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The Stupidity Starts at University: Brandeis 'Potentially Oppressive Language' List Raises Eyebrows

A new rule of thumb at Brandeis University, is to rethink using the phrase "rule of thumb" and say something more like "as a general rule." It's part of an effort to educate students and staff about language, according to the school's Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center.

That's according to list of "potentially oppressive language" collected by the school's Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center and posted online recently. The list that's garnered national attention is part of mostly student-led anti-Blackness response program.

"The Oppressive Language List is a compilation of words and phrases with roots, histories, and/or current usage that can serve to reinforce systems of oppression," according to the PARC website. "This list is always growing based on suggestions from the community. We encourage folks to use the list as a learning tool and decide for themselves what words or phrases they want to use or not use."

The student-created list is separated into five categories that cover, violent language, identity-based language, language that doesn't say what we mean, culturally appropriative language and first-person alternatives.

The list notes that "walk-in" appointments could be considered "ableist," and the phrase "killing it" equates something good with murder. It also notes that labeling something as a "trigger warning," could have the unintended consequence of using violent language, and recommends something more like "content note" before warning people about language to come.

Then there's "a rule of thumb." That phrase comes from an old British law allowing men to beat their wives with sticks no wider than their thumb, according to the oppressive language list.

"The term picnic is often associated with lynchings of Black people in the United States, during which White spectators were said to have watched while eating, referring to them as picnics or other terms involving racial slurs against Black people," according to the list.

"Long time no see" and "no can do" developed because of people making fun of non-native English speakers, particularly applied to indigenous people and Asians, according to the list.

Although its creators said the list is just meant as a way to get people to slow down and consider what words they choose, and educate themselves as to why some people might react to certain terms and phrases, it is raising eyebrows around the country.

US Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican of New York, called the list "an all-out assault on our First Amendment" and an example of "the Far-Left cancel culture happening in our schools," according to The New York Post.

The list that was developed by students who have sought out advanced training in safely intervening in situations where other students may experience violence, according to PARC.

"These students have noted that many people who have experienced violence may be further harmed by the language others use in speaking with them, and they wished to educate others who want to understand the background of some terms, and to suggest more neutral language that can be used," according to a statement from the school, which stressed the list is a resource, not a demand. "The list is in no way an accounting of terms that Brandeis students, faculty or staff are prohibited from using."

"Every educational institution, and especially a university bearing the name of such a great personality as Luis Brandeis, should educate to expand freedom of expression rather than reduce it." says Eric Bach, The President of The Democracy Institute, "In our world there are infinite sensitivities of thousands of groups and types of human beings. The different person should be educated to contain insulting expressions, and not be offended by the inferior way in which different people choose to call them. When we educate unique people to be offended by the derogatory nicknames directed at them instead of pitying those who are unable to respect humans as they are, we reinforce their unjustified feelings of inferiority instead of giving them tools to deal with reality, one of which is the weakness of stupid people to understand that difference is advantage and not disadvantage. That being like everyone else is a greater insult than being unique. Politically correct, is not."

Brandeis, which has a strong social justice component, enrolled about 3,500 undergraduates and 2,000 graduate students last year, according to its website. Tuition is near $60,000 annually, and room and board cost another $16,450.

Oppressive Language List

The Oppressive Language List was developed, created, and continues to be managed by students involved with PARC. Suggestions are brought forth by students who have been impacted by violence and students who have sought out advanced training for intervening in potentially violent situations.

This list is meant to be a tool to share information and suggestions about potentially oppressive language. Use of the suggested alternatives is not a university expectation, requirement or reflection of policy. As shared in Brandeis University's Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression, the language you choose to use or not use is entirely up to you.

PARC recognizes that language is a powerful tool that can be used to perpetrate and perpetuate oppression. As a community, we can strive to remove language that may hurt those who have experienced violence from our everyday use. Currently we have our list sorted into five categories:

Violent Language

Violent language in this list may be explicitly or implicitly violent expressions and metaphors that are used casually and unintentionally. These examples can be easily replaced by saying something more direct.

Instead of:
Suggested Alternatives
Killing it

Great job!


If someone is doing well, there are other ways to say so without equating it to murder.

Take a shot at, take your best shot

Pull the trigger

Take a stab at

Give it a go


These expressions needlessly use imagery of hurting someone or something.

Trigger warning

Content note


The word “trigger” has connections to guns for many people; we can give the same heads-up using language less connected to violence.
Rule of thumbGeneral rule

This expression allegedly comes from an old British law allowing men to beat their wives with sticks no wider than their thumb; however, no written record of this law exists today. The earliest recording of this usage of the expression is attributed to English judge Sir Francis Buller in the 18th century; it has also been found in US court records from the 19th century.

Go off the reservation

Disagree with the group, defect from the group

This phrase has a harmful history rooted in the violent removal of indigenous people from their land and the potential consequences for someone that left the reservation.

Wife beater

White ribbed tank top, tank, undershirt

This term trivializes relationship violence.

Culturally Appropriative Language

Culturally appropriative language misuses words and phrases that hold meaning in a particular culture by using them without context, appreciation, and/or respect.

Instead of:
Suggested Alternatives
Tribe (outside of being used to describe racial, ethnic, and/or cultural groups)

Friends, group, pals, team

The word tribe was historically used in a dehumanizing way to equate indigenous people with being "savage" or "primitive;" modern misuse could be interpreted as racially charged.


Meeting, party, gathering

Using the word powwow erases the cultural roots, significance, and true meaning of the word.

Spirit animal

Favorite animal, animal I would most like to be

In some cultural and spiritual traditions, spirit animals refer to an animal spirit that helps guide and/or protect a person through a journey; equating this with an animal you like strips the term of its significance. 

