The shifting language of race and ethnicity

Race is a highly sensitive topic and yet so important that we cannot, and should not, avoid talking about it. But what makes discussions about race fraught with pitfalls is that even what to call people of different races is problematic, with terms that were considered appropriate at one time becoming frowned upon later, with those who grew up in one era having to remind themselves that the terms they once used casually are no longer socially acceptable.

This is true not just for races but also for ethnicities and nationalities with derogatory labels such as wogs, spics, dagos, chinks, frogs, krauts, and the like being casually used at various times though we would be horrified if anyone did so now. (See here for a more comprehensive list of labels used as ethnic slurs.)

Identifying people by their nationalities or its derivatives is usually acceptable but even here there can be problems. ‘Japs’ is derogatory but ‘Japanese’ is not. Similarly ‘Pakis’ is a no-no, but ‘Pakistanis’ is fine. Oddly enough, the abbreviation ‘Paks’ was used to describe Pakistani cricketers and seemed to cause no problems though I don’t know if that has changed because one rarely hears it these days.

In the US, this issue is even more fraught with pitfalls. We like to think that we are approaching a post-racial society (though we are far from it) but we still have to talk about race and have to choose with care what words to use because there are no general rules and each is a special case. Right now, referring to some people by colors such as black, white, or brown seems acceptable but using red or yellow to label groups is flat-out offensive.

Using the collective label ‘people of color’ seems to be the most respectful for those who are not white, but ‘colored people’ is now a huge no-no, although at one time it was acceptable. ‘Minority’ also seems to be used as a euphemism for those who are not white, even if as a group they are not the minority. The word ‘nonwhite’ seems more dicey because it defines someone by whom or what they are not and seems to give white a default, and thus preferred, status.

I used to think that using ‘Native American’ was preferable to ‘American Indian’ or just ‘Indian’ but was made aware recently by the chair of the Native American Program at Harvard University that in general that community has as their first preference the name of the specific tribe they belong to followed by ‘American Indian’ or ‘Indian’, and that ‘Native American’ is acceptable but is something that is favored more by academia than the people themselves.

The term ‘African American’ seems acceptable but Negro has fallen out of favor, being seen as archaic. Its use does not cause outrage but does raise eyebrows, and one usually finds only older people using it. Although all the people who use it are not bigots, I have noticed that older people who have bigoted views tend to be more likely to use it.

Recently a colleague at the university referred to ‘Oriental’ students at a faculty meeting. Afterwards, several people discussed privately that they were taken aback by that term because one rarely hears it anymore and the preferred term is ‘Asian’ though that covers a far wider geographic region than what the speaker intended. I spoke to my colleague privately and he was surprised to learn that he had committed a faux pas and grateful that I had pointed it out to him so that he could avoid making that mistake in the future. In our university, where we go to great lengths to avoid using terms that might be considered even mildly derogatory, the term ‘international students’ is preferred to ‘foreign students’ because it seems less exclusionary, though the latter is not considered offensive and is still used.

Sometimes members of a group can use labels to refer to themselves that would be considered highly offensive if used by others. So one should be wary of thinking that some term is acceptable simply because a group uses it to describe themselves. The n-word is of course the example that immediately comes to mind but there could be others. For example, some Indian-Americans refer to themselves as ‘desis’ but I am not sure how they feel about others using the term to describe them. (I explain here why I often use euphemisms such as the ‘n-word’ even though everyone knows what words I am talking about.)

Gene Denby had an essay on why we have so many euphemisms for race and why they change over time.

Minorities. Nonwhites. People of color. In some corporate-esque sectors, you might even hear someone use the term “diverse” as a modifier — as in, “We’re really interested in hearing a diverse voice on this issue,” as though an individual person might be diverse. Each of those terms came into wide usage in the 20th century, only to fall out of vogue and be replaced with a new one. Each replacement was meant to be less loaded than its predecessor, only to eventually take on all of that predecessor’s anxieties — and some new ones. Linguists refer to this process as “pejoration.”

“If a word that refers to something always appears in sentences where that thing is framed negatively, then that term will take on that negativity,” Lauren Hall-Lew, a sociolinguist at the University of Edinburgh, told me over email.

[Stephen] Pinker calls it the euphemism treadmill. Other folks might call it, derisively, “political correctness.” But this is how language works: It reflects the relationships between speakers and groups. These descriptors will be in flux as long as our orientations to each other keep changing, which suggests that the treadmill isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.

