alex beam

A tough year for words

james olstein for the boston globe

What a tough year for our beloved English language! Microaggression in; crazy out. Othering in; alien out. How am I supposed to address ET? Phone home, my darling . . . interplanetary voyager?

I was traveling in the Orient — sorry, I mean East Asia; Orient has been verboten for years — earlier this fall when I read that The New York Times wanted the government to stop using the word alien. It is a “loaded, disparaging word, used by those who regard immigrants as less-than-human burdens rather than as assets,” the paper opined.

Alien is just one of many no-go zones in the Say-This-Don’t-Say-That world of modern lexicology. Immigration activists pilloried NBC News president Deborah Turness and Hillary Clinton for using the term illegal immigrants this fall. Both promptly apologized and promised to use more acceptable language in the future.


I like it! If there are no illegal immigrants in the United States, then we don’t have an illegal immigration problem. I’m planning to eliminate the word overweight so I can watch my Body Mass Index classification magically change to “svelte.”

Cultural appropriation is a term that many of us heard for the first time this year. It means that imitating someone else’s culture, even in a respectful way, violates some undefined behavioral norm. I first encountered the term when a minuscule group of protesters mau-mau’ed (watch it, Alex . . . ) the Museum of Fine Arts into abandoning a wear-a-kimono attraction that accompanied an exhibit of Japanese art.

Just a few weeks later, in the none-dare-call-it Orient — sorry, Japan — I encountered a small kimono rental kiosk in a park outside of Kyoto. Please, wear our kimonos, the sign read. So it’s OK in Japan, but not on Huntington Avenue. Welcome to the crazy-quilt cultural politics of the 21st century.

Don’t say crazy! At least not on the Smith College campus. Its student newspaper recently deleted the word from a discussion transcript, identifying the missing word as an “ableist slur.’’ “Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against people who have disabilities,’’ the online Urban Dictionary helpfully explains. Language is a fascinating, living organism that absorbs new words almost as quickly as it sheds others. Comes now the honorific Mx., to identify a transgender person. It sounds as strange to us now as Ms. must have sounded when it edged into the outer precincts of common parlance in the early 1970s. Another recent trend: publications using the plural possessive pronoun their when writing about transgender individuals, in place of “his” or “hers.”


james olstein for the boston globe

Here are some more coinages to slip into your modern-language purse: the aforementioned microaggression and othering, and social justice warrior. Microaggression is a suitable-for-campus synonym for a petty slight, now upgraded to casus belli status. Last month, a student leader at Claremont McKenna College in California said the need “to educate the student body is eminent [sic] by the numerous microaggressions felt by students of color.” Sweetheart (Alex, second warning), get me rewrite.

Othering has been hanging around the social-science lexicon for a while. It means “perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien,” according to the Wordnik website. Social justice warrior is a pejorative term for someone who overreacts hysterically, to, say, perceived microaggressions. The Ottawa Sun reported last month that a s.j.w. succeeded in closing down a free University of Ottawa yoga class “over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of cultural appropriation.”

Without the free classes, how will students master yoga? Oops – there’s another word heading for the ashcan. America’s great patriarchal colleges, such as Princeton, Yale, and Harvard, are pawing through their thesauruses trying to replace the odious noun that traditionally refers to their heads of colleges or residential houses. At the World’s Greatest University, “The House Masters have unanimously expressed a desire to change their title,” Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana told faculty members in a prepared statement that sounds as if it came out of a Red Guards reeducation camp.


Master is hitting the bricks because it supposedly evokes memories of master-slave relations. (Wait until the students learn about the Board of Overseers.) Finding an acceptable substitute for a word that also means “teacher” or “professional” isn’t necessarily easy. Princeton is opting for “head of college.” Yale is prevaricating. “We will continue our deliberations and expect to reach a conclusion later in the academic year,” according to a prepared statement from Yale president Peter Salovey, who sounds like he’s in the same reeducation camp as the Harvard dean.

The Harvard Crimson reports that the two former co-masters of Mather House “recently began asking students to call them by another title . . . ‘chief executive officers.’ ” A friend of mine who used to be a Harvard co-master thinks “warden,” used at Oxford and Cambridge, might work for the skittish Americans. I’m not sure. Is it better to be a prisoner than a slave? That hair-splitting might require some Ivysplaining.

Marketing writer Carol Anne Buckley coined Ivysplaining — a gloss on mansplaining, which means men condescendingly explaining how the world works to women — when she saw the “Harvard Placemats for Social Justice.” Those now-notorious table settings instructed students how to “correctly” handle difficult questions over the holidays. (Example: “House Master Title; Why Did They Change the Name?”) “This placemat was clearly a ‘trigger’ experience for me,” Buckley wrote on Facebook. “I don’t like being Ivysplained to.”


james olstein for the boston globe

With the vocabulary under siege, the editors of the Oxford Dictionaries chose not to admit a new word into their august company this year. In 2014, Oxford selected “vape.” In 2013, “selfie.” This year the editors instead decided to anoint a symbol, the most commonly used emoji, the “face with tears of joy,” into their ranks.

The world’s greatest dictionary loading up on dopey little Twitter symbols instead of powerful Middle English, Latinate, or even 21st century techno-coinages? The whole idea seems alien to me.

(Three strikes, Alex. You’re out.)

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.