Free Speech

The Things We Can't Say

As the culture war permeates American life, combatants set their sights on the ways we express ourselves.


An obscure webpage that Stanford University had quietly published seven months earlier made a huge splash in late December.

It was the product of the university's Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, a "multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT at Stanford." The goal was to remove dozens of undesirable terms from university materials. Among the offenders were crazy, for "trivializ[ing] the experiences of people living with mental health conditions"; guys, for "reinforc[ing] male-dominated language"; American, for "insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas"; and Karen, for being "used to ridicule or demean a certain group of people based on their behaviors."

The backlash was fierce. Conservative groups such as the Chicago Republican Party and Young America's Foundation called the guide "Orwellian." So did The Stanford Review, the university's independent newspaper. It received (often scathing) coverage in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Fox News, and countless other outlets. Fox's Greg Gutfeld called the initiative "language castration," while the Wall Street Journal editorial board lamented that "parodists have it rough these days, since so much of modern life and culture resembles the Babylon Bee." Even Elon Musk got in on the action, tweeting: "@Stanford, what is your explanation for this madness?"

A few weeks after the deluge, Stanford took down the guide. Chief Information Officer Steve Gallagher admitted that it had "missed the intended mark."

The language guide was specific to just one university—one university's I.T. department, no less—but it was part of a bigger trend. Consider the ongoing debates over whether to capitalize black, whether to say birthing people, and "equity language" style guides. Debates over language are even being hashed out in the halls of government: Several cities have prohibited the use of he and she in new laws and policies, Arkansas banned the use of Latinx in state documents, and staffers in the Trump-era Energy Department international climate office were reportedly told not to use the phrase climate change.

Each of these episodes brought heated charges: that English is changing too quickly, that it's evolving inorganically, that linguistic powers-that-be are imposing new ideologies from above. Under "new regimes of indoctrination and propaganda" on the right, "language no longer functions as simply a repository of meaning and facts" but "has turned toxic and takes on a new…significance in its ability to shape values, social relations and actions," the leftist cultural critic Henry A. Giroux claimed in the progressive outlet Truthout. Meanwhile, in Spiked, the philosopher Peter Boghossian argued: "Every word in the woke lexicon conceals activism. Every single one."

In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell wrote that "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." This is made worse by the fact that "all issues are political issues," with politics itself "a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia." Orwell's essay lamented the ways that political conflict degrades language, twisting it to suit political purposes. And the worse the political environment, he argued, the worse things were for language: "When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer."

These anxieties, as with so many other aspects of the culture war, drive combatants to push for heavy-handed interventions—sometimes involving state pressure—that will ostensibly benefit their sides. That approach misunderstands the way that the English language has always evolved. As in a market, people offer new terms that may be efficient, silly, innovative, out-of-touch, controversial, trendy, or long-lasting.

One fact is unavoidable. Linguistic trends come and go, but robust competition is what ensures that languages retain what's most useful to their speakers.

The American Language

People have feared the degradation of English throughout American history.

John Adams' concern that English was "going to the dogs" was so strong that in 1780 he called for a "public Institution for refining, correcting, improving and ascertaining the English Language." Most European nations, he noted, had already established such institutions. The "American Academy" would be publicly funded and offer a "public Standard" for "the Signification and Pronunciation of" the language. Not only does "the Form of Government" have an influence on language, the future president argued, but language "influences…the Form of Government [and] the Temper, the Sentiments and Manners of the People."

Thomas Jefferson also cared deeply for the English language (and he introduced words to the vocabulary that we still use today). But he differed from Adams on the matter of governing our common tongue. Where Adams wanted to place an authority over American English to ensure controlled growth, Jefferson believed centralized power was stifling its development.

"I am no friend therefore to what is called Purism; but a zealous one to the Neology"—that is, adopting or creating new words—"which has introduced these two words without the authority of any dictionary," Jefferson wrote in 1813. "I consider the one as destroying the nerve & beauty of language, while the other improves both, and adds to [its] copiousness."

