Language has the incredible ability to shape social construct; there’s been evidence that the words we choose to use may, in fact, influence our perception of reality.
And so, while we, as individuals, may not harness the capacity to entirely eliminate instances of discrimination, exclusion and disrespect across the globe, we do have control over how we choose to describe people and their experiences -- so we can start there.
Using inclusive language can abate stigma, and being careful of avoiding expressions with potentially loaded or negative implications (e.g., using the phrasing place for adoption rather than give up for adoption) can change the way others view people who live differently than they do. Ultimately, we all want to see ourselves in the world, and that naturally extends to the things we read and hear -- which means language that doesn’t make anyone feel alienated, Othered, or in any way excluded.
This also means -- perhaps most importantly of all -- being cognizant that preferred language choices are constantly evolving. The phrases considered most appropriate today may shift and take on new forms in a few years’ time, if not sooner. Take for instance, Latin@, the predecessor to the more commonly used Latinx. Both have been used to describe people of Latin-American origin, the former coming to prominence on Tumblr and Twitter over the past decade as an alternative to Latino or Latina, and the latter (pronounced la-TEEN-ex) a more evolved form of the word that makes room for multiple genders that has started to become more widespread in mainstream usage over the past few years.
Also consider the terms sex reassignment surgery and gender affirmation surgery -- both generally preferred to the antiquated sex change operation. Or the fact that transsexual, an older word that originated in the medical and psychological communities, was once used with more frequency but is no longer appropriate to use as an umbrella term the way transgender is; i.e., a transgender person may or may not identify as transsexual.
If the idea of successfully keeping up with our shapeshifting language feels overwhelming, it shouldn’t -- the information we need to stay abreast of language standards and preferred usage is accessible thanks to the internet. It’s one of the easiest ways to humanize, empower and demonstrate our alliance with various demographics. Familiarize yourself with style guides and online resources dedicated to guidance on appropriate and respectful language, including the Diversity Style Guide, Conscious Style Guide, GLAAD Media Reference Guide and the National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Disability Language Style Guide.
Might these standards change over the next decade? Perhaps. Does that mean snippets of our writing could appear dated in 15, 20 years’ time? Sure. But that’s the beauty of a language constantly in motion, so long as it’s alive. If you’re unsure if the wording you’ve chosen to describe a potentially sensitive or unfamiliar topic is appropriate, it isn’t difficult to access the answers and spark lively dialogue: consult relevant style guides or open up conversations on Twitter or with your coworkers. Simply do the research; it’s never been an easier time to use language to make the world a better place.
Emmy Favilla is the author of A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age (Bloomsbury, 2017) and is the former global copy chief and current senior commerce editor at BuzzFeed.
Header photo by Eugenio Mazzone on Unsplash