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On Words (and Onwards)

Language changes. Like, it really changes — and quite dramatic changes with each cultural shift. Otherwise, if you are a reader of English, you’d be able to breeze through this with no problem:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

-Excerpt from the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 14th Century

New words come from many places and can enrich our world. A few examples:

  • new technology we couldn’t imagine years before (cloud and TikTok and unfriend)

  • the influx of words brought to us through migration (ballet and plaza and fest)

  • the influence (and often appropriation) of language of subcultures such as Black and LGBTQIA+ communities on popular culture (yaaas and realness and bae)

It’s easy to celebrate the slang, turns of phrases, and new ways to describe popular ideas that stem from innovation. But we also must consider how we talk about issues related to justice, race, and liberation.

But The Dictionary Says...

This past June, many news sources highlighted the persistence of a young woman, Kennedy Mitchum, who appealed to Merriam-Webster to update their definition of racism. She cited that the dictionary’s definition did not account for the impacts of systemic racism. According to the NYTimes, she “had noticed in discussions about racism that white people sometimes defended their arguments by cutting and pasting the [current] definition from the dictionary.”

Dictionaries are meant to be reflections of how people actually use language, not a static cemetery of words. Racism is inherently systemic and to not assert that in its very definition is hugely problematic. Fortunately, Merriam-Webster listened and is revising their definition. How it will affect people's understanding of racism and how they may perceive their benefit from systemic racism is another story

Word Parts

The words of Angela Davis, activist and educator, have been upheld as well in recent months to shine a light on changing the status quo:

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.”

In this statement, these small word parts, non vs. anti, delineate the reckoning people must have who have been standing on the edges. To be a part of this moment, we must choose, not just sit by idly. All this said with a few prefixes.

Grammar and Meaning

If you’ve come to a Clear Language Lab workshop, you’ve probably heard a robust discussion about the passive voice. We often talk about how the active voice can help readers be clear about who does what in a process. (It can also create distance between the doer and the audience as well)

The use of passive voice can even shape our perceptions of the current protests that have been going on and the culpability of those who have caused harm - in other words, the who did what to whom part. Check out writers Kendra Pierre-Louis at the Neiman Lab at Harvard, Joshua Adams, and the Angry Grammarian to explore powerful examples of the use of passive language and how it diverts agency in the actions we’ve seen unfold over the last several months. Language can shape how we see the power structures and systems at play.

Moving forward

Language can affect our perceptions of the world around us. Being cognizant of our language won’t change all the problems America is facing, but it’s important, especially in mission-driven work, that we acknowledge where we can be better in our words — and ultimately, our actions.


We consider a variety of themes in-depth in our Writing for Understanding cohort series as well as our plain language foundations quarterly series. Join us on August 26 for our next free plain language foundations webinar on language that is affirming and supportive for your LGBTQIA participants.



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