The English language's "enlargement must be the consequence to a certain degree" of its spread around the globe, Jefferson continued. "The greater the degree, the more precious will it become." With enough development, the former president wrote, the character of American English "may separate it in name, as well as in power, from the mother tongue."

Governments have long resisted the evolution and diversity that Jefferson praised, especially when it comes to loan words, local languages, and foreign influence. In the Soviet Union, "the writing systems of some languages…were transformed from the Latin to the Cyrillic script in order to alienate the people speaking Turkic languages from Turkey…and bring them closer to Russian," wrote the University College London linguist Alex Krouglov in a 2021 article for Current Issues in Language Planning. Soviet state media "produced numerous politically correct phrases describing political, economic, and cultural events in the country and overseas," Krouglov explained, which "were first coined in Russian and then transferred to other languages of the Soviet Union." Texts "deemed ideologically correct were first translated into Russian, and then from Russian into other languages of the Soviet Union."

Authoritarian governments have outright banned the use and teaching of minority languages. Under Francisco Franco's dictatorship in Spain, regional languages such as Catalan and Basque were outlawed. The current Chinese government has forced video services and other online platforms to eliminate content in the Tibetan and Uyghur languages. Even Mandarin, the majority language, isn't safe: Censors banned the Chinese words for incapable ruler, my emperor, and disagree from the social media site Weibo in 2018.

The linguistic authority that Adams proposed may have been more moderate, but that doesn't mean it would have been benign. Adams hoped to mimic the Académie Française—France's "linguistic secret service," as Vanity Fair's James Reginato has put it, a body charged with preserving standards of French vocabulary and grammar. The Académie is more often the subject of ridicule than it is the purveyor of useful language guidance. It cannot keep up with new language developments, having worked on its latest dictionary since 1986. Its efforts to stamp out English loan words like hashtag, WiFi, and email are like beating back the tides.

'Many of These Bad Words Are Fine'

Adams lost. There is no American Academy. And American English is better for it.

The U.S. has seen some linguistic micromanaging, such as isolated legislative efforts to excise the phrase illegal alien from the law and ban Latinx from schools. There has been macromanaging, including repeated attempts since the 1980s to declare English the official language of the United States. There has been harsh, wholesale suppression, which involved the banning of instruction in Native American languages and Native Hawaiian, jeopardizing those languages' survival.

Broadly speaking, though, American English has been allowed to develop organically. This process has looked more like a market at work than top-down political control.

American English has been free to accept loan words from many foreign tongues. These additions have made the language more adaptable, descriptive, and responsive to its speakers' needs. When colonists first encountered unfamiliar plants and animals, they borrowed Native names. Moccasin, moose, and muskrat came from the Natick language of modern-day New England; hickory and raccoon from the Great Lakes–region Algonquian; and bayou from the southeastern Choctaw. As settlers came to the new country from Germany, the Netherlands, and France, and later from Mexico and Yiddish-speaking enclaves of Eastern Europe, they lent their words to the developing language too.

No less than Walt Whitman admired this broad and tolerant approach to the nation's tongue. As Kenneth Cmiel wrote in The Journal of American History in 1992, "The words of fighters, gamblers, thieves, and prostitutes ought to be collected, he thought, the bad words as well as the good, for 'many of these bad words are fine.'"

An ever-changing language will inevitably leave behind some offensive and vulgar terms as times change. "Many ethnic slurs like 'dago,' used at one point in time to disparage people of Italian and sometimes Spanish descent, and 'kraut,' a derogatory way to refer to Germans and German-Americans, seem to have disappeared from youth consciousness entirely," wrote the University of California San Diego cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen in 2019.

The reverse is also true: Some offensive words eventually become kosher. In 1972, piss and shit were among the comedian George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." They're commonplace now. "Virtually everything about profanity has changed since the 1970s," wrote Bergen. "At least four of those previously forbidden words have become pervasive in media, in television, social media, online gaming, newspapers and books." The LGBT community has reappropriated such once-offensive terms as gay and queer.

Then as now, new influences weren't always welcome. People caught in the clashes between tradition and change have sometimes armed themselves with government power. But our battles over language have almost always been resolved by argument and cultural evolution, not by top-down rules.

