Updated: Jan 1, 2020
Some language that was formerly considered socially-acceptable can offend your audience or readership. The cultural landscape has shifted dramatically over the last few decades—it is important to recognise this shift and be mindful of your choice of words.
Although not all your audience may openly express their offence, it will influence their decision-making about their professional engagement with you. In a workplace context, being mindful not to use offensive language will also help to create a culture that promotes diversity and inclusiveness.
You may not personally agree or relate to the rationale listed in the below examples, but it is important to gain an insight into why others may. Although some people will argue that the evolutionary nature of language has made some of these phrases acceptable, being mindful of their use shows acknowledgment, courtesy and empathy.
1. Recollections of Oppression
Example: "Sold down the river"
Meaning in Current Usage: Betrayed
Usage Example: We were sold down the river when our IT manager shared the data.
Why it's offensive: This phrase has a literal origin that is a painful recollection of oppression. It originated in the United States before slavery was abolished. It described the literal act of selling slaves from the north down to plantations (with often much harsher conditions) in the lower Mississippi.
Example: "Off the reservation"
Meaning in Current Usage: Gone beyond the boundaries of control, acceptable behaviour or thought.
Usage Example: Michael has really gone off the reservation with his reform proposal. Why it's offensive: This phrase, also with a literal origin, was used frequently in 19th century to describe indigenous north American peoples who had left their designated reservations (territories where they were often strictly forced to reside) without "authority".
2. Sexist Language
Example: "He's/She's/They've got (no) balls"
Meaning in Current Usage: This person has courage, bravery or boldness.
Usage Example: Sarah has got balls saying that straight to the manager's face.
Why it's offensive: Whether used to describe a man or a woman, it implies that psychological strength is a trait associated with masculinity. Conversely, compare it the use of "pussy" (slang for the female vagina), which implies weakness or lack of courage. These terms are some of the most glaringly obvious examples of ingrained gender-biased slang.
Example: "He/She wears the pants"
Meaning in Current Usage: He/she makes most of the decisions.
Usage Example: Mario really wanted to play video games but Louisa wears the pants and won't allow them in the house.
Why it's offensive: "Wearing the pants" is a throwback to the days when the clothing convention for men and women dictated pants as strictly male attire and, with only a few exceptions, inappropriate for female wear. The phrase therefore reinforces gender-stereotypical thinking that decision-making (within a household or business) should necessarily be male.
3. Medical Terminology
Example: "Handicapped/disabled parking"
Meaning in Current Usage: Parking spaces for people requiring easier access to entry points.
Usage Example: We have handicapped/disabled parking available.
Why it's offensive: The words "handicapped" and "disabled" are widely identified as inappropriate in many contexts but are oddly persistent in use with regard to amenities, such as parking, restrooms or public venues. A better (and accurate) alternative is "accessible" in these descriptions. Try to describe the nature of the facility. You then avoid using a labelling word about the person. When you are legitimately talking about disability issues, use person-first terminology, such as "a person with a disability" rather than adjective-led "disabled person". Avoid using “handicapped,” “differently-abled,” “crippled,” or “special needs.” (A good general tip to remember is that it can be offensive to identify someone by an attribute irrelevant to the topic of conversation, such as "the gay guy" or "the bald man".)
Example: "A little bit OCD"
Meaning in Current Usage: A preference for order, cleanliness or neatness.
Usage Example: I keep my desk very clean; I'm a little bit OCD like that.
Why it's offensive: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a highly distressing and life-altering mental illness, where the sufferer has little control over their agonising, unrelenting urge to ritualise certain behaviours. It's not a preference for order that brings peace or comfort, it's an anxiety disorder that causes agony and distress, so to use it in the above sense is minimising a disease that the World Health Organisation ranks as one of the world's most debilitating illnesses, and can actually trigger an anxiety response in sufferers.
4. Violence & Assault
Meaning in Current Usage: 1. A casual and (comparatively) widely-accepted curse-word. 2. A slang noun to describe someone, either pejoratively or sometimes fondly. 3. A slang verb to tell someone to go away.
1. Bugger–I've messed up the brief!
2. The silly bugger shouldn't have done that.
3. I really wish he would bugger-off sometimes and annoy someone else.
Why it's offensive: The verb "bugger", in its original definition, means "sodomise" (have anal sex with) someone, and was often used to describe a scenario that was non-consensual. For sexual assault victims, this can be a painful word to hear uttered.
Meaning in Current Usage: Sexual assault in a situation where the perpetrator is known to the victim, often framed as occurring during courting.
Usage Example: It was more of a date-rape situation cos they'd been out for drinks and beforehand.
Why it's offensive: This one's simple. Rape is rape. Consent is consent. The situational context doesn't change those facts. Using this phrase softens or trivialises an illegal act.
The above are only a handful of examples given to illustrate why our choice of language is important: they reinforce stereotypes about people or situations that are often hurtful, even if said innocently and with no intent to offend. It's a worthwhile exercise to arm yourself with both knowledge and self-awareness about the words and phrases you use.