Stanford Launched Initiative to Eliminate and Replace Offensive Words

Stanford University has unveiled a list of banned words and phrases it considers harmful under its multiphase “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.”

Rolled out in 2022, the guide was created to eliminate many forms of violent, racist, and biased language from the university’s website and IT systems.

The guide categorized harmful words into ten sections based on the cases where such words are most likely to be used.

The categories include ableist, ageism, colonialism, culturally appropriative, gender-based, imprecise language, institutionalized racism, person-first, violent, and additional considerations.

Replacing Words for Moral Appropriateness

The guide says people should use “U.S. citizen” instead of “American” when referring to U.S. citizens. Calling U.S. citizens “Americans” could imply that the U.S. is the only important nation in the region that includes Canada, Central America, and South America. 

The guideline also recommends using four words to replace one inappropriate word. For instance, one should replace “immigrant” with “person who has immigrated” and “prisoner” with “a person who is/was incarcerated.” 

Under the culturally appropriate category, the university suggests using someone’s name instead of other references such as “chief” or “Pocahontas.”

Elsewhere, the guidelines recommend replacing “abort” with “end” or “cancel” when referring to operations instead of associating it with “abortion.”

Other words such as “Karen” should be replaced with “demanding or entitled White woman,” and “child pr*st*t*te ” should be replaced with “child who has been trafficked.”

“Pr*st*t*te” should also be replaced with “a person who engages in sex work.”

The guideline also suggests using person-first language to avoid judging someone based on just one of their characters.


Under this category, the university suggested replacing “h*nd*cap parking” with “accessible parking” and using “anonymous review” instead of “blind review.” According to the guideline, “blind review” intentionally negatively portrays disabled people, furthering the ableist culture.

The guideline also suggests replacing “tone deaf” with “unenlightened” and using a “person with drug abuse disorder” instead of “addict.”


When referring to the gender section, you should use “pronouns” instead of “preferred pronouns,” which makes gender identity a choice.

Stanford also warns against using non-inclusive words ending with “man” or “woman.”  For example, congresswoman or freshman.

“Man hours” should also be replaced by more inclusive terms such as  “ person hour” or “effort hour” to avoid perpetuating a male-dominated language.


People are also advised to avoid using phrases such as “Killing two birds with one stone” and “pulling the trigger” since they are deemed to have violent connotations. 

As such, “Killing two birds with one stone” should be replaced with “accomplishing two things at once” to avoid promoting violence against animals.

“Low-hanging fruits” has also been banned due to the violent and racist connotations it may have. While the phrase often refers to a thing that can be won easily, it could mean “lynching” when used in African-American communities.

The guidelines also prohibit using “beat a dead horse” in communication to avoid normalizing violence against animals.


“Gangbuster” is considered racist, according to the university’s list of harmful words. While the word invokes police action against gangs in a positive way, it may have racial undertones.

Other words such as “black mark” and “black sheep” should also be avoided in communication since it has a negative connotation to the color “black.”

The initiative also suggests using “legacy status” to replace “grandfathered” due to links to the “grandfather clause” adopted to deny blacks voting rights in Southern states.

“White space” should also be replaced with “empty space” to avoid assigning value connotations based on color, an act that makes such words subconsciously racist.

The Controversial List Pulled Down

While the new list of harmful words, their impact, and possible replacements made the initiative popular, adding “American,” “immigrant,” and “grandfather” to the list sparked criticism that prompted the university to remove it from public view on December 20, 2022.


This article has been produced by TPR Teaching.

Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.

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