Luckily for me, last week I was working on campus and so missed much of the Amy Coney Barrett hearings commentary. One thing, however, did cross my radar and got me thinking. It was this exchange with Sen. Hirono:
“I have no agenda,” Barrett replied. “I do want to be clear that I have never discriminated on the basis of sexual preference and would not discriminate on the basis of sexual preference.”
That choice of words prompted swift pushback from some critics, who said that the phrase “sexual preference,” as used by Barrett, suggested that same-sex attraction is simply a choice — one that can be changed under enough pressure.
Among those raising concern was Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who accused the judge of using the phrase intentionally, instead of the more widely accepted “sexual orientation.”
Plenty of figures on the left — including Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom Barrett is hoping to replace on the high court — have also used the phrase, which was considered acceptable as recently as a decade or two ago.
Now, I’m not suggesting one is right and the other wrong. That’s not this post. This post is about one of the problems my students run into while doing research: language changes. It’s something that’s always interested me, possibly because one of my uncles helped found the field of sociolinguistics. When we’re talking to them about creating a keyword list to help them remember what terms to use to find information, reminding them that people and places change their names (eg., Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali or Calcutta/Kolkata).
I also started to think about things that aren’t necessarily that obvious to everyone, as in the “sexual preference” vs. “sexual orientation” example. Every time I read SJW, it takes me a moment to remember that it now stands for Social Justice Warrior, not Single Jewish Woman. In presentations to librarians, I’ve talked about hashtag problems – recently, we librarians planned displays and events around Banned Books Week, sometimes #bbw. But that hashtag can also be Big Beautiful Women (a fetish) or Basketball Wives (a tv show), leading to some confused followers.
Since Sen. Hirono’s speech, many people are aware that sexual orientation is now the (no pun intended) preferred term. But what if you’re the last to know? I mean, what if you filmed a movie set in New York City that was due to be released mid-September 2001, only to have the World Trade Center buildings collapse just before that release? Do you pull the movie and CGI the buildings out? Or if you send a card/gift to someone who just died? The same can happen with language. If you use the older, now disused term, there’s frequently outrage and disbelief (and possibly a threat to “cancel” you). But what if you don’t know – honestly don’t know – that there is a new word or phrase? What must it be like to be that person hearing that they need to update their language? Maybe some kindness is needed before we assume the worst of that person’s useage.
It also got me wondering: what new terms are out there that about which I’m the last to know?