Person-First Language

Person-first language can frame people’s activities, attributes, and more as a part of the person rather than the whole person. Person-first language helps us resist defining people by just one thing about them if they don't want to be. 

It is important to note that some people do claim these identities and labels, in which case we suggest mirroring their language! For example, many people do identify with "survivor," "disabled person," "autistic person," "sex worker," and more. If you aren't sure and don't have an example to mirror when talking to or about someone, explore resources online from members of that community or ask them if that feels appropriate in the context of your relationship.

Instead of:
Suggested Language

Victim / Survivor 

Person who has experienced…

Person who has been impacted by…


Person who uses a wheelchair

Mentally illPerson living with a mental health condition

Child prostitute, sex with underage person

Non-consensual sex

Child who has been trafficked, rape


Abusive relationshipsRelationship with a person who is abusive


Person with a substance use disorder

Homeless person

Person without housing


Person who engages in sex work

Prisoner, convict

Person who is/has been incarcerated


Person who is/was enslaved

Identity-Based Language

Identity-based oppressive language includes a range of word and phrases including potentially lesser-known slurs, unhelpful euphemisms, and exclusionary words and phrases. Important to note: the appropriateness of some identity-based language varies between insiders and outsiders of a group. Words that may be offensive for an outsider to say might be acceptably used by a member of that group. If you aren't sure if you should say a word or phrase someone has used to describe themself or their community, ask or do research to learn more. 

Instead of:
Suggested Alternatives

Gender exclusive language

You guysLadies and Gentlemen

Policeman, congressman, etc.



Gender inclusive language

Y'all, folks or folx, friends, loved ones, people

Police Officer, Congressperson, etc.

First year student

They or Ask their pronouns!

These examples either lump all people under masculine language or within the gender binary (man or woman), which doesn’t include everyone. 


(unless the person/people identify as such)

Black (with a capital B)For Black folks born in the United States, hyphenating their identity can be interpreted as othering. Some folks do prefer to use African-American, particularly in connection to their ancestral roots, while others may identify with other ethnicities. We recommend using Black as a default, but being open to adjusting if asked to.

Ableist language

Crazy, Insane, Wild




"I'm so OCD" (outside of actually having OCD)

Handicapped, Re**rded



That’s bananas, wow!

Uncool, disappointing



"I'm very organized, detailed oriented"

Disabled person* or person with a disability, person with a cognitive disability

Autistic person*


Ableist language can contribute to stigmas about and trivializes the experiences of people living with disabilities, mental health conditions, and more.

*These are two examples of how person-first language isn't always preferred. When talking or referring to a specific person, it is best to mirror their language and/or ask if you can. Explore the person-first suggestions here.

Generic “people of color“ when you are talking about a specific group or groups.BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) - this term intentionally names Black and Indigenous folks who are disproportionately impacted by violence in the US, even more so than other people of color.If you are talking about a specific racial group, name the group you are talking about.

Tr*nny, f*g, or other slurs for LGBTQIA+ people

Transsexual (unless being used medically)

Hermaphrodite (when referring to a person)


Transgender people, trans and gender non-conforming folk

Queer (consider your audience, not everyone receives this word positively)


Many of these terms have historically and continue to be used in a hateful way against LGBTQIA+ folks. As with other in-group language, sometimes folks may refer to themselves with a word that someone outside of that group should not use. 



While grammatically correct, transgender without an -ed is used to avoid connotations that being transgender is something that is done to a person and to create distance from misconceptions that being trans requires a before/after, surgery, or other formal transition.

Long time no see

No can do

It's been a while!

Sorry, I can't.

These terms as well as other expressions using "broken" English originate from stereotypes making fun of non-native English speakers, particularly applied to Indigenous people and Asians. 

To get gypped

To get Jewed

 To get ripped off

To get haggled down

Gypped is derived from "gypsy," connected to the racial stereotype that Romani people are swindlers.

Similarly, Jewed is based on the stereotype that Jews are cheap and/or money hoarders.

Sold down the river


This expression refers to enslaved people who were sold as punishment, separating them from their families and loved ones.


Take something back; rescind a gift

The term Indian-giver is said to have roots in misunderstandings about trade customs in early relationships between Indigenous people in the Americas and white settlers. 

Language That Doesn't Say What We Mean

Language that doesn't say what we mean can often serve to avoid directly addressing what we really need to say. Using euphemisms, vagueness, and inaccurate words can get in the way of meaningful dialogue; PARC encourages you to be transparent around what you mean.

Instead of:
Suggested Alternatives
“Everything going on right now”Police brutality, protests, BLM, COVID-19, etc. Name what you are referring to!Being vague about important issues risks miscommunication and can also avoid accountability.
Committed suicide, failed/successful suicide, completed suicideDied by suicide; suicided; killed themselfThese verbs frame suicide as a crime (committed) or an achievement (fail, successful, completed), implying judgment about suicidality.

Child prostitute, sex with underage person

Non-consensual sex

Child who has been trafficked, rape



Sex with someone without their consent is rape; it is important to name this.
Abusive relationshipsRelationship with a person who is abusiveRelationships don’t perpetrate abuse; people do. It is important to name that someone is responsible.



Person who has experienced…

Person who has been impacted by…

These labels can make a person feel reduced to an experience. Person-first language is great here, unless the person identifies with either word. If they do, honor them by using that word!





Depending on who you mean:

Women, including trans women

Cisgender women, men

Assigned female/male at birth

These terms imply that a person’s identity isn’t “real” or that their body defines them in a different way than they might identify. 

"I'm going to kill myself" 

"I'm really upset." 

"I'm so overwhelmed"

Joking about suicide is very harmful and belittles the problem as well as people who may be seriously considering suicide or have in the past.


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