Stanford’s language police decide ‘American’ is a bad word – USA TODAY

As wokeness pervades our society, expect to see a lot more limits placed on our daily word choices.

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Next time you belt out Lee Greenwood’s classic anthem “God Bless the USA,” consider changing the famous chorus to, “And I’m proud to be a U.S. citizen …”

Doesn’t have the same ring to it, I realize, but it prevents you from having to use the harmful word “American.”

At least that’s what the bright minds in Stanford University’s IT community have determined in putting together a list of offensive words (after months of research) that should be avoided across the university’s websites. 

What’s so bad about “American”? According to the Stanford guidance, “This term often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries).”

I’m not making this up. 

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List of ‘offensive’ words could chill speech

The “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” was launched in May, and a list of more than 100 words to be avoided recently came to light, which has brought the university some (rightfully earned) backlash.

It’s an example of political correctness gone wild, and while the administrators behind it may be well-meaning, their list will only serve to chill speech and free and open discussions – which is what universities should be all about. 

Zach Greenberg, senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said he’s concerned about the list’s breadth and the fact it does not account for the context in which these words are used – an essential consideration given the complexity of the English language. 

“Many of these words are normal parts of how we speak as a society that I think regular, reasonable people would not consider to be harmful or offensive, and by deeming this long list of words to be harmful and offensive, Stanford creates a chilling effect on all of the students and faculty who may want to use these words for their research, their teaching and just their everyday discussions of issues in our society,” Greenberg told me. 

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Because Stanford is a private university, the directive doesn’t have the same First Amendment implications as it would at a public institution, but it’s still alarming. It’s symptomatic of the wider trends in higher education to coddle students and prevent them from hearing anything that could “trigger” bad feelings. 

Speaking of such things, the guide to harmful words comes with its own trigger warning*: “This website contains language that is offensive or harmful. Please engage with this website at your own pace.”

(*Pardon me: Stanford recommends “content note.” Trigger warning is harmful because “the phrase can cause stress about what’s to follow.” Also, trigger might conjure violent imagery.) 

‘Mailman’ and ‘congressman’ deemed triggering words 

What’s potentially “offensive or harmful” on this list? 

The terms are grouped into the categories of Ableist, Ageism, Colonialism, Culturally Appropriative, Gender-based, Imprecise Language, Institutionalized Racism, Person-first and Violent. 

You guys, this master list of blackballed words, many of which are grandfathered into our daily usage, seems lame (Beware: I just used four “offensive” terms to give you an idea of what’s on Stanford’s naughty word list). 

Under the gender-based list, offending words include “she,” “he,” “guys,” “ladies,” “mailman” and “freshman.” Even “preferred” pronoun is not inclusive enough as it implies a “choice” in nonbinary gender identity. 

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Heaven forbid we acknowledge that men and women exist or use words that have been considered gender-neutral for generations. 

The initiative’s website observes that “small changes could make a huge difference.”

Some examples of offensive things you might have said or heard: 

►”Walk-in Office Hours or Walk Up Support Hours? – A person who uses a wheelchair can’t walk in or walk up, so consider using ‘open office hours’ or ‘onsite support hours.’

►“That was insane! – This term trivializes the experiences of people living with mental health conditions, so consider using words such as surprising or wild.

►“An email domain or IP address being whitelisted or blacklisted? – These terms assign value connotations based on color (white = good and black = bad), an act which is subconsciously racialized; consider using the words allowlist and denylist.”

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Wokeness is limiting speech on campus

After the full list came to light, the university removed it from public view (it’s now password protected), and the information technology department issued a statement trying to temper the uproar. 

What Stanford is doing reminds me of the legal battles in recent years over “bias response teams” at public universities. These groups exist to encourage students to spy on one another or faculty and to report any offensive language or actions. Disciplinary action is a real possibility.

Federal courts have pushed back against these organizations because of the threat to free speech on college campuses, but they still exist. 

If Stanford’s IT administrators are backing this list of harmful words, it’s likely other departments are making similar considerations. And I wouldn’t be surprised if other universities were as well, given how trends spread in academia. 

It’s perfectly fine for Stanford to police campus language for professionalism and politeness – many organizations do. But this goes far beyond that. As wokeness pervades our society, expect to see a lot more limits placed on our daily word choices. 

That’s what I find most harmful. 

Ingrid Jacques is a columnist at USA TODAY. Contact her at or on Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques