

“War room” is too violent a phrase, and should be replaced, the listers feel, by “situation room.”

Also overly bellicose is “circle the wagons,” because it “suggests an impending attack by the ‘savages.’” Stick, say the compilers, to “gather together.”

What the IT folks at Stanford overlook is that some words and phrases have evolved so much from their original meanings or usages that their previous associations are lost in the mists of time, cleansed of the muck of their pasts. “Master,” “black” and “crazy” don’t deserve to be, uh, denylisted.

At the same time, though, some of the listings are thought-provoking. Like the “disabled” entry, which, it is suggested, should be replaced by “person with a disability.” The same thing? Maybe at first glance, but the rationale provided contends that a person shouldn’t be defined by a disability; he simply has one. That’s a serious thought to think.

And using “normal” to describe a person who doesn’t suffer from physical or mental impairments, if one thinks about it, imparts “abnormality” to those who do. There really are no abnormal humans.

Even the phrase “committed suicide,” rejected in favor of “died by suicide,” makes subtle sense, since, while suicide is a terrible evil, it is sometimes the result of uncontrollable emotional impairment and cannot automatically be thought of as a crime.

And isn’t “Indian giver,” used to connote someone who takes back a gift, undeniably insulting to Native Americans?

As Jews informed by the Torah’s mitzvos and ideals, we understand, to an exquisite degree, the power of words. And we are enjoined to use them carefully, not as insults and not as weapons.

And so, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater (sorry; it’s a horrible, but most descriptive, phrase) and discard Stanford’s list, lock, stock and barrel (too violent?), we might mitigate our mirth and see if some of the list’s offerings provide not silliness but legitimate, even nourishing, food for thought.

At about the same time the Stanford list was publicized, it was reported that Google was compelled to fix the search results for the word “Jew,” whose top one was to “Bargain with someone in a miserly or petty way.”

That definition, of course, exists in every dictionary, because the word, as a verb, though responsibly identified in entries as “offensive,” has been (and still is by some) used that way.

But it shouldn’t be.

And, yes, it’s on Stanford’s list of objectionables.


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