Evolving Language Yields New Forms of Insults

By Elaine Orr

In 1985, ASPA’s Section for Women in Public Administration (SWPA) sponsored publication of the book, The Right Word: Guidelines for Avoiding Sex-Biased Language. It was written by me and Marie Rosenberg Dishman.

The goal was not to beat people over the head with a pound of political correctness (in fact the PC term was not yet in use), but to offer alternatives to those who wanted to replace some long outdated terms.

I have written several other articles on the topic, and my favorite anecdote remains one from the first female astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride.

Dr. Ride was a commentator when Discovery astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon, a physician, helped craft a device used in an attempt to retrieve a satellite.  It entailed several stitches made with a string and a sail maker’s needle. A male astronaut, acting as mission control communicator with the shuttle, complimented Dr. Seddon on her “seamstress” work.  Ride said she wanted to correct that comment, and did so with a smile.  “That was the work of a surgeon,” she said.

Gentle humor is an aid in many situations.

When it comes to sex-biased terms, some changes were just plain easier.  There is no longer a need to call a female aviator an aviatrix or an usher an usherette, and you would probably be locked out of the office if you called your administrative assistant a ‘gal Friday.’

There are other terms in relatively common use that could be offensive and we don’t think about it.  Someone who has deviated from a long-held tradition or office policy might be said to be “off the reservation.”

Think about it.

That term undoubtedly arose when Native Americans were forced onto reservations more than a century ago.

And what about the term “white trash?”

We know it’s meant to be insulting.  Is a user saying people who are not white are more likely to “be trashy” and only some especially sloppy white people are?  Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred that insult is hurled with no racial intent, but it’s still a hurtful term.

What brought such uses to mind recently was a series of emails among some fiction author friends.  One had circulated a draft of a new book cover, and several of us tossed humorous darts at the publisher (who since revised the cover – it was really awful!).  A couple of the others referred to the man on the cover as “gay.”  It was a traditional romance novel, so the man was clearly meant to be heterosexual.

These were comments made among friends, not meant as hateful barbs.

Maybe the term was so ‘neutral’ to a couple of the other authors that they would use the expression around gay or lesbian friends.  However, I’m not sure a gay young man who was bullied in high school would find it funny, nor, likely, would his parents.

Taking the term away from a discussion of someone’s appearance, it’s impossible to ignore that the term “that’s so gay” is now used to refer to something that is dumb or an excuse that is poor.  Clearly, it’s an insult.  Why do we ignore the use when we would call out a colleague who uses terms such as ‘spic’ or ‘kike’?

The thinking is likely, ‘gee, I know they don’t mean any harm,’ or ‘I don’t want to be a spoil sport.’

It can be uncomfortable to be a ‘language police officer,’ and sometimes you have to pick your battles.  The best lesson can be in the form of a question.

When you ask someone why they use a term or phrase, it makes them think.  They may come to understand that language can offend whether it is intended to be demeaning or not.


One thought on “Evolving Language Yields New Forms of Insults

  1. An interesting assessment. There are many who choose their words poorly, whether intentionally , or not. Mainstream bias seems to be on the incline. We now live in a culture where societal norms are purposely attacked because it’s the in-thing to do, especially amongst adolescents and young adults. As a larger percentage of the population appears to be in a downward intellectual trend entire communities have developed a new-age language highly prejudicial to those within, and without their group. While
    our society becomes ever more hyper-sexualized by both men and women,
    the decorum necessary to an organized society with integrated norms gets
    pushed further into the past. I support any efforts to reverse a trend of trash
    talk that devalues the essence of the individual, who just may be different
    through no fault of their own. But as we race toward the future the pace of
    social acceptance has slowed to a crawl. I’m appalled at the language I hear
    from children getting out of school each day, children once damaged could take a lifetime to correct. It concerns me that our largest cities are turning into cesspools of intolerance. I applaud your efforts!
    theodore miraldi


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