Streetwise Professor

December 21, 2022

The Idiom Wars

Filed under: Politics — cpirrong @ 2:24 pm

One of the most prestigious universities in the United States of AMERICA (caps are foreshadowing!) has beclowned itself by releasing its most recent “Elimination of Harmful Language” document. Our better thans instruct us as follows:

The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) is a multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT at Stanford. EHLI is one of the actions prioritized in the Statement of Solidarity and Commitment to Action, which was published by the Stanford CIO Council (CIOC) and People of Color in Technology (POC-IT) affinity group in December 2020.

The goal of the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative is to eliminate* many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased (e.g., disability bias, ethnic bias,e thnic slurs, gender bias, implicit bias, sexual bias) language in Stanford websites and code. 

Where to begin? Target rich environment! (No doubt that’s forbidden violent language–see below.). It’s not quite as long as the OED, but give them time! Pretty soon every word in the English language will be problematic at best, violently offensive at worse.

I guess the best way to summarize is that the document proves that Stanford is insane. How insane? They endeavor to “eliminate” the use of the word “insane.” Why, you ask? Well, you benighted pleb, here’s why, the word “insane” is:

Ableist language that trivializes the experiences of people living with mental health conditions.

So there.

The document lists a variety of categories of Wrongspeak, conveniently listed alphabetically. (Hey! Isn’t that Eurocentric and colonialist!?!?!). These include: Ableist, Ageism, Colonialism, Culturally Appropriative (talk about a language crime!), Gender-Based, Imprecise Language, Institutionalized Racism, Person-First (WTF?), and Additional Considerations.

I could spend a large fraction of my remaining natural life ridiculing this, but that would be futile because no doubt in the interim an expanded list would be released.

So I’ll just pick out a few of the real winners.

African-American is bad, you see, because:

Black people who were born in the United States can interpret hyphenating their identity as
“othering.” As with many of the terms we’re highlighting, some people do prefer to use/be addressed by this term, so it’s best to ask a person which term they prefer to have used when addressing them. When used to refer to a person, the “b” should always be capitalized.

I’m so old that I remember that “African-American” was mainstreamed in the American (trigger warning!) lexicon by one Jesse Jackson, whom if I recall was–and still is!–black. JJ preferred this precisely because . . . wait for it . . . “black” was “othering.”

You cannot possibly make up this shit. Unless you are a Stanford egghead.

Whoops! I used the phrase “trigger warning.” Bad, bad, SWP. That’s violent!:

The phrase can cause stress about what’s to follow. Additionally, one can never know what may or may not trigger a particular person.

SWP to the camps!


This term is a slur against those who are neurodivergent or have a cognitive disability.

This is one of my favorites. Note that “retarded” was originally introduced as a euphemism to replace words like “idiot” and “moron”, which were at one time clinical descriptions of individuals with low intelligence. (As I recall, there were IQ ranges specific to morons and idiots.). Oh, they’re not idiots: they are just behind mentally, retarded in their development.

But of course, the euphemism was used pejoratively in normal speech to describe people who are stupid or who do stupid things, just as “idiot” and “moron” had been. “You’re retarded!” “You retard!” But you didn’t call them idiots, right?

Which illustrates a dialectic of normal speech: a word associated with a given condition will be used as an insult. If the insulting use is stigmatized, and a new euphemism is substituted to describe that condition, the new euphemism will be used as an insult.

This is human. This is emergent. This is inevitable. Trying to undermine this dialectic by “eliminating” old insults and creating new euphemisms to replace them is as futile as commanding the tides.

“Long time no see”:

This phrase was originally used to mock Indigenous peoples and Chinese who spoke pidgin English.

What the fuck ever.

By the way, idioms like this, and many others offensive to 2022 Stanford (including “retard” and “insane”), have been widely used by people of my generation, and previous generations. So doesn’t that mean that it is ageist to ban their usage? I’m offended!


This term 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).

“Insinuating.” To whom? Stanford nitwits?

A few comments. First, of all of those 42 countries, only the United States of AMERICA has the word “AMERICA” in its name. Hence, we call citizens of Canada “Canadians,” citizens of Guatemala “Guatemalans”, etc.

Second, pretty much everybody in the other 41 countries calls, er, Americans “Americans.” They are evidently not as hypersensitive as Stanford nitwits.

Third, isn’t there a much bigger problem with the word “American”??? After all, it is derived from the name of a dead white European male, Amerigo Vespucci. Shouldn’t the continent be named for a Toltec rain god or something?

The suggested substitute for American is (unintentionally, certainly) hilarious: “US Citizen.” And silly me! I though that the idea of citizenship was exclusionary, racist, etc., etc., etc.

The substitutes are generally hilarious in their own right. For example, the suggested substitute for retarded is “boring, uncool.” No. Not even close Those words do not come remotely close to capturing the connotations of “retard.”

Again, I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea, and will entertain yourself by perusing the document in all its glory. Just in time for the holidays! Think of the fun you can have with family around the Christmas tree finding your favorite example of . . . insanity!

Many of the verbotten words and phrases are turns of speech–idioms. Hence the title of the post. But the implicit reference to “Indian Wars” is no doubt offensive to the oh-so-easily offended at Stanford. Shouldn’t it be “Native American Wars?”–whoops! No! American is a bad word! So I guess it would be “Indigenous People’s Wars”–but “Wars” is violent, so I guess we have to call the whole thing off.

Along these lines, recall that Stanford’s sports teams were once called the “Indians” before an earlier generation of the easily offended decided that this homage to Indians was insulting, and the teams were renamed “Cardinal”–not for the bird, you know, because that would be speciesist, but for the color. But isn’t that speciesism once removed? Or religiously supremacist?

The point being that Stanford has long been an innovator in logically incoherent–or shall we say insane?–language games.

But these are more than games. As Orwell pointed out in 1984, to control language is to control thought. The Elimination of Harmful Language provides oodles of material for ridicule, but in reality it is deadly serious. This is the effort of malign people who want to control what you say, and therefore what you think.

So if you ridicule, follow Saul Alinsky and use ridicule as a weapon in a real war for your personal autonomy, your control over your words–and your thoughts. Fight these fuckers with every weapon at your disposal. It’s funny, but it’s deadly serious.

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