Why language use divides us — and how it can help close those gaps


These stories were produced for the Delaware Journalism Collaborative by Andrew Sharp and Risha Inaganti. Andrew has worked  as an editor and reporter for news outlets around the Delmarva Peninsula and is now based in Greenwood. Risha is a freelance reporter and a junior at the University of Delaware where she studies English and communication. The Delaware Journalism Collaborative is a partnership of local news and community organizations working to bridge divides statewide. Learn more at ljidelaware.org/collaborative.

By Andrew Sharp

The letter writer was very upset — not an unusual condition for those who are moved to write or email their local newspaper. In this case, the woman from Felton argued to the readers of the Delaware State News that “young, ‘woke’ members of our society (are) trying to redefine us.” 

Her objection was to changing the words we traditionally use about women to recognize transgender people and the more expansive view of gender these changes imply. Terms like “menstruating persons” or “birthing people,” used to express the idea that not all women have female reproductive organs, did not sit well with the writer, who held to the view that biological sex and one’s gender are the same thing. 

Her opinion did not sit well with everyone who read her letter, some of whom fired back with letters of their own calling her message bigoted or an overreaction. 


This little exchange of heated words is only one example of a much larger, and more common argument in the workplace and elsewhere over what the word “gender” means, and how we should describe it, a debate playing out on social media, cable news, and in exasperated discussions among co-workers neighbors about “those people” and what they’re trying to do. 


Other examples point to ever more extreme polarization, in which people identify with particular political identities that increasingly hew to particular ideological orthodoxies. Republicans say “illegal aliens,” while Democrats say “undocumented workers.” Republicans refer to “unborn babies,” while Democrats prefer “fetus.” And on it goes. 

Why do disputes about language evoke such deep passion, fear, and anger on opposite sides of the debate? And is there a way to wrestle with these issues that doesn’t drive communities ever further apart? 

Why a few syllables can become such a big deal

People aren’t really arguing over letters or syllables, of course. Language is about what we believe, what the world is like, and who we are. 

It’s about “really core issues of identity,” says Marissa Fond, a sociolinguist at Georgetown University, who studies this interplay between language and culture. The words we use deal with ideologies. “We’re also saying, ‘I’m like you,’ or ‘I am not like you,’ building those little groups and affinities.” 

This could be as simple as using acronyms that only another Georgetown University employee would recognize, or more complex signals like the way we pronounce words. (People also create this kind of group signal with fashion choices, she notes.) Everyone, Fond says, is an expert at using language. 

“There are those connections between certain words that we use and certain entire belief systems and affiliations with political or other groups that are really important, because meaning isn’t just like the meaning of a word in a dictionary … there’s that constantly dynamic social meaning,” Fond says.

Whatever the perspective in the debate over language and gender, there’s both an implicit or overt recognition: Language is powerful and important. 

And gender is also very important to a lot of people, so it touches a nerve. Fond notes the phenomenon of gender reveal parties (the trend of revealing a baby’s sex through displays of pink or blue balloons, cake, fireworks, or you name the ever more elaborate method). 

“We might not necessarily have a blood type reveal party,” she observes. 

Gender is “a powerful ideological structure. Gender is realized in different ways, all over the world, and at different points in time in our history gender has meant different things,” Fond says. “But gender is very front and center when it comes to how we live our lives.” 

What are people upset about?

One of the people who wrote to reply to the original letter is a law student in Boston. Jack Heavner, originally from the Dover area, still reads the local paper to keep up with news in his home community.

“I felt it crossed a line,” he said of the original letter. It “started to descend into just being transphobic.” 

Heavner sees the debate about trans people as being the same as past struggles over rights for women and people of color, and says it boils down to, “Is this group equal?” 

He’s frustrated with seeing the same kinds of struggles happening generation after generation, without people learning from the past.  

It’s a common worry of those who support the transgender movement — that those on the other side are discriminatory and hateful, treating transgender people unfairly, and causing them emotional harm by labeling them as outsiders or refusing to accept who they are. They also decry the bullying and physical harm that some transgender people face. 

The woman who wrote the original letter that started it all could not be reached for comment. 

Also opposing Heavner’s views is Magnolia resident Kim Petters, who did not write any of the letters, but who has closely followed the general debate and is vocal in her views on social issues. Petters is a former Republican candidate for the District 16 seat representing the area east of Dover. 

She fears how far those on the other side will go in what she sees as pushing their agenda. 

“It’s one of those issues where if you even give an inch, they’re going to take a mile,” she said. Petters is concerned that the transgender movement is trying to force people to accept an ideology, one she sees as false, and that parents could eventually face penalties if they don’t allow their children to transition. She mentioned worries about harm to children who may have operations they later regret, and concerns about transgender children having an unfair advantage in school sports. 

