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Words to avoid—2022 edition

By Ryan Gerhardt
January 24, 2022

A person's hands at a computer with two crumpled balls of paper to the side.

Reprinted from Big Duck.

A new year brings a commitment to change and improvement for many people. With that in mind, we’d like to kick off 2022 by actively questioning the use of certain words—and what is meant—so that we can continue to improve by phasing out terms that might be overused, harmful, or inaccurate.

Some of the items on this list may not seem inherently negative, but it’s important to recognize and understand where they could cause unintended damage or disservice.

In keeping with tradition, we used our network to crowdsource possible entries for 2022. Some of the submissions that garnered the most support or mentions—notably pivot, unprecedented, new normal, and now more than ever—were on our 2021 list, so we did not include them here. Others, such as at-risk, circle back, and disrupt, are captured in our Words to Avoid Glossary. The following list represents terms and phrases that are (mostly) new to our annual discussion.

One final bit of context: we recognize that language is subject to regional differences as well, meaning that even though we are sticking to English here, there are still undoubtedly many English words that we might have missed or not addressed. For example, in our experience as a U.S.-based organization, we less frequently (but not never) encounter and use a word like aid on its own—mutual aid is something else entirely, and is a phrase that has been growing in prominence. On its own, aid is a potentially harmful term that is more common in other English-speaking countries, and there are great resources out there (like this post) that start to address these considerations and nuances.

1. BIPOC (and POC)

While there is not total agreement on what BIPOC stands for, in this instance we are using the Merriam-Webster expression of Black, Indigenous, (and) People of Color. It’s among the latest acronyms that people have started to use without considering if it’s different from previous identifiers or whether it’s an additive and affirming term at all. At best, it’s maybe a well-intentioned attempt to be inclusive that has clear limitations and lacks important nuance—always keeping in mind that intention should never be the ultimate determiner. At worst, it’s just another identifier that is based around whiteness because—while somewhat more explicit—it is still creating a catch-all for people who are not white.

Movements throughout the 20th century may have used similar terms to create a sense of solidarity based on oppression and to build power as a collective, but grouping disparate ethnicities together can often cause more harm and confusion than good. We are not suggesting that BIPOC can never be used or that we have a simple answer or solution, but take a quick pause the next time you are about to use it. Ask if there’s a way for your communications to be more explicit in naming race, and if what you’re referencing applies in a similar way to people who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Note: The term “people of color” also obscures important differences in racial groups’ experiences.

2. Devastated

For many, the past few years have been particularly tough—we are not trying to argue otherwise. But to read time and again how a nonprofit is devastated by recent news or policy changes gives us some pause. To devastate is “to bring to ruin or desolation by violent action,” “to reduce to chaos, disorder, or helplessness.” Some things certainly are devastating, including, but not limited to, natural disasters. More often than not when devastated is used, however, we are not in ruin nor are we helpless. Many organizations that use this language exist because there is something that can be done. So, maybe it’s worth taking a step back and reassessing: Are we devastated, or are we angry? Disappointed? How can we develop more actionable reactions and communications?

3. Differently-abled

According to the Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism, differently-abled is a term that grew out of the 1990s as an alternative to words like “disabled,” “handicapped,” and others. Recently, it seems to be on the rise again, particularly among organizations that are not focused on disability issues but are attempting to be more inclusive. For many people, though, this term has never been considered appropriate because it is condescending and avoids talking about disability directly. Instead, use person-first language such as “person with a disability,” or else try being more specific about the disability if that is the stated preference of the individual or community.

4. Does that/this make sense?

We’ve all probably heard this phrase in a meeting or read it in an email. It’s typically used after someone has been going on at length, possibly in a not very purposeful or engaging way, and they follow up with “does that/this make sense?” For many that use it, it could just be a bad habit—they know they’re supposed to pause during presentations and the like, and this is their pause signal. But even as a well-intentioned pause/recap to make sure everyone is on the same page before moving on, it should be avoided. By asking your audience, co-workers, etc. if something you just explained makes sense, you may be inadvertently signaling to them that you think they’re not smart enough to follow along or that you’re more interested in forcing agreement out of them than having a collaborative, meaningful conversation. A simple alternative could be to ask if there are any questions or other thoughts/ideas that people would like to contribute.

5. Impact

If you’re thinking, “impact has appeared on previous lists,” you’re correct. However, we haven’t directly addressed its use since 2015 so we made an exception. While Big Duck has used impact in the past and will continue to do so in certain cases, we are working to move away from it—especially as a verb. But even when it’s used to speak to results or outcomes, there are often better, more specific ways to share what your organization is doing or achieving. Be explicit. This also applies when you are talking about harm and exclusion (e.g., using phrases like “people who have been impacted”). Using the words impact or impacted by can distance the speaker and audiences from the harsh realities and harms that are being referenced. Consider if you are sanitizing the message to shield the audience from discomfort, or if impact is the best word.

6. Intersectional/intersectionality

To quote my colleague Marissa Gaston, “Intersectionality should not be a goal or attribute but rather adopted as a lens through which you should view every aspect of your organization, from your meeting schedule and annual budget to DEI policy, programmatic efforts, and ultimately your mission… It’s a baseline, and it requires work. That’s why I suggest you stop using the term altogether.” Read more about this word to avoid in her blog post.

7. Low-level donors/major donors

Admittedly, these are terms that are not used frequently in public-facing communications, but they may show up on occasion in materials or titles (such as Major Gifts Officer). Even if they don’t often appear publicly, thoughtful internal communications are just as important as thoughtful external communications since perceptions, feelings, and harm can flow from one to the other. These types of phrases assign a value to donors and funders based on their financial giving levels which perpetuates the harmful belief that worth is tied to wealth. Let’s instead think about how we can best connect with donors—and all audiences—where they are and through behaviors or motivations they’ve expressed.

8. Possessive determiners – my, your, our, their

As they may sound, possessive determiners are words that serve to express a relationship of possession. For this post, we’re referencing words like my, your, our, their, etc. These are words that commonly pop up in nonprofit communications as a way to build a stronger sense of connection and community with funders, participants, and more. But it is critical to examine the relationship you may be (unintentionally) creating. For example, while they might be in your network, a donor does not “belong” to a nonprofit. Saying something like, “Our donors did XYZ, and now we can…” may seem harmless enough, but it starts to blur the lines of who and what are guiding the organization. Similarly, we must be careful to never suggest that a program participant might “belong” to a donor in this way just because the donor supported a program (e.g., “Your scholarship recipients have…” versus something like, “Your support was integral to the scholarship program…”). It’s a very fine, often muddy line as to when a possessive relationship is created, but one worth considering nonetheless.

As always, this list is only a starting point to hopefully inspire a more in-depth personal and professional journey. While 2021 is now over, we can continue to use what we’ve learned over the past year to better communicate moving forward.

Tags: disability; DEI; Communication