For Earyn McGee, terminology matters.
McGee, a herpetologist, studies the habitat and behavior of Yarrow’s spiny lizard, a reptile native to the southwestern United States. The University of Arizona graduate student and her colleagues regularly pack their things—boots, pens, notebooks, trail mix—and set off into the nearby Chiricahua Mountains. At their field site, they start an activity with a name that evokes a racist past: noosing.
“Noosing” is a long-standing term used by herpetologists for catching lizards. But for McGee, a Black scientist, the term is unnerving, calling to mind horrific lynchings of Black people by white people in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. “Being the only Black person out in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of white people talking about noosing things is unsettling,” she says. McGee has urged her colleagues to change the parlance to “lassoing,” which she says also more accurately describes how herpetologists catch lizards with lengths of thread.
McGee isn’t alone in reconsidering scientific language. Researchers are pushing to rid science of words and names they see as offensive or glorifying people who held racist views.
Many on social media were outraged that a journalist with a celebrated 47-year career was undone by what using an racial slur in an unintentionally offensive manner.
“This reads like a confession procured by the Khmer Rouge. It’s both ridiculous and terrifying,” replied Andrew Sullivan.
“A culture that lacks grace is both punitive and miserable. Does intent matter? Does forgiveness exist?” asked David French.
“It is now official NYT policy that for some words, intent does not matter, and it only takes one strike to sink a 47-year career,” said Reason editor-at-large Matt Welch.
“This reads like a Bolshevik at his own show trial admitting he’d betrayed the revolution even though he never meant to betray the revolution because he loves the revolution,” said Peter Savodnik of Vanity Fair.
Students at Manchester University have demanded that the word “black” when used as a negative expression such as the word “blackmail” should be banned because it is “divisive.”
The complaint was prompted by a university study surround issues affecting Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff and faculty.
Citing concerns of black people, the report noted that there were “linguistic concerns about Black being associated with negative expressions” such as “blackmail” and “black sheep.”
After the report labeled the use of words which included “black” and “divisive and not inclusive,” the university’s student union demanded that “any other use of the word ‘black’ as an adjective to express negative connotations” should be banned in research papers, lecture slides, and books published by professors.
Students claimed that such words were based on a “colonial history” and should be abolished in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.