We use words every day, but we’re not always aware of what they mean. A phrase that sounds perfectly harmless to one person can be deeply unsettling to another. Changing a few words can completely alter the meaning of a paragraph. This is the reality of biased language, and it’s the topic we’re discussing with special guest Ariel. We discuss why a word’s meaning can change so quickly, how to spot problems, and resources for doing better. Plus, why sports metaphors and high fantasy might not go together.
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: This is the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.
Chris: Welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Wes, and we have a special guest: Ariel.
Ariel: Hi, that’s me!
Wes: Woo! Welcome.
Chris: Welcome. Ariel is our secret copy editor at Mythcreants. So you may not hear her name a lot, but she is hard at work copyediting our articles, and she also has her own podcast that she started recently, called Edit Your Darlings.
Wes: Great title.
Chris: So, Wes, do you want to introduce our topic today?
Wes: Sure. Today we’re talking about bias-free language. I think something a lot of us are aware of is that biased writing in general has undergone a lot more scrutiny and revision in recent years than pretty much anything else going on in English language stuff.
And that means that terms that were in general use for the 20th century are now scarce. Things like the generic he – saying “postman”, “congressman”, “actress”. Or, saying “flesh-colored”, when you actually mean pink or beige; or words like “crippled” or “handicapped”. People have moved on, rightly so, to find acceptable terms. Sometimes those terms might not be short and it could be a little more convoluted, but, you know, the challenge is always worth it, when we’re basically talking about being bias-free and respecting people.
Now, speaking specifically as a copy editor, since we’ve got Ariel on, copy editors are expected to query or revise anything that promotes stereotyping that might be based on gender, ethnicity, religion, age, any other designation – anything that marginalizes groups of people or that’s insensitive to cultural and other differences. And, upfront, just to be clear, authors are free to express their views, publishers are free to publish them, or not. And copy editors are free to quit if they cannot abide the content of a manuscript.
So the principle for today is, if any author wants to say their bigoted, politically incorrect or otherwise views, they can do that. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about those ways that things can unwittingly get in there without thinking about it or without noticing it. Or simply maybe to make you aware of some of the things that copy editors will pick out. That’s kinda what we’re talking about today. All kinds of fun examples, I hope. Fun/sad sometimes.
Ariel: Ohhh, yes. [all laugh]
Chris: Yeah. When we’re working with writers, more often than not – well, okay. At Mythcreants, we have a specific type of audience that generally does not want to have bigotry in their work, more so than a general audience. But even so, usually when we find those kinds of things, people just are not aware that what they’re saying comes off that way. It can happen at the word craft level, which is what we’re talking about now, or in bigger story themes. And we just try to promote being aware of what it is that you’re saying, so that you only say what you want to. That’s really important.
One thing I just want to add is that this terminology can update very quickly, and a lot of people get frustrated. They’re like, “But yesterday you told me to say this, and today you’re telling me to say this, and will it stop changing?” I think a lot of that is that people aren’t used to changing their language. When you first are asked to change your language, there can be some defensiveness, and feeling confused or disoriented when you feel like things are moving on without you. But this is something that, as it happens, will start to feel a little bit more normal. Where if somebody corrects a term you’re using, you’re like, “Oh, okay, that’s the right term now”. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It’s fine. Just update it.
And just be aware that the frequent updates, a lot of times, are due to bigotry. What happens with a lot of these terms is that they’re respectful at first, but then they become slurs because bigots start using them as slurs, and that’s where they get the bad connotation from. So some of these terms are continuously updated to stay ahead of the bigots, which is sad. Be aware that these terms change because of oppression, and when we fix oppression, they’ll stop changing so much. [Ariel and Wes chuckle]
Other terms are just coming up with new and better ways to communicate about something, or because people’s ideas of something have gotten more complex and nuanced. Like for instance, once upon a time, people would describe a trans person as “trapped in the wrong body”. Today, that would be really regressive because if someone is a woman, she has a woman’s body. Regardless of what physical features that body has, it’s the body of a woman. So that’s real disrespectful today.
But when people were first trying to communicate what being trans was, that language was different. And they had to use some of this language, just to try to get across to clueless people what their experiences were. So that’s another reason why these things keep changing. Just be aware of that. And it’s okay if you have to change. I have a whole list of words and things that we’ve changed over the years at Mythcreants.
Wes: Some examples?
Chris: Yeah. So, “underprivileged” to “marginalized”; part of the reason for that is just that some privileges nobody should have.
Wes: Oh, Chris, that totally reminded me of an anecdote I saw on Twitter like twenty minutes before we started recording. Do you guys know the origin of “high brow entertainment” and “low brow entertainment”?
Ariel: Does it have something to do with cavemen?
Wes: It has to do with fake sciences from the 19th century and your brows. Europeans reportedly had “high brows” and were more desirable, but people from Africa had “low brows”. So those expressions are rooted in physically oppressive pseudosciences that talked about skull shape being desirable or undesirable. I had no idea that the “brow” was literally the brow on your face until today. So speaking about us learning things and adapting language, that’s a new one I’m no longer using.
Chris: Yeah. Another thing: When we first started, I would alternate he or she.
Ariel (jokingly): Aaah!
Chris (laughing): Yeah.
Ariel: I can’t believe I’m still finding that in manuscripts today! It’s still happening!
Chris: Still happening. It’s so awkward, too. Singular they is so much easier once you start using it. I mean, now if I have example characters, I might put three of them and have a man, a woman and a non-binary person. But otherwise, if I’m just talking about a random character and I’m not giving that character a name in my example, I just use singular they.
Wes: The alternating always confused me, you’d think the editors would never back that because it’s really not consistent. You could go, “Oh, I’m being consistent with the alternating”. And it’s like, no. You keep changing it. Just pick one and move on. That’s why a singular they definitely took off in that respect.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, it can be fun if you are going to use, in a theoretical example, a gendered pronoun to deliberately buck gender stereotypes. I think even when I was doing that, I would often try to specifically arrange it. And again, even when I’m having examples on the blog today, I try to go against the grain when I can.
We have ditched tons of ableist terms. We had a whole meeting. Do the two of you remember our meeting, where we talked about ableist terms and how we were going to stop using them? Yeah. We had a whole team meeting about that and we had a discussion about how nuts, the food, are okay, but nuts, as in crazy, isn’t.
Wes: I love when you take some time to think about words that you use that you maybe think aren’t doing harm, and they are. A good example is “lame”. That one I think is going to be a hard one for a lot of people to kick. But dammit, be specific! I think what bothers me about that word is someone will just throw their head back and say, “Ugh, lame.” And to that I say, “What do you mean?”. You might as well knock your head back and go, “Ugh.” I mean, are you exasperated? Are you unsatisfied? I love the thought of somebody instead of saying that word, just going, “Unsatisfying.”
Chris (doing an exasperated voice): “Disappointed!”
Wes: “Disappointed” is also perfect. We have those words. Use them.
Chris: Hercules reference there.
Wes: Yes. Good one.
Chris: Yeah. That’s the thing about the word “crazy”. It’s used in so many different ways that there’s no one word that can replace “crazy”. So I use alternatively “ridiculous”, “wild”, …
Ariel: “Wild”. That’s my favorite.
Chris: Or “chaotic”, sometimes. If you’re talking about your schedule, I like “chaotic”.
Wes: Speaking of specificity, I think Fay had a really good Q&A on that that we should put in the show notes.
Chris: Recently, in an article I changed “preferred pronoun” to “correct pronoun”. That’s another one that maybe when we were still starting to communicate about how important it was to use somebody’s pronoun and not mis-gender them. If you had said “correct pronoun”, people might not have understood what you meant. So “preferred pronoun” was used to indicate you should use the pronoun that this person tells you to use for them. But at this point, people understand in the right context, specifically on Mythcreants at least, that if you say “correct pronoun”, you’re talking about not mis-gendering somebody.
Wes: I like that that conversation has made such good progress, because I filled out a form just the other day, and the form said, what are your pronouns? No modifier necessary. I totally understand what they’re asking. Great.
Chris: Then there’s other things, like saying “somebody who identifies as a woman” – you mean … a woman?
Wes (laughs): Yes. A woman.
Chris: And again, I get that sometimes these older terms may be needed for clarification in certain situations, but at this point it’s usually not necessary to say “identifies as”. Just say “a woman”. Or another one: “a woman and a trans woman”. You mean “women”? Gender is a huge one.
Wes: Gender is a huge one. And a lot of editing out biased language focuses on that, which is obviously important. It dominates a lot of the discussion, but some of the other things that you find out with this type of stuff is how constructions can demote people’s status in different types of ways.
