The Power of Language
Few of us would deny the power of language, and yet, most of us regularly use words and terms without thought to their origins. Indeed, some of that power comes from the fact that language can be so entrenched that we don’t even realize what we’re saying, even if we’ve been saying it for decades. While true in all circumstances, particularly in the workplace, we all have an obligation to know and understand what we’re saying and what the unintended impact of saying it could be. This is particularly true at the leadership and management levels, where the stage is set for role-modeling and accountability.
Below is a list of commonly heard terms in the workplace (and beyond) that we encourage you, as leaders and managers, to be aware of, to remove from your lexicon and to respectfully educate your people on, if/when you hear them.
Grandfather Clause or Grandfathered In – Typically used to describe a term, clause, rule, or benefit that no longer exists for employees going forward, but is being permitted for an individual employee or group of employees (e.g. those hired before a given year). The roots of the term, however, are steeped in racist political strategy, which greatly impeded/excluded Black people from voting in several states in the late 19th/early 20th century. Despite new voting requirements, White people (regardless of affluence or wealth) were still able to vote because their ancestors were registered voters. However, Black people had to complete challenging (if not impossible) literacy tests, as well as pay excessive poll taxes in order to vote.
Blacklist, blackball, black mark etc. – While these terms don’t have a clear line to racism, they imply that something significantly wrong has been done. If someone or something is blacklisted, they’ve been banned from or denied participation/inclusion. As Douglas Longshore, a UCLA researcher, indicated, using colour to represent good or bad may be “subconsciously racialized”. Consider, as an example, the term “little white lies”. While this term doesn’t appear to have a direct racial link, it’s important to consider why white lies are seen as less offensive than regular lies.
Master/Slave in Tech Programming – These terms have long been used in the programming world to describe when a device or process controls another device or process. While many tech giants and major programming languages have eliminated this language, the terms may still persist in the day-to-day of tech departments.
Cakewalk and Takes the Cake – Although we use the term “cakewalk” regularly to describe something that’s very easily done or accomplished, it was originally a dance performed during the ragtime era and performed by slaves on plantations. While the dance was intended to mock the way White people danced, it was interpreted by White people as the slaves trying to be like them. As dancers competed for the prize of a cake, the phrase “takes the cake” is thought to have originated from this time as well.
Long Time No See – This phrase is used very frequently today as a greeting when we haven’t seen someone in a long while. While it seems like a useful phrase, it was originally meant to make fun of how Indigenous people would exchange greetings after not seeing each other for quite some time. The Oxford Dictionary traces this back to a book written in 1901. While this phrase may seem harmless, mocking language or the way someone speaks is a form of microaggression.
No Can Do – In similar vein as to the phrase above, this one goes back to the mid-19th century and became popular by mocking the way Chinese immigrants said, “I can’t do it/that”.
Peanut Gallery – While the term is often used, usually in jest, to refer to a group of individuals who are poking fun or “throwing darts” at someone or their ideas, originally it referred to the “cheap seats” in Vaudeville theatres, where mostly Black people sat (and/or were expected to sit).
Uppity – While it’s often used to refer to someone who comes across as pretentious or becomes openly agitated about something, this term was originally used to refer to slaves who were activists, openly “disrespectful” or resisted their subjugated place in society. As a result of being “uppity”, they were punished, often beaten, and even killed.
Jip/Gyp or Jipped/Gypped – Often used when one feels cheated or shortchanged, it’s directly linked to the term “gypsy”, which is/was an offensive way to refer to people from Romania. Dating back to the 1500s, the Romani people were hugely discriminated against and enslaved, due to their darker skin.
Man Up – There are also a number of sexist terms used in our everyday language. This phrase, along with many other terms relating to be being courageous, brave, strong, etc. implies that men are stronger than women and that acting in a way that’s not “manly” is weaker or less desirable.
While not specific phrases or terms, there are also a number of unintentionally harmful comments that people make to one another in the workplace. These can take the form of microaggressions that “communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups” (Derald Wing Sue). While often well-intentioned, they can actually take the form of racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism. Some examples include the following:
- You don’t look old enough to be a manager!
- You look like a student!
- Where are you actually/originally from?
- Wow, you’re so articulate!
- Is that how your hair is naturally?
- It’s amazing how well you can maneuver in that chair!
Most of us have used and do use many of the phrases and terms listed above. Some folks may be aware of a few of them and have made efforts to stop using them. Yet for others, these may come as a surprise. The point is not that we’re bad people for saying them, but rather that we raise our awareness, and think more carefully about the words we use and where they’ve come from.