Expert Insights

Problematic & Divisive Terms in the English Language

July 28, 2020

By Jocelyn Ocampo, Senior Manager, Digital, and Mariam Shahab, Vice President, Digital Strategy

Never underestimate the power of words. What we say and how we say it matters and can impact how your message is perceived by a variety of groups. As the world examines the role and far reaching implications of systemic racism, linguistic controversies are being called to the forefront with many calling for an end to the use of common, yet problematic terms with racist or divisive connotations and histories.

Below we’ve highlighted a handful of common English language terms rooted in racism or those that appropriate or are offensive to certain cultures and communities. This goes beyond being “politically correct” as these phrases should be avoided to ensure the words you use – in the workplace, marketing communication and beyond – are purposefully and intentionally inclusive and not harmful microaggressions or appropriation. This list does not include obvious racial, ethnic, gender or sexuality-based slurs, but rather focuses on revealing the connotation and history behind commonly used terms.

This list of terms is not exhaustive. As etymology continues to evolve as a result of societal acceptance or rejection of certain words, we encourage you to ask yourself the following questions when evaluating your word choice to ensure it is as inclusive as possible:

  • Am I comfortable saying this term in front of any audience?
  • If a term or phrase references another culture, did I take the time to research its history?
  • How essential is this term or phrase to get my point across? Are there alternates?

It is important to recognize that some of these terms have been re-appropriated for usage by certain communities. Please note that because we hear members of communities using some of these words or phrases, it does not give anyone who is not part of that community the right to repeat them. We strongly encourage continuous self-education to make steps toward inclusivity and change.

Please note, some of the below information can be triggering for particular diverse communities.

