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An Evolving American Language

The American language becomes inclusive, gender neutral and racialized, as well as ugly and inaccurate.

July 10, 2021

The flag of the United States against a blue sky

In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell lamented the decay in English usage that he believed was corrupting the way we think.

He complained about stale imagery and lack of precision but was hopeful that decadent trends would self-correct, because “when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

Fast forward 75 years. Would Orwell find stupidity in these sentences?

  • This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work.
  • They are a child.
  • When a child cries, I hug them.
  • Several pregnant people were present.

Groups promulgating the sentences above advocate “Ze” and “zir” as new gender neutral third-person pronouns.

With not even six tenths of one percent of Americans declaring themselves transgender, should this newspeak be endorsed to accommodate a tiny minority?

Media and academics becoming linguistic elitists

In their drive to prove themselves tolerant and inclusive, academics and media would reshape American English. But by promoting jarring, illogical usage, they become out-of-touch elitists.

Pennsylvania State University is in the vanguard of language progressives. Penn State will no longer enroll “freshmen,” only “first year” students. Similarly, “junior” and “senior” become “third” and “fourth” year. “Underclassman” becomes “lower division,” “upper classman” becomes “upper division.” “Ladies and gentlemen” is attacked as restrictive.

To the surprise of many, Americans have long been amenable to sensible linguistic change.

Noah Webster building national unity

Soon after the Revolution, Connecticut school teacher Noah Webster promoted a uniquely American English freed from the rigidities of the king’s English. Webster’s 1806 dictionary discarded the silent “u” in “honour, colour, harbour, labour.” It also reversed the silly “re” ending in “centre” and “theatre.”

Noah Webster believed language to be a powerful tool for building national unity.

From Webster to Jesse Jackson to Ted Turner

Because they were logical and simple, Webster’s reforms quickly gained public approval.

More recently, other changes have caught on. Gay people in the 1960s grabbed hold of “gay” and transformed it from being happy and carefree to a descriptor of themselves.

Civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson is credited for “African American” replacing black. In 1988 Jackson declared, “we were called colored and we’re not that.

Then came Negro and we’re not that. To be called ‘black’ is just as baseless. To be called African American has cultural integrity. It put us in our proper historical context.”

Similarly, cable news entrepreneur Ted Turner in the early 90’s crusaded against “foreign,” replacing it with “international.”

Turner regarded “foreign” as pejorative and demeaning. His opposition was total with some CNN staffers enduring $50 fines for saying “foreign” on the air.

Slave, enslaved person and the N word

There are other examples. “Chair” is pushing aside “chairman” and “chairwoman.” “Native American” is making strides over “Indian.”

Nikole Hannah Jones of the 1619 Project has won a number of converts to “enslaved person” instead of “slave,” which she regards as needlessly dehumanizing.

Some time ago dining in a north Harlem café, two black men in the next booth spoke in a manner Noah Webster would have found appalling. In the course of 20 minutes, they must have used the “n” word two dozen times.

Webster would be aghast, not only at the vile language but at the double standard, whereby blacks can use the word but whites cannot.

“Black” but not “White”?

In the heightened sensitivity to race that followed the death of George Floyd, the Associated Press stylebook, the arbiter of newsroom usage, decreed that “black” should be capitalized when describing a group of people but that “white” should not.

AP said blacks are a self-identified ethnic group or people while whites are not.

Further, it said white people have much less shared history and culture and have not endured discrimination because of skin color.

Does anyone care about redundancy?

It remains to be seen whether capitalized Black with lower-case white will catch on. Likewise, it’s too early to say enslaved people will replace slave. After all, since slave is an animate noun adding “people” is redundant.

Moreover, esteemed reconstruction era historian Eric Foner opposes the new formulation, citing 19th century civil rights pioneer Frederick Douglass in his defense.

“If slave,” says Foner, referring to Douglass’s writing, “was good enough for Frederick Douglass, it’s good enough for me.”

Foolish thought creates foolish language

As the nation debates white privilege and critical race theory, it’s useful to remember that it’s not only progressive whites who strive to do the right thing concerning race.

There is collective remorse and guilt about past injustice. How else can one explain the proliferation of Black Lives Matter placards in leafy white suburban neighborhoods?

George Orwell argued that language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish.”

Regrettably, many thoughts today are foolish.


Many thoughts today are foolish. Foolish thoughts create inaccurate and ugly language.

Americans have long been amenable to sensible linguistic change.

Noah Webster believed language to be a powerful tool for building national unity.

By promoting jarring, illogical usage, media and academics are becoming out-of-touch elitists.