Skip to content
Getting Stuck on ‘Stupid’
Go to my account

Getting Stuck on ‘Stupid’

The language police are out of control.

(Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.)


I love words. I love words the way some people love horses. What I mean is, I love them for what they are but also for what they can do, and even what they represent. But like a horse lover, I get annoyed, even outraged, when words are abused or used for things they shouldn’t be.

Which brings me to the shoddy unlicensed glue factory for words known as Stanford University, specifically its “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.” As Orwellian titles go this falls a bit short of “The Program for Goodthink,” but it’s close enough.

Stanford’s EHLI subscribes to the crazy and insane idea that the English language should be scrubbed of all manner of words, including (I defecate you negatory) “crazy” and “insane.”

Now, I’m not an absolutist about such things. For instance, the initiative (no, not that one) also proposes not using “retarded,” and I’m okay with that because the term has come to mean something hurtful and rude. But even here, Stanford goes too far. It tells incoming resident assistants that they shouldn’t use “retarded” because the term “is a slur against those who are neurodivergent or have a cognitive disability.” Fair enough. But then Stanford adds, “It should not be used to make a point about a person, place or thing.”

Take that, fire extinguishers and sprinkler systems—none may dare call you flame retardants anymore. Stanford says you should use the words “boring” or “uncool” instead of “retarded.” So if there’s a fire, a sprinkler system can “uncool the blaze.”

You might say I’m being casuistic, pharisaical, or jesuitical—and you might be right. But I’m only fighting fire with fire. The vast majority of the explanations for why certain words should be purged amount to exactly that.

For instance, the term “American” needs to go because there are 42 other countries in “the Americas,” and to use “American” to describe U.S. citizens implies “that the US is the most important country in the Americas.”

One has to wonder when the term “the Americas” will have to be purged as well, given that “America” derives from Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian colonizer who was the first to argue—or get credit for arguing—that the lands Columbus “discovered” were a separate continent.

I have no doubt that there are Americans who use the word “American” to describe themselves as citizens of the most important country in the Americas. There are, by my rough estimate, dozens of them. But for the other 331 million Americans it would never occur to them that this is what they’re saying. Similarly, among the billions of people who use the term “anti-American”—positively or negatively—I doubt even a dozen of them have Costa Ricans or Peruvians in mind.

In Canada, anti-Americanism is a significant political orientation. The historian and journalist Frank Underhill—no doubt still pissed that Fletch put all those meals on his tab—wrote that the Canadian is “the first anti-American, the model anti-American, the archetypal anti-American, the ideal anti-American as he exists in the mind of God.” I don’t think anyone would suggest he was a self-hating Canuck for saying this.

Shall we start referring to anti-United-Statesism? No? Why not?

Because it would be stupid. And so is most—not all, but most—of this stuff.

Why is the term “United States citizen” acceptable? Citizen has all sorts of problematic connotations. It privileges people who are, well, citizens rather than immigrants—another term you shouldn’t use according to Stanford. They want you to use “person who has immigrated” or “non-citizen.” Moreover, citizen originally meant an inhabitant of a city. Talk about rural erasure.

Now, obviously almost no one from the hinterlands is offended by the use of “citizen.” But let’s say someone is. So frickin’ what? We need a term for citizen, and just because someone is offended by the word, that isn’t, by itself, an argument for getting rid of it. Again, I’m happy to acknowledge that words can take on negative connotations over time and fall out of polite usage. I would never refer to a black person as a “negro” for the obvious reason that it would be rude.

But “negro” fell out of favor over time, after a critical mass of people—especially black people—rejected the term. That’s not the case with so many of these words. Consider my personal hobbyhorse “Latinx.”

Latinx, again.

Stanford says you should use “Latinx” instead of “Hispanic.” Here’s its explanation:

Although widely used to describe people from Spanish-speaking countries outside of Spain, its roots lie in Spain’s colonization of South American countries. Instead of referring to someone as Hispanic because of their name or appearance, ask them how they identify themselves first.

