Words have weight.

When I first worked for newspapers and the Associated Press in New England in the 1970s, there was an interlude when accepted style was: Ms. Smith (who prefers that designation)…” I’ve since told many disbelieving students about this clumsy construction. I use it to make the point that language drives change, and while the getting-there is usually awkward, the arrival is worth it.

I keep thinking of this getting-to-Ms. process as I read editorials and blog posts bemoaning changes seeking to do away with racist language and discriminatory expressions. The New Hampshire Sunday News just ran such an editorial critical of a decision by the renowned writer’s retreat, the MacDowell Colony, which has decided to drop “colony” from its name. The reasoning, according to the board member quoted, is that “colony” can convey a sense of hierarchy and exclusion.

There are two sets of reasons to shift our language. There are those official changes we need to make because the terms are already widely understood to be outdated and offensive – a team called the Redskins, for example. And there are those cases in which we change because the language is one immediate way that all of us can model respect and point to where we want to go in the future.

Adding Ms. to the title-choice list and shoving “girl” offstage in favor of “woman” for adult females were signs of such respect. The changes did not sweep away sexism, but were among the many small, important steps taken to move away from systemic gender discrimination of the workplace and beyond. The “colony” change falls into this category.

This language-tidying work feels to some like reactive political correctness, and they can’t say the new phrases without rolling their eyes. In the ’90s I had a newsroom colleague who always mimed quotation marks when using the term “person of color” in conversation. (This stopped when irritated young reporters began making the same air quotes whenever they described a person as “white” or “elderly” or “dead.”)

I often hear folks decry “language police”  or insist “I’m too old to change.” Yes, it takes time to unlearn the muscle memory of language. As a person who has spent most of my life wrangling words and whacking my way through weedy paragraphs in search of clarity, I too still stumble over language changes. But opting out of this evolution is, at the very least, lazy. Worse, such ignorance adds to the fissures in our society that widen and split open.

The MacDowell decision and many of the other changes in language and names are sometimes more earnest than earthshaking – but they do matter. They are efforts to be respectful, to move away as the sun sets on an old empire and its class and racial divisions. As with every other shift toward more thoughtful language, it is a small apology that other, bigger changes are overdue.

— Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

NOTE: A version of this opinion piece ran in the Union Leader, Manchester, New Hampshire’s daily newspaper, on July 20. Is is responding to an editorial that ran in the paper’s Sunday edition on July 12.

A news story about the MacDowell decision ran in the New York Times on July 7, 2020. Limited access is available to both newspapers without a subscription. But, please, do yourself — and the country — a favor, and subscribe to these or other daily papers. We need them.

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