An example that I used with our crew when we were pitching this podcast was, “The pioneers crossed the mountains with their women, children, and possessions.” And of course we immediately know that this sentence is telling us that only men are pioneers. But it’s also saying that women and children are equal to possessions. So it’s basically saying one group is the subject and the rest are lesser.
Chris: That reminds me of a sentence in Name of the Wind where there’s this character named Bast, who’s supposed to be this mischievous seducer of women, but they specifically refer to them in the dialogue – I don’t remember which character says it – as wives and daughters. I think the idea is that, you know, “Oh, he’s such a scamp. He seducing men’s wives.” But it frames women as being the possessions of men.
Wes: Exactly. Yes. Oof.
Chris: So it’s not “single woman” and “married woman”. It’s “some man’s wife” and “some man’s daughter”, is what that means.
Wes: That’s a good example, yeah.
Chris: Ariel, do you have any that you’ve seen in editing that you want to mention?
Ariel: Along those lines? Hmm.
Chris: Whatever lines you’d like.
Wes: Take us where you please.
Ariel: Yeah. Um, anything that equates a human with just their body parts, like “she’s more boobs than brains.” It’s so, so insulting, because that means that that’s all that she is. She’s just boobs. And maybe a tiny, tiny bit of brains, but nothing else. She has no arms. She has no eyeballs.
Chris: And there’s an inverse relationship between boobs and brains.
Ariel: Yeah. One is better than the other. Clearly.
Chris: She grows a larger brain, somehow her boobs shrink. [all laugh]
Wes: Oh no.
Chris: I mean, I’ve seen that. A Spell for Chameleon, that book has a character in it, a woman. Her magical “power” – it’s not really a power – is, she cycles between being ugly and super smart, and being beautiful and … not smart.
Ariel: Oh no!
Chris: Yeah. So her intelligence goes down as her attractiveness goes up and she just cycles back and forth between those two extremes. And that’s supposedly her magic power.
Wes: And she had control over it?
Wes: No. If she had control over it, she’d be like, “Okay. Time to get super smart, but I know I’m going to be really ugly.”
Chris: That would actually be more empowering and interesting.
Wes: Yeah. Definitely more empowering. It’s not a power if it’s just random like that.
Chris: Right. It’s like everybody else has their one superpower – not all of them, some of them are passive, but most of them – that they consciously choose to use.
Wes: I’m just imagining the TV version of that with the side characters looking at something like, “Oh, but don’t worry, main hero will be able to figure it out.” And then they look at her and they’re agape, because she’s gorgeous, and they’re like, “Nooo!”
Chris: The same character also gets mean every time she gets smart. Yeah, that’s great. So anyway, my point is, we can take something that’s a little phrase like that, “she’s more boobs than brains”, and draw a line between that and something that is much larger in a story and connect those dots where somehow we’re saying that women, if they are smart, they are unattractive and mean, and that’s not desirable.
Wes: I have an example that maybe is not commonly thought of when we think of biased language. Metaphors are popular for adding energy and color, but depending on your audience, you could risk alienating them, which you don’t want to do, if you choose metaphors that they might not be familiar with.
So, for example, if you read this sentence: “As emperor, you need to know your tolerance for risk. On fourth down in two, would you punt or pass?”
Ariel (shuddering): Oh, that’s such a bad sentence.
Wes: Here’s another example: “Every commander dreams of making the Hail Mary pass or the three-point shot at the buzzer.” If your audience doesn’t do sports… It was a pain to think of these examples and write them down, because I barely do sports. You don’t want to leave someone out when it’s such an unnecessary metaphor. It’s not very applicable. If somebody’s not into sports, they won’t know what a Hail Mary pass is. Or “fourth down in two, would you punt or pass?” That’s pure jibberish if you don’t have any context. So, yeah. Be careful with metaphors because bias can creep in.
Chris: The thing that gets me about those, which maybe it shouldn’t, is the fact that what sounds like a fantasy element, an emperor, isn’t compliant with modern day sports metaphors. [laughs] It’s not that there can’t be a modern day metaphor…
Wes: That’s a good point. It’s definitely not about bias-free language, but depending on your setting, anachronisms like that can show up and copy editors should fix that.
