Everyday Phrases Can Offend, State Department Warns

Friday, 31 Aug 2012 09:44 PM

By Todd Beamon

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Be careful what you say – at least, according to the U.S. State Department.

Common phrases such as “hold down the fort” – even “handicap” – potentially can be offensive, wrote Chief Diversity Officer John Robinson in the latest issue of State Magazine.

In a column, Robinson, the director of the Office of Civil Rights who advises Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on diversity issues, explained how some common phrases evolved from racially or culturally insensitive situations.

“Choose your words thoughtfully,” he cautioned.

For instance, “hold down the fort” potentially is an insulting reference to American Indians, Robinson wrote.

"To ‘hold down the fort’ originally meant to watch and protect against the vicious Native American intruders,” he said. “In the territories of the West, Army soldiers or settlers saw the ‘fort’ as their refuge from their perceived ‘enemy,’ the stereotypical ‘savage’ Native American tribes."

Regarding “handicap,” Robinson explained that some disability advocates “believe this term is rooted in a correlation between a disabled individual and a beggar, who had to beg with a cap in his or her hand because of the inability to maintain employment.”

Other phrases he cited were “going dutch” and “rule of thumb.”

“Now that you know the possible historical context of the above phrases, perhaps you will understand why someone could be offended by their use,” Robinson concluded. “Let us agree that language will continue to evolve with continually improving consciousness and respect for others.”

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