The Power of Linguistics: How Word Choice Affects Stigma


Lauren Handler

Zainab Mansoor ’20 states why she believes using certain words should not be used in everyday language.

In 2017, Yale University changed words describing the student body in favor of more gender neutral terms: “freshmen” to “first year” and “upperclassmen” to “upper-level students,” respectively. This was primarily for official purposes, not to impose on the student body. Even earlier, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also rid the term “freshmen” from official documents in 2009.

In September of 2018, Bronx Science followed suit, changing “foreign languages” to “world languages,” changed “mother” and “father” to “parent/guardian,” and made the dress code gender-neutral in the student handbook. However, in a survey sent to Bronx Science students with 222 respondents, 81% reported that they believed that this change at both Yale and Bronx Science was excessive.

Lay Len Ching ’21, among many other students, expressed a common reason why they believed this change was unnecessary. “The word ‘human’… is not gender neutral. Are we to change the whole English language?”

Mia Thompson ’19 conveyed another common reason to not change the terms: it seemed pointless. “Freshmen, upperclassmen, and terms of the like don’t refer to men exclusively…Changing the term won’t change the vernacular; nobody is going to stop saying ‘freshmen’ or ‘upperclassmen.’ The terms we use should reflect our general word choice, especially since those terms aren’t offensive.”

Although those who believed contrary were in the minority, they felt equally as strong in favor of the change. One of the most common reasons why those who felt that the change was progressive had a “why not?” viewpoint. “If many students expressed this sentiment, then it is the right thing to do because gender-neutral terms are far more inclusive and help make some more comfortable in school and other places,” said one junior, who wished to remain anonymous.

Others stated that doing so ended patriarchy ingrained in society. “Some might argue that it’s excessive to change the old terminology because of tradition, but using ‘man’/’men’ reinforces the idea that ‘male’ is the default, and perpetuates the patriarchal values that still have a presence in many societies and languages globally, not just in English. It’s a small step in the right direction, and it lets go of the past a little,” remarked Alex Pan ’19.

As a progressing society, word choice has become a growing topic of concern. To what degree are we becoming “the language police” and to what degree is it truly necessary?

In the survey aforementioned, participants were asked to list which words they heard in everyday conversation on a weekly basis. The most common were related to mental illnesses or learning disorders, except for the word “gay,” which reported as the most heard out of all of them. Additionally, the survey asked participants to state which words they thought were unacceptable to use in everyday conversation. While only 2% of participants stated they did not hear any of the words listed, a staggering 81% said that one or more of the words should not be used in everyday conversation. Does this mean that Bronx Science has a problem with word choice?  

Lauren Handler
Results of a survey given to Bronx Science students with 222 respondents

For the 19% that did not believe that any of the words that were mentioned in the survey were problematic to use in everyday language, all of them cited context as the most important factor for determining whether it should be used, “With context, you could say just about anything and it’s okay given the context,” explained Jack Zgodney ’22. “Therefore, saying any of these words, even in normal conversation, can be okay.” While many students believe that all words are not inherently problematic, the research indicates otherwise.

Lauren Handler
Results of a survey given to Bronx Science students with 222 respondents

In her paper “Stigmatized by the Language Linguistic Labels of the Disabled People in Poland and the United States,”  researcher Anna Ślebioda explores how language has affected negative personal and general-public perceptions of people with disabilities. She explains that when words that are supposed to describe various disabilities or illnesses are used out of its intended context, it actually blurs the line between people who have genuine, serious problems versus those who have minor problems. As a result, those with these disabilities or illnesses often feel negatively toward themselves because they believe their problems are subjective when, in reality, they are objective.      

The American Psychological Association (APA) has a list of problematic words on their website including epileptics, the disabled, the retarded, and the mentally ill. As it describes on their website,  “The use of certain words or phrases can express gender, ethnic, or racial bias either intentionally or unintentionally. The same is true of language referring to persons with disabilities, which in many instances can express negative and disparaging attitudes.” Also, language choice that has a higher link to a more positive attitude increases public support and decreases stigma.

Many sources, including the APA, recommend using “person-first” language to properly address those with these problems. Person-first language emphasizes focus on the person, rather than the disability. One study, done at Ohio State University, showed the significant positive effect of person-first language on people’s views on mental illnesses, indicating that people have higher tolerance toward those labeled as “people with a mental illness” versus “the mentally ill.”

The overwhelming majority of Bronx Science students do believe that using many of these words were inappropriate to use in everyday language, “autistic” being the most common response.

“By using these words out of context in everyday language, I think that people unknowingly normalize certain disorders and make them seem acceptable to use as a joke or in an insult. Not only that, but words relating to sexual orientation are also used as insults or jokes when it should be quite the opposite. Sexual orientation and health issues are things that should be taken seriously and should be the last things to be talked about in an offensive or joking manner,” said Zainab Mansoor ’20. Interestingly, it seems that Bronx Science students are overall well aware of the problem of using words out of context, yet it is fairly common in the Bronx Science community.

Lauren Handler
Jack Zgodney ’22 states why he thinks that context is the most important factor when it comes to what we say in everyday conversation.

Perhaps one could argue that we are becoming too sensitive, but it is clear that the science shows that sensitivity actually creates positive change for those struggling with a disease, illness, disorder, or other issue. We should be mindful of when we use words out of context. It’s okay to slip up once in a while. Of course word choice doesn’t make us bad people, but we should understand what we’re doing in the process. One of the best ways to stop perpetuation of stereotypes is to educate others with a friendly reminder to just be mindful of the language we choose.

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