Pinker elaborates on this theme in his book The Blank Slate.

The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long. Names for minorities will continue to change as long as people have negative attitudes toward them. We will know that they have achieved mutual respect when the names stay put.”

People may think that they have to be on their guard all the time to avoid offending others and sometimes take the safe route of not talking about these issues at all, which does not seem helpful either. I think that tone and attitude are really important elements. It is usually quite obvious from the context whether you are talking about people and events in a respectful way and people usually take that into account in the way they respond and will not take umbrage for minor missteps. They may cringe a little bit inside and, if they know you well, may be kind enough to set you straight, but they will not get angry. Unless of course they are looking to pick a fight, which unfortunately can happen in political discussions.

Back in 2011, Jon Stewart And Larry Wilmore had one of their great discussions about race that touched on euphemisms.

(This clip aired on January 11, 2011. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. says

    Race terms can even rankle for those of us who are not considered ‘minorities’. I am (originally) British and I find that the word ‘Brit’ always grates on me (unless, of course, it’s being used for the fry of herring, Clupea harengus or sprat, Sprattus sprattus, where it’s a totally different word).

    People who would never dream of calling the Japanese ‘Japs’, or even the Germans ‘Germs’ use it, presumably, happily.
    Even the British use it, though as the OED says it was ‘in early use not a self-designation’.
    It seems to have come into general use, and from intended disparagement, in the mid-twentieth century (being hardly used before then, though the OED gives its earliest attestation in 1884 ‘Galveston (Texas) News 12 Sept. 3/3 Let the News make a suggestion—that the Brits call themselves Yankees.’)
    I once wrote one of my silly radio pieces (Ethnodeficiency) on the subject:
    ‘Brit is, I think quite a recent word, at least I seem to remember a time (when I was young and the world seemed to have a future) when it didn’t appear anywhere and then, a bit later, a time when it did appear almost everywhere, mainly in the plural and on walls almost always associated with the word “out”. …. a term that owes its origin to the fact that people who didn’t want us to be in various locations around the world, and possibly would have been happier if we’d been kicked out of Britain too, were in so much of a hurry and valued paint so highly that they abbreviated us.’
    Ah! Well! I suppose I’ll just have to get used to it…

  2. Mano Singham says


    It is interesting what you say about Brits. While we know to call the various subgroups English, Scottish, and Irish, what is the polite term for the collective residents of Great Britain? Is it Britons? Great Britons? I admit to being all over the map on this and would like to know what is the most appropriate term.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    richardelguru: There are some interesting names for the British out there.

    German Inselaffe, which means ‘island ape’ or ‘island monkey’
    Afrikaans soutpiel, ‘salty penis’ (one foot in Britain, one in S Africa…). Not sure if there’s a corresponding term for British women.

    I remember the Tamil Vellaikaaran (white man or Brit) from playing soccer with Tamils. I asked what one bloke was saying, and a friend said it meant ‘pass it to the white guy’. Maybe he was being nice…

    Still, nothing bites quite as well as the Aussie ‘whinging pommy bastard’ 🙂

    Mano: Can’t go wrong with ‘British’. ‘Briton’ might do, but it generally refers to the pre-Anglo-Saxon inhabitants who weren’t Gaelic or Pictish speakers, I think.

  4. says

    I would say ‘Britons’ (though this could be perceived as Jingoistic) and we are ‘British’.
    In the past ‘Britishers’ has been used.
    Formally I fear it might be ‘British Subjects’ (Yuk!!) or ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom of…’ (Double yuk!!)
    I think that part of the problem is that we have a tendency to think of ourselves as really English, Scots, Welsh and Irish.
    I don’t know if you looked at the essay, but as an illustration it has a photo of a wall in NI with graffiti “IRA BRITS OUT”.
    So I admit that the ‘naming of brits’ can be pretty fraught! And I suspect that that (as much as the cost of spray-paint) is much of the reason for its spread.

  5. says

    ” There are some interesting names for the British out there.”
    I was hoping not to go there 🙂

    You are probably right that ‘British’ is safest, though it can have gramatical problems as a noun:
    ‘The British’ (plural) is ok *’A British’ (singular) not so good. 🙂

  6. Rob Grigjanis says


    Not sure if there’s a corresponding term for British women Brits without penises.

