Even Trigger Warning Is Now Off-Limits

The “Oppressive Language List” at Brandeis University could have come from countless other colleges, advocacy groups, or human-resources offices.

Artwork of a lady with a yellow X on her lips.

About the author: John McWhorter is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He teaches linguistics at Columbia University, hosts the podcast Lexicon Valley, and is the author of the upcoming Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter Then, Now and Always.

Thirty years ago, someone taught me to say actor rather than actress and chairperson rather than chairman, to discourage our thinking of occupational performance as elementally distinct depending on sex. I understood. Language does not shape thought as much as is often supposed. But words can nudge concepts in certain directions if the connection between the word and the concept is clear enough; the compound of chair and the gender-neutral person hints that, for most purposes, the listener doesn’t need to know whether the individual running a meeting was male or female.

In the same vein, I heartily approve of the modern usage of they (Roberta is getting a haircut; they’ll be here in a little while). I also like the call to replace slave with enslaved person. Slave can indeed imply a certain essence, as if it were a status inherent to some people. Enslaved person points up that the slavery is an imposed condition. The distinction matters given how central, sensitive, and urgent the discussion of slavery is in today’s America.

But according to counsel from Brandeis University’s Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center, or PARC, considerate people must go further: Apparently, we must retire victim, survivor, trigger warning, and African-American too. We must do so, that is, if we seek to ignore some linguistic fundamentals while also engaging in distinctly callow sociological calisthenics. When we are to even “consider” avoiding the word prisoner (try person who was incarcerated) or walk-in (because not all people can walk) and the phrase everything going on right now (I’ll leave you to find out what’s wrong with that one), we are being preached to by people on a quest to change reality through the performative policing of manners.

Sure, PARC’s “Oppressive Language List” is technically just one statement from one violence-awareness organization at a school in Massachusetts. Not too long ago, it’d have been a mere pamphlet that got passed around a little. But the problem is that a pamphlet in, say, 1998 would have been much less likely to contain advice so counterintuitive to ordinary perception. The PARC list is a sign of our times, in which language policing has reached a near fever pitch, out of a sense that labeling common terms and expressions as “problematic”—that is, blasphemous—is essential to changing society. The Brandeis guidance could easily have come from innumerable other advocacy groups, university bureaucracies, or corporate human-resources offices, and it merits a closer look.

“PARC recognizes that language is a powerful tool that can be used to perpetrate and perpetuate oppression,” the organization declares on its website. “As a community, we can strive to remove language that may hurt those who have experienced violence from our everyday use.” The authors are correct to suggest that we stop calling a certain kind of shirt a “wife beater.” And it is adventurous but reasonable to propose that one day, we refer to all people as they unless they tell us that they prefer he or she. However, it is quite unreasonable to suppose that the fundamentals of how language works will change, and too much of this PARC list is founded on just that expectation.

On the list, metaphors must be taken literally, such that words’ basic meaning never shift. This is like proclaiming that clouds shall never again move. Thus we are neither to exclaim that someone succeeding is killing it nor to refer to taking a shot at a task, because these phrases may evoke violent imagery for some listeners.

But these expressions are metaphors whose actual usage has far too little to do with violence for them to be classified as aggressive language. Where do you draw the line? Let’s consider a phrase not included on the Brandeis list: That sucks. Upon reflection, we know that the original reference was sexual, but even someone who has decided that we can’t take a shot at anything would likely say that the usage of sucks has drifted so far that its origin point is essentially irrelevant. The same verdict applies to killing it and trigger warning, which this list also includes (we are told to substitute the flavorless content note).

In the same way, the list proscribes calling things crazy or insane, because these terms can be construed as disrespectful of people with actual psychological problems. Better to say bananas. Again, though, meanings change, and the people who composed this list leave off terms that are likelier than insane to give genuine offense. Dumb originally referred to people incapable of speech, and this is even dimly recoverable by modern speakers from the expression deaf and dumb. So far, PARC is not seeking to cancel the word dumb because of this. But rosters of oppressive language inevitably expand, as does the number of reasons to declare words unacceptable. One can imagine a future list condemning bananas not just because it too mocks mental illnesses but also, perhaps, because it dismisses the hard work of those who pick the fruit.

