From Ableism To Antisemitism, Here's How The BuzzFeed Copy Desk Thought About Language In 2021
Take a look back with us.
This is an excerpt from Quibbles & Bits, the BuzzFeed News copy desk’s newsletter. Sign up below to nerd out about language and style with us once a month!
It’s been a long year! 2021 has led the BuzzFeed copy desk in new directions and presented us with new predicaments about how to use language in the news. From the very first week of 2021, the events of Jan. 6 forced us to navigate big questions: Is this an insurrection or an attempted coup or a domestic terrorist attack? Did that person steal a podium or a lectern? Are the words “protesters” and “demonstrators” too legitimizing? Can we call it a riot?
We will likely be looking back at Jan. 6 and its fallout for the rest of our lives, and news stories will serve as artifacts of how journalists characterized it in real time. The copy desk is always weighing the ramifications of our words and determining what is the most truthful and fair. And as with any semantic discussion in the news world, we need to question whether language we’ve ascribed to an event is obsolete, whether it’s evolved, and whether it accurately fits the situation.
In each issue of our Quibbles & Bits newsletter this year, we’ve shared how our copy desk has processed language and given a behind-the-scenes look at BuzzFeed News’ decision-making — and sometimes how other news outlets are working through these topics as well.
Here are the discussions we had this year:
In March, we debunked eight grammar and language myths you’ve likely been victimized by. These have been taught by generations of schoolteachers, reinforced by old-fashioned style books, and gleefully (but wrongly) championed in Twitter hypercorrections. We implore you to forget them.
Two weeks later, we unpacked how something as tiny as a hyphen can have a big impact on language. Inspired by Twitter user @challahbackjew and research from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and the Anti-Defamation League, we shared our style change on the word antisemitism. The hyphenated form (anti-semitism), we wrote, accentuates the Semitism part and implies the existence of a Semitic race of people, an erroneous notion rooted in Nazi ideology.
This summer, we spoke with autistic people about identity-first language versus person-first language. The latter, a mainstay of many newsrooms’ style guides and sensitivity guidelines, has traditionally been used to describe people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, or people in jail. But this trend may be receding, as many communities (including autistic, Deaf, blind, and disabled people) now generally opt for identity-first language. “We recognize that disability and personhood are not mutually exclusive; they are not oxymoronic,” Lydia X. Z. Brown told us.
In September, we emphasized the need to uncover the origins of modern slang, which is often rooted in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). When we divorce language from its context, we risk further oppressing not only Black people but also the communities they intersect with, including other people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. Black culture is not deserving of mockery or appropriation — it demands respect.
Then, in November, we noted that ableist phrasing is ubiquitous in modern language, from clichés to callous analogies that devalue disabled people. Some examples are obvious, like “crippling” or “handicap,” but others are more nuanced and require a perceptive copy editor to think about whether the words are dubious in context.
On a different front, we developed some style quizzes (we are the BuzzFeed copy desk; we must contain multitudes). We typically use these to test our colleagues in the newsroom, but we publish them for the readers who are so inclined to take them. Here’s one from July with the theme of TikTok trends, and a supernatural style quiz from October.
Here are some of the additions and changes we made to the style guide in 2021!
ableist terms: added alternatives words to use instead of those that have ableist connotations or make light of disabilities (instead of crippled or handicapped, use hampered, obstructed, or inhibited; instead of tone-deaf, use insensitive, obtuse, or oblivious).
Afghan (citizens of Afghanistan), afghani (currency)
antisemitism (no hyphen)
copy desk (replaced copydesk); copy editor (n.)
coronavirus pandemic: Capitalize the Greek alphabet name assigned to a variant by the WHO, e.g., the Omicron variant.
disinformation: the intentional spreading of false or misleading information, often for political gain (e.g., a disinformation campaign); misinformation refers to falsehoods more generally, without a specific intent
first gentleman: like first family and first lady, always lowercase as they’re not formal titles, e.g., first lady Jill Biden (first partner, anyone?)
older adults or older person/people: Use these rather than senior citizens, seniors, or elderly. Do not use the elderly to refer to a group, as the term is vague and can be dehumanizing. Include age specifics when possible (e.g., “People 65 and over qualify”).
prepandemic, postpandemic (no hyphens)
4 Things We've Been Reading
1. BuzzFeed News: “How the Australian Accent Became a Main Character in 2021”
2. Mother Jones: “ThE sTaFf oF mOtHeR jOnEs iS vErY dIvIdEd OvEr CoViD cApItAlIzAtIoN. HeLp.”
3. HuffPost: “The Toxic Phrase We Need to Stop Saying Around the Holidays”
And, finally, a tweet: