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Previous Language Strategy Intern Lauren Daukaus contributed to this post

As a Language Strategy firm, we know that words are some of the most powerful tools we have to shape the world around us. We use language to express ideas, connect with others, and ultimately create a shared understanding. And because it’s always evolving, all language has a historical legacy – the words and phrases we use today carry meaning from the way they were used in the past.

It’s easy to lose sight of this history when certain words and phrases start to be used more widely. But that history can be harmful. As a result, many of us unknowingly use harmful language without thinking about its origins and without intending to hurt anyone.

Regardless of our intent, using language like this can therefore lead to the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes, prejudices, and social systems that favor certain groups of people over others. One small – but meaningful – way we can make our community more inclusive is to critically examine our own language and to be open to change when we learn that certain terms or phrases are harmful.

Here are five simple shifts you can make today to make your language more inclusive: 

off the reservationAnti-Indigenous Racism

In the 19th century, Indigenous people who left the land they had been forcibly restricted to were described by white settlers as ‘off the reservation.’ The term was often used to express undisguised contempt and hatred. Today, Indigenous activists criticize the term as antiquated and racist.
out of control
“grandfathered in,”
or grandfather clause
Racist legislation that stripped Black men of their rights post-Abolition.

In business, the term is used to describe exempting long-time users from new regulations, but the term originated in the 1870s, when “Grandfather clauses” — or legislation put in place by Southern states – were introduced to reestablish voting discrimination by only giving men the right to vote if their grandfather had been able to do so – effectively preventing Black men from voting.
give an exemption to;
allowed an exemption;
get gyppedHarmful stereotypes about people of
Romani origin.

The phrase “get gypped” comes from a slur used against the Romani people, who have been stereotyped as dishonest or conniving for centuries. Romani academics criticize the slur’s prevalence as disrespectful and dismissive.
get cheated
blacklistBlackness with undesirable traits.

“Blacklist” was first used to describe “persons who have incurred suspicion” in the 1610s – which coincided with the mass enslavement of Africans in the European continent. Black scholars and activists have criticized the term for associating “Black” with negative traits. Other words that associate “black” with negative connotations include “blackmail” and “black sheep.”
sold down the riverThe enslavement of Black people
in America.

Although commonly used to describe a betrayal, “sold down the river” refers to the slave trade of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and specifically, a white person selling a Black person — often condemning them to violence and permanent separation from their family. Today, Black scholars point out that using the term as a synonym for betrayal takes weight away from the reality of slavery.

Are there any other shifts that you’ve made recently in the language you use after finding out more about its past usage or origin? Join the conversation on LinkedIn or Twitter @maslansky or leave a comment below.