A disclaimer atop the Brandeis list declares, “Use of the suggested alternatives is not a university expectation, requirement or reflection of policy.” Good, because the authors do not appear to know or care how far their recommendations reach. Do they really intend to stigmatize the singing or playing of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”? Or to banish the expression rule of thumb because of an obscure and probably false folk etymology—namely, an antique British law that allowed men to beat their wife as long as the instrument used was no wider than a thumb?

Elsewhere our language crusaders miss that replacing an expression with negative connotations is like swatting away gnats, because those same connotations regularly coalesce on the new term as well. Crippled was changed to handicapped; after a while, this needed replacing, and thus came disabled; today terms such as differently abled attempt yet again to elude the negative associations some assign to physical disability. This is an old story, one that the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker calls a “euphemism treadmill.”

It means that PARC’s suggestion to replace mentally ill with person living with a mental health condition is not only clumsy but futile. If this mouthful somehow catches on, then fast-forward about a generation and people will have conventionalized it into mental-health-condition people. This term will harbor the same unfortunate associations that today’s mentally ill does for some hearers, and we will need yet another new term—while mentally ill is already itself a thoroughly respectful term compared with older ones such as mentally defective.

And we could expect the same treadmill fate for person without housing as a replacement for homeless person. Again, today’s common term is respectful (especially compared with bum, the one I grew up hearing). Besides, PARC is inconsistent here: Why is homeless person mean but enslaved person is okay? Are we next to say persons without freedom?

For all I know, the composers of this list would say yes. But the list reveals more about a sensibility particular to the authors than about injustice in society as a whole. We are not to refer to anyone as African-American unless explicitly permitted to, because “for Black folks born in the United States, hyphenating their identity can be interpreted as othering.” I strongly suspect that polls of a representative sample of Black people in America would reveal a rather infinitesimal number who agree with PARC’s view. I also wonder how many Native Americans feel that others’ casual reference to spirit animals disrespects their own cultural legacy.

The PARC list further teaches us to not refer to people as survivors of a traumatic experience because it implies that what they went through is their essence. Not long ago, survivors was itself the euphemism-treadmill alternative to victims. Today, we are urged to describe them as having experienced or been impacted by something bad. Who would really welcome this verbal Kabuki? A person who has been impacted by an earthquake? A person who has been impacted by cancer? We must wonder whether the composers of the list would in fact tell someone who has been a victim of racist abuse that they really ought to phrase it as though they have merely experienced it. To be sure, the list specifies that some people may prefer the terms now being battled. But this seems to ultimately be a handy out, allowing terms such as victim to be used when rhetorically powerful.

Only faintly does one perceive genuine concern with life as it is actually lived. Rather, the Brandeis authors seem like people with a hammer to whom everything is a nail, driven by mission creep from sensible language pruning into obsessive, self-congratulatory language policing—reminiscent of those rare souls back in the day who only semi-jokingly called the Sony devices “Walkpersons.” At one point the authors, rooting out verbal crimes that no one commits, warn us to resist our urge to refer to people as “hermaphrodites.” Well, I’ll try my best!

To be sure, the PARC list states that “the language you choose to use or not use is entirely up to you.” But the authors also assert that “suggestions are brought forth by students who have been impacted by violence or who have worked with others who are healing from violence, as well as students who have sought out advanced training for intervening in potentially violent situations.” We are to be pardoned for feeling a judgment here: Although these new verbal niceties are optional, a choice not to observe them is backward and even abusive.

But these sanctions are based on no general agreement among even sensitive, sociologically concerned people. Couched as compassionate counsel, this list is mostly a series of prim concoctions by people who, one suspects, simply need more to do. In the end, working to change conditions is much more important than obsessively curating the words and expressions we use to describe them.