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 Some consider these terms outdated because of past stereotypes associated with manual labor.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.
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.
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.
A food desert is an area with limited access to fresh food, particularly fresh fruits and vegetables. Food deserts are commonly found in and associated with lower-income, often predominantly Black and brown communities, particularly in areas where transportation options and car ownership are limited. It contrasts with the term “food oasis,” which refers to an abundance of supermarkets and a variety of types of grocery stores. It’s important context to mention systemic factors that contribute to the existence of food deserts and food oases, and how lack of access to affordable, healthy food is related to health issues such as increased instances of obesity and heart disease.
“Generation” describes a cohort of people born within a specific time range. Birth year is not the only determining factor for generations; in familial contexts these titles usually play no role. Sometimes overgeneralizing about a generation can result in ageist stereotypes — for instance, portraying baby boomers as less tech-savvy than younger people.
Historically, ghetto referred to a section of a city entirely or nearly entirely occupied by a racial or ethnic minority. In contemporary use, it often has negative connotations and associations with high rates of poverty and crime. While the term could be used with historical resonance or if an interview subject is quoted using it, in general, it’s clearer to use terminology such as section, district, neighborhood, or low-income housing developments as applicable, or, more simply, describe the specific demographics of a particular part of a city.
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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