A New Front

On the left today, language warriors push what the writer Harry Cheadle has called "Style Guide Liberalism: a fixation on terms and language that is well-intentioned but inevitably creates a murky layer of jargon between speaker and listener, writer and reader." This "inevitably results in an in-group and out-group," Cheadle writes. It's not just that most Americans don't use the new favored terms—large shares don't even know them. One such term is BIPOC, or "Black, Indigenous, and People of Color," unknown to 63 percent of Americans. Per a 2020 Pew Research Center poll, less than a quarter of Hispanic adults had heard of the term Latinx.

One can reasonably wonder who Style Guide Liberalism is really serving. Major universities and nonprofits certainly think it serves someone. The Sierra Club, the American Cancer Society, the University of Washington, and the American Medical Association have all adopted so-called equity language guides. They draw from just a few resources published by progressive activist organizations, and though those guides mention how language evolves, they don't represent organic evolution. They have much more in common with Orwell's assessment that political writing must resort to euphemism.

There is evidence that this approach doesn't yield the intended results. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has compiled several studies that "reveal unintended consequences of efforts to reduce linguistic harm." In a January paper, the psychologist April Bleske-Rechek and her colleagues "found that including one sentence warning students they might encounter harmful language caused them to perceive ambiguous phrases as harmful." In other words, "The prime increased the harm it aimed to prevent." A 2011 study found that "Asian-American students who perceived ambiguous comments as evidence of racism experienced higher anxiety than those who did not perceive racism in the same situations."

Pressure movements spearheaded by conservatives have convinced some universities to reconsider or repeal their language guidance and speech codes. Unfortunately, this impulse has also led to some overcorrection: The Texas Public Policy Foundation warned parents in 2021 to "stay on the lookout for some of [critical race theory's] less 'buzzworthy' names and language," offering a list that included identity, colonialism, and ally. More broadly, anti–critical race theory legislative efforts have aimed to limit speech on "divisive concepts" in public schools and other government settings. And though some Democrats have joined them, it's largely Republicans who are leading the charge to ban the term Latinx in government settings.

The right's approach raises the same question as the left's: Who is this for? Though polls show very few Hispanics using the term Latinx, they also find that few are bothered by it. Just 12 percent of respondents to the 2020 Pew poll said they disagreed with or disliked the term. It might not be good for the right itself, either. Culture-war skirmishes turn off voters who would prefer to see a more policy-driven conservative platform. Though they're popular among conservative elites, they're out of touch with working-class priorities.

Getting Better All the Time

Politics and language won't be separated anytime soon. Does that mean we're doomed to endure battles over acceptable vocabulary year after year, decade after decade, with the threat of government action lingering?

Perhaps. A 2021 Pew survey found that 53 percent of American adults felt that "people saying offensive things to others" is a major problem. But there's also evidence that Americans are weary of the language wars. Sixty percent of respondents in a 2019 Pew survey said "too many people are easily offended over the language others use." Though 79 percent of respondents in a 2017 Cato Institute survey said hate speech was morally unacceptable, a far smaller share—40 percent—said the government should prevent it.

People seem to have faith in the market to sort the language out. A 2022 New York Times survey revealed two interesting trends: There are plenty of new, politically correct terms that Americans don't seem particularly interested in adopting, and at the same time Americans have been turning away from some words that have grown less socially acceptable over time. A scarce 10 percent of respondents said they'd use the word chestfeeding (embraced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Health Service). Global South hasn't caught on (just 15 percent of respondents use it), but Third World still appeals to a strong 73 percent, even though the Second World disappeared three decades ago. And while 84 percent say they use the contentious phrase master bedroom, just 28 percent say spaz. Gypsy hasn't fully gone the way of other terms deemed ethnic slurs—English law still uses it—but more than half of the survey respondents said they wouldn't say it.

The market doesn't always work quickly or seamlessly. Anxious and impatient language warriors have long been willing to use heavy-handed tactics, at times even trying to sic the government on their opponents. But the historical pattern is clear. Cultural pressure and exchange will inevitably change languages. Given the opportunity, they'll grow to be what their speakers need.