Terms & Their History

  • “Blackball” / “Black mark”: Terms imply wrongdoing and rejection; using “Black” to describe things that are wrong is subconsciously racialized. Source
  • “Blacklist”/ “Whitelist”: While not connected to race, some academics warn that the terms reinforce the idea that Black is bad and White is good. Source
  • “Dreadlocks”: The word “dread” has negative connotations. As an alternate, use “locs.” Source
  • “Exotic”: The word means “very different, strange, or unusual” or “not living or growing naturally in a particular area; from another part of the world.” Source However, this term should not be used to describe humans. Using this word to describe someone assumes that someone is not from the U.S. only because they are not White.
  • “Gang”: This word has undergone a handful of meanings over time. In fact, it was used to refer to a group of workers before designating criminals. A current accepted connotation is that a gang is a group of people integrated through conflict resulting in collective behavior and development of solidarity, often with an attachment to a local territory. Source
  • “Gangbuster”: The origin of the term was used to describe a law-enforcement officer who specializes in breaking up organized crime, often by forceful or sensational means. The term also was popularized by an American radio show Gang Busters (aired from 1936 – 1957), known as “the only national program that brings you authentic police case histories.” The show was known for its dramatization and excitement which led to the phrase “coming on like gangbusters.” Source 
  • “Ghetto” / “Ratchet”: Dictionary meaning of Ghetto is “part of a city in which members of a particular group or race live usually in poor conditions.” The term is associated with groups of people historically and currently being forced to live in quarters. Both terms have been recently used to describe what users deem “unfit” and both attribute negative connotations for the Black community. Source
  • “Grandfathered in” / “Grandfather clause”: Associated with laws enacted by some U.S. States to prevent the Black community from voting after the 15th Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, was passed. Source 
  • “Gyp”: Short for “gypsy,” and typically used to describe the Romani people. The term carries negative connotations as its definition is “defrauded, swindled, cheated.” Source
  • “Homosexual”: This word is a clinical term and while inherently nonproblematic, has a history of being used to denigrate LGBTQ+ people and describe them as diseased, pathological or emotionally/physically disordered. In fact, The Associated Press, Reuters and The New York Times all restrict the usage of the term “homosexual” unless it is used in a direct quote (Source). Use “gay,” “lesbian,” “transgender,” etc. instead – or simply, LGBTQ+.
  • “Illegal immigrant” / “Illegals” / “Illegal Alien/s”: When a person is labeled as illegal themselves, it means the individual is unlawful, instead of their actions. Source
  • In reference to a person: “Fairy,” “Nellie,” “Nancy,” “Sissy,” “Fruity”: Sure, these words may be quite harmless on their own – but, context is important. Historically, these words have been weaponized to disparage feminine men – gay or not. Even if it seems like a joke, these words should be avoided if their use is to reference people.
  • “Ladies & Gentleman,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Boys & Girls,” “Guys,” etc.: When referencing groups of people, it’s best to avoid gendered language and opt for “everyone,” or “folks” or simply “people.” This is especially important when crafting messages for a Pride or LGBTQ+ focused campaign. And if you don’t know the gender of a person you’re referencing, avoid “he or she” and instead opt for the recent AP approved use of the singular “they.”
  • “Master bedroom” / “Master bathroom”: The term “master” has slavery-era connotations, and realtors are starting to drop that term and replacing it with “primary.” Source
  • “No can do”: The phrase is “derived from pidgin English in the 19th century, when Americans said it to mock Chinese immigrants.” Source
  • “OCD”: Short term for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, sometimes used casually when the user is describing a behavior but is not diagnosed with the disorder. It is discouraged to be used in a way that converts OCD into an eccentricity, behavior or quirk, perpetuating misconceptions about the disorder. Source 
  • “On the down low”: This term has evolved a lot over the past 20 years, but it is rooted in a very specific subsect of the Black community: Black men who had secret gay relationships. The term was later used by Black gay men who rejected white gay culture. Source
  • “Peanut Gallery”: Its first documented use was to refer to the sections of theaters where Black people typically sat. Source
  • “Sassy”: Since the era of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, Black people were more visible and could be more outspoken — to a point, particularly if they were female. To illustrate this, sassy “Mammy” figures could scold the family they worked for and playfully berate their employers (so the authors could show that Blacks were not being oppressed). And because of the feminism movement, this was especially the case for Black women. Source
  • “Sexual preference” or “preferred pronouns”: These two terms imply that someone’s sexual attraction or gender identity (i.e., usage of pronouns) is a choice – instead say “sexual orientation” or “sexuality” and just nix the “preferred” qualifier when discussing pronouns.
  • “Sold down the river”: In the 1800s, Black slaves were sold down the Mississippi river to plantation owners in the South. Source
  • “The gay/lesbian/trans/etc. lifestyle”: This term is often used to imply that an LGBTQ+ person’s identity is a choice, akin to veganism. There is not one set “lifestyle” between members within this community and the term is often used to demonize stereotypically LGBTQ+ behaviors (alcohol/drug usage, “sodomy,” etc.).
  • “Tipping Point”: When this term started being used more, “it was almost entirely in reference to the propensity of white families to move out of an area when a certain percentage of the neighborhood was composed of Black families. It served as a precursor of sorts to the phenomenon of “White Flight.” Source
  • “Transgendered” as an Adjective: Referring to someone as “transgendered” implies that their trans identity was something that happened to them vs. a reflection that being trans is who they You wouldn’t say “John Smith is a gayed man,” so it wouldn’t make sense to say, “John Smith is a transgendered man.” You would say, “John Smith is a transgender man” or even more simply, “John Smith is a trans man.” 
  • “Transgender” as a Noun: Transgender is an identity term and should be used as an adjective. If used as a noun, it objectivizes the subjects being referenced. Avoid “there are a lot of transgenders who work here” or “she is a transgender.” Instead, say “there are a lot of transgender people who work here” and “she is a transgender woman/person.
  • “Urban” / “Inner-city”: The meaning started to reference the Black community and was further associated with it by being used in titles for federal clean-up programs that targeted low-income areas, like the Housing Act’s urban renewal program. Source
  • “Cakewalk”: Originally a dance performed by Black slaves on plantations before the Civil War. Owners held contests in which slaves competed for a cake. Source
  • “Powwow”: Powwows are enormous celebrations of Native American heritage, dance, food, art and community. Source
  • “Off the reservation”: The term comes from a time when Native Americans were forbidden from leaving the boundaries of a delineated area. Source
  • “Open the kimono”: The origin of this phrase is disputed. Some claim the expression originated in feudal Japanese times in reference to the practice of proving no weapons were hidden within the folds of clothing. Others claim this bit of business jargon emerged from fears in the U.S. about the rise of Japan’s economy in the ’80s. Source
  • “Spirit animal”: The ancient concept of animal guides, particularly prominent in some Indigenous, especially Native American, religions and cultures, was adopted in Pagan and Wiccan spirituality in the 1990s. In these contexts, spirit animals are meant literally, referring to spiritual guides or totems that take the form of animals. Source
  • “Tribe”: The word tribe originally referred to the division of Roman voters into three factions, but it has been used throughout history by European colonists to describe the Indigenous people who inhabited the lands they colonized. Related, the word ‘tribal’ was often used synonymously with ‘savage’ or ‘primitive.’ Source
  • “Thug”: Dictionary definition is “a brutal ruffian or assassin.” However, the word, when used by a non-Black person, is often referring to a Black person in a way that carries a negative connotation. Source
  • “Uppity”: Used in Jim Crow era by White people to describe Black people they believed were not showing enough deference. Source

Collaborators: Chevonne Nash, Patrick Pfohl & Jocelyn Hachem