The Problem of Lexical Replacement

by Shel R, Originally published in The Omen in November 2014

Let’s talk about Lexical Replacement in the context of social justice. This article is for everyone, not just linguists or social justice educators, because lexical replacement is definitely a thing that you do and reading this article should help you become conscious of when you’re doing it and when it’s problematic.

What is Lexical Replacement?

Lexical Replacement is when someone replaces the lexical form of a word while retaining the same function. An example being when someone learns that saying “The Web” will make them sound silly and out of touch, so they simply replace all instances of “The Web” in their speech with “The Internet” while still saying the same thing.

What are lexical form and function?

There are many ways to say the same thing. Each way carries its own nuances and associations. “The Web” and “The Internet” are two different forms with their own associations and nuances, but they accomplish the same function in a sentence, that is, to refer to the same interconnected web of computer servers. “Clifford The Big Red Dog” as a lexical item has both a different form and a different function from “The Internet”. That is, it is referring to the children’s cartoon character who is a large red dog, not the interconnected web of computers. Depending on the context, I could also be referring to the name of the television show which stars the character Clifford, this would be an instance of the same form, fulfilling a different function. It’s not just words which have various forms and functions, this also applies to sentences, paragraphs, speech acts, etc.

Lexical Replacement In the Context of Social Justice

Often times when someone is called out on saying something problematic, they assume that the problem was not the function of their sentence but the form of the words they used. “I couldn’t have said anything harmful,” they think, “it must just be that there’s another preferred way of saying it.” Sometimes this is true. For instance, if you said “Hampshire doesn’t have as many colored people as UMass” you might be corrected and told that the preferred form is “people of color” rather than “colored people”, because of the history, nuances, connotations, and associations with the different forms. But the function of saying that UMass is more racially diverse than Hampshire isn’t problematic, it’s just how it was said that carried different associations. Other times, however, this is not the case, and someone will just use more nuanced words to fulfill the same problematic function.

Let’s run through a scenario. Someone says “I saw a really cute boy in a dress the other day.” Someone else asks “do you know this person?” and the original speaker says that no, this person is a stranger. The original speaker is told that what they said is problematic, because the person they saw wasn’t necessarily a boy and so the original speaker may have been misgendering a stranger. This isn’t the biggest crime but it’s easy enough to correct and makes a big difference.

The original speaker, rather than hearing that the function of assuming the genders of strangers from how they look is problematic, instead replaces all instances of “boy” and “man” in their lexicon with “male-bodied” or some other term. They have changed out the form but not the function, and what they’re saying is still problematic for all the same reasons. They learned that they said something problematic but not that they did something problematic.

A major motivation behind why people do lexical replacement in these contexts is because it allows them to avoid questioning their worldview and the ways that their live their lives from day to day. Cis people are often dying to learn what language they can use that will allow them to continue assuming the genders of strangers based on how they look and forcing them back into the cissexist dyadic categories that they’re used to; without trans people calling them transphobic and cissexist for doing it. Of course there is no form that they can use to get around it. The only way for them to not be cissexist and transphobic in this context is if they don’t assume the genders of strangers, ask strangers for pronouns before referring to them with gendered pronouns, and don’t try to sort everyone they see into one of two categories.

This of course applies to every other social justice context. When you’re called out, try not to think about what you said but what you did. When you’re calling someone out, try to direct attention to actions rather than words. Be conscious of lexical replacement and try to make sure you’re actually thinking about how systems of oppression are pervasive parts of our culture, rather than just reducing things to different lexical forms. And don’t get caught in the trap of saying the same offensive and harmful things as you would before, just in ridiculously complicated and obtuse ways. It’s okay to say man and woman; and black and white, just say them in sentences wherein the function isn’t perpetuating oppressive systems.