What Lizzo got right — and San Francisco got wrong
Before changing a song lyric, Lizzo was smart enough to check her dictionary. I wish I could say the same for the San Francisco Unified School District.
Lizzo just took an English test. Turns out she’s 100% … smarter than the San Francisco Unified School District. Because she’s read the dictionary — belatedly, anyway.
The city’s and the singer’s fortunes are surprisingly intertwined.
Late last month, the San Francisco Unified School District announced that, out of respect for Native Americans, it was eliminating the word chief from employees’ job titles: chief of staff, chief technology officer, etc.
It’s the kind of language decision that ignores language itself in favor of political posturing.
Claims of offensiveness surrounding chief disregard the word’s etymology, which is essential in determining intent, not to mention its myriad definitions that have nothing to do with Native Americans.
The word chief comes from Middle English, and before that, Old French. It dates to 1297 — almost 200 years before English speakers met Native Americans. Shakespeare was fond of it.
This isn’t the first time chief has been targeted. In summer 2020, when Americans were falling all over themselves to correct centuries of discrimination, a few overly performative measures blended in with the wave of otherwise helpful progress. That June, the City Council of Duluth, Minn., introduced an effort to remove the job title of chief. Around the same time, Texas real estate agents undertook an ill-advised movement to stop using the term master bedroom because of master’s connection to slavery — despite the fact that the word predates the American slave trade by hundreds of years.
The Duluth measure failed, but San Francisco has picked up the thread. Even if its motives of eliminating offensive word usage are admirable, hijacking anachronistic definitions to prove a manufactured point doesn’t help. Instead, it uses an easy, cosmetic name change to paper over serious, more intractable problems in San Francisco’s school district: racist tweets by a school board member who was later recalled, ever-increasing racial achievement gaps, and racist taunts at elite magnet high schools.
Those problems can’t be solved with a simple word change. This kind of pseudo-fix gives conservatives unearned credence when they complain about performative wokeism.
“Ignoring etymology risks losing words’ meanings entirely.”
Some have leveled a similar accusation at Lizzo, who last week changed the lyrics to her new song “Grrrls” in response to criticism that her use of the word spaz was ableist. But in Lizzo’s case, the musician made precisely the right call — and again, the word’s history shows why.
The lineage of spaz is easy to trace. First documented in print in 1965, it’s an abbreviation of spastic, defined as a person with spastic paralysis, a medical condition. Any time a physical trait is portrayed as an inherent negative, it’s time to pick a new word.
Which, to her credit, Lizzo did. Almost immediately she changed the line “I’mma spaz” to “Hold me back.”
One could argue that, for both chief and spaz, connotations have changed. Chief started innocuously but has been slung derogatorily at Native Americans plenty of times, and spaz began as a medical abbreviation but now is a casual way to refer to someone who’s hyper or just inept. In both cases, the fact that the majority of people aren’t offended by their usage doesn’t negate the opinions of those who find the words problematic.
But because language change is so organic and unending, we need the guideposts that history provides. Ignoring etymology risks losing words’ meanings entirely. Since Lizzo learned that lesson, the pop singer can keep happily performing, while San Francisco just looks performative.
The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and malaphors to email@example.com.