Language update for grant writers: the CDC has a new list of seven forbidden words/terms

The Washington Post reports that “CDC gets list of forbidden words” from its political masters. We find it hard to judge how serious the list is, because knowledge of the ban itself is only by way of “an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing”—not exactly an authoritative source for final policy. Still, the article has been making the rounds and the supposedly forbidden terms are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”* As grant writers, we’re always sensitive to the vagaries of evolving language and ideas, as you can see from our 2014 post “Cultural Sensitivity, Cultural Insensitivity, and the ‘Big Bootie’ Problem in Grant Writing.”

(EDIT: It appears that “After firestorm, CDC director says terms like ‘science-based’ are not banned.” Alternately, it’s also possible that the word ban was being discussed, but the reaction to the leak caused the CDC to can it.)

While most PC language emerges from the political left, this CDC directive comes from the Trump administration. There’s a bit of humor in this, as right-wing commentators often cite the PC “language police,” raising the dire specter of Orwell’s 1984 and his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” It seems the wingtip is now on the other political foot.

Still, the CDC banned words are standard proposalese that we frequently use in CDC, HRSA, and many other proposals. Some combination of these words are also found in virtually every RFP. “Evidence-based practice” (EBP) is so ubiquitous as to be cliché, even though RFPs rarely define what is supposed to constitute a given EBP. I find this true: “When I see the words used by others, my immediate reaction is to think someone is deploying it selectively, without complete self-awareness, or as a bullying tactic, in lieu of an actual argument, or as a way of denying how much their own argument depends on values rather than science.” People who understand EBPs just cite the evidence and let the evidence speak for itself; people who don’t use the term EBPs as a conceptual fix-all.

Despite the putative ban, grant writers should continue to use these buzzwords, because proposal reviewers—both federal program officers and peer reviewers—expect to read them. Reading them is a good substitute for thinking about what they mean. In addition, there’s often a disconnect between the political appointees (e.g., Deputy Under Assistant Secretary for Obscure Grant Programs), who nominally run federal agencies, and the career civil servants or lifers who actually operate the agencies. Lifers often refer to the political appointees as “the summer help,” since they come and go with new administrations—or more frequently. Peer reviewers are practitioners, who are likely to be PC in the extreme and unlikely to attend to most administration instructions. As grant writers, our audience is composed of reviewers, not the summer help, so that’s who we’ll continue to write to.

For those of us of a certain age, it’s also ironic that the CDC picked seven words to ban, instead of six or eight, given comedian George Carlin’s 1972 monologue “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”


* Mother Jones has a parody of this kerfuffle with seven replacements for the banned words: vulnerable=snowflake, entitlement=welfare, diversity=anti-white, transgender=deviant, fetus=unborn child, evidence-based=elitist, and science-based=atheist.

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