Conscious language – words matter

Conscious language is a big talking point in editing circles.

As social justice movements rise and sweep across the world, writers and editors are being pushed to examine the language they use, and to re-examine their conscious and unconscious biases. The labels we use, the pronouns people would like to be known by – all these things are part of the debate which all editors should be following. (I recommend this newsletter as place to start to follow this debate.)

I particularly like this article about the issue, which makes the point that:

By using sensitive language, you’ll be less likely to offend any of your readers, and you’ll be more accurate with the terms you use. Your text will also be more credible. And the truth is… it’s often easier to use language that’s less biased.

The way of the editor is to care about details, and the use of words is among the most important of the details that editors care about.

Today I just want to demonstrate how unexamined words carry coded meanings. I’m hoping that this small list will help readers to start listening to what they hear, and start being aware of the completely unconscious ways in which we label other people.

Granny (not)

First up, I give you the word granny. We’ve all seen news reports in which older women are given the handy label granny. Like this:

90-year-old granny gets first Covid shot as UK launches vaccination drive

What’s happening here is that a woman’s life is being reduced only to the fact that she had children, and that they had children. As always, you can “hear” how wrong this is by asking yourself if a man would be described in this way.

Then there’s “youth”

This is particular to South Africa. The word “youth” is almost always used to describe young Black people. They might for instance be involved in a youth project in the area they live in. If those same young people who were involved in a project were white, they would get the label “teenagers”.

I’m of course aware of the deep significance of South Africa’s youth in the struggle against apartheid . The word has noble heritage. But now it is often used as code: unwilling to come out and say that a group of young people are Black or white, writers will resort to using “youth” and “teen” instead. And that unconscious choice has consequences: Black young people are serious, and carry historic responsibility, says the word “youth”. Teen brings images of irresponsible fun (think Hollywood movies). And surely both Black and white teens can be all of those things, some of the time, as the mood and developmental stage takes them? I’d go with calling all young people teenagers, and using the word youth in its proper historical context.

And now the whole township/suburb thing

In South Africa, if you say someone lives in a township, you mean that they are Black. If you say they live in a suburb, you are coding that they are white (or at least well-off enough to live in a formerly all-white area).

My proposal: Could everyone just live in a suburb instead? (And while we are at it can we think about it every time we think of using the word slum? And just not go there?)

And two small appeals:

Native – This is an offensive word in South Africa. Can we say mother-tongue speakers of a language rather than native speakers of a language (writers of job adverts, I am looking at you).
Folk – There is no real reason for this. I just hate the use of the word folk. It so often seems be condescending: country folk, for instance. How about we just say people?

I’m glad to have got that off my chest. Do you have any words you hate? Let me know in the comments below.

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Main picture: Brett Jordan on Unsplash


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