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Gael Spivak

Running Out of Words: It’s Not a Slippery Slope

Illustration of three dictionaries in a row.
Illustration of three dictionaries in a row.
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It’s almost inevitable. People who say “we’ve gotten too PC” about language will, at some point in the discussion, claim that if we stop using certain words or phrases, we’ll run out of words to write and talk.

Arriving at this spot

Who is having these discussions and how does this line of thinking work?

I help moderate several editing communities of practice on Facebook. About once a month, an editor will post a question like “Do we still say [fill in the blank]?” Or they will post an article about biased language or oppressive language.

These discussions are usually about words related to people our society has marginalized. As editors, we have a duty to stay on top of the latest shifts in language, including expanding our own awareness of words and phrases that seem innocuous but are hurtful and harmful to our fellow human beings.

The discussions are usually quite informative and useful. But at some point, someone will usually say that we’re all being “too politically correct.” Often included with this pronouncement is the claim that if we ban certain words, we won’t have any words left.

The slippery slope

This is the form of the argument we usually see: “If we stop using word x because it upsets a small number of people, then we are on the slippery slope of political correctness, and soon we won’t have any words left.”

Let’s break this argument down, starting with the slippery slope section. Here’s the problem with it: it’s a well-known logical fallacy. In fact, it’s so basic that it’s taught in introductory philosophy courses. That’s where I first learned about it. And if you google “slippery slope,” the first thing that comes up is the Wikipedia article on the fallacy.

Word shortages

OK, so we won’t use the term slippery slope. What about this claim that we will run out of ways to say certain things? There are only so many words at our disposal, right?

I find that hard to believe. After all, the Oxford English Dictionary contains over 600,000 words. And it adds hundreds of new words each year.

I can has experts?

I decided to ask a couple of experts what they thought about the risk of running out of words. As lexicographers, these two have more knowledge about words than most of us combined.

Katherine Barber, former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, has this to say. “The statement that we soon won’t have any words left is staggeringly hyperbolic and ridiculous. Of course, we will have words; people concerned about sensitivity are suggesting new replacement words, not just eliminating words.”

And Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster, says this: “Becoming aware of the potential offensiveness of language makes us all better communicators and allows us to make our points more clearly without the possible distractions that can weigh down our writing. Clear writing is good writing, for which there will always be enough words.”

If editors can’t think of another word to substitute for the one they want to use but they know is hurtful, either they have a small grasp of English vocabulary or something else is going on. That something else might be their own biases.

We have a huge set of words to choose from. What less-biased words and phrases have you learned recently?

(If you don’t understand the “I can has?” heading, just google it. Then you’ll get it.)

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Previous post from Gael Spivak: Grammar Matters

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6 Comments on “Running Out of Words: It’s Not a Slippery Slope”

  • Excellent post, Gael. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  • Great post, with I can has as the delightful cherry on top.

  • Carla DeSantis

    says:

    Thank you so much for highlighting this issue, Gael. It reminds me of a situation we had here in Toronto last year, when a school trustee argued “slippery slope” when trying to defend his opposition to inclusive language in the code of conduct by comparing to offensive terms. As “guardians of the language,” so to speak, we have an obligation to find appropriate words.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    A friend says, and I agree: “It’s not about running out of words; if we do we’ll just invent more. The problem is that all euphemisms eventually become offensive and have to be replaced by new ones. And that is because the so-called marginalized minority doesn’t become less marginalized or disappear because we change the words we use to describe it.”

  • Gael Spivak

    says:

    “…all euphemisms eventually become offensive and have to be replaced by new ones.” I’d like to see some evidence to back that claim. I can think of an occasional euphemism that people later decided was just as bad but I doubt there is a large-scale pattern there. If there is, surely it would show up and lexicographers could track it.

    And conscious language is not about using euphemisms, anyway. It’s about not using hurtful words and finding other ones that are more accurate. Like using African American. That is not a euphemism for the other words we no longer use. Nor is Indigenous Peoples a euphemism for previous terms. They are more accurate. And if they become less accurate, it is very little effort to change them again.

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