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Words to avoid—2021 edition

By Ryan Gerhardt
January 27, 2021

Dictionary open lying flat on a surface

Reprinted from Big Duck.

Finding the right words is rarely easy. Each word carries within it different weight and connotations in addition to its generally agreed upon definition. Everyone may read the same sentence slightly differently, but the goal is that they all leave with a shared understanding or connection.

With this in mind, we’ve collected a handful of words and phrases below that we think merit extra reflection before use. Some have been severely overused in the past year or two, some reinforce harmful ideas—whether intentional or not—and others are routinely used incorrectly.

While you may still see these words in use, we recommend assessing the context, audience, and your point of view before putting them out there again.

1. Pivot
Far and away the most frequently suggested word among our staff and networks. This is purely a case of fatigue, as it isn’t typically used incorrectly or in a harmful way. We all know that COVID-19 has forced plans to change—there’s no need to keep calling it a “pivot.” When communicating about how your organization has adapted or shifted your plans, try getting more directly into what you are doing rather than framing it around a “pivot” of what you were doing.

2. Unprecedented
New normal, uncharted waters, uncertain times … there’s a pattern emerging. Again, similar to the use of “pivot” this is largely an instance of fatigue, but there is also an element of misuse. Forgetting for a moment the fact that anytime something new happens it’s technically “unprecedented,” the future is always going to be a bit uncertain (unless you can claim the extraordinary ability of precognition). While we’re not saying that “unprecedented” can never be used again or that your organization isn’t in an unfamiliar position, at this current point in time everyone’s tired of the repeated uncertainty and would appreciate it if you got to the point faster.

3. Now more than ever
The phrase “now more than ever” is the boomerang of our Words to Avoid list—it just keeps coming back. It first appeared on the 2011 edition of our list and was labeled “desperately overused.” The 2018 edition of the list then upgraded it to “grievously overused.” And after the 2020 that we collectively experienced, it’s no surprise that it’s back.

While the phrase certainly may be true now, the urgency or desperation that your organization is trying to convey is likely going unnoticed because it has lost its meaning after the umpteenth use. It also gets harder to believe the next time. Instead, try describing specifically what’s going on and how it’s directly impacting your organization or audiences. Then, create meaningful steps or share an immediate action that can be taken.

4. Diversity
Another entry that has previously appeared in Words to Avoid, “diversity” gets thrown around all the time and is often used incorrectly.

A single person cannot be “diverse.” Saying something to the effect of “We want to add more diverse members to our board or organization” is never correct or inclusive, no matter how well intentioned. To be “diverse” means to be “made up of people or things that are different from each other.” The term references a group—not a single individual. You can “make your board more diverse” by adding people who identify differently from those who are already represented, but you can’t add “more diverse members” to your board.

Relatedly, “diversity” isn’t exclusively about race. Numerous elements of identity, including gender, race, sexuality, and many other distinctions—or all at the same time, may be involved in building a diverse group. Unfortunately, “diversity” is frequently used incorrectly as shorthand for referring to anyone who isn’t a cisgender white man. When used in this way, it positions one group (cisgender white men) as a default and anyone who identifies another way as “other.”

Clarify and be explicit about what sort of diversity you are referring to or lack, where possible, and remember to challenge the context and your default point of view.

5. Best practices
This is less about the phrase itself, and more about the structures and norms it’s reinforcing. In most instances, whatever has been designated as “best practices” has been done so within the context of white dominant culture. As many of us continue learning and growing our understanding of ingrained societal oppression, it’s important to remember that these “best practices” come from a point of view that reinforces existing harmful structures. Question the practices and mindsets you’re advocating for and how they may fall short or where they can be expanded to include other ways of thinking.

6. Empower
Often well-intentioned (and certainly a word we’ve been guilty of using at Big Duck over the years), the impact of “empower” is problematic nonetheless. By definition, to empower is to grant power or agency to another who is perceived as having none or as lesser. This language creates a clear imbalance and sets up a paternalistic dynamic, reinforcing existing—and harmful—expectations about who “knows best.” Instead, explore ways in which your organization is collaborating or partnering with a community, and how you are listening to their voices and following their lead.

7. Master
In the context of communications or marketing, the term might appear in connection with “master brand” and “sub-brands.” In real estate, it can appear in “master bedroom.” And in coding and software development, “master” is often used in reference to processes that control or supersede others. None of this usage takes into account the connotations of slavery or the potential origins of the phrase being rooted in oppression. Many organizations and sectors have removed or replaced “master” in their materials after scrutinizing its use. At Big Duck, for example, we have shifted to terms like “primary brand” and “secondary brand.” Being mindful of where “master” might be used in your organization and shifting to a less harmful term is a small act, but it’s an important step in challenging white dominant norms.

8. Tone-deaf, blind to, and other ableist language
Words and phrases like “tone-deaf,” “blind to,” and other ableist language reinforce the idea that someone who is deaf or blind is less than, and that disability is bad. These are harmful, careless terms that can be very easily replaced. Both “insensitive” and “not thought through” are alternatives for “tone-deaf,” for example.

9. Changemaker/changemaking
While less egregious than some other entries, “changemaker” and “changemaking” are akin to “mission-driven”—shouldn’t it be a given for your organization? As a nonprofit seeking to impact your community, you’re attempting to change some existing condition. This makes a term like “changemaker” both obvious and unclear. Try saying exactly what the change is and who’s behind it rather than using a broad, catchall term.

10. Low-hanging fruit
Targeting “low-hanging fruit” is specifically about achieving something or persuading someone that requires the least effort. As organizations trying to improve the world around us, shouldn’t we be aiming a bit higher? It stands to reason that if you can reach higher or raise the bar, everything that falls underneath it will follow too. Plus, when used in reference to an audience or group of people, the term “low-hanging fruit” can be condescending and create an unnecessary imbalance in how the relationship is perceived.

While certainly not exhaustive or even representative of half of the suggestions we received from our staff and networks, we hope this list is a helpful starting point to inspire further scrutiny of words and phrases your organization uses in 2021. Let’s all communicate more thoughtfully this coming year and beyond.

Tags: Communication