Breaking Up With Words

And forming relationships with new ones to make room for more of us.

Road sign with words "End Friendship"

Photo by Tinou Bao used under CC BY 2.0

By Karen Yin • January 17, 2017


Happy Chinese, er, Lunar New Year!


I still slip up on occasion because I’ve called it “Chinese New Year” for most of my life. When the mind reaches for words, it’s not surprising that the most familiar are the most accessible.

There’s more to this habit than wanting what’s familiar, though. I reach for words with emotional resonance. The phrase “Chinese New Year” moves me, reminds me, makes me happy, whereas the more inclusive “Lunar New Year” is merely syllables.

But what if the familiar becomes uncomfortable? Even though my heart prefers “Chinese New Year,” that phrase leaves out the Korean and Vietnamese cultures, among others, and no longer aligns with my intentions or world view. And although “Lunar New Year” is the clear winner, it feels like I’ve broken up with an old friend.

A twinge of grief underlies certain shifts in language.

I suspect that a twinge of grief underlies certain shifts in language, for inclusive language in particular. Even wholehearted support of respectful, compassionate, and mindful “people words” might be accompanied by a feeling of loss. We’ve invested more in mother/father than parent, woman/man than person, wife/husband than spouse, and using the unbiased version can feel flat.

And it’s OK. It doesn’t mean we should run back to relationships which no longer serve us. Those words have already been given a chance, and look what they’ve done to us, to the world.

And it’s OK. It doesn’t mean we should run back to relationships which no longer serve us.

Form relationships with new words. Aim for equality and not just diversity. We need to evolve language so that more of us matter.

How has language been treating you?

Karen has long wavy hair and is smiling into the camera. She's wearing a gray T-shirt and an aquamarine pendant.Karen Yin is the founder of Conscious Style Guide, a resource for inclusive, empowering, and respectful language, Editors of Color, tools for diversifying your staff and sources, and AP vs. Chicago, an irreverent language blog for anyone who “gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.” She received the 2017 Robinson Prize for furthering the craft of professional editing.

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