Now, I’m okay, all things being equal, with asking people how they identify themselves before calling them “Hispanic” or “Arab” etc. Although in the real world, this could be an invitation to giving offense as often as not. “I can’t identify your ethnicity, so before we continue talking about what will be on the chemistry final, tell me how you describe yourself.”

But if you asked a random sample of Hispanics in the United States, the vast majority of them wouldn’t say they’re “Latinx.”

In 2020, a Pew survey of American Hispanics found that 76 percent of them have never heard of the term “Latinx.” Of the 23 percent who had heard of it, only 3 percent used it to identify themselves. Gallup and other pollsters had similar results. One poll found that 40 percent of Hispanics are offended by Latinx.

Arizona Democratic Rep. Reuben Gallego—the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus—told Axios that “when Latino politicos use the term, it is largely to appease White rich progressives who think that is the term we use. It is a vicious circle of confirmation bias.” Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told his staff and board to stop using Latinx because “the reality is, there is very little to no support for its use, and it’s sort of seen as something used inside the Beltway or in Ivy League tower settings.”

This matters because Latinx is the very opposite of negro. Stanford—and countless schools like it—is practicing a kind of domestic cultural imperialism. It is imposing the lingua franca of a small, intellectually aristocratic sect on a large swath of Americans and United States citizens (heh) in the name of inclusion, but not in the spirit of it. It’s a bit like the use of “proper English” in 19th century England as a requirement to exclude the riff-raff from elite clubs. There is no meaningful constituency—besides the faculty lounge and the activist groups that clutter bulletin boards outside the post-colonial studies department—that uses Latinx. But of course, those are the only constituencies that matter to these people.

Orwell agonistes.

This is not education but Orwellian indoctrination: Twist and mutilate common meanings that have no ill intent and offer no offense to most normal people and turn them into reasons to give offense in order to make all manner of ideas and concepts unacceptable—and undebatable. Again, I’m fine with the idea of removing words from official terminology when warranted, but “warranted” is a very high bar because telling people what kind of language they can or can’t use without a very good reason is exceedingly illiberal and obnoxious. And creating shibboleths solely designed to weed out wrongthink and punish wrongthinkers is generally grotesque. They are not primarily purging the language of offensive words—they’re minting new reasons to be offended by existing, inoffensive words.

“The great enemy of clear language,” Orwell observed, “is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” Now, I think many of the people playing these games sincerely believe they are doing the right thing. I think their insincerity is with themselves. They do not recognize that deep down their real project isn’t inclusion, but exclusion: to weed out the people we disagree with. And that impulse is ultimately about power. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” Syme says in 1984. The “beauty” of that project is to deprive the mind of words to describe reality as it is and to shrink the map of mental space so there is no safe harbor from the party line.  

Send MOAR words.

But if you’re going to strip certain words from the acceptable lexicon, the least you can do is provide alternatives that do the job required of the purged terms. Not doing that robs language of important assets. For instance, I like the literal meaning of “literally” because we need a word that literally means literally. I don’t want to insult the neurodivergent, but an English language without the words “crazy” or “insane” is a poorer language. Taking a valuable linguistic piece off the board without a suitable replacement is just stupid.

And when I say “stupid,” I mean dumb, not smart, or impractical. I do not mean it’s the sort of thing you’d expect from someone who can’t speak. I need to say that because Stanford says I can’t use the word “stupid” anymore since stupid was once “used to describe a person who could not speak and implied the person was incapable of expressing themselves” (for some reason the etymology of “dumb” eluded the initiative—maybe next year). Stanford’s preferred replacements for stupid, as with retarded, are “boring” or “uncool.”

Really? So when someone tells me they want to run with scissors I should say, “Don’t do it: That’s boring.” Or when they tell me they want to drink puddle water outside a porta-John, I should tell them, “That’s uncool.” Instead of “crazy” or “insane” I’m supposed to use words like “wild” or “surprising.” That, to borrow a phrase from my Latinx friends, is muy loco.

Why? For starters, because it’s dangerous. Try being a parent without using words like stupid, crazy, or insane. “You want to jump off that bridge? That’s surprising.” “See that strange guy in the clown suit behind the wheel of that old van? It’d be wild if you accepted his invitation for a ride!”