  7. Holms says

    Speaking of shortening words, if you happen to meet an Aboriginal Australian, whatever you do, don’t shorten the term to just abo. Oh and while Aboriginal Australian works, Aborigine or Aboriginal by itself doesn’t, being an antiquated and borderline offensive term in a similar manner as Oriental.

    On a lighter note, if you want to shorten Australian to Aussie go right ahead, but it grates a little to hear it pronounced the usual American way; pretend those s’s are actually z’s (i.e. voiced) and go right ahead.

  8. md says

    “In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is…in some small way to become evil oneself. One’s standing to resist anything is thus eroded, and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control. I think if you examine political correctness, it has the same effect and is intended to.” — Theodore Darylrymple

    Mano, this post is timely given the wider Charlie Hebdo -- blasphemy discussions. All culture have taboos, though some are more violent than others when taboos are violated.

  9. an unregistered stewart says

    British is not completely unproblematical. There are elements of Irish society who object to the use of British to include Ireland and its inhabitants. (In Rugby Union the British Lions became the British and Irish Lions in 2001.) And that’s before taking into account Northern Irish usage.

    It’s not that British is pejorative; as I understand the dynamic is more like the Scots objecting to being labelled English.

  10. DsylexicHippo says

    About Indian Americans and the term ‘desis’ when used by non-Indians -- I have plenty of Indian friends at work and have verified that it is definitely not offensive. Though not offensive, I am told, it sounds weird when used by others. And also that the term is a bit broader and includes all people of the Indian subcontinent i.e. Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese and Bangladeshis.

    Strangely though, this term is only used by them when outside their home countries -- apparently nobody residing in India uses it as a self-referencing term. There, they use it as an adjective particularly for food items as a substitute for “authentic” or “rustic”. When used by the diaspora outside, it means something like “our people from back home” where home could be any one of those countries.

  11. Mano Singham says

    As richarddelguru says, the problem with ‘British’ is that it works only some of the time. For example, when we are speaking of a singular person, we can say a German or a Sri Lankan or a Swiss or a Spaniard or Liberian. We can’t say ‘a British’. ‘A Britisher’ sounds awful.

  12. Mano Singham says


    While Indians may have this expansive view of whom the term ‘desi’ covers, I have never heard any Sri Lankan refer to themselves as ‘desis’. I myself was totally unaware of this term until quite recently and had to look it up.

  13. DsylexicHippo says

    That could be because it is a Hindi/Urdu word that’s North Indian in origin so maybe it does not apply to Sri Lankans? I don’t know. But I have heard Pakistanis use that term. I don’t know anyone from Nepal or Bangladesh so not sure if they feel the same way as Sri Lankans.

  14. sailor1031 says

    Don’t know about what brits would like to call themselves. A friend of mine doesn’t like ‘brit’ -- says he’s english not brit. He doesn’t seem to care for ‘limey’ either but doesn’t seem to be bothered referring to ‘canucks’. I’m partial meself to ‘pom’ as in ‘one thing I can’t stand is a whinging pom’ but I don’t know what it means so I don’t use it much. I think the rule is you can derogate yourself all you like but no-one else may.

  15. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    As a foreigner who had to learn English in school, I remember only the official recommendation: the singular form of ‘Brits’ is ‘Briton’, not ‘Brit’. And ‘Britons’ is an abomination.

    The terminology based on skin colour can be quite tricky. In the USA ‘negro’ used to be acceptable in fairly recent times, until it was replaced with ‘Black’. ‘Negro’ can be traced back to the Latin ‘niger’ for black. In Africa there is a river called Niger, and by its banks the countries Niger and Nigeria. Their names don’t seem to be a problem. And if you dig a little deeper, Guinea, Sudan, and Ethiopia all mean “land of black people”.

    But the usage of colours in the USA is a political matter that I don’t bother much with. Hasn’t ‘Black’ already been replaced with ‘Afro-American’? And are the Hispanics white? If yes (ask any Spaniard), why are they presented as a separate demographic group?

  16. John Morales says


    ‘Negro’ can be traced back to the Latin ‘niger’ for black. In Africa there is a river called Niger, and by its banks the countries Niger and Nigeria. Their names don’t seem to be a problem.

    There’s a nice essay about such things here: Some words about the N-word.

