Banned Words: Overused terms overlook cultural significance

by Kaitlin Hsu, Features Editor

After reading TIME’s 2015 banished words debacle (which included feminist, bae, basic and practically any other term from pop culture), I never wanted to read another banned words article again.

Unfortunately, I stumbled upon this year’s Lake Superior State University’s 41st Annual List of Banished Words and was sorely disappointed. While at its best, a banished words list makes fun of words that have fallen out of fashion, this current list and its predecessors continue to perpetuate troubling trends, banning phrases and terms most commonly used by people of color and young women.

More than half of the words on this list have been inspired or popularized through youth culture, including “break the internet,” “giving me life” and “problematic.”

Interestingly enough, the first word on this list is “so.” “So,” while formally used as a coordinating conjunction, can also function as a sentence opener in colloquial language.

But “so” has increasingly become associated with women who have “Valley girl” accents. For example: “Soooo, Rebecca, how was the party last night?” This one sentence paints the speaker and Rebecca as ditzy, capricious young girls who need some good sense smacked into them, right?

The inclusion of the word “so” on this list perfectly captures how women’s voices are often policed for a variety of phenomena, such as vocal fry and intonation.

Not to mention that a majority of this list is dedicated to excluding slang words from certain groups. As a result, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the list also seems to be targeting the language of people of color and young women.

White Americans frequently borrow from African American Vernacular English (AAVE), oftentimes being congratulated for their “trendiness” or “edginess.” Some AAVE slang is eventually even used by corporations and public figures for branding, promotion and sales. Hillary Clinton’s infamous “Just Chilling In Cedar Rapids” meme comes to mind.

After the public and corporations spread slang through communication and media, it quickly becomes overused. Ironically, white Americans and corporations are often the first ones to turn on the slang they themselves have popularized. The end result? Banned words list like these.

The whims of the majority then force minority communities to discontinue use of slang they originally created or risk being labeled “uneducated” and worse.

Minority communities are on the forefront of new linguistic innovation, and should continue to build upon this creative outlet.

Instead, white Americans, corporations and public figures should be more mindful of how they enjoy and partake in minority cultures.

Instead of trying to police the language of people of color and youth, they should let language do what it does best: change.

This piece was originally published in the pages of the Winged Post on Jan. 27, 2016