Skip to content

New words won’t always be good words in the future

I recently used the phrase “Mexican standoff” in a storytelling performance and was warned that it might not be culturally sensitive.

I looked into it, and as far as I can tell, its origins are not racist or culturally insensitive, and most linguists agree that it’s still a perfectly acceptable description of a  confrontation between two or more people in which no party can easily best the other and walk away unscathed.

However, linguists also acknowledge that the word “Mexican” in the description might cause people to feel it’s insensitive despite its historical context.

In other words, tread lightly. Some uninformed people might complain.

I’m always willing to adjust my vocabulary to be more sensitive to the needs of others. I am not one of these teeny-tiny-brained monsters who refuse to adjust pronouns or use a new word to express an older idea when necessary.

LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, for example, recently proclaimed at a NASCAR event that her pronouns are “USA!” Not only is Dunne clearly incapable of adjusting her language to meet the needs of others, but she also doesn’t understand the definition of a pronoun.

I wrote to her to explain.

A few years ago, I stopped using the word “savage” to describe people after I learned (from a teenager) that the term was deliberately popularized and applied to indigenous people by European explorers to label them as uncivilized, thus allowing for their murder.

I was so annoyed. I liked the word a lot, but again, I’m not a teeny-tiny-brained monster incapable of discarding a word if its origins are steeped in bloodshed.

While I try to be sensitive, I also remind people – particularly some of today’s more self-righteous, indignant people – that today’s enlightenment will likely be tomorrow’s horror show.

“Colored person,” for example, was once the predominant and preferred term for black people in the mid-to-late nineteenth century because both white and black Americans considered it more inclusive.

What we once thought of as progressive is now viewed as offensive.

“Bipoc” is a good example of what might be. While it’s a word commonly used today to refer to black, indigenous, and people of color, it’s not impossible to see a day when future generations wonder why we were lumping so many people into a single category.

“Why did you use one word to describe everyone who wasn’t white?” your granddaughter may rightly ask, even though the word is commonly and inoffensively used today.

The group descriptor LGBTQ might also sound fairly arcane in the future. Why lump sexual orientation and gender identity into the same category? The two are very different.

“And by the way,” your granddaughter might add. “Sexuality is quite fluid. Why the hell were you trying to define it with a handful of letters?”

“Unhoused” is another popular term being used today in place of “homeless,” which makes sense. Don’t define a person’s entire being by their housing status. But when I recently told the story of my homelessness, someone who had never been homeless for a day in their life tried to correct me by saying I was unhoused.

This was not okay. “Unhoused” may be a more sensitive term, and I may use it to describe others, but when telling my own story, I will use “homeless” if I want because it describes my housing status and my feelings about it perfectly, both then and now.

My point is this:

Language evolves. Reasonable people become more sensitive and more aware of people’s needs, and we adjust our vocabulary when necessary. We don’t shout that our pronouns are “USA” to score points with teeny-tiny-brained monsters who can’t stand to see the world around them change.

But please, let us also never assume that today’s new word is the end-all-be-all of our language.

Do not get too confident in your self-righteous indignation. For you overly aggressive language police, maybe pump the brakes a little on your righteousness.

Future generations will likely perceive you as an uninformed, insensitive nitwit, and probably rightfully so.