Call Me by My Name

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Yes, of course writers and speakers should call people what they want to be called—all the way from honorifics (if you’re using them) to pronouns: Ms., Miss, Mx., Caitlyn Jenner, Chaz Bono, he, they …. The need for gender-neutral terms has made referring to individuals a bit more complicated. But referring to some groups the way they prefer—particularly groups that have been historically stigmatized or disadvantaged—has become a minefield.

Certain things, obviously, no one should ever call particular ethnic groups or their members. I’d like to think we all know what these terms are and avoid them. But even well-intentioned, up-to-date writers can give offense, because, after all, who’s to say what a group prefers?

Here, matters become very specific, so let’s specifically consider people with disorders or disabilities. These people are not rare: Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 19 percent of the U.S. population (or 54.4 million people) are living with a disability.

To be even more specific, let’s focus on the autism community, with which I’m familiar because I have long done freelance editing for Spectrum, a respected autism news website. Until earlier this year, Spectrum changed instances of “autistic people” to “people with autism,” because that was the term that professionals in the field used. The site’s staff consists mainly of science journalists and they had been trained in this convention, so upholding the rule was pretty simple. But sometimes people with autism and clinicians or therapists who work closely with them also write for the site, and some of them began pushing back, wanting to use the phrasing “autistic people.”

A few months ago, Spectrum announced a change to its policy:

When referring to people on the spectrum, Spectrum’s style has been to use person-first language (‘person with autism’). The rationale for this language is to put a person’s humanity first, before their condition…. But language evolves, and many people in the autism community now strongly prefer identity-first language (‘autistic person’). This terminology embraces autism as part of a person’s identity rather than a condition that is separate from them. Some professionals are also beginning to prefer this language. The style guide of the National Center on Disability and Journalism … recommends asking a person how they prefer to be identified.

The options, however, aren’t limited to “person with autism” versus “autistic person.” Some in the autism community dislike both terms, preferring “ASD [autism spectrum disorder] individuals” or “individuals with ASD.” Yet another respectable point of view treats “ASD” and “autism” as interchangeable, whereas others (such as Spectrum) would argue that ASD is autism, period, and should be called autism.

Similar issues come up for people with other disorders or disabilities. One thing that’s generally agreed about all such conditions is that one shouldn’t say things like “afflicted with,” “suffering from,” or “victim of.” On the opposite side of the coin, neither should one say “differently abled,” “challenged,” “handi-capable,” or “special.” “With” will do just fine.

If it seems to you that I’m not offering clear guidance about the terminology to be used for people with disorders or disabilities—or actually, people with virtually any characteristics whatsoever—you’re right. I’m a sympathetic outsider looking in, not a member of any stigmatized minority. (Okay, I’m a woman, but we’re a majority.) So I don’t believe it’s up to me to choose the terms I like best, unless I’ve studied up on what is up to date and gives offense to few.

The part about staying up to date, with respect to any group, is crucial. In his August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., used the word “Negro” 10 times, and “black” in reference to people just three times; that’s pretty good evidence that “Negro” was then the preferred term. The Black Panther Party was founded in 1966, the Black Power movement arose at about the same time, and “black” gradually displaced “Negro.” Then came “Afro-American,” and then “African-American,” and now “people of color”—though this last term does not refer specifically to black people but to anyone who is not white. However, “Latinx” (plural “Latinxs”) is gaining on “Latino” and “Latina” among Hispanics (a term that’s synonymous with “Latinos” in the Census Bureau’s usage, although not in everyone’s).

The idea of the “euphemism treadmill,” a term Steven Pinker coined in his 2003 book The Blank Slate, comes to mind. I wouldn’t call any of the terms I’ve been discussing a euphemism, though, any more than I’d call “Ms.,” used in preference to “Mrs.” or “Miss,” a euphemism. These things are just what some people prefer to be called.

So we’re back to that as a guideline for how to refer to anyone. Few if any Muslims insist on being called “Muslim people” or “people in the Islamic tradition”; in most contexts most writers who are women prefer to be called “writers” rather than “women writers”; and on and on. Encourage your students, when writing about individuals or groups of people, to be well intentioned, and help them be well informed, and they’ll get it right about as often as any of us can.

Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff

Image Credit: File:Hello my name is sticker.svg - Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

About the Author
Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine.