Linguistic Changes Foster Respect, Inclusion

Rob Kyff on

Spinster. Gypped. Grandfather clause.

These are among many terms now deemed racist, sexist, ageist or otherwise offensive. Whether you think these linguistic cancellations are long overdue, or you view them as political correctness run amok, it's worth knowing what terms are being challenged and why.

We've happily bid adieux to overtly sexist terms, such as spinster, tomboy and Gal Friday, and easily adjusted to the replacement of stewardess, waitress and hostess with flight attendant, server and host (though I'll miss the exotic "aviatrix").

And we've seamlessly replaced manhole cover with utility cover, Founding Fathers with Founders and chairman with chairperson or chair, and we've learned to avoid terms such as right-hand-man, man in the street and manpower, (though whether anyone will ever shout "Person the barricades!" remains to be seen).

Other tarnished terms include the verb gyp (to cheat, swindle) derived from Gypsy, basket case (originally referring to a person who has lost all four limbs), lame (weak, inferior), oriental (for an Asian), paddy wagon (a vehicle loaded with Irish police or Irish arrestees) and "No can do" (derived from the English of Chinese-Americans).

Likewise, terms such as sold down the river, cotton-picking (as in "out of your cotton-picking mind"), peanut gallery (a section for African Americans in segregated theaters) and grandfather clause (a device once used to suppress Black voting) are tainted by their association with slavery or the Jim Crow Era. Many historians and writers now use "enslaved person" instead of "slave" because the latter term dehumanizes the person in bondage.


This "people first" approach is also reflected in the dropping of adjectives such as handicapped, diabetic and wheelchair-bound in favor of "people with disabilities," "people with diabetes" and "wheelchair users," respectively.

Admittedly, the justifications for banning some words seem far-fetched: "hysteria" because it derives from the Greek word for womb; "seminar" because it's a distant cousin of the word "semen"; and "rule of thumb" because it supposedly refers to an old English law allowing a husband to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. (It actually comes from the carpenter's practice of using the first joint of the thumb as a unit of measurement, which might explain why so many floors in old buildings are tilted.)

Maybe we can simply grandfather these terms back into the lexicon. Oops.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.



Joey Weatherford David Fitzsimmons Candorville Dick Wright Agnes Breaking Cat News