Minding my language: trying to make WordPress more inclusive

With everything going in the world right now our use of language has come into sharper focus. Words matter.

And as a contributor to WordPress, a platform that runs over 35% of the internet, I’ve been turning my eye towards the language it uses. On screens and in code.

I mentioned a while ago how I introduced a change into WordPress 5.4 so that it no longer refers to “blacklists”. To me, the use of black and white to indicate the concepts of good and bad things is a clear, and unarguable, problem. I’m happy to see that this is now being taken further by the community and they are now changing the same word in the underlying code and comments.

At WordPress VIP we are going through something similar and are already working through our documentation, both internal and public-facing to remove problematic words or expressions.

You git. You nonce.

And in recent weeks there has been further, wider discussion about Git’s use of the word “master”, the origin of its use, in this case, can be traced back a master/slave relationship (and, to note, there are legitimate ways that the word can be used, so context of use is always important).

Personally, I’ve now switched all my own Github repos to use “main” (and, when doing this, I realised that I was being inconsistent with my development repo names as well, so took the opportunity to sort that out too).

But, as has been pointed out, the word “git” itself is problematic in British English. Not that I suspect it’s going to change its name because the word is very mildly offensive in my own country. In this case, it’s a slang word for an incompetent person.

Possibly worse is “nonce”, used throughout WordPress, including on error messages output to the user. Nonce, again in British English, is a sexual offender, usually relating to offences against children. It’s not a nice term. It’s not a new word either, so was around a long time before WordPress used it.

I’ve raised this for discussion with the community, but it’s not getting much traction. The arguments seem to be around the fact that the word is used in globals but, this is the same for blacklist and solutions have been proposed for that, so I have some power to push back on that. I suspect there’s also the issue that this is a pretty specific issue for one country.

Tavern Talk

In fact, the discussion around Git has prompted the WordPress community to question changing the WordPress-related repos away from “master” as well. This lead to a WP Tavern article, which I initially skimmed through.

I was horrified by many of the comments along the lines of “haven’t they got better things to be doing”, etc. So, early last Saturday, I felt the need to reply to many of them.

It was only later that I read the entire article and noticed this at the bottom…

This would not be the first time that WordPress has made a move to change terminology such as this. David Artiss, a Support Engineer at Automattic, created a ticket seven months ago to rename “comment blacklist” to “comment blocklist.” The change, which replaced only the user-facing text, went largely unnoticed and landed in WordPress 5.4.

WordPress Tavern

Huh. It was a nice surprise to get the mention. I kicked things off, yes, but it was pretty minor. It only appeared to be after this article, though, that the additional changes to the underlying code got started, so it looks as if this may have been the catalyst.

At this point, though, I was feeling pretty uneasy about my flurry of replies to the article and Tweeted about it. The author of the article, Justin, replied…

That was good to hear. Anyway, I still walked away. I’d made my points and wasn’t interested in arguing any further. I’ve not read the comments on Tavern since.

Comments disabled

After I’d finished with my own repos, I turned my attention to looking for more problematic language across my codebase. There isn’t really a list anywhere of what to look for, so I had to improvise. I created a list, although I know many were words I’d never use, and then did a thorough search for them.

To give you an idea of what they turned up, I’d written a comment in a changelog of “I’m a slave to Google”. I’ve already marked that to be updated.

I also learnt that “housekeeping” (and variations of) is highly gender-specific. When you think of someone who does that role you never think of men, hence it has a gender leaning to it. I use the word a lot in one of my plugins and, so, am already changing it to alternatives such as “clean” or “tidy”.

This led me to wondering if the word “disabled” (to mean to switch something off) could be problematic. By equating “disabled” to that meaning what do we then say about people who are labelled in the same way? I reached out to Mik Scarlett on Twitter, who is an inclusion expert…

He then went on to explain, however, that if, contextually, a different word could be used, maybe it should be better, for clarity. In other words, if you’re using the word “disabled” to mean to “switch off”, why not say that – the meaning is clearer.

So, I looked for it across my plugins but also wondered about its use in WordPress core. And, it turns out, it’s used quite a bit. I dug deeper, particularly where it’s used on screen, for the end user. And I found an issue. But not with inclusivity but, as it turns out, some really confusing usage.

Here’s the deal… you’re running a WordPress multi-site and you want to remove one of your sub-sites. Everything on screen talks about deleting your site. Then, when you select a site to delete it shows a confirmation message…

I’m sure I want to permanently disable my site, and I am aware I can never get it back or use [it] again.

Why is it now using the word “disabled”? To me, that doesn’t even necessarily suggest the same thing. Deletion suggests something more permanent. I opened a Trac ticket and it’s already fixed and in WordPress 5.5.

In conclusion

Finding better ways to say thing is not difficult. In fact, it’s a great way of reviewing rather lazy writing. If you have a choice between 5 ways to say something and one may be insulting, why would not choose one of the others?

As a straight, white western male, I know the position of privilege that I have. Anything I can do to change that – to make the world more equal for everyone – I will. Expect to see more from me, particularly where WordPress is concerned – this won’t be my last change.

Meanwhile, if anybody is interested in my list of exclusive words that I’ve been checking for, I’ll be happy to share – I’m sure the list I have is vastly incomplete and I’d love to change that.

3 responses

  1. It’s amazing where terms with decidedly unpleasant roots crop into everyday language – and how that translates across to tech language, of course – isn’t it? Thank you for actively working to consider the broader effects. People with privilege too often forget that it really _is_ a privilege to consider words as unimportant.

    (Just a quick note, though: did you mean that you’d changed your personal repos to ‘main’ rather than master? Wondering if that was a slip of the finger (in a more innocent version of that, I _still_ have to delete half the word ‘servers’ before ending up with an intentional ‘service’, courtesy of many formative career years in the web hosting industry over a decade ago!))

    1. Thanks Cat.

      And, yes, good spot – that was wrong. I’ve now correct that to show that I’ve changed my primary repo branch to “main”.

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