What’s in a word?

Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has teamed up with the Girls Scouts USA to start a campaign that calls for a ban on the use of the word bossy in everyday language. Sandberg suggests that referring to girls as “bossy” can limit their full leadership potential.  The website of Sandberg’s non-profit organization LeanIn.Org states,

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded bossy. Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead. Pledge to Ban Bossy”. 

Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” initiative has recruited an ensemble of spokeswomen, including Condoleezza Rice, Diane von Furstenberg, Jennifer Garner, Jane Lynch, and perhaps most notably megastar Beyoncé.

The Ban Bossy project highlights how a word can come to signify particular social and cultural dynamics.  While I do understand the goals driving this initiative it makes me uneasy when a group advocates for the banning of words no matter how well intentioned their motivations might be. Words carry with them a history, at times a history of injustice and painful disparities, but an awareness of history is critical if we hope to effect systemic change.  Perhaps, an alternative to “banning” is reclaiming words in an attempt to shift the negative connotations associated with a particular word. 


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