Language is always evolving

One thing you can count on about language is that it will change. Even the French, who take these things so seriously they set up the Academie Francaise hundreds of years ago to police their language, have been unable to prevent it from wandering. 

“It’s an important feature of language, in fact,” Fond said. “It’s not something to fear or to squash or to fight against, necessarily, because it’s so normal.” 

With gender, she cited the way “he” used to be the default pronoun for all of humanity, and the shifting ways we describe racial groups. 

A more innocuous example Fond mentioned is the response when someone says “Thank you.” Over time, more people have begun using terms like “no problem” instead of “you’re welcome,” which is increasingly seen as formal. If you’re a certain age, though, that usage might grate a little bit. 

The question, of course, is just how language will end up changing, and whether that change is good. 

“Change is often difficult, and especially when it comes to changes that might be at odds with the way that people understand the world and understand their lives,” Fond said. 

Heavner sees the dispute over transgender issues as generational in many cases, and said it will just take time. 

“Eventually you will meet someone, someone will come into your life that is a member of the given group. And you’ll sort of be forced to reconcile … your negative thoughts about that group with this person that you now theoretically want to like or love.”  

Petters, by contrast, says the transgender movement is a trend that she thinks will fade away. 

What is certain is that we’ll eventually find out, one way or the other. And that our language will continue to evolve as our culture changes. 

Are we doomed to bitter divisions? 

Timothy Shaffer

Is there a nice neat solution to all this? A way for us to sit down, hammer out a compromise that pleases everyone, and end with a rousing chorus of the Beatles’ “Imagine”? 

That seems unlikely, given the strength of convictions driving the opposing sides. 

In fact, that shouldn’t even be the goal, according to Timothy Shaffer, a researcher in the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware who studies civic engagement. 

“A big part of this, when we’re dealing with conflict, is it’s not synonymous with consensus. And I think in a lot of ways people have some hope or aspiration, some kind of pie in the sky that it is,” he says. 

In fact, civil discourse might include fighting. “Even if it’s uncomfortable … there are moments that we have to kind of get up and yell and shout. So this is where protests and civil disobedience, those sorts of things, come into play.” 

Instead of mere politeness, it’s about including everyone in the conversation, putting in the time needed to build relationships, and “not just shutting down the people [whom] we don’t like,” Shaffer says. The concept is of a “more robust sense of obligation, and duty to each other … our disagreements aren’t reasons to walk away.” 

How these discussions take place is a very important factor, Shaffer says. Often, groups like city councils or school boards will give people a microphone and three minutes to say their piece, but that’s not necessarily constructive. 

Instead, he believes we need to find decision-making formats that make people feel they have a voice, and let them do deliberate work to identify the challenges they face and move toward an informed decision. Not everyone will agree, but everyone can feel that they’ve been heard and been part of the process. 

One example is a forum where a wide range of ideas are presented on a whiteboard, and participants can place stickers next to their favorites. This quickly gives people a visual sense of which ideas the group favors, while allowing everyone to be heard. 

The power of building relationships

It wasn’t a discussion about terms for women, but it ran on similarly explosive lines: How should schools talk about gender? 

David Lapp was nervous about the conversation, hosted by the organization Braver Angels. The forum featured two opposing speakers, including the parent of a transgender child, and it also allowed audience participation. 

“This could easily devolve into something really just toxic and completely polarizing and a screaming match,” he said. “But it didn’t end up that way.” 

Braver Angels seeks to bridge divides like this, and Lapp, a co-founder of the group, said he was grateful that it ended up being a chance for people to wrestle with and try to understand a “very live issue” in a civil way. He also was surprised how people’s opinions didn’t seem to match their party politics. 

Lapp cited Braver Angels’ principles, which include that people should be able to speak freely and fully without fear, and engage with each other. 

“The idea is that really, everything is on the table for discussion. And in that discussion, we’re treating each other with dignity and respect.” 

Braver Angels takes what he calls a “fairly maximalist approach” to who can be included in these discussions. Their hope is that “we can build trust through talking with each other, and that through building trust we can have a collective search for truth and wisdom.” 

Danielle Archambault is cautious about how these kinds of conversations happen but also said they can be helpful in negotiating conflict. She is a member of Delaware State University’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Council, and helps train university staff on the careful use of language. “I think that language has power,” she says, and careless use of language can shame people. 

Of negotiating conflict, she observes, “The ideal part of me would say … let’s hash it out over coffee, and then hug at the end, that would be great. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily realistic at this point, in the context in which some folks find themselves because they are so heated.” 

That said, she touts the value of building relationships with people you disagree with. 

People may come across others who have different identities but not actually talk to them, she said. “So I think the more we can do to engage in conversations with folks that are different than us is really important.” 

She thinks smaller groups are better, where people can feel safe, with skilled moderators and expectations about how the conversation will go.  

“Can you have a tough conversation with 150 people? I don’t know,” Archembault says. But, she adds, “I think we have to be willing to start somewhere, and sometimes starting small is OK.” 

This can create understanding, if not agreement. “If we care about the same things, but we have different positions, that’s really important to understand,” the University of Delaware’s Shaffer says. 

Just how far can conversation take us? As Shaffer said, it can’t always build consensus. 

But, Lapp says, conversations can move people from shutting each other out to engaging in good faith. “That’s the work of building trust. … We’re going to have some differences remaining. But at least we can achieve an accurate understanding of what the differences are, and probably find some common ground along the way. Without that warmth of relationship, without that trust, we’re never going to have that happen.” 

Even those who seem miles apart ideologically and far from compromise can sound a hopeful note. 

The Republican Petters puts it this way: “If I were talking to another parent who had a child that they consider transgender, both me and that parent only want our children to feel safe and comfortable at school. We only want our children to feel accepted. We only want our children to be in good mental health, spiritual health, good social well-being. We, as parents, we all just love our children.” 

To have constructive conflict, she says, “What it takes is for people to put aside their ego and put aside their emotion, which it can be hard to do.” 

“I don’t necessarily think most people have great views on trans people,” Heavner, the opposing letter writer, says. “But I think that most people wouldn’t go so far as to say, ‘You’re not equal to me.’” He sees loud outliers as ruining things for the bulk of people who are able to put differences aside and work together, and continues, “I think that as people get tired of being angry all the time … I think that we’ll all collectively work through it.” 

He struggles, though, to think of ways to do that on this issue. 

“It’s hard.” 

Evolution of Queer language

By Risha Inaganti

Language is always evolving to keep pace with emerging cultural and social changes. As minority groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community, gain increased recognition, vocabulary expands with it.

These language changes – the addition of new terms or the expansion in definitions of old words – can cause confusion, along with mixed reactions. These differences, especially when they relate to core human values like gender identity, can contribute to cultural and political polarization.

“Respectful language should be the default,” Greyson Simon, founder of the Trans Language Primer, replied in an email to this reporter. “Everyone deserves basic human dignity and respect.”

Risha Inaganti

The Trans Language Primer is a project dedicated to tracking and explaining language used in and around the trans community. It currently has over 200 entries, as well as supplementary resources.

To understand the current LGBTQ+ language, it is important to know where this language originated from, as it did not always exist. 

‘Queer’ according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is today defined as “relating to, or characterized by, sexual or romantic attraction that is not limited to people of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation.” 

While queer has become a widespread and acceptable term in today’s language, it did not always serve that purpose.

Originally used in 1894, the term ‘snob queer’ entered the language as part of a court letter to refer to Victorian author Oscar Wilde, who was on trial for having relations with other men. The word came to be associated with a derogatory meaning and by 1914 was considered to be a slur against homosexual individuals.

In the 1990s organization Queer Nation used the rallying cry, “We’re here we’re queer, get used to it!” By the end of the decade, community members had begun to reclaim the word queer, using it for activism and as an umbrella term for identity and sexuality.

While queer is now seen as an inclusive, all-encompassing word for the LGBTQ+ community, its use is still deeply connected to homophobia for some. 

Similarly, most other community terms first came to be known through written usage. While they were often used in a condescending way, the purpose of their creation was simply to give an aspect of society a name.

In 1965, John Oliven created the word ‘transgender’ in his book Sexual Hygiene and Pathology, to define a person who identifies with a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth.

While transgender individuals were not as accepted then, there has since been a drastic increase in those who openly identify as a different gender than they were born with. According to research done by the Williams Institute at UCLA, there are currently 1.6 million people over 13-years-old who identify as transgender in the United States alone.

Simon explained how some neutral terminology is already considered standard for a lot of English speakers, mentioning a phenomenon called “gender neutral they,” which is used when someone is unsure of another’s gender. They used the example sentence of “someone left their umbrella on the bus” as an example of the “gender neutral they.”

“It’s less about catering to the wide diversity of gender and more about removing the fences we’ve built into our daily lives based on this false perception of gender dichotomy,” Simon wrote.

Historic examples demonstrate the evolution of language and the inherent creation of new vocabulary.

While some have expressed distress over the changing norms, Simon argued how the notion of new language is essential in order to remedy historic wrongdoings, mentioning that while it is not perfect now, it is, and always will be, a work in progress.

 “We’re always going to be exploring what gender means for individuals and what words we can use to describe it in ways that make sense to us,” Simon wrote.