6 Words That Have Subtly Problematic Connotations

While trying to tell her family that she had a miscarriage, dancer and writer Ori J. Lenkinski noticed something about that word: It places blame on the woman who has experienced it. By using the prefix "mis," like "misuse" or "misremember," "miscarriage" implies that someone has failed. In fact, realized Lenkinski, "miscarriage" is just one of the many words that can marginalize people without the speaker even realizing it.

In a piece for the Huffington Post published on Jan. 25, 2016, Lenkinski asks:

Why do we say this word? Why do we choose to assign blame to a woman during one of the most vulnerable moments that life has to offer? Why can't we find another word for this very common occurrence that doesn't kick a woman while she's down?

Every day, we use words like this that may subtly demean people without even thinking about what they mean. The English language was created within a patriarchal, racist, and otherwise oppressive system, and our everyday ways of speaking reflect that.

I'm not saying we need to eradicate all terms with oppressive roots from our vocabulary. If we never used any problematic language, it would be nearly impossible to communicate. However, these words and phrases are worth thinking about because they reveal some of the hidden assumptions that our culture makes about people, and those assumptions should be challenged.

Here are some common terms and expressions that subtly reveal oppressive norms.

1. "Straight"

This is a widely accepted way to refer to people attracted to only the same gender, both within and outside the LGBTQA+ community. However, calling heterosexuals "straight" implies that queer people are the opposite — crooked or off-center. Definitions of "straight" include "in proper order or condition" and "conventional or respectable," which suggests that queer people are somehow improper or less respectable.

I'm not the only one who has had this thought. Raquel Perez points out in Free Press Houston that "bent" is a slang term for gay, corroborating the possibility that the word "straight" as used to describe people reflects its dictionary definition. "By using the word straight, you’re sitting here saying that anyone who doesn’t adhere to some peoples’ imaginary conventional mode of sexuality is 'improper' or 'dishonest' and even a 'deviant,'" Perez writes.

2. "Clean"

To say that someone is "clean" because they don't have any STIs is to imply that the majority — yes, the majority, according to the American Sexual Health Association — of people who have had or will have an STI at some point in their lives are dirty. Cleanliness vs. dirtiness is a stigmatizing metaphor that perpetuates the idea that sex is dirty and STIs are punishment for engaging in it.

I'm not the only one to notice the problem with this word, either. "Saying someone is unclean based on their HIV status is hateful,” performing artist Mister Wallace told the Aids Foundation of Chicago.

3. "Penetrate"

The dictionary definition of "penetrate" is to "succeed in forcing a way into or through (a thing)." Hey, that sounds kind of violent. And yet it's how sex ed classes and many descriptions of intercourse describe the act.

The truth is, intercourse isn't really penetration. There's no membrane being broken. The word only serves to reinforce the notion that sex is inherently an act of violence by men toward women, which blurs the distinction between sex and rape.

Some feminist theorists, notably Luce Irigaray, have pointed out that describing sex as "penetration," particularly in heterosexual situations, also makes men the active party in a sexual encounter while portraying women as the passive receivers — literally the objects of the verb "penetrate." Instead, vaginas could be said to envelope or engulf penises. Or, to equalize things, I like to use the portmanteau "penvelope."

4. "American"

The Americas encompass a lot more than the United States. You've got South America, Central America, Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, and 42 countries in total. That's why the word "americano" in Spanish can refer to anything on the American continent. Yet, when we talk about "Americans" in the United States, we're usually just referring to, well, people from the United States. This erases other cultures and depicts the United States as the dominant American country.

Consider what an anonymous Argentinian told The Atlantic in 2013: "Someone from the U.S. calling him or herself 'American' is equivalent to people from the U.S. traveling anywhere in the world and expecting everyone to speak English." Accurate.

5. "The East"

As social theorist Edward Said has pointed out, the "West" vs. "East" distinction is an arbitrary dichotomy that often serves to "other" people in Asia, the Middle East, and other "Eastern" nations. If you think about it, East and West are relative. You could get halfway across the world by traveling eastward or westward, and from Japan's perspective, the United States is to the East — but the Japanese didn't make the maps we use.

In addition to portraying a Eurocentric view of the world, dividing the globe into the West and East smushes together all the cultures on each side and treats them as opposites, rather than appreciating the nuances within each category and the similarities between different parts of the world. And within this distinction, the West is considered the superior place — hence the word "westernization" too often used as a synonym for progress.

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