Image for Language Evolves, and Executives Should Evolve Their Language, Too

Language evolves and so should our use of it, especially evolutions signifying shifts in societal attitudes. Your reputation rests on your evolution.

Not every verbal evolution is noteworthy or praiseworthy, but those dealing with personal identity are worth adding to your vocabulary. They are more than just different words. They are words that carry different meaning and intention to the people who hear them or are affected by them.

“One of the most dynamic, exciting and, at times, challenging and confusing areas of language change has been on the words we use to describe other people’s identities,” says John Kelly, an editor with

Communicating with evolved language can produce positive results as well such as reduce conflict, increase optimism in others and portray yourself as credible and respectable.

Examples are ‘houseless’ rather than ‘homeless’, ‘sex worker’ for ‘prostitute’, ‘gay’ for ‘homosexual’ and ‘Latinx’ for ‘Latino’. ‘Behavioral health’ refers to mental illness and substance use disorder. In some cases, words have been replaced by letters – LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) and BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color). The differences are subtle, but significant. There is more than political correctness; the changes reflect evolved perspectives, evolving attitudes and a willingness to evolve.

Kelly’s larger point is that people reveal something about themselves by the words they use – or don’t use. He aims his advice at corporate and nonprofit executives who can’t hide from changing societal norms and the language reflecting those changes. “This doesn’t mean that everybody agrees,” Kelly says. “This doesn’t mean there isn’t conflict.” Conflict or not, the words of leaders paint a picture of who they are and what their organizations represent.

Using an evolved vocabulary reflects social consciousness and acknowledges a changing social landscape. Failure to use an evolved sensitivity can generate negative reactions. An illustration of the point comes from a 12-year-old Girl Scout’s letter to the editor:

“I would like to inform you of how offended and disappointed I am by the announcer of the Chesterland 4th of July parade’s comments about the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. The announcer labeled the Boy Scouts as ‘future leaders of America’ and he said the Girl Scouts were ‘just having fun.’ I found this comment very sexist and patronizing. I would appreciate it if you would help me let people know how much this kind of thing happens and how bad it is. I feel it is an insult to both girls and women of all ages. This kind of thing happens way too much, and it is not OK.”

Appreciating and adopting evolved language is a good way to avoid committing these unintentional, but unforgiving verbal blunders. Corporate and nonprofit executives bear a lot of responsibilities, but none is more important than protecting their respective brands and missions. Positive impressions can be undone instantly by ill-chosen words.

Communicating with evolved language can produce positive results as well such as reduce conflict, increase optimism in others and portray yourself as credible and respectable. “Language can play a big role in how we and others perceive the world, as well as what words and phrases can influence us,” according to linguists. Kelly’s point is that perceptions influence interactions, for good or not, by employees, colleagues and customers.

S. I. Hayakawa, a renowned semanticist and provocative US senator, put it a different way, “In the age of television, image becomes more important than substance.” However, in the age of social media, image has become substance. Your words are other people’s reality. Take care with what you say. Make sure your actions match your evolved vocabulary.