Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

More fall color from individual leaves and leaflets

with 32 comments


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

32 Responses

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  1. In an upside down world, it’s hopeful to know there are people around who still use …common sense! Thank you, my friend and for the beauty you share daily!

    marina kanavaki

    December 22, 2022 at 8:45 AM

    • You’re welcome, and thanks for your support. There’s a story—perhaps true, perhaps not—that when the British army surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown in 1781, the British military band played a song called “The World Turned Upside Down.” In the past several years I’ve increasingly gotten the feeling that America has surrendered to delusions and is a world turned upside down.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 22, 2022 at 9:15 AM

  2. Huzzah! You got some wonderful fall colors this year.

    Robert Parker

    December 22, 2022 at 8:49 AM

    • Huzzah indeed when it comes to fall colors this year, the best for me in a long time. Merriam-Webster says the first attested use of huzzah is from 1573. I wonder if 16th-century Nazis used to shout it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 22, 2022 at 9:23 AM

  3. I have been looking forward to your response to the Stanford document – thank you! 😎

  4. The aesthetically pleasing fall photos in colour and symmetry contrast the disgusting trend to distort the English language for ideological reasons. The article reminds me of 1984’s newspeak.

    Peter Klopp

    December 22, 2022 at 4:37 PM

  5. I heard an interesting and relatively sophisticated discussion of that Stanford document on Houston sports radio this week. Someone used a term highlighted in the paper, and that opened up the topic. After about ten minutes of conversation, the consensus was “those people are nuts.” I’ve not read the full thing and probably won’t for the sake of my blood pressure. I do find myself hoping the bubbles some people are living in eventually will pop.

    It’s far more pleasant to spend time with images like those you’ve posted here. I’m astonished again by the beauty of that poison ivy. The sheen on the leaves is beautiful. I wonder if it’s caused by the urushiol.


    December 22, 2022 at 10:25 PM

    • The poison ivy leaflet was so pristine it fascinated me. I believe you’re right that urushiol causes the sheen. I found a similar maroon and more of a sheen yesterday on an evergreen sumac (as we recently discussed).

      Houston sports radio is hardly where I’d expect to hear a discussion, especially a relatively sophisticated one, about Orwellian manipulation of vocabulary. “Those people are nuts” has more of the tone I’d expect, and it’s justified. Unfortunately I see no signs of woke bubbles popping soon, as much as I’d welcome it. Zealotry dies hard.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 22, 2022 at 10:37 PM

      • What intrigued me about the discussion I heard was less the content than the venue. If things like the Stanford document are making their way into broader consciousness, it may bode well for eventual rejection: even if ‘eventual’ takes longer than we’d like.


        December 22, 2022 at 10:42 PM

        • It was the venue that surprised me. Naturally I hope you’re right about that boding well for eventual rejection, but I have to say I’m not optimistic. The “power centers” of the country are now mostly all controlled by people who side with Stanford.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 23, 2022 at 6:17 AM

  6. The term US citizen seems inappropriate but the document is only suggesting alternatives, so here is a suggestion from outside the US; one that is still in use in Australia and New Zealand. The suggestion is “Yank”. I heard a young Aussie academic use the term just last week. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yankee I expect this suggestion would not be acceptable to Stanford despite the popularity of the word in other parts of the world. Could you name yourselves after a bird, as Kiwis do?


    December 23, 2022 at 1:54 AM

    • Ah, but almost no one here wants to replace “American” with another word. Let me give you a similar case. A few years ago “woke” ideologues began objecting to the term “Latino,” which is in common use with the meaning ‘people who trace their ancestry to Spain.’ The objection was on the grounds of gender, because in Spanish the “-o” at the end of “Latino” designates the masculine gender and is therefore not “inclusive.” Those ideologues began writing “Latino/a,” where the “-a” is the grammatical marker of the feminine gender. Soon came the “all-inclusive” form “Latinx,” where the “x” was meant to include every gender (these ideologues actually believe there are literally dozens of genders). Unfortunately for the activists, only a tiny percent of Latinos themselves have accepted that term. You can read more about that at


      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2022 at 6:33 AM

      • I don’t think I would want to be a Latinx; it would make me feel as though I were being cancelled. If most Americans prefer to be called Americans, I expect that term will remain current. I notice from Wikipedia that this is not the first time that suggestions have been made to change the term American. Apparently Frank Lloyd Wright used the term Usonian. There have been many suggestions over the years.


        December 23, 2022 at 7:57 PM

        • That’s a good observation: the idea of the x as a cancellation had never occurred to me. I’m pretty sure most Americans will keep on “identifying as” Americans.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 23, 2022 at 11:56 PM

          • My daughter and I discussed this document and your post and she suggested that this song, with one significant change, could be appropriate :
            He is American!
            for he himself has said it,
            and it’s greatly to his credit,
            that he is American!

            but in spite of all temptations
            to belong to other nations,
            he remains American!
            he remains American!


            December 24, 2022 at 7:47 PM

  7. Beautiful images of Fall color leaves! I really like the colors in the first image with the black background, and who doesn’t like water drops on leaves? Love those!!


    December 23, 2022 at 9:23 AM

    • That was one of the nicest, most pristine colorful poison ivy leaflets I’ve ever seen, so I understand why it appeals to you. And as you said, who doesn’t like water drops on leaves? I lucked out on that misty morning.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2022 at 10:56 AM

  8. You are creating a nice collection of the dark background treatment with your fall shots.

    Steve Gingold

    December 24, 2022 at 4:16 PM

    • I just mentioned in my reply to your previous comment that flash has enabled most of the dark backgrounds. I’ve used both a ring flash and a regular one.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 24, 2022 at 5:06 PM

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