Chris: Anachronisms can be really hard because sometimes something sounds anachronistic and it’s not. For instance, Oren has a story that takes place in the Byzantine era, and his main characters name is Sophie. Or Tiffany, Tiffany is much older than you think it is. Some of these names, they might be modern day names, but they’re not necessarily new. That’s a tough one, because there’s a lot of subjectivity and it’s more about what people imagine the past to be like than what it was actually like.
Ariel: So Wes is talking about jargon and anachronisms and other things that copy editors point out, and he talked in his introduction to this episode about how copy editors are allowed to say “no, thank you” to a project if they’re not comfortable with the language. I just wondered where you draw the line between flagging biased language and suggesting a full sensitivity consultation. How many instances of biased language would an editor need to put up with in order to feel like it was okay for them to nope out of a contract?
Wes: Well, I do think it depends certainly on the relationship that the editor has with the writer. If the writer is confronted with a handful of queries and doesn’t want to change anything, that might be a red flag. I was also thinking though, kind of in the context of that introduction, that if you’re still told to deal with this, if you’re working for a publisher, then you should walk away.
Because the publishing house might have different motivations and you shouldn’t stand for that. Which is hard, because I know that people need money, but this type of stuff needs to be dealt with, and addressed more strongly if you’re in a position to. That said though, the type of biased stuff that we’re generally talking about right now, I do think that if you’re pointing this out properly via queries, most people will respond well to them. Because so many of these things can easily be recast.
Earlier I used that example of the pioneers and relegating women and children to the status of possessions. Another mishap that you could see would be according a possession the status of a person. Like if HAL from Space Odyssey was actually a grand master of chess and then you say, “HAL sacrificed his bishop, but three moves later, he could not avoid losing his rook to Kasparov’s pawn.”
HAL is a computer; you’d think “it” would be preferable. And also, let your writer who wrote that sentence know that competitive chess has a stereotype as a man’s game, Queen’s Gambit notwithstanding. So HAL having that “he” pronoun supports the notion that chess players, computers, and the computer programmers of chess-playing computers are men. I think the context of the phrasing is important because a lot of people just aren’t thinking through what that conveys.
Chris: Usually for Mythcreants, I have most experience in content editing rather than copy editing level with this, but whether or not we send somebody to a sensitivity consultant usually has to do with how much they are getting into really sensitive territory in their manuscript and how much they’re dwelling on it. So we would send them to a sensitivity reader if, for instance, it’s more than they’re just mentioning disabled people in ways that we find disrespectful. Then we can usually link them to some online resources perhaps, or tell them to look it up.
But if they have an entire chapter dwelling heavily on this, then that emphasis… Or they’re dealing with something like recovering after getting a new injury that will result in a disability, for instance, that’s just really a sensitive thing to talk about. So then we would send them to an sensitivity consultant.
Although at the more word craft level, sometimes we’re asked questions about things. And if you read something that just makes you feel kind of uncomfortable, but you’re not sure why, and you don’t have the expertise necessary to actually tell whether or not they are doing something wrong, but it seems fishy to you, but you can’t say authoritatively that it is bad – I think that’s also another really good time to recommend a sensitivity consultant who can actually evaluate it and give authoritative feedback that you can’t give.
Ariel: Something that I find fairly often is writers who are sort of straddling the fence, where their characters are encountering other characters who do have those biases and are putting them on display. So the author has a reason that they’re using biased language. You have to be so careful to make sure that there’s not that authorial endorsement for the biased language, that the story is saying, hey, this thing that’s happening right now is not okay, and we’re going to work towards educating this character and try to change that aspect of them.
Chis: Yeah. That’s hard because that’s more at the content editing level, of what message the story is sending. And a content editor would definitely tell somebody, “Hey, if you have somebody just say these things and you don’t specifically do something to counter that, that’s an endorsement.” Or, “You just shouldn’t add bigotry in your story to no purpose. These aren’t good reasons to add it. That says something and your audience is going to react to that.”
I do think that there are some instances where that can get down to the wordcraft level. The big thing that I find in a lot of stories that does come down somewhat to language that a copy editor probably could respond to, is when we are too excusing of somebody who’s done something really bad. So we’ll have, for instance, an abuser in the story, who does some extremely severe abuse, and then we have overly sympathetic wording. It’s not that it’s bad to build sympathy for villains, but it can be to the point where we excuse everything they’ve done.
