New Language

Listen to this.

Excerpted from the book Astrology Is Real

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As a writer who grasps the power of language to shape our experience, I am in favor of questioning words and phrases that might be hurtful and demeaning to some people. I aspire to keep evolving my usage.

For instance, I no longer employ the words “pioneer” and “pioneering,” because they are associated with colonialism, with the theft of Indigenous people’s land and the destruction of their cultures. Instead, I may call on words like “groundbreaking” or “innovative.”

Since I decided to become a professional writer many years ago, my intention has always been to invoke idioms sparingly. In recent years, I’ve put a special emphasis on avoiding those that suggest or imply violence: “blown away,” “killer smile,” “take a stab at it,” “jumped the gun,” “bite the bullet,” “locked and loaded,” and “twist your arm.”

Another personal project is to wean myself from gendered language—words that have a bias towards a particular sex or conventionally understood gender. That includes “actress,” “statesman,” and “heroine.” There are many others. I’m always on the lookout.

And what about deploying “they” as a singular pronoun? Yes, please. Every dictionary I know of asserts it’s now official. I’m not sure why there was ever any controversy. The singular “they” has been in play since at least 1375. Among the eminent authors who have used it were Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and W. H. Auden.


There are many lists online that discuss terms we should consider avoiding. I question some of their recommendations. “Spirit animal” is one.

I’ve encountered people who insist this usage is a cultural appropriation of a Native American concept. In my view, such an argument is tenuous. In fact, many cultures in every part of the world in every historical era have posited otherworldly animals that serve as guides and helpers.

For instance, some of my Polish ancestors regarded the cuckoo as being associated with Zywie, the goddess of health, healing, and longevity. She was even thought to periodically transform herself into a cuckoo. That’s why my people sought to divine future events as they might be revealed in the birds’ calls and behavior.

Some of my Polish forbears also consorted with płanetnicy, “shepherds of the clouds.” These spirit creatures had the power to manipulate the weather. If my people maintained good relationships with them, the płanetnicy would bestow favors in the form of good weather and, when necessary, rains to nourish the crops.

My Polish relatives didn’t use the term “spirit animals” to refer to their supernatural benefactors, of course, since they spoke Polish. Similarly, Indigenous people in the Americas use the terms of their own language to refer to such creature allies. “Spirit animal” is an English term.

Nonetheless, to honor the wishes of those Indigenous people who regard “spirit animal” as insulting, I instead employ terms like “power creature,” “medicine animal,” “medicine creature,” “spirit creature,” and others.

I feel fine coming up with new ways to say things. Indeed, it’s the writer’s job to be innovative with language. Since there’s virtually an inexhaustible array of expressions to call on, why would I ever choose one that I knew was hurtful or offensive?


One guide I find useful is published by Brandeis University. It offers this definition: “Identity-based oppressive language includes a range of words and phrases including potentially lesser-known slurs, unhelpful euphemisms, and exclusionary words and phrases. The appropriateness of some identity-based language varies between insiders and outsiders of a group.”


One reader told me she doesn’t like the recommendations of these language lists. She complained that she is fatigued by the effort of having to censor herself.

Here’s how I replied: I don’t regard it as censorship. People who use language consciously are eagerly alert for the opportunity to evolve the way language is used. They enjoy transcending numbing idioms and worn-out figures of speech so as to stimulate fresh thoughts with an invigorating use of words.

Why should we be attached to using terms that are boring, inexact, and excuses for lazy thinking?


Poets and imaginative writers and other expressive people coin new words all the time, in every language. They help us outgrow outmoded ways of thinking and feeling.

One of my favorite sources for the ever-evolving reinvention of the English language is


“Crazy” appears as a taboo word on the Brandeis list. The description of its problematic use reads, “Ableist language can contribute to stigmas about and trivialize the experiences of people living with disabilities, mental health conditions, and more.”

For me personally, “crazy” has always been a positive word. “Crazy wisdom” is one of my lifelong studies. The concepts of crazy wisdom and divine madness have appeared for centuries in many spiritual traditions, including Hinduism, Sufism, Christianity, Buddhism, and shamanism.

In the book Western Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia, Sandra Bell writes that “crazy wisdom” is a translation of the Tibetan word drubnyon, which “traditionally combines exceptional insight and impressive magical power with a flamboyant disregard for conventional behavior.”

Many people who enjoy my work have used “crazy” and “crazy wisdom” as complimentary terms to refer to the unconventional inspiration I have provided them. I welcome that designation.

Nevertheless! I will consider dropping “crazy” from my vocabulary, since it may be offensive to some people in ways that it’s not for me.

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