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Stanford University Cancels Dozens of "Harmful" and "Potentially Upsetting" Words Including "American" and "Grandfather"

The list has already attracted criticism.

Stanford University has published a list of words and phrases it plans to stop using on its websites and IT systems because they may be "harmful" and "potentially upsetting." The guide was produced as part of the university's Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI), which involved 18 months of consultation with stakeholder groups. Commonly used terms that are considered racist, sexist, or ableist were targeted, as were those that suggested cultural appropriation or violence.

The site listing the now-taboo words and phrases comes with a trigger warning. "This website contains language that is offensive or harmful," it says. "Please engage with this website at your own pace." Predictably, the list has attracted criticism, even mockery from some quarters. Read on to find out more.

Cultural Appropriation, Insensitivity Targeted


The guide advises against 13 words and phrases for being "culturally appropriative" of misusing terms with certain significance to ethnic groups. For example, the phrase "bury the hatchet" appropriates "a centuries-old tradition among some North American indigenous peoples." The committee advises replacing it with "call a truce." A "pow wow" should be called a "get together" and a "guru" an "expert" to avoid appropriating a Buddhist and Hindu term of respect.

Perhaps most controversially, the EHLI considered "American" to be "imprecise language," and it said "U.S. citizen" is preferred. "This term (American) often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries)," the committee said.

Terms Considered Sexist


More than 30 terms were dubbed sexist, including "seminal," which the EHLI said reinforces "male-dominated language" and should be replaced by "groundbreaking." Trans people should be referred to as "non-gendering conforming folk." Other undesirable terms: "straight" and "grandfather."

Instead of "you guys," the committee suggests using "folks," "people," or "everyone." The issue: "you guys … lumps a group of people using masculine language and/or into gender binary groups, which don't include everyone," the EHLI said.

Racist, Ableist Language Nixed


More than 30 terms were said to signify "institutionalized racism." For example, an aircraft's black box, which "assigns negative connotations to the color black," should be referred to as a "mystery box" or flight recorder. "Master" should not be used because it connotes slavery.

The committee also nixed "ableist" language that "devalues people who live with disabilities." For example, "tone deaf" trivializes disabilities, while "blind study" should be replaced with "masked study." 

List Criticized


The list drew widespread criticism online, particularly from conservative commentators. "You used to have to get a graduate degree in the humanities to write something that stupid," said the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. But critics across the ideological spectrum found the list a little ridiculous. "All too often, universities are incubators of squishy groupthink and intellectual dishonesty," wrote an entertainment columnist in the Toronto Star. "What a student knows matters far less than how that student feels." 

University Responds


In response, the university published an update saying the list doesn't represent university policy and no words are banned. "We have particularly heard concerns about the guide's treatment of the term 'American.' We understand and appreciate those concerns. To be very clear, not only is the use of the term 'American' not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed," said Stanford Chief Information Officer Steve Gallagher. Gallagher added that the EHLI meant to say "American" can be imprecise in some uses, but "we clearly missed the mark in this presentation."

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