More importantly, it’s impossible to eliminate certain words because the concepts are enduring. Yes, sadly, some words and their meaning disappear forever. But concepts like “stupid” or “crazy” will always be with us, even if society has to invent new words to signify them.

The word of the year?

Let’s shift gears slightly. I’d be remiss, given the topic, if I didn’t mention that has declared that its “Word of the Year” is “woman.” Now, if I told you this even a few years ago, you’d assume it was a feminist triumph of some kind, like “Year of the Woman.” But not today. Woman is the word of the year because the same crowd has put the meaning of the word in play. From’s announcement:

It’s one of the oldest words in the English language. One that’s fundamental not just to our vocabulary but to who we are as humans. And yet it’s a word that continues to be a source of intense personal importance and societal debate. It’s a word that’s inseparable from the story of 2022.

I have no doubt it’s one of the oldest words in the English language, but that kind of hides the ball. It’s one of the oldest words in the English language because it’s undoubtedly one of the oldest words in language. Why? Because it’s one of the oldest concepts there is. I mean, you know we’re dealing with Lovecraftian time increments when you can say a concept is way, way older than “fire” or “knife” and about the same age as “tree” or “sky.” picked woman as the word of the year largely because in March, then Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked if she could define the word “woman.” Jackson said she couldn’t.

But it’s funny. In a great many of the write-ups about that incident, both at the time and now, her answer is truncated or paraphrased.

What they tend to leave out is that she said, “I can’t, I’m not a biologist.” At the time this was seen as some great “own” of her questioner, Sen. Marsha Blackburn. The problem is that Jackson wasn’t saying woman has no definition, she was saying that she couldn’t offer the specific scientific definition of what a woman is (my hunch is she could come up with a perfectly serviceable one if she wanted to). In other words, she was saying that the definition of a woman is settled science.  

That’s not the view of folks over at John Kelly, the site’s editorial director, told People magazine that “the dictionary is not the last word on what defines a woman. The word belongs to each and every woman—however they define themselves.” This would be news to a gynecologist.

I try to show a great deal of compassion and grace when it comes to transgender people (though it tends to evaporate when the issue of parents committing their children to gender reassignment surgery arises). I believe it’s important to treat people with respect. But respect has to be a two-way street. Telling people they’re bigots or fools for thinking there is a biological component to male-female differences is not just crazy and stupid, it’s counterproductive. People do not like being told not to believe their lying eyes—or medical textbooks.

Kelly is right that words change over time. But some concepts and categories don’t. Sure, there are gray areas. Some people are born “intersex,” but even that term concedes that there are two sexes that such people are born “inter” to. It’s worth noting that transgender women don’t want to eliminate the definition of woman, they just want everyone to agree that the definition of woman includes people born with penises. In the spirit of tolerance and liberty, I can live in a world where some men identify as women. But demanding that I not acknowledge that they are merely identifying as women is what is intolerant and illiberal.

If you can’t see this, how do you explain the case of Tonje Gjevjon? The Norwegian actress—and lesbian—wrote on her Facebook page: “It’s just as impossible for men to become a lesbian as it is for men to become pregnant. Men are men regardless of their sexual fetishes.” She faces up to three years in prison under Norway’s hate crime laws.

Now, America isn’t Norway, but you get the point. You can dislike Gjevon’s statement. You can certainly disagree with it. But the government of Norway is not on the side of tolerance and liberalism when it says you can’t say such things without risking a jail sentence. Liberalism and political tolerance were largely born from the necessity of finding a way to settle questions of faith without resorting to violence. Putting someone in jail—or threatening to—for saying bad words is a huge step backward. We’d all see it if she’d said, “You can’t be a citizen if you aren’t a member of the Church of Norway.” But because we have none of the cultural tools to see questions of sexual identity as a modern form of faith, we revert back to illiberalism.

So much of what passes for enlightened argumentation these days is really just cheating. I can beat anyone at chess if I get to unilaterally declare that every chess piece has the powers of the queen. And I can win any argument if I get to remove all the words I find inconvenient and take offense at all the facts I don’t like.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.