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Coded Language: Say What You Really Mean

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Language is powerful and carries important meaning. Language is a primary way we communicate and convey messages and concepts, and shapes how we view and interpret the world. The words and terms we use reflect deeper cultural and societal meanings and values. Language can be easily misconstrued, so the words we choose are not only critical, but also say a lot about us and our intentions.

Language also contains hidden messages, which can be concealed or repackaged for an ulterior motive, often political and to main power and oppressive structures. Power is upheld through language by othering (e.g. “Ethnic”), lumping large groups of people into one group (e.g. “Inner city”), and by conveying that a group of people is less than human, strange and unusual, and not “normal.” (e.g. “Illegal alien”).

Coded language is so embedded in our vocabulary, and used by “experts,” politicians, and the media, that these words are hardly ever questioned because they’re seen as the norm, which is exactly how people in power want them to be. These coded messages require us to dig deeper to uncover the true meaning. By choosing words with intention – and we do in fact have a choice – we have the power to make informed choices, change perceptions, and promote inclusion.

Being explicit clarifies who you’re talking about, shows that you’ve done your research and know the data, and makes you more competent. Coded language is ambiguous, and also has implications for your bottom line. For instance, if you’re a healthcare professional who wants to do a better job of providing culturally responsive services, it’s critical that you know exactly who you’re working with. Language is constantly changing and evolving, so we need to constantly be learning, and changing our language to accurately reflect and respect the current realities and experiences of marginalized groups.

Below are some common terms used, their deeper meanings, and words to use instead. (This is not an exhaustive list by any means). What other coded words and terms can you think of?

Inspired by NACCHO’s Roots of Health Inequity “How Language Choices Affect Meaning.”

Coded Words                                   Deeper Meaning                                         Alternatives

Urban/Inner City Code for people of color, usually Black people. State explicitly who you’re talking about (e.g. People of color, low-income people, etc.)
Ethnic Others and exotifies people of color; A way of upholding systems of oppression; Anyone or anything that is different from white, mainstream culture. Implies that white is the standard. In reality, all people have an ethnicity (which is not the same as race or nationality). State explicitly what/who you’re talking about (e.g. People of color; Instead of saying, “ethnic food,” be specific: “Thai food, French food”).
Gays / The Gays Not a monolithic group, Not inclusive of the entire LGBTQ community; “The gays” is othering and dehumanizing. Be explicit about who you’re talking about (e.g. Bisexual women, transgender men, etc.); Never use “The” before any group of people.
At-Risk/Risky Behavior Person/group is naturally prone to negative behaviors and outcomes. Something is inherently flawed/dangerous about this person or group of people. Causes of risky behavior/environments
Illegal/Illegal Alien No human is illegal, or an alien. Period. Term used to incite fear of immigrants and refugees. People of color are not welcome here. Dehumanizing and criminalizing. Undocumented immigrants
Targeted Populations Violent and militaristic Priority Communities
Diversity Often a code word for people of color; When we don’t want to talk about race. Diversity means variety.


Be explicit about who you’re talking about. If your company wants to hire, retain, and promote more people of color, say that, and also think about why, and how new hires will feel welcome.


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