Portraits of Wildflowers

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Archive for December 22nd, 2022

More fall color from individual leaves and leaflets

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Poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans; December 1st in Great Hills Park.




Cottonwood tree, Populus deltoides; December 12th near the Riata Trace Pond.



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A main theme of my commentaries for the past two years has been the distortion of language for ideological purposes. The other day a great trove of data came my way from the EHLI, or the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative at Stanford University, which “identifies as” “a multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT [Information Technology] at Stanford.”

In particular I’m referring to the document the group released on December 19th, which is a compendium of “harmful” words and phrases, along with suggested and therefore presumably non-harmful alternatives to them, plus notes putting the items in “context.” Preceding the list of frowned-on items are bold-faced words of caution:

Content Warning: This website contains language that is offensive or harmful. Please engage with this website at your own pace.

You wouldn’t want to encounter too many horrific words too quickly or you might get a heart attack or stroke. You know, terrible words like “American.” That’s right, you’re not supposed to say “American” any more because there are lots of countries in North American and South America, not just the United States.* The recommended replacement is “U.S. citizen.” I don’t see how that can last, given that the kind of ideologues who would think of putting together a list of forbidden terms also want people in the country illegally to have all the same benefits as citizens.

The EHLI document is divided into sections according to the kinds of people the forbidden terms are supposedly offensive to. The first section is Ableist. In case you’re not familiar with that word, the document explains it: “Ableist language is language that is offensive to people who live with disabilities and/or devalues people who live with disabilities. The unintentional use of such terms furthers the belief that people who live with disabilities are abnormal.”

Notice the phrase “people who live with disabilities.” That itself is the suggested replacement for “the disabled.” It’s one of many instances of “person-first” language, in which a word or short phrase gets turned into something more cumbersome. “Handicapped,” for instance, is now “person with a disability.” As if the “dis-” in “disability” doesn’t still indicate that the person has a handicap compared to people without that disability. Similarly, the four-syllable “mentally ill” becomes the thirteen-syllable “person living with a mental health condition” and the two-syllable “senile” becomes the ten-syllable “person suffering from senility.” For the sake of inclusion, shouldn’t we extend this pattern to categories other than persons? In meal-first language, rather than say “I ate breakfast” we’ll have to say “I ate the meal that persons call breakfast” or “I ate the meal usually but not always consumed in the early part of the day.”

Some of the replacements are baffling. Rather than “committed suicide” we’re supposed to say “died by suicide.” Could the point be to shift agency and therefore remove blame from the person to the mental health condition? Or maybe “committed” has overtones of “committed to a mental institution.” Or maybe there’s no reason for the change except to make us jump through more language hoops and increase the chances for woke ideologues to call us out when we mess up on one of their shibboleths.

In the “Violent” section we’re admonished to replace “rule of thumb” with “standard rule” or “general rule.” The “context” for this is: “Although no written record exists today, this phrase is attributed to an old British law that allowed men to beat their wives with sticks no wider than their thumb.” The writers admit that there’s no evidence for the claim that “rule of thumb” originated in men beating their wives with sticks no wider than their thumbs,” but we’re supposed to ignore the lack of evidence and pretend that that cockeyed claim is true. If the writers had bothered to look up the etymology for “rule of thumb” they’d find it’s straightforward. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that the phrase comes from “the use of the thumb as a makeshift ruler or measuring device, as in carpentry.” Similarly, the English system uses “foot” as a familiar measurement, and the height of horses is traditionally measured in “hands.”

Another instance of fake history occurs in the “Additional Considerations” section. We’re advised to avoid “hip hip hooray” because “this term was used by German citizens during the Holocaust as a rallying cry when they would hunt down Jewish citizens living in segregated neighborhoods.” You should immediately be suspicious: why would German-speaking Nazis use an English interjection when hunting down Jews in countries where English wasn’t the native language? The obvious answer is that they wouldn’t. Once again the writers of the document could have looked up the actual origin of “hip hip hooray,” but apparently going to a dictionary was a step too far. English speakers were already using “hip hip hooray [or hurrah]” in the early 1800s.

 You’re welcome to work your way at your own pace through as much of the EHLI document as you want to or can stand.


* When I arrived in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer 55 years ago this month I quickly learned that people there refer to Americans as norteamericanos, i.e. North Americans. The compilers of the Stanford document will have to chide Hondurans and other Spanish speakers for their lack of inclusivity: aren’t Canadians and Mexicans also North Americans? In fact Wikipedia tells us there are a whopping 24 countries in North America.


UPDATE: On January 11th Inside Higher Ed published an article by Susan D’Agostino titled “Amid Backlash, Stanford Pulls ‘Harmful Language’ List.” Let’s welcome any move toward sanity in academia.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 22, 2022 at 4:27 AM

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