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Words Matter

audthecodewitch profile image Audrea Cook Originally published at codewitch.dev on ・4 min read

Earlier this week, GitHub announced they are working on changing their default branch name from master to main to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This sparked a bit of a Twitter storm, with arguments both for and against this change.

As a white, cis-gendered woman of middle-class, I haven’t felt like I had much to personally contribute to the Black Lives Matter discussion. Instead, I’ve used my platform to amplify the voices of others – to share with, support, and encourage those who fight for an end to the systemic racism in our country.

But now we’re talking about words. On this, I have something to say (and a degree to back it up).

My Path

I grew up in a small community of mostly-white, mostly-middle-class, country folk. I was taught to never say the N-word, but I heard it every now and again. But other words were deemed perfectly acceptable. I am ashamed to say that “gay” and “retarded,” both used in a derogatory sense, were a regular part of my lexicon. They were just the words everyone used (remember this for later).

When I was in college, my brother, Adam, came out as a proud gay man. Shortly thereafter, my sister-in-law, Kyal, came out as a lesbian. Suddenly, I cared very much when someone described something negatively as “gay.” Two of the most beautiful, hilarious, and kind people in my universe are gay. There isn’t a single negative thing to be said about either of them, and I’ll have words with anyone who would like to say otherwise.

The term “gay,” as I had used it growing up, directly hurt people I cared about. So I stopped using it.

Seven years ago, a princess was born. Her name is Haylie Sophia Grace, she is my niece, and she just happens to have Down Syndrome. Soon after her birth, her mom shared a post that read, “Spread the word to end the word.” That was the first time I truly connected the dots that a word I used all my life could be used to describe this precious baby. I was appalled. Over the years, Haylie has grown into one of the most expressive (and bossy) children I know, and I love her to bits. Not for a millisecond has the R-word applied to that intelligent, loving, and feisty little girl.

The R-word directly hurt people I cared about. So I stopped using it.

The words “master/slave, blacklist/whitelist, black hat/white hat” are directly hurting people in our tech community. I care about them, so I stopped using the words. It really is that simple.

An Argument

Unfortunately, there are those who say it is, in fact, not that simple. These technological terms have always been used this way. Obviously, they aren’t about race; they are just the words we use.

A Rebuttal

Excuse me while I retrieve my eyeballs. They rolled so far back they got stuck behind my brain for a second.


Liz Lemon Eye Roll

I’ve got news for you. As I’ve personally proven, we can change our vocabulary. It takes a little conscious effort, at first, but it can be done. And it isn’t even that hard.

From a historical standpoint, it is perfectly logical that we would adopt new terminology. Language scholars will readily tell you that English, like all languages, is constantly evolving, primarily through changes in grammar, syntax, and – wait for it – vocabulary.

Words that were acceptable in the past are now some of our favorite swear words (NSFW - read “Swear Word History” by Kate Wiles). Others have been completely forgotten, such as the Middle English (think Canterbury Tales) word “clepped,” which means “called.” Don’t even get me started on Old English (think Beowulf). Just try to read Psalm 1 and tell me we haven’t changed a thing or two over the years.

While some of these changes can be attributed to a specific reason, many just simply changed. If we can stop using “clepped” and start using “called” just because surely we can change our vocabulary for an actual reason (Hint: the reason is our words are HURTING people in our community).

History proves words everyone used don’t have to stick around. Just because we once used these terms, doesn’t mean we need to continue to, especially when there are substitutes at the ready. It’s time to evolve.

How to Change Your GitHub Branches

So let’s start small by changing our primary GitHub branches from master to main. Unfortunately, I do not know of an automated way to do this, so you will need to go through these steps for each of your repositories. I will be doing this myself over the coming days.

In your terminal:

$ git branch -master main
$ git push -u origin main

In your GitHub repository:

Click the Settings tab. On the side menu, click Branches. Select main from the dropdown. Click Update , confirm the change, and you’re done!

How to set your default GitHub branch

A Final Thought

In addition to ridding your technical projects of these insensitive terms, I would like to encourage you to consider what other words, currently present in your lexicon, might have an unintended effect on the people around you. The entry on Writing Inclusive Documentation in the Google Developer Documentation Style Guide is a great starting point if you need some ideas.

The bottom line is this: if we can adapt our vocabulary to make even one person feel heard and respected, why shouldn’t we?

Discussion

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savagepixie profile image
SavagePixie

Thanks for sharing your story. Let me start by saying that I completely agree that words can be used and are used to hurt people. It is also true that languages evolve and change constantly.

That being said, I don't think your rebuttal really works. Just because a word can be changed, it doesn't mean in should be changed.

The examples from your personal are very good examples of derogatory terms that we should stop using. But in essence they are different than the master branch issue. When one uses the term "retarded" in a derogatory manner, one does so meaning "mentally challenged". The problem is that there are people with real challenges who shouldn't be disrespected because of that.

On the other hand, when one talks about the "master branch", one does not mean "slave-owning branch" but rather "the branch from which production ready code will be created". So whereas "retarded" as a derogatory term is related to what the word means when it refers to people whose brain works differently, "master" as a branch is not related to racism. So the analogy doesn't really hold here.

One might ask, what then, are we to completely remove the word "master" from the English language? Which, granted, you could make that argument. I don't think anyone is making it (at least not yet). But the point here is: if master as a technical IT term bears no semantic relation to racism, why should we change this one and not other uses of the word that don't bear any semantic relation to racism? (such as "master of arts")

I think that this is a very weak point of the argument for the change and one of the reasons people are pushing back against it. It is inconsistent in how it regards the word "master".