Recently, in a conversation with a friend, I said “I felt like a spastic.” My friend looked at me in disbelief. “Don’t ever use that word,” she admonished, explaining that “spastic” is a demeaning way to describe people who suffer from seizures. Like her sister. I thought the word just meant an “uncoordinated person” and apologized profusely. But the incident made me wonder what other faux pas I might be making. So I got on the computer and started searching for “inclusive language.” What I found was interesting and at times surprising. Curious about the latest views on inclusive language? Read on.
What the Heck is Inclusive Language?
Defining inclusive language can get a little (ahem) wordy.
The Linguistic Society of America defines inclusive language as language that “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.” It avoids exclusion, stereotyping and language that portrays people as dependent, powerless or less valued than others.
The use of inclusive language is advised when referring to a person’s age, race, sex, class, creed, educational background, religion, gender identity, disability, mental health, gender expression, geographical location, nationality, income, marital status, parental status, sexual orientation or work. To learn more, visit The NCAA’s Guide to Inclusive Language. It’s written by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for use by its members, but it’s the best overview of inclusive language I found.
Examples of Exclusive vs. Inclusive Language
While searching for articles on inclusive language I found plenty of examples I thought were inappropriate or even ridiculous. Who would substitute “chestfeeding” for “breastfeeding,” for instance? And since when is the term “breastfeeding” offensive? But staying aware of what’s offensive and what’s not is hard. The list changes constantly. These days, lots of offending language relates to members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) communities. When in doubt, you can always ask what form of address they prefer.
Potentially exclusive Inclusive or
or offensive language more respectful alternative
Asian Asian American, Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI)
Australian Aborigine Native Australian
Black African American, Black American, African, person of color, Caribbean
black sheep outcast
blacklist not allowed list
blind sight impaired
boyfriend partner, significant other
charity recipient client
Christian name first name
Christmas Winter holiday
colored person/people person or people of color
congressman/woman representative, senator
dead passed away, deceased
deaf hearing impaired
diabetic person with diabetes
disabled person person with a disability
drug addict person with a chemical dependency
drug habit substance use disorder
elderly/old people senior citizens
foreign language Spanish, French etc. language
founding fathers founders
Frenchman French person
garbage man trash collector
girlfriend partner, significant other
guru expert, guide
guys folks, people
Hispanic Spanish speaking, Hispanic person
homosexual partners same sex or gay partners
illegal alien/illegal undocumented immigrant
Indian person from India
Indians (Native) Native Americans
junkie person with a drug dependency
juvenile delinquent child at risk
ladies and gentlemen everybody
latino/latina/latinx of Latin American descent
mailman mail carrier
male nurse nurse
man up be brave
master bedroom primary bedroom
merry Christmas happy holidays
midget/dwarf little person
opposite sex different sex
policeman police officer
pow wow meeting
prostitute sex worker
retarded person person with an intellectual disability
secretary administrative assistant
sex change surgery sex reassignment surgery (SRS)
sexual preference sexual orientation
spastic/spaz a person with cerebral palsy or muscle spasms
steward/stewardess flight attendant
third world developing nations
transgendered transgender people
used (goods) pre-owned
waiter/waitress server/wait staff
white European Caucasian
whitelist allow list
Are You Unknowingly Saying Things that are Offensive?
Like me, you may unknowingly say things that offend someone. I really appreciated my friend alerting me, but not everyone is comfortable doing that. And I promise you, there are terms you might use without knowing they are offensive. For instance, do you know what makes the term “rule of thumb” offensive? See 20 Things You’re Saying That You Didn’t Know Were Offensive for the surprising answer. Then take this New York Times Quiz: Are these words offensive? After you take the quiz you can compare your answers to the results of a poll to see where you stand versus others.
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