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Feminist, Bae, Turnt: Time’s ‘Worst Words’ List Is Sexist and Racist

Time’s yearly list of words that should be banned not only puts ‘feminist’ up for a vote but also disproportionately targets words used by people of color.

11.13.14 10:45 AM ET

Celebrities demurring from the label of “feminist” is annoying in and of itself, especially because gender inequality remains an especially stubborn problem in Hollywood, where barely 30 percent of speaking roles go to women. But it would seem that a large percentage of Time readers are so annoyed with celebrities being asked about feminism, that they’d rather banish the word “feminist” altogether instead.

With over 40 percent of votes cast so far, the word “feminist” is leading Time’s fourth annual “word banishment poll,” in which columnist Katy Steinmetz asks readers to declare their intent to permanently strike a single word or phrase from the English language. Other notable candidates include “bae,” “om nom nom nom,” “turnt,” and “basic.” The only word truly deserving of banishment—“disrupt,” a widely hated Silicon Valley buzzword—is currently the least popular response.

So what has “feminist” done to deserve its spot at the top of the pack? Steinmetz provides the following potential justification for the inclusion of “feminist” on the Time list: “You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party?” Or, put differently: Won’t somebody think of those poor, put-upon millionaires, constantly beset with questions about one of the most pressing and persistent social issues of our time? 

And because this poll takes place on the Internet, you can bet that plenty of respondents actually do have something against feminism itself. Anna Merlan at Jezebel has been keeping an eye on 4Chan and other message boards frequented by young men where users have been coordinating their efforts to vote “feminist” to the top of the list. “Let’s trigger some bitches,” one 4Chan user declared, linking to the poll.

With better curation, Time’s annual word-banishment polls could function as harmless communal exercises in which we collectively laugh at words or phrases that are past their prime. But after four years of these polls, a worrying trend is starting to emerge, one that runs far deeper than this year’s misguided inclusion of the F-word: The polls inordinately target slang and vernacular used by people of color and young white women.

The first poll, for example, nominated “baby bump” and “sexting.” The second upped the ante, taking aim at “cray,” “jelly,” “literally,” “teehee,” and “totes.” The third continued in kind with “selfie,” “swagger,” and “twerk.” And this latest poll is almost entirely comprised of words that fall into those categories: “bae,” “yaaasssss,” “turnt,” “basic,” “literally,” “sorry not sorry,” “obvi,” “I can’t even,” and “said no one ever” all made the cut.

Only a third of the nominees on the list target groups outside of people of color and white women. “Bossy” is a nod to banbossy.com, a social-media campaign that called attention to the ways in which that particularly loaded adjective is used to police the assertiveness of women and girls. “Kale” shakes a stick at America’s current health food craze while “influencer” and “disrupt” take aim at the world of business jargon. And “om nom nom nom” is more of a dig at Cookie Monster and Instagram foodies than it is at anyone else.

But these entries feel increasingly out of place on a list that has become notorious for targeting some very specific groups of people. As Susana Polo wrote for The Mary Sue, it’s “time to get out your Language Curmudgeon Bingo Cards, and mark off the squares for ‘slang associated with African-American culture’ [and] ‘words used by young, Internet-savvy women.” And there’s no denying that a lot of Time’s most despised words come from people of color.

“Bae,” for example, is a term of endearment that is either short for “baby” or an acronym for “before anyone else.” The term has appeared in rap songs since at least 2005 before skyrocketing into the popular consciousness this year on the back of a Pharrell and Miley Cyrus music video. Nicki Minaj popularized “yaaasssss” with her song “Yasss Bish” and she claims the pronunciation has roots in drag-queen culture. “Turnt,” a word that refers to a heightened (and often drunken) state of excitement, also has roots in rap: Lupe Fiasco, Soulja Boy, and Chris Brown all used the term before Miley Cyrus glommed on to it last year. “Basic” has launched a flurry of think pieces as of late but the term initially gained traction in hip-hop music and a comedy routine by John A. Baker, Jr. before Kreayshawn brought it to white people with the song “Gucci Gucci” three years ago: “Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada / Basic bitches wear that shit so I don’t even bother.”

The only silver lining of Time’s poll, perhaps, is that it inadvertently reveals just how influential the rap and hip-hop communities are in terms of generating linguistic change. American popular culture relies on people of color to produce the words that give personality to music, comedy, and everyday speech. And at this point, the process of appropriation moves like clockwork: Soulja Boy uses the word “turnt” and a few years later, white people on SNL are starring in a parody commercial called “Cialis Turnt.”

What parodies like “Cialis Turnt” reveal, too, is that white Americans often turn on the slang they appropriate, deeming it déclassé or trite after a brief period of infatuation-fueled overuse. This process has already run its course, for example, with a word like “swagger,” which lost all meaning when it got to Justin Bieber. But several of these words and phrases do manage to secure an enduring place in the English language. As one blogger points out, the same Time that’s now targeting black slang for elimination from the English language once found the now-ubiquitous expression “nitty-gritty” to be quaint and provincial when they first heard it at a civil-rights rally.

The dramatic popularization of a phrase like “nitty-gritty” demonstrates that language is always changing across social contexts. Like literally always changing. In fact, the colloquial use of the word “literally”—also one of Time’s 2014 nominees—sits proudly in the Oxford English Dictionary, much to the consternation of anal-retentive prescriptivists on both sides of the Atlantic. People who police language use are trying to stop a process as longstanding as it is natural but they do prove an important point: Perhaps the only phenomenon as constant as linguistic change is the attempt to police the way people use language by using “correctness” as a cover for more subtle prejudices.

And, indeed, while white people routinely experiment with slang borrowed from hip-hop and rap, people of color are constantly policed for not speaking “proper English,” an “ideal” version of our language that maintains its social standing due to the devaluation of other, legitimate variations like African American Vernacular English (AAVE). “Ebonics” may no longer be a socially acceptable punchline for a joke but the Time word-banishment polls reveal that little has changed in terms of white culture’s underlying attitude toward vernacular used by people of color, namely that it is only acceptable so long as it is entertaining.

Time’s targeting of words like “basic” and “bae” may be borne of their overuse among the white people who appropriated the terms, but reacting to this overuse by nominating the terms themselves for expulsion from the English language, however playfully done, feels uncomfortably close to policing language used by people of color. The Time poll probably shouldn’t include the word “feminist” on a word-banishment poll until the wage gap closes and violence against women stops entirely, but the poll’s contempt for language with origins in hip-hop and rap should not pass unnoticed, either.

Or, even better, maybe we can literally just sit back and let language do what it does best: change.