The term “woke” originated as a slang term among Black American communities to describe the idea of waking up to systemic injustices and prejudices, and staying alert to how they manifest in everyday life. Use of the term dates back to as early as the 1930s, but the term by many accounts became popularized via Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher” and then spread into wider awareness via the #staywoke Twitter hashtag in the mid-2010s following the police killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. If using the term “woke,” it’s important to keep in mind both its origins in African American vernacular and its current popular use largely on the political right as a pejorative catch-all term pushing back against movements for racial justice and other civil rights efforts, as well as “cancel culture.
At-risk youth is a term used to describe children in vulnerable situations that threaten their transition into adulthood. Because the term “at risk” has no single definition and involves so many societal factors, being specific about how the term is being used (X is considered at risk of academic failure) is more informative to audiences. Avoiding phrasing that can be read as blaming or stigmatizing the individual with language like “delinquent” or “dropout” also takes those societal factors into account. For example: “The lack of tutoring options in X’s school due to underfunding has contributed to them being at risk of academic failure.”
Blue-collar refers to a working-class job or occupation that typically focuses on manual labor. Some consider these terms outdated because of past stereotypes associated with manual labor. Phrases such as “industrial worker,” “industrial artisan,” or “factory worker,” or specifying the profession, may be clearer. Pink-collar refers to labor associated with domestic and care-oriented careers and largely associated with women. If using these terms, it’s helpful to clarify how they’re being defined — if explaining a study, you might include a description of the metrics used to categorize people, for instance.
Social class refers to categories or hierarchies used to describe an individual’s economic placement within broader society, often broken down as lower, middle, and upper. Terms like lower, middle, and upper class offer different connotations to different people, and class can be defined in myriad ways (education, income, occupation, family size, etc.). Using terms like low-, middle-, and high-income and explaining how those brackets are being defined may be helpful for clarity.
Climate grief refers to the grief stemming from loss or anticipated losses of ecosystems, species, and landscapes across the globe, due to the effects of environmental destruction and climate change. Anyone can experience climate grief, though some experts say Indigenous peoples may experience it more acutely. When reporting on climate change, accurately identifying even small signs of progress can ensure that your coverage does not unnecessarily stoke climate anxiety or grief.
A term coined by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton to refer to deaths of working-age, non-college-educated, generally non-Hispanic white Americans related to suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, or alcoholic liver disease. The concept has garnered criticism for, some say, overemphasizing the phenomenon among white Americans while ignoring that historically underserved populations also face economic barriers and lower health outcomes. Giving a brief definition when using the term can be helpful if using, as is avoid stereotyping or focusing solely on one age range and racial group.
Dropout refers to an individual who leaves school without having completed their course of study. The term “dropout” may stigmatize the individual and ignore systemic factors that contribute to someone not completing their education; less individual-blaming language would be phrasing like “X individual did not finish school.”
“Fat” and “plus-size” are terms often used to refer to people who live and occupy space in a larger body. “Plus size” is a term often used in the fashion industry, typically to refer to non-masculine-presenting people. In general, body descriptors should only be included when necessary and relevant. Even in these cases, such descriptors are subjective and generally emotionally fraught terms, and following the person’s self-identifying term can simplify the decision whether to use them.
The term “fatphobia” in practice means entrenched cultural prejudices and stigma directed at those who are considered overweight or obese according to a white American aesthetic that some cultural historians describe as originating in reaction to the enslaved female African body. Some fat acceptance activists dislike the veneer of mental health terminology involved in using the “phobia” suffix, arguing that terms like sizeism, anti-fat bias, or anti-fatness are more accurate. If necessary and relevant to coverage to use “fatphobia” or a related term, some explanation of the chosen term can be helpful for clarity. Careful coverage will also consider systemic factors such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status that can affect both someone’s weight and the degree of stigma they may face for their weight. It’s also important to understand and acknowledge that anti-fat bias, and coverage that furthers those attitudes, can have negative health consequences.
A form of domestic abuse focused on withholding money or otherwise restricting finances. As a subsection of domestic abuse, financial abuse should be noted when applicable.
Last updated 08/05/22
Honest discussions of money and social standing and the myriad factors that determine them are often complicated, and the language of US news coverage tends to reflect that. People may rely on established euphemisms or coded terms when more specific language would be more illuminating.
This section of the Language, Please style guidance aims to help journalists recognize language that’s weighed down in subtext and navigate subjects of socioeconomic status and social standing in a nuanced way.
This resource was informed by questions and discussions from our own newsrooms. It is a living document that will update and expand over time. It is not meant to be comprehensive or the definitive arbiter of language “rules” but instead aims to give context and inform thoughtful decision-making. Have a suggestion for an update, change, or addition? Please get in touch.
How to use: Browse the whole section or search for the term you need guidance on; click into any term for in-depth context, additional resources, and related terms.
An incarcerated person is someone confined to a prison, mental hospital, or similar institution. In general, person-first language, or phrasing such as “X individual, who was convicted of a felony,” puts the focus on the individual rather than one aspect of their circumstances, especially contrasted with terms such as ex-con, felon, convict, and criminal, which risk defining someone solely by their experience with the criminal legal system. In headlines or in shorthand, the term “prisoner” may be more straightforward and humanizing than a term like “felon” or “convict,” since not all individuals housed in jails and prisons are convicted of crimes, and such terms often imply a sense of guilt to the general public.
Jail and prison are not interchangeable: Generally, jail is for those who have just been arrested or are awaiting trial or sentencing, though some serving shorter sentences will do so in jail. Prison is generally for those serving longer sentences.
Homelessness and houselessness are terms for the state of individuals currently lacking a regular nighttime residence. Person-first language such as “people without housing,” “people without homes,” or “person experiencing homelessness (or houselessness)” may read as less stigmatizing than a phrase like “the homeless,” as it reinforces that houselessness is one aspect of someone’s identity that doesn’t define them. “Houseless” or “unhoused” also decouples the concept from the more positive connotation of “home,” and encompasses more than “homeless,” as this could also refer to, for example, living in one’s vehicle.
Economic activity that centers on using freelance or temporary workers to perform jobs normally associated with the service sector such as food delivery, ride-hail driving, freelance tasks including manual labor (e.g., movers), pet and house sitting, and shopping. More euphemistic terms like “side hustle” are generally best reserved for direct quotes, as this may presented such activities in overly cheery terms that obscure the labor behind them.
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