You Can’t Say That! Or Can You?

inclusive language blog post represented by Oop's! illustration

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

actress                                            actor
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
brother/sister                               sibling
chairman/woman                        chair
charity recipient                           client
Christian name                             first name
Christmas                                      Winter holiday
clumsy                                           uncoordinated
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
disease                                          disorder
drug addict                                   person with a chemical dependency
drug habit                                     substance use disorder
elderly/old people                       senior citizens
Eskimo                                           Inuit
fat                                                   overweight
fireman                                          firefighter
forefathers                                    ancestors
foreign language                          Spanish, French etc. language
foreman                                         supervisor
founding fathers                          founders
Frenchman                                    French person
garbage man                                 trash collector
girlfriend                                        partner, significant other
guru                                                expert, guide
guys                                                folks, people
he/his/him                                     they/them/their
headmaster/mistress                  head
Hispanic                                         Spanish speaking, Hispanic person
homeless                                       unhoused
homosexual partners                  same sex or gay partners
housewife                                      homemaker
husband                                         spouse
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
men/women                                 people
merry Christmas                          happy holidays
midget/dwarf                                little person
opposite sex                                 different sex
oriental                                          Asian
policeman                                     police officer
pow wow                                       meeting
prostitute                                      sex worker
retarded person                           person with an intellectual disability
salesman                                       salesperson
secretary                                        administrative assistant
sex change surgery                      sex reassignment surgery (SRS)
sexual preference                        sexual orientation
she/hers/her                                 they/them/their
spastic/spaz                                  a person with cerebral palsy or muscle spasms
spokesman                                   spokesperson
sportsmanship                             fairness
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
wife                                                 spouse
workman                                       worker

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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  1. Joan Herron says:

    Quite a list! I must be guilty on at least half. Doubt I can memorize it!

    1. Jackie says:

      You’re not alone! It’s going to take time and people like my friend who are willing to call us out on our faux pas!