Words to Avoid—2023 Edition
It’s that time again—Words to Avoid, 2023. Although this year, perhaps more than others, we should maybe call it “Words to Avoid…and some other words to pause before using, do additional research, and then decide whether or not to use.” No? Not as catchy? Okay, we’ll stick with what we have.
As always, this is not meant to be a definitive (or complete) list of dos and don’ts. The purpose of this list is to merely question what we mean when using certain words. Which are negative or offensive? Which others are simply overused or inaccurate?
Before we get started, we want to extend a big thank you to you, our readers and network, for your annual submissions and entries for consideration. As typically happens, a number of the most common suggestions are repeat offenders from previous editions of this list (which you can view in our Words to Avoid Glossary, containing all of the words and phrases on our annual lists since 2010).
For example, while we recognize the challenge of people still being in—and expressing—a pivot/unprecedented/back to normal state of mind, we won’t be rehashing that one this year. And while we are with you in moving away from words such as empower, we’ll stick to providing a few alternatives here rather than a full entry (maybe try out inspire, encourage, or some form of partnering with). There’s also another category of words like innovate that we occasionally still use and agree are losing some of their meaning, but are unfortunately unable to present clear alternatives or guidance without knowing the specifics of each situation.
Now, without any more ado, we share the following words and phrases for our annual discussion.
1. Boots on the ground
As you might have guessed, the phrase “boots on the ground” originated in reference to soldiers, law enforcement, and related personnel who were “physically present in a military or police operation.” Unfortunately, people decided this phrase had a nice ring to it, and now its use runs rampant as a broad, informal reference to any group of people who are physically present in any place doing any work to achieve something.
Even within military-related spaces and contexts, people have suggested moving away from the phrase because it’s dehumanizing and ignores the very real person who is going into very real physical harm. Instead of the euphemism, let’s start saying what we mean. It can be as simple as something like “we partner with people working at the community level” or “we have staff/volunteers/partners who are in [x location] doing…”. Bring back the human element and shift the focus to the people who live where you’re communicating.
This is one we use a ton internally and don’t question nearly enough. In creative fields, “brainstorming” is not just a requirement of the job, it’s also seen as a very positive thing—it’s an uninhibited way to get your ideas flowing and come up with creative solutions to problems. But this wasn’t always the case. The term “brainstorm” was originally used to describe what people perceived as “violent maniacal outbursts,” “a sudden and severe attack of mental illness,” “epileptic seizures,” and more. It wasn’t until much later that it meant having a bright idea or flash of inspiration, and even then it was only part of American English.
While we are many years removed from the original definition being commonplace, it is still a word we should use mindfully due to its negative connotations. Today, some people who are neurodivergent or have intellectual disabilities continue to perceive the “storm” element of the word as violent or negative, while the “brain” aspect places too much emphasis on intellectual ability. While not as succinct, a potential alternative to “brainstorming session” could simply be an “idea generation session.”
3. Guru / Maven / Ninja / Wizard
Have you been called a “fundraising ninja”? What about a “social media wizard”? Chances are, even if you have, that’s not your actual title (although we recognize some job descriptions do use this language). While formal titles and roles are certainly not a be-all and end-all, it is important to make sure you’re giving people the full credit and respect they deserve. Monikers like “maven,” “ninja,” “wizard,” and others can sometimes diminish the real value and hard work people bring to a project, making them seem abstract and mystical. It’s similar to how calling someone “a natural” can inadvertently undermine the years of training and education people have gone through to achieve their skillset.
Some of these names and labels are also culturally appropriative and can be offensive. The title of “guru” holds a place of high esteem in Buddhist and Hindu religions, and being a “ninja” has deep cultural roots, history, and implications in Japanese society. When either is misappropriated or used casually to refer to someone who is skilled at any random thing, their importance and significance are greatly diminished.
Additionally, labels like these can become even more confusing once you realize that both Ninja and Maven are software systems and tools, meaning people can be skilled at Ninja and Maven.
When communicating about literacy, we should always strive to avoid the term “illiterate.” For one thing, there are very few instances in which the term can be applied accurately and truthfully. More often than not, people who are described as “illiterate” likely have a low level of literacy. This is because literacy is not a binary descriptor, as it is often made to seem. People are not either literate or illiterate, but are rather on a lifelong continuum of literacy and learning.
