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‘American’ is a harmful term, says Stanford University initiative

Naturalization ceremony in St. Louis, Mo. on July 2, 2020. (U.S. District Court, Eastern MO/Released)
December 21, 2022

“American” is a potentially offensive term that should be replaced with “U.S. citizen,” according to a Stanford University guide to harmful language in the Information Technology (IT) community.

Because there are dozens of countries in North and South America, the term “U.S. citizen” is preferable to the “imprecise” term of “American,” the guide said.

The private research university made that language recommendation in a broader Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative launched that it began in May as part of “multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT at Stanford.”

The EHLI guide was developed among Stanford’s information technology community to help people “recognize and address potentially harmful language they may be using,” according to the university.

The initiative’s website appears to have gone offline after going viral on the folloeing a Tuesday Wall Street Journal op-ed highlighted the new language guide. But according to the Journal, the guide also warned people away from saying “master,” because it implies slavery; and said “immigrant” is less preferable to the phrase “person who has immigrated.” 

Other frowned-upon words include “abort,” which the guide advises to replace “cancel,” and “child prostitute,” because it implies consent, while “child who has been trafficked” doesn’t.

The university has issued a statement clarifying the intent behind the guide, and saying the IT community “will be reviewing it thoroughly and making adjustments.”

In the statement, Stanford Chief Information Officer Steve Gallagher said the website “does not represent university policy” and only provides “suggested alternatives” for certain terms. He also said the reaction to the guide has been noted – particularly regarding the “don’t say American” part.

“To be very clear, not only is the use of the term ‘American’ not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed,” the statement reads. “The intent of this particular entry on the EHLI website was to provide perspective on how the term may be imprecise in some specific uses, and to show that in some cases the alternate term ‘US citizen’ may be more precise and appropriate. But, we clearly missed the mark in this presentation.”