  17. John Morales says


    And are the Hispanics white? If yes (ask any Spaniard), why are they presented as a separate demographic group?

    Thing is, the USA usage of Hispanic (aka Latino) refers to Central and South Americans from Spanish-speaking countries; it doesn’t refer to actual Spaniards.

  18. anat says

    Also, Hispanics can be of any race. They are considered an ethnic group based on language and history.

    Upon immigrating from Israel to the US my race/ethnicity for the purpose of medical forms changed from Ashkenazi Jewish to non-Hispanic white. (Medical forms are the only place where my Ashkenazi ancestry was required to be reported.)

  19. moarscienceplz says

    the countries Niger and Nigeria. Their names don’t seem to be a problem.

    Oh, I dunno. When I was a kid, ‘Niger’ was always pronounced NYE-jer, but nowadays even people who don’t know a lick of French take pains to say nee-JHER.

  20. says

    I can’t pretend to be “blind” to race, it’s a ridiculous claim. We all know it’s there when one interacts with others unless it’s typing text to an unknown person online.

    My view is, if I treat [insert ethnic/racial/gender group here] worse than my own, I’m a bigot. If I treat them better than my own, I’m a condescending bigot. If I treat them the same as I treat everyone else, they’re likely to (and usually do) feel respected even if the stupidity of bigotry is still in my head. The best we can do is treat people the same regardless of their group (ethnicity, skin, gender and identity). The more one interacts, the more one learns and breaks down learnt bigotry.

    My hypocritical, racist catholic parents were revolting individuals, and racism is but one of the many things I acquired and endured from them. It took years to rid myself of some their ideas and habits, and some I never have despite trying. I say were because I had to cease contact with them 15 years ago.

    In regard to several comments, if one says “Britons”, it risks sounding like “Bretons”. Just don’t use the citrus fruit word….

  21. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    anat: “Also, Hispanics can be of any race. They are considered an ethnic group based on language and history.”

    If a third generation Mexican in the USA speaks only English, is he still Hispanic? How about descendants of an originally German family in Chile, who later moved to the USA?

    That’s a bad way to build a classification system. If the criteria for different classes use different metrics, conflicts and moving goal posts are guaranteed. If language is important, it must be a criterion in all classes, and used in the same way.

    If criteria can be selected ad hoc, hilarity ensues.

  22. lorn says

    The word nigger is just a word. Apply it to a person in this time and place and you have uttered a grave insult. As such I don’t apply the term to any person. But the word itself is a lexicographical oddity a mix of slang and Spanish and some subjects are pretty hard to easy get right historically without using it. The subtle differences and jealousies in underclass status embodied in the antebellum plantation of field versus house nigger. How the status of nigger continued on long after slavery died in the US. Sharecropping and the system of prison or indentured labor continued on in the south for almost eighty years. Until the 40s.

    Dating myself but I saw the first release version of this, it made an impression and was remarkably controversial at the time. There were many science fiction fans who had never imagined having black people in space. A black woman, outspoken, with rank and standing was a new thing for a lot of people in 1969. Although a bit ham handed for what it is it made a deep impression on many young minds:

  23. hyphenman says

    The challenge lies in attempting to create a taxonomy where no significant difference exists.

    The word used in any classification is far less important than the intent of the word in the mind of the user.

    Richard Pryor could entitle a comedy album That Nigger’s Crazy; David Duke could not.

    We must find ways to recognize that sub-grouping beyond human or Homo sapiens, if you prefer, in of itself, is the problem. There was once an evolutionary value in developing a shorthand for those who were not of our tribe and therefore potential threats. That is no longer the case and continued reliance on this communication crutch handicaps (another word that has fallen from acceptable use) our further progress.

    Labeling has other problems as well. A couple of years ago, one of the schools where I teach encouraged a campaign to stop the use of The R Word (retard). Retard, like idiot or imbecile, is a perfectly acceptable word used by medical and pedagogical professionals to describe individuals whose intellectual development is slowed, retarded, for physiological reasons.

    When used as a taunt or slur, however, the word becomes a weapon of diminution. Retiring retarded in favor of other words does not change the problem.

    I like to remember the passage in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time:

    But Siobhan said we have to use [Special Needs] because people used to call children like the children at school spaz and crip and mong, which were nasty words. But this is stupid too because sometimes the children from the school down the road see us in the street when we’re getting off the bus and they shout “Special Needs! Special Needs!”