I’m going to use Discovery as an example, where we have this character, evil Georgiou, who basically spends her time just doing as much psychological damage to the people around her as she can. She specifically goes for things that she knows are their weak spots, the sensitive spots, and she just hits them, gives them a good punch in the stomach, as we could say, but psychologically.
Then we have a whole scene right before she’s about to leave the show where these characters are suddenly very nice to her, and are like, “Oh, I learned so much from you.”, and just treating it like she wasn’t abusing them. So some of those lines where they put in equivalency and pretend like, oh, we both are wrong, in a situation where it’s not equivalent – I think it would be easier for those specific lines, because that’s a lot of times where those problems appear, to be like, “Um, is this what you meant to say? Because this person did this, this person did this; this seems like a consistency issue in your manuscript.” So I think there are some instances like that, where you would probably say something as a copy editor.
But I think the real question with a lot of these really bad messages is, as a copy editor, what you’re comfortable copyediting, when it comes to the content and messages of the work of copyediting. Ethical dilemma there.
Wes: I noticed that you and I both had the expression “confined to a wheelchair” in our show notes. If I were asked to copyedit a story, and the first line was, “Though confined to a wheelchair, Granger nonetheless writes at least five stories a year” –
Chris: Oh, no, that’s bad.
Wes: – I might put push that back. Technically I could query and revise depending on the copyedit level. But if that’s early on in this manuscript, that tells me quite a lot of the – perhaps unconscious and unwittingly – biased language that’s going to be in here. The scope of fixing that is probably going to be quite large. Because it’s a mobility aid. It’s not a prison. You’re confined to jails and prisons.
And that “nonetheless” suggests that the wheelchair is an obstacle to being a prolific writer – what? So that level of error is definitely where the scope of what you’re doing probably needs to get pushed back, or you step out of that sample, and talk to a content editor or a sensitivity reader too.
Chris: The funny thing about the phrase “confined to a wheelchair” is, every time you watch an anime that’s a mech anime, where the characters get in their big mech suits so they can fight like a dinosaur or something – do you feel like “oh, all these characters are confined to their mech suits while they’re fighting”? [laughs] They use the mech suit because it gives them greater mobility. It’s a tool that they use, they’re choosing to get in the mech suit.
Ariel: Let’s talk about tools. So, resources for how to keep up with this evolving language. My favorite is the Conscious Style Guide. I also follow @redpenrabbit, Crystal Shelley, on Twitter, and it’s always opening my eyes to something new. Every single week I learn something.
Chris: That’s great.
Wes: It’s hard to keep up on things, but if you like reading books on style and editing – I know I’m speaking to a small crowd here, mostly Ariel [Ariel laughs] – there’s a lot of web sources for bias-free writing now. Any valuable book on editing should include that. I remember when Ariel and I did our editing certificates, that was a section of the course. I remember that from our course work.
And style guides should be mentioning it now. The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn has a section on it. It’s just more in the conversation. It’s a good example of how English, or just language, is always changing. You’ve just got to find some people and enjoy words, and pay attention.
Chris: There’s a specific link we can share for April’s terms in the show notes. But since I usually do things at the more story level, a good resource for just knowing what’s respectful is the Writing With Color tumblr. There’s a lot of Q&A there, people will submit their questions and you get a lot of answers. They’ll also sometimes do profiles of different people, so you’ll learn more about different people, more people of color or of a certain religion. So that can be useful for writers.
And then obviously Fay Onyx does a lot of consulting for us, particularly in the disability department. Hir website is writingalchemy.net. Fay has tons of great information there, on disability specifically.
Wes: So if there’s one thing we really want you to take away from this is that bias persists, consciously or unconsciously, but good editors, good writers, and just good people will try to pay attention to this and identify it. Even things you’ve spent your whole life saying might not be appropriate. A good example is, we “commit” crimes. So be careful how you use that word “commit” in relation to other things that are ostensibly not crimes.
Just analyze your language, try to keep up on things and, you know, be forgiving. Most people probably aren’t using it with malice. And if you’re going to point out an error to somebody, use that as a teaching moment.
Chris: Okay. I think we’re at time. Before we go, we just want to thank a few of our patrons: Kathy Ferguson, a professor of political theory in Star Trek, Ayman Jaber, an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel, and Danita Rambo, who lives at therambogeeks.com.
Thanks for listening. Have a great week.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?