When policy analysts at Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) met with senior budget officials last week, they were told that seven words or phrases could no longer be used in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget, including “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
According to my colleagues Lena H. Sun and Juliet Eilperin, the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services has banned their use. The move was seen as ideologically motivated and has faced resistance from within the nation’s top public health agency.
Although some consider it to be yet another example of the Trump administration’s threat to the independence of federal agency scientists, there are precedents for such language policing — at least abroad.
Some bans on phrases have been more serious than others. The Polish Parliament approved a bill last year that allows judges to send anyone to prison for up to three years for using the phrase “Polish death camps.” The legislation was introduced amid fears that younger citizens hearing the phrase might assume that Poland was responsible for the World War II Nazi camps located in the country that killed millions.
The term has been and still is occasionally used by foreign observers and politicians, including by President Barack Obama, who referred to a “Polish death camp” in 2012 during a Warsaw visit. The incident caused a diplomatic nightmare for the United States, with Poland’s then-prime minister, Donald Tusk, accusing Obama of “ignorance, lack of knowledge, bad intentions.”
Then there is France’s long-running battle against foreign influences on its language. Consider, for example, the government’s 2003 decision to ban the word “email.” Instead, a Culture Ministry commission concluded at the time that officials should use the word “courriel” which is a mixture of the two French words for “electronic” and “mail.”
“Evocative, with a very French sound, the word ‘courriel’ is broadly used in the press and competes advantageously with the borrowed ‘mail’ in English,” the commission wrote. The global popularity of “email,” however, continues unabated, despite French efforts.
To this day, officials are discouraged from using thousands of other words on a list compiled by the Académie Française, as part of its role to safeguard the country's language and to prevent the infiltration of English terms. More recently, the institution decided to ban the word “hashtag,” for instance.
A 2009 ban on certain British words by municipal council leaders may also have been seen as ideologically motivated, given that it included words such as “citizen empowerment,” “democratic legitimacy” or “democratic mandate.” However, the councils argued that the banning of about 200 words or phrases was supposed to make official communication with citizens less complicated and should help residents better understand the policymaking process.
“The public sector must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases,” the council leaders’ chairman, Margaret Eaton, explained.
In some cases, however, the prohibition of certain words or phrases has had clear ideological motivations. In 2015, Ontario members of Parliament voted to prohibit the use of the phrase “mother and father” to reflect gender diversity. The mostly liberal lawmakers agreed that officials should either use the word “parent” or “guardian,” and the nonbinding vote was swiftly welcomed by Ontario’s government.
Elsewhere, the introduction of gender-neutral language has faced more resistance. Grammatical conformity was cited as a reason by the French government this summer when it decided to ban its ministers from including both the male and the female versions of nouns in their communication. “State administrations must comply with grammatical and syntactic rules, especially for reasons of intelligibility and clarity,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe explained.
Still, the country has made some attempts at more progressive language for gender, banning the word “mademoiselle” from official documents. Used to introduce an unmarried woman, the term unfairly indicates a woman’s marital status whereas in French there is a single term both for married and unmarried men, the French government argued this spring.
The Trump administration appears to have chosen seven very different targets.