Self-moderating our vocabulary


#1

I had a look for a topic about this and the closest I found was this thread which specifically talks about ‘guys’ and gender neutral terms and so on, and I wanted to talk about changing the way we speak in a more general sense.

I hear a lot of handwringing (can you hear handwringing? well, anyway) whenever the subject of people maybe changing their vocabulary a little, and a lot of it seems to come from them feeling irritated for having to change something they’re doing which comes naturally to them they don’t feel is overtly malicious.

As someone who has begun to think about this more over the last couple of years, I have to say, making these kinds of changes has been far easier and ended up coming far more naturally than I expected. The kinds of things I’m talking about are:

I used to say ‘guys’ in a mixed room, now I normally say ‘folks’ or ‘everyone’ or ‘you all.’ (original topic has lots more on this)

I used to sometimes use ‘he’ as a kind of ‘default’ when talking abstractly about unspecified people, now I try to go for ‘they.’

I try to avoid talking about stuff as ‘crazy’ and ‘insane.’ I like ‘wild’ as an equivalent descriptor. I actually think it’s a more fun word to use most of the time, aside from anything else.

And what I can say is that none of this has felt stifling in any way. I KNOW there are well-meaning arguments for why some of these terms might not be harmful. I studied language philosophy, so I think about meaning and use a whole bunch. I’ve had lots of interesting conversations, for example about the use of ‘crazy’, and how in different contexts it has negative and positive connotations. All good discussion.

I’m not talking about this to try to say there are these language rules you should adhere to in order to be a good person, and here they are. But I am now forever mistrustful of the idea that asking people to think about their own speech is some kind of onerous expectation of them.

The amount of effort I had to expend in order to tweak my vocabulary just a little is very small, and I don’t feel like I can’t say anything that I wanted to say before. I doubt most people who know me have even noticed these things.

Maybe it has all been for nothing. Totally a possibility. But maybe a few times, someone I talked to felt a little more comfortable and less excluded as a result. That seems like decent value-for-effort, to me. It took the tiniest bit of thoughtfulness on my part and is now (usually) automatic.

The reason I turned this into a thread wasn’t really to congratulate myself for being cool and awesome but I wanted to ask (from a community that I’m pretty sure won’t just dismiss this out of hand) whether anyone else has had any similar experiences of going through this, some of your own go-to phrases and terms you’ve picked up as a result and whether you think people around you have picked up on it.

As long as the discussion is carried on in a way that respects everyone, I’d also be interested in hearing from anyone who deliberately hasn’t done this and has reasons for it they think are valuable.


#2

I will say that it’s easier to stop using terms in text than it is in speech. I still find myself slipping up and using “guys” as a gender-neutral term from time to time in speaking from time to time but rarely if ever do I find myself not catching it if I’m writing it out and using “people” or “folks” instead.

I had a similar situation years ago, maybe five, I noticed that when I would get angry while driving I would use a lot of gendered insults. Nothing you couldn’t get away with on American television, but I knew I was raised better than that. I suppose I hadn’t examined it further because the Midwestern Nice has such a powerful hold on me that if I’m sober I avoid conflict really to an unhealthy degree, so I was almost exclusively expressing my anger at people out loud in a situation where they couldn’t hear me, such as while driving. So that was the first time I started consciously scrubbing words from my vocabulary.

I am one of the people on the side of “crazy” and words like it being okay sometimes and not others. I want to say up front that I personally deal with having a mental illness as well as my entire immediate family, and specifically someone who has seen my brother put in a mental hospital due to having a psychotic episode brought on by his bipolar disorder, not as a way of implying I have sole authority on this issue but so people know I’m not coming at this topic as an outsider.

In my view, “crazy” and terms like it are fine when applied to things people do and are offensive when applied to people. It’s a subtle difference, but I wouldn’t bat an eyelash at “that was a crazy thing to do” whereas I would get angry with someone saying “that’s something a crazy person would do.” To me, what makes the word offensive is the implication that anyone is fundamentally unsound, out of control, etc. when mental illness is something that people can learn to manage. I do think that the term is a useful one for describing things that don’t make sense or are out of control to a large degree.

I know that my position on this one is not shared by most who are vocal about mental health issues and the way society treats them, but that’s where I stand.

Besides, I think someone could make a case for “wild” being problematic as well, maybe not to the same degree, but “wild” is not free of connotations when used in this context.


#3

Like a lot of folks, I’ve worked on purging my vocabulary of some terminology (such as “retarded,” when not discussing camshafts) and it is both definitely doable and definitely takes a lot of work.

In general, I try not to use offensive labelling on a person. A concept (like, say Project Orion) might be “nuts,” but a person shouldn’t be labeled as such. Idk. We’re all imperfect and I just try to be kind.