Additionally, and equally important for communicators to keep in mind, “illiterate” is a deficit-based word. It focuses on what someone is unable to do instead of the fact that they are learning and growing. The label of being “illiterate” unfairly blames the individual for not having certain skills, rather than confronting the systemic issues that exist around education.
5. Latine / Latino / Latinx
This entry is a “pause before using, do additional research, and then decide whether or not to use” group of words. For decades, people have been trying to create a single term that could be used to describe and signify the wide range of people from Latin America who share cultural, ethnic, and/or identity elements—which we know is problematic in and of itself, as no group of people is a monolith. For a while, the preferred term was Hispanic. Then, the consensus shifted to Latino. More recently, Latinx has emerged as a possibility.
Now, there are some questions about the word “Latinx.” It originated as a more gender-inclusive alternative to Latino or Latina, as the Spanish language has a built-in gender system that differentiates masculine and feminine words. But, as a word that seems to have been created by English speakers living in the U.S., it’s not something easily pronounceable by Spanish-only speakers (Spanish words don’t typically end in “x”). Additionally, research largely suggests that many people in this cultural and ethnic identity group don’t commonly consider themselves “Latinx” over other identifiers anyway.
More recently, the term “Latine” has emerged as another alternative that is gender-neutral and more pronounceable in Spanish. But this, too, faces its own challenges and adoption.
This is a vibrant discussion that continues today. Each term has its proponents, detractors, and complicated history, but the key in all cases is respect. Explore ways to describe your audiences beyond generalizations and pan-ethnic terms where you can. Where this is not possible, it is best to use whichever term was originally used when you are quoting someone directly or using external research data. Otherwise, challenge yourself to find out how the person or people you are speaking to or about prefers to identify. The preferred term might be Latino, Latinx, or Latine, or maybe a nationality or ethnicity.
“Stakeholder” is the lone repeat offender for this edition of the list. It was previously included in the 2019 edition, and all of the points about it being among the jargoniest of jargon still hold true. We wanted to bring it back this year not only because of its continued prevalence, but also because we have additional context and reasoning to share.
Firstly, “stakeholder” is used most often as a blanket term to describe a wide range of people, groups, and organizations. As we continue to question language use, we have to ask ourselves how this blanket term might impact specific groups. For Indigenous Peoples, who have historically had to fight for their rights and recognition in dealings with the U.S. government and European colonizers, there is potential for offense and negative connotations. The term “stakeholder,” in some of these instances, is a slight and a step back from recognizing their protected rights.
Additionally, the origin of the word “stakeholder” doesn’t bestow the most positive association on the person or group described in this way. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “stakeholder” is rooted in gambling and was used as a way of describing a person who takes bets on an outcome. Surely, the important people close to your organization are doing more than gambling on your success. While they aren’t perfect or flashy, easy alternatives you can start trying out include “the right people,” “interested parties,” or “key people involved.”
Hopefully this list is a good conversation starter. In the coming days and weeks, think about other words and expressions that you can examine and question more closely in your personal and professional lives. You might also discuss with your colleagues any words or phrases your organization is using that might be harmful or stigmatizing and create a language guide – or consider a rebrand (we can help here too).
For additional related information, check out some of the following resources below. (Note: inclusion below does not represent a full endorsement from Big Duck, only that we have found these links useful in our learning and exploration.)
Understand some of the words and phrases on our 2023 list:
- “9 Terms to Avoid in Communications with Indigenous Peoples” Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc.
- “It’s Time to Cancel ‘Illiteracy’—Why We Don’t Say ‘Illiterate’” Literacy Works
- “A guide to how words like Hispanic and Latinx came about” The Washington Post
- “Offensive Words and Phrase To Stop Using And What To Say Instead” Thesaurus.com
Stop using “accessibility and inclusion”…without incorporating or mentioning disability:
- “Do Your D&I Efforts Include People with Disabilities?” Harvard Business Review
- “What’s Often Missing From the Diversity and Inclusion Conversation” PCMA
- “According to December 2020 research by The Valuable 500…only three percent of articles discussing diversity published in 2019 and 2020 referenced disability.”