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Words Matter


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Suppose you moved into a new neighborhood during the pandemic. After it was safe, you decided to throw a party to meet your new neighbors. As you want everyone to attend, you would want to write the invitation carefully so as not to accidentally offend anyone. Beyond good manners and not wanting to make a bad first impression, cognitive scientists have collected data that gives another reason for choosing your words discreetly: The language you use shapes the way you think. While the topic has been debated for thousands of years, the clarifying data comes from recent experiments involving people who speak different languages. Given myriad human languages, there is a lot of data to mine. For example, suppose people watch a scene where a man bumps a table, which results in a vase falling and breaking. In English it would probably be described as "he broke the vase," even if it was an accident. It would likely be summarized as "the vase broke" or more likely "the vase broke itself" in Spanish. English speakers are more likely than Spanish speakers to remember who broke the vase, and are more likely to blame and punish the man, than Spanish speakers. Apparently, bilingual people might even behave differently depending on which language they used!

Such studies have led to a relatively recent "Words Matter" movement, where people in many fields point out the problems in their jargon that can be offensive to newcomers and unintentionally shape the thoughts of practitioners. Let's pick two from computing:

  • Blind review. This term is offensive to people who are blind or have other visual impairments.

This usage equates blindness with ignorance, as it seeks to express the idea that the reviewer and author do not know who each other are. In addition to offending some, it might subconsciously affect attitudes toward the blind.

  • Master/slave. Many of us experienced being startled as undergraduate students when first encountering the phrase "master/slave." Even if you did not have ancestors who were slaves, you might not want to join a field that borrows terms from an abhorrent practice such as slavery.

The good news is that English is the lingua franca of computing, and there are plenty of alternatives to offensive words, as its million-word vocabulary is the largest of the 7,000 extant languages. To prevent biasing our thinking and to avoid offending fellow computer scientists, ACM's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Council created a website to help (www.acm.org/diversity-inclusion/words-matter).

We offer a dozen examples of problematic jargon, give explanations of their difficulties, and suggest alternatives. For example, it recommends using "anonymous review" instead of blind review and replacing master/slave with "primary/secondary" or "parent/child," depending on the context. If our communications are a little more careful, we can help make computing more equitable and inclusive. While some might write off this advice as merely political correctness, there is scientific data to back the concerns (see the "Further Reading" section). Even if you are unsure, how big is the burden of avoiding a dozen terms in case the scientists are correct that words matter?

A parting remark: A side effect of the pandemic is that while stuck at home watching the world through our screens, many of us observed unfairness in our society. Hence, we believe today even more ACM members are interested in improving diversity, equity, and inclusion. We hope this column will be the first in a series from the ACM Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council on these important topics.

* Further Reading

Boroditsky, L.
How language shapes the way we think. (Oct. 2017); https://bit.ly/3wIPO5u

Fausey, C. and Boroditsky, L.
Who dunnit? Cross-linguistic differences in eye-witness memory. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 18, 1 (2011), 150–157.

Keating, E. and Jarvenpaa, S.L.
Words Matter: Communicating Effectively in the New Global Office. University of California Press, 2016.

McConnell-Ginet, S.
Words Matter: Meaning and Power. Cambridge University Press, 2020.

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Authors

Juan E. Gilbert (juan@ufl.edu) is a Banks Family Preeminence Endowed Professor and Chair at University of Florida in Gainesville, FL, USA.

Stephanie Ludi (Stephanie.Ludi@unt.edu) is a Full Professor at University of North Texas in Denton, TX, USA.

David A. Patterson (pattrsn@cs.berkeley.edu) is a Pardee Professor Emeritus at University of California in Berkeley, CA and a Distinguished Engineer at Google LLC, Mountain View, CA, USA.

Lisa M. Smith (lisa.m.smith@intel.com) is a Diversity Higher Education Manager and Academic Curriculum Program Director, Intel Corporation, Chandler, AZ, USA.


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