#4

Speaking as someone who was diagnosed at a relatively early age, I disagree with this assertion and counter that the only difference is in how direct the wording is. Not only is the word so useless in other contexts that a sentence using it is basically just saying something for the sake of saying something, but it’s also still easily tied back to common preconceptions about people with mental illnesses. The very examples you quote may be worded differently, but are both ultimately saying the same thing.


#5

What I did for a long time was whenever I would write something (email, facebook, etc.), I would always do a pass for gendered language. I use they/them pronouns, and I give people more leeway when they’re talking, but I’m often more irked whenever it’s written. There’s something about typing out a message that gives you a chance to check for accurate pronouns.

I’m also embracing ya’ll more, especially since I realized how fun it is to say out loud. ya’ll.

Also I’ve always felt weird saying “he or she,” because it’s super clunky. I always try to speak with the least amount of syllables possible, so they just fits better. It’s hard to debate with people that are uptight about grammar, but I always say that language is fluid.


#6

I lived in New England most of my life, but moved to the south after college and one of the perks is you don’t feel guilty saying y’all or folks in speech because tons of folks do.


#7

I was also diagnosed at a relatively early age, so this is just going to have to be something that we’re going to disagree on. I haven’t seen anyone able to come up with any term to describe the actions, events, and things that people use these words to describe that doesn’t have any baggage associated with it, and I don’t think that’s possible to do because the whole concept of what “makes sense” or “is reasonable” is socially constructed. If we swap out the term for another term, then that term will take on the same baggage. Like I said, “wild” has its own cultural baggage associated with it when you consider how the West has treated people they consider “uncivilized.”

These terms do fill a linguistic need which is why people are grasping for an alternate one that doesn’t carry the same baggage. I don’t think we will find one because “being unreasonable” is a trait that has been ascribed as an inherent trait by those in power to various oppressed groups using various terms, and the problem, in my mind, lies in thinking that such actions stem from an inborn trait, while people without mental illness do things society considers “unreasonable” all the time.


#8

Trying to take care of my language actually feels much easier to me with English than with German (my native language). For example using “guys” in a general sense, never felt right to me, so I tended to default to "folks " anyway. I was also really glad once I learned that you could use “they” as singular gender neutral pronoun.

In German this is so much tougher because almost everything is gendered. I still have no idea how to properly refer to people who are non-binary in German. As far as I know there is no equivalent to a singular “they” in German, so you’ll probably have to use a custom pronoun, but I don’t know which one exactly and I also don’t know any non-binary folks around here who I could ask.

I also still have a bad habit of using ableist language when I’m really angry at people (things like “idiot”, “crazy”, “stupid”). I’m slowly getting better at it, but I still use these words from time to time.


#9

I’ve had such an arc with some words, and am always working on getting better. For years, I’d pretty much cut both “guys” and “crazy” out of my vocab. But then I started at GB, and immediately the effects of: 1. working with a bunch of men, and 2. being immersed in a different community. It turns out that being in an academic space where I primarily worked with women was way different than working at a games site that, at the time, only had men on staff.

So “guys” slipped into my vocab almost immediately. It was scary fast. I’d switched so hard to folks, and then just lost it all in a matter of weeks. Eventually, “crazy” did too, and I spent much of my year at GB struggling to keep it out. I don’t think I ever used it as a descriptor for a person, but it was so quick and easy to say that a game or a level or an enemy design was “crazy,” when what I really meant was “surprising” or “unconventional” or, some other descriptor my brain wasn’t fast enough to find. That’s probably about when I started leaning hard into “wild.”

Wild isn’t perfect, either. I think about this often, since it’s become my most recent lexical crutch. There’s a lot of historical baggage there in terms of “civilized” vs “wild” spaces and people. But because of the things I’m calling wild, I tend to feel just about okay with it. There are some exceptions though, and those are whenever “wild” is just a stand in for other terms with that same baggage, like “savage” for instance.

As always, doing this right is more of a lifelong process than a destination you reach. I imagine instead of saying “wild” and “folks” a decade from now, I’ll have shifted to new words that I’m more comfortable with for some reason or another. And that’s a good thing! Language evolves, and so can we.


#10

As far as crazy/insane/wild substitute words go, I’ve been a fan of bananas, lately. I don’t know if that actually gets around the issue, though, or if it’s one of those “6 of one, half a dozen of the other” situations.

I’ve also been a fan of bananas lately as far as snacks go, too.


#11

I feel my muscles tense up when I say bananas, which is always a good sign that it’s not a good fit for me! Too close to a direct “crazy” analog, in the same way that “wild” is too close to a direct “savage” one, I guess!


#12

I’ve found that including more gender neutral terms was fairly easy to do although I know I slip up at times but attempt to correct myself if I do catch myself.

