October 20, 2020

From ‘master bedroom’ to ‘blacklist’: What will it take to change racist terms in our everyday language?

The growing Black Lives Matter movement has caused many people to rethink how they approach several areas of life, seeping into company policies, police reform, entertainment and education, among other things. Now many of the words and phrases that we regularly use are getting revisited in an effort for linguistic equity.

Several words that are a common part of the English language are getting reassessed for having racist undertones or origins. Among some of the more explicit racist terms are “master bedroom,” which can evoke the imagery of master-slave relations on plantations. Tech engineers have used the words “master” and “slave” to describe software and hardware in which one process controls another, and a “blacklist” is a term that refers to a collection of people who are excluded.

The English language is filled with these references, and many people don’t even think twice about where they came from or what they mean, Kristen Syrett, presidential term chair in experimental linguistics at Rutgers University, tells Yahoo Life. “But what happens is that the language we speak, having had those influences in it, implicitly influences the way we think about people,” she says.

Some organizations have taken steps to try to change this. The Houston Association of Realtors announced in late June that it would be replacing the term “master bedroom” with “primary bedroom” in its listings. The Court of Master Sommeliers, a prestigious organization that grants the coveted title of “master sommelier” to select wine experts, announced in a letter in late June that it would stop using the term “Master” before a sommelier’s last name. “Part of what brought us all to the hospitality industry and to the Court of Master Sommeliers is a deeply ingrained desire to serve others. That desire we know was a crucial guiding light on our journey to becoming Master Sommeliers,” the letter reads. “Let us use that light now to do our part to effect the change we know is possible and necessary.”

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