Words are arbitrary. A number of letters stringed together doesn’t mean anything until meaning is given. With world views constantly changing, meanings are also in a constant morphing state. A word seen as perfectly acceptable one minute could be seen as extremely offensive the next. Even if a word isn’t considered offensive, its connotation could change, causing you to say one thing when you meant another.
We at GoAbroad want you to choose your words wisely, especially if you’re about to study abroad or become a global nomad. Here are eight words to broaden your international vocabulary and help you become a more aware world citizen. Also be sure to explore all the language abroad opportunities on GoAbroad.com!
No one is going to give you an angry glance for using the word “overseas.” Heck, we’ve used it in a few of our posts. But it’s worth noting that other terms such as “abroad” are preferred. Why? Starting around the time of WWI, overseas was a word used to describe where deployed soldiers went. The term was actually popularized during WWI as a British euphemism for “colonial.” Aside from “overseas” being associated with war, it’s not always accurate. You don’t cross oceans each time you travel to a new country.
“Foreign” is an acceptable word when used to describe policies, but referring to a person as “foreign” or a “foreigner” has become offensive. Think about it: Would you like to be called foreign? Anyone called by that term is automatically cast aside as an outsider or alien; someone that doesn’t belong. You wouldn’t want to be referred to as something that has such a negative connotation when all you’re trying to do is fit in with local culture.
Referring to “America” as a country might leave some people confused. North America, Central America and South America are all “Americas,” but which one is THE America? Obviously there is no single “America.” This has become the accepted way for citizens of the United States of America to refer to their country, but if used while abroad it will be seen as incredibly ethnocentric. United States is greatly preferred.
Saying that a country is “backwards” is never acceptable, even if that country’s lifestyle is the complete opposite of yours. It’s okay to comment on the differences between countries, but calling a nation or a culture “backwards” implies that its customs are behind or beneath the customs of the country you compare it to. Innovation and progress are thought of as moving forward, so saying something is “backwards” generally isn’t seen as positive.
Some words take on different meanings in different countries. Here are a few examples of terms that may not mean much to you but are incredibly offensive to others.
If you are in France, be careful about using the word “frog” during conversations. Just as people from the United States are referred to negatively as “Yanks,” people from France are often called “Frogs.” One reason this offensive moniker was given to the French is because frog legs are a delicacy in their country.
“Jock” is a term that is sometimes considered offensive to Scots, so think twice before using it. Similar to “Frog” in France, “Jock” is a term people use when referring to Scots in a derogatory manner. Jock is the Scottish name for John, and it became a slang term used for Scottish sailors. The term became offensive during the war of succession with England, when all Scots were referred to as Jocks. Today the word is offensive to some but okay to use with others, so it might be easiest to avoid the term all together.
Be careful about using the word “cool” or “coolie” when in China, India or other parts of Asia. The term “Coolie” used to be used when referring to unskilled workers, or laborers, in these regions. “Coolie” is considered an ethnic slur, so to be safe, try not to say any version of “cool” if you’re studying abroad in an Asian country.
“Gypsy” is a word that may be offensive to people in a variety of countries, but the term should be used with special care in the country it originated from: Romania. When Roma began migrating from northern India to Europe, many Europeans thought they were outcasts from Egypt. They were called a variety of names, with the most popular being “gypsy”. Not all people from Romania are offended by this term, but you should be careful when using it all over the globe. In the same sense, saying that you were “gypped” is a phrase that’s best to avoid.
What other offensive words do you think should be avoided? Are there any words on this list that you think don’t belong? Tell us what you think below!