My biggest issue has been replacing ableist words from my vocabulary, particularly dumb, stupid, crazy & idiot but struggle a lot remembering the appropriate alternatives. It is especially difficult when I use those words mostly to describe myself when I am at my lowest (and not my lowest) but I know that doesn’t excuse them.

“Wild” is a word I have come to pick up recently as an alternative but also feel slightly uncomfortable using it & have been looking to replace it.

My biggest problem is since I’m bilingual I want to get rid of some words that I know are hurtful from my Spanish vocabulary, but having grown up surrounded by numerous different dialects of Spanish & often times mixing one with another it is incredibly hard & honestly kind of scary at times because I often worry about my Hispanic identity being put into question when people hear I have an accent & mix up dialects & just generally suck at conjugation. (That last part is silly I know).


#13

I’m in the same boat as a lot of folks here. I tried and succeeded in getting rid of the r-word, and I’ve nearly completely gotten rid of using things like crazy.

I need to be better about gender though. I’ve screwed up with some folks who are non-conforming a couple times, and it really sucks to see how it hurt them. Being a partner to a trans person, I often hear how being misgendered can be really hurtful.

To a lesser extent I’ve tried to curb my cussing. I haven’t stopped entirely, but I just would rather is be if I do cuss that’s a sign something bad is happening and not just a decorative word.
I don’t care how others use it. I think I was just using them too much for a while and didn’t feel it reflected how I saw myself.


#14

That’s an extremely good point I hadn’t even considered. I’ll keep an eye out for alternatives, thanks!


#15

Another thing that puts me off he/she is that it excludes people who use other pronouns anyway.

As replacements for “crazy” I’ve pivoted into “wacky”, “silly” and “goofy”. I find that I usually either mean one of those words, or just some superlative like “Very good”. It can feel clumsy sometimes, but then I just rethink what I’m fundamentally saying if the only way I can think of putting the sentence together doesn’t sit right with me.


#16

There is no linguistic need to fill in this case; people just like having a quick catch-all that they can use regardless of what specifically they’re talking about, which is less a need and more our preference for convenience. The problem here is only thinking of having one catch-all or a completely different one, but I would say that, barring an actually good single alternative coming into use, it’s better to just go by context rather than relying on a single word, which isn’t even that hard if you’ve got a decent vocabulary.
Amazing, incredible, mind-blowing, out of this world… There’s no shortage of alternatives that are both more contextually fitting and not ableist. It also helps prevent repetition, which I’ve noticed is a common problem with those who say “crazy” regularly.


#17

I remember Katie Hopkins saying that people shouldn’t have to live in a world where they have to self-censor when they’re speaking and I’m lthinking “what world are you currently living in where you don’t do that?”


#18

I’ve taken to saying “Bongos” for some reason. There’s an episode of Seinfeld where Kramer is on Regis and Kathie Lee for his Coffee Table book and Regis says “This guy is bongos!” It’s not a perfect replacement for bananas/bonkers, but I love a good malaphor in conversation.


#19

I’m definitely with you on bananas causing an immediate bodily tension. “Savage” is really a weird one for me, because it’s definitely something I’ve had first hand experience on the receiving end of most of my childhood, but at the same time the way it found a home in AAVE was almost refreshing to me? The way it leans into a kind of “Yeah, let me show you just what savage can be” tone. But then…you have what always happens. sigh I still keep “savage” in my pocket for special occasions, the same way I hold onto “Indian” – sometimes you need a sledgehammer.

I do like and use “wild” fairly heavily, and it’s something I’ve thought about especially because I definitely use it when something has flat out interrupted my ability to comprehend what just happened. I guess in a way, I appreciate it’s historical opposition to “civilized” – and as someone whose existence has always been thrust into the space between those two, I like the unpredictable, maybe dangerous, maybe wondrous, but certainly unknowable in the moment tone it brings.


#20

I wouldn’t consider "amazing, "incredible, or “out of this world” to be synonyms of “crazy.” “Mind-blowing” comes closer but all of those terms are all used for describing something in a positive manner. People do use “crazy” in that sense sometimes and you’re right that there are plenty of terms to use in those instances that don’t have a ton of baggage. It’s also not needed when it’s used as an intensifier, when we have about a thousand of those already. “Absurd” is closer to hitting the mark of the use I’m talking about, and that’s often my go to. It doesn’t work for everything though.

Like I said, this is my opinion and I recognize that a lot of people disagree and I think those disagreements are legitimate. I’m not out here trying to reclaim it or anything like that, and I’m never going to tell someone that they shouldn’t be offended when people use it, and I try to avoid using it out of respect for that. I just don’t think that removing the word from our collective vocabulary solves the underlying problem, and we easily run into a euphemism treadmill issue, since the word is a symbol for the underlying oppressive attitudes that society holds and people will always find new ways to express those attitudes as long as they’re held within a society.