    I am male. I am an adult. I am a citizen of the The United States of America. I am of European lineage. I am a descendent of people from Wales and Germany and France and Italy. I am a person with red hair and blue eyes. I am a teacher, a writer, a journalist; the list goes on and on. None of that says anything about who I am in any meaningful or useful way. Put me in any box and you dismiss me.

    I am Jeff Hess, sometimes called Hyphenman, and I do my best each and everyday to be better.

  24. Nick Gotts says


    Since the term “political correctness” was from the very start of its frequent occurrence in the media a right-wing sneer at those trying not to be insulting, which pretended to be a term coined and used in all seriousness by the left, it’s those such as you and Dalrymple who are the dishonest propagandists in this matter.

  25. Nick Gotts says

    As far as terms for a single British person are concerned, I don’t think there’s anything better than “Brit”, and I now use it myself, although it did grate when first encountered; “British” is not a noun, and “Briton” is archaic, and would only be used in self-reference by puffed-up self-described patriots. I tried using “Ukanian” for a while, but it looks like a misprint for “Ukranian”! I’ve had Americans try to insult me by calling me a “limey”; it doesn’t work, causing amusement rather than annoyance. These terms are perhaps an example of the process Pinker discusses, operating in the opposite direction: because the concept of Britishness is still associated with high status (despite the fact that we’re no longer “Top Nation” -- h/t Sellar and Yeatman), a word used to refer to British people becomes perceived as non-perjorative (Brit), or as making those applying the epithet look ridiculous (limey). As far as richardelguru’s suggestion that the absence of a universally acceptable term is due to us thinking we’re really English, Scots, Welsh or Irish -- I’m not sure. The situation is far from symmetric with regard to the four constituent identities. Of course there’s the complication of northern Ireland, where Protestants (in general) and unionists think of themselves as British, while Catholics (in general) and republicans regard themselves as Irish; but even apart from that, many Scots and Welsh do see themselves as primarily that, while most English people (hmm, note that “English”, like “British” isn’t a good stand-alone noun) scarcely acknowledged a distinction between English and British until recently, and some still don’t. Me, I’m British, and and an English Scot! (That is, I recognise the many cultural features shared between English, Scots, Welsh and even Irish, I was born and lived my first 40 years in England, but now regard Scotland as home and campaigned for independence.)

    As far as racial terminology is concerned, there are interesting differences between the USA and UK. “Person of colo(u)r” still sounds rather pompous and affected to me, and I think most Brits, although I dare say we’ll adopt it sooner or later, “non-white” being the only exact alternative. Both “black” and “black and Asian” are used without intended insult to refer to the great majority of those belonging to racial minorities, who are mostly south Asian, Afro-Carribean or African by origin -- but not to the relatively small communities of Chinese or other far-eastern origin. “Oriental” might still be used for such people without intended insult, but “far easterners” or cognate terms are probably more common -- “Asian” certainly does not refer to such people in the UK. “Hispanic” of course is not used at all. Amusingly, I’ve heard Americans unthinkingly refer to Brits of Afro-Carribean origin as “African-American”. Finally, “Gypsy” is used non-perjoratively (although there is increasingly vicious anti-Gypsy racism in the UK as in much of Europe), and is the preferred term of the British Gypsy Council.

  26. Rob Grigjanis says

    Nick Gotts @25:

    despite the fact that we’re no longer “Top Nation”

    And that is a Good Thing.

  27. Mano Singham says


    I rarely if ever hear the singular form ‘person of color’, perhaps because it sounds like the stilted language of police bulletins (“The suspect is a person of color of height …”). It is almost always used in the plural

  28. Callinectes says

    I’ve never had a problem with “Brit” and am surprised to learn that it is considered pejorative by some.

  29. Mano Singham says


    The classification system in the US is indeed a mess, which is why increasing numbers say the hell with it and either don’t check any boxes or check none of the above.

  30. Nick Gotts says

    Rob Grigjanis@26,

    Agreed, but our loss of that status (to Americans, of course) did cause history to come to a.

  31. Pierce R. Butler says

    As a Mississippian of the generation when “colored people” was considered the term of respect, it took me a long time to say “people of color” without an internal giggle.

    The same thing happened when Steinem & friends invented “Ms.” as a generic feminine title -- we-all’d been calling women, married or not, “Miz ____” all along.


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