Bad Words, Coded Language and Pushing for Clarity

  • Erik Jacobson

From an ethical standpoint, I don’t believe it is fair to ask my students to do anything in class that I am not also willing to do.  For example, when I ask my students to do some freewriting or craft a poem in response to a text we have just read, I do so as well.  When my PE students lead us in a sample lesson that involves doing things like squats and push-ups, I hit the floor alongside my students.  And when I ask my students to reflect on their language use to look for any explicit or implicit bias, I necessarily share examples of my own struggles to use the kind of language that demonstrates political clarity and commitment.

For example, like many people I have tried to stop using the word lame to describe something that is not interesting, fun or cool.  It is certainly grounded in an ableist worldview that thinks of people with impairments as lesser.  I often get pushback from students when I suggest that using lame to describe things they don’t like is an example of biased language. They say things like, “Well, that’s not what I mean and not everybody knows that other meaning when they say it.”  In response, I remind them that as teachers and future teachers, they often talk about wanting their students to use clear and precise language to express their ideas. We want K-12 students to avoid words like stuff, things and other vague terms. We teach them not to use the word retarded as an insult. If that is the case, shouldn’t we always be open to the idea that there is other language that we need to examine?

In the last year or so I have tried to stop using the word slave and have started using enslaved person. There are a few reasons for this, most of them having to do with being clear about the situation.  Thus, rather than saying “millions of slaves were brought to America,” it is more precise to say that “millions of Africans were seized and brought to North America.”  The word slave sounds like a resource, and reduces the individual who is in bondage to that very state (in the same way that autistic person does to individuals on the autism spectrum).  Enslaved person, on the other hand, makes it clear that we are talking about a human being who is the victim of an ongoing crime and encourages us to think about who is doing the enslaving.  Having used the word slave for decades, it has been hard to get out of the habit, but I’m trying.

Many of my students are indeed open to examining the history and ideological dimensions of words, but just as many others are reluctant to.  They are surprised when I ask them to use the kind of precise language they want their own students to use.  I was recently discussing African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and as usual, some students expressed concerns about the value of this particular dialect.  One student noted that she was particularly vexed by the use of the word mines instead of mine by K-12 students in Newark. Our dialogue went as follows:

Me: Why does the use of mines bother you so much?

S: It’s wrong.

Me: Who says so?

S: We do.

Me: Who’s we?

            The student had no response to this.

            I then discussed regional variations in English, highlighting dialects they might know something about (e.g., Boston) and ones they might not know as much about (e.g., Appalachia). The same student chimed in:

S: OK, that is fine for them. They speak their own dialect in Boston or Appalachia.                   But mines is not how we speak here.

Me: Where’s here?

S: New Jersey.

Me: Isn’t Newark in New Jersey?

            The student had no response to this.

            Finally, I brought up how often I see people get upset when they hear somebody saying or reading “axed” for “asked.”

Me: Why is that so upsetting to people?

Student: Because it is not correct.

Me: Why?

Student: That is not how it is written.

Me: Do we pronounce everything in English the way it is written?

            The student had no response to this.

            In class I often point out how words like thug or wife-beater (to refer to a particular type of undershirt) seem to me to be obviously racially coded.  I suggest that if we are to take fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other insidious ideologies seriously, we need to attend to the way that language works and be prepared to call people on the words they use.  In this conversation, my student’s use of we and here are suggestive of conceptions of each that do not include speakers of African American Vernacular English.  Similarly, treating “axed” as uniquely problematic when English is full of inconsistent readings (Wednesday? Connecticut?) suggests that it is a stand-in for other concerns. In situations like this, I prefer to ask my students questions about what they are precisely trying to say, and leave them to connect the dots.  By doing so, I’m trying to model an approach that does not jump to conclusions, but that does not back away from dealing with the tough issues at hand.  I often wonder if this is this the best approach.  It feels like a necessary first step, but do my students take additional steps outside of my classroom? What steps have I myself failed to take? I hope that I always have people in my life willing to push me on my own language.


Erik Jacobson works on literacy in a variety of contexts and with students of various ages, including adults. He can be contacted at

He is also on Twitter – @LearningJustice

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