Banned Words Week

Why people blacklist

This past week was, for those of you who missed it, Banned Books Week. Since 1982, booksellers, librarians, and readers have spent the last week of September drawing attention to the problem of censorship and book bans, by creating displays of challenged books, holding “read-outs” (where authors read from their challenged books), and encouraging people to fight censorship and enjoy their right to read what they please.

We don’t yet have a Banned Words Week, where lexicographers, journalists, and word lovers celebrate our right to use any word in English we please, but during the past 12 months, it seemed that we could have declared one almost any week. In late December of last year, media outlets (including Public Radio International’s program “The World”) covered the news that although the words brat, corner boy (meaning rogue), hypocrite, and yahoo (among others) were banned from use in the Irish Parliament, the f-word was not — which was discovered when a legislator employed that word on the floor.

Back in March, this column covered the 119 terms banned from Chicago’s WGN AM radio station, by order of the CEO of the Tribune Co. That list was more comical than sinister, a ham-handed attempt to discourage stale news phrases (lone gunman, bare naked, senseless murder, sketchy details, and close proximity) and nonstandard pronunciations (such as hunnert for hundred). It didn’t contain any truly shocking terms, probably because those are already banned from the airwaves. Also this past March, local government councils in Great Britain sent around a list of their own banned words, mostly corporatese such as best practices, benchmarking, slippage (in the sense of delay), and democratic legitimacy (having been voted for).

It’s not just English-speaking countries where words are banned, of course. In China this past April, newscasters on the state-owned channels were asked to stop using English-language abbreviations — such as NBA, GDP, and WTO — in their broadcasts, and told to use the Chinese equivalents alongside or instead of the English.

As these examples suggest, word-banning has a variety of motives beyond Orwellian efforts to reframe the language. Sometimes it’s simple truth in advertising. If I were making posters for a Banned Words Week, I’d be sure to include bans like these:

■On June 22, new FDA rules to protect consumers went into effect, banning the use of the words light, mild, and medium from cigarette packaging — since light, mild, or medium cigarettes aren’t any better for you than ones that aren’t marked with those words.

■In July, Goldman Sachs banned its traders from using profanity in e-mails and is using screening software to enforce the new policy. (Traders had already been asked to use “appropriate language” on the televised trading floor.)

■In September, the Obama administration embraced a word ban left over from the previous administration, saying it would fight in court to preserve the FCC’s power to punish networks with hefty fines for “fleeting expletives” — that is, accidentally broadcast swear words. (Before 2004, the FCC held that an occasional, spontaneous expletive did not violate its indecency standards.)

If you’ve noticed that offensiveness is a theme when bans are concerned, you’re right. As with the FCC’s list of words you can’t say on television, many books on the most-challenged list are there because of concern over profanity (“The Catcher in the Rye,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “A Separate Peace”) or racial or ethnic slurs (“Slaughterhouse Five,” “Of Mice and Men,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”). But most of the books that are championed during Banned Books Week were challenged for moral or ideological reasons, by people upset by the books’ topics or themes, especially those having to do with sex or sexuality.

Words, on the other hand, seem just as likely to be banned for being euphemistic, pretentious, or banal as they are for being offensive. The bans are efforts to protect the language as much as to protect young ears. Most of the “official” lists of banned words fall into this category, such as the “Banished Words” list put together every year by faculty and staff at Lake Superior State University in Michigan, which tends towards new tech words, awkward neologisms (often blends of existing words, like staycation), and overused buzzwords (2010’s list included tweet, app, czar, bromance, and teachable moment).

We don’t see books being challenged for being insipid or fatuous: They’re simply ignored. Perhaps we all realize that there are more ways to get around the ban of a word — but when a book is banned, that idea (or the person behind it) is truly silenced.

At heart, though, the spirit that animates Banned Books Week and our so-far-uncelebrated Banned Words Week is similar: the belief that bans, besides being repellent to anyone who cares about language and ideas, don’t really work — that they never do manage to get rid of uncomfortable, awkward, boorish, banal, or offensive ideas. We actually need those books and words to talk frankly about the problems they raise in our minds. And luckily, no matter how often books (or words) are banned, the important ideas always manage to win through.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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