Policy corner: 'Lame-duck session' and other terms we try to avoid

The 102nd General Assembly of Illinois wrapped up some final legislation in January, in a session lasting a little more than a week, including to enact a ban on the sale of high-powered weapons and to add protections to abortion and gender-affirming care in the state.

That session, coming after the election of state lawmakers last November but before lawmakers' new terms began (the 103rd General Assembly), was often called the "lame-duck session."

It's a term we try to avoid publishing, because of the word "lame," often used negatively about a person with a disability. We in most cases used phrases like "in a session before their terms ended."

It's an example of how we're mindful of terms that have been used to insult or dismiss people. Almost always there are alternatives that convey the meanings in harmless ways.

Some are more obvious than others. We for the most part are adopting gender-neutral terms. Chairmen of the board often are women, of course, so now we call them the chair of the board. We've long said "police officers" vs. "policemen."

We don't like to say a person "committed suicide," as if it's a crime, instead saying "died by suicide" or even "took his own life."

Other terms are more subtly a problem. Saying something like "you're crazy to think that" can be insulting to someone who struggles with mental health. Would you say "it fell on deaf ears" to someone who actually is hard of hearing (and who is capable of considering what others say)? You can say, "It did not get a response." What about "turn a blind eye"? You could say "ignored" or "did not do anything about" a problem.

Yet other terms are still commonly used even though they have pejorative origins or at least perceptions. Did you know the verb "grandfather," meaning to let someone or something continue even though it's against a new law or otherwise breaks a rule, has its origin in efforts to keep Black people from voting shortly after the end of slavery? And the term "master bedroom" is falling out of favor in the real estate industry because of what some call racist or sexist undertones; "primary bedroom" is a common alternative.

More examples abound, and writers and